Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Length and complexity do not define a great book; a deep theme and a suitable presentation do.

Like all thought-provoking books, Flowers for Algernon delivers different messages for different people. For me it reveals an important philosophy of life: it is compassion and love, not solely intelligence, that brings us happiness.

Charlie used to be a slow reader, his career restricted by low IQ and self-esteem lowered by discrimination from his mother and sister. But he had friends at the Bakery whom he could chat with and trust. His kindness and his lack of intelligence made him likeable. He stayed in a small but safe and comfortable environment but was eager to become more intelligent, or just to become normal “like everyone else”. This burning desire to learn led Charlie to undergo a risky operation which helped him become smart — probably a lot smarter than he could ever imagine.

As Charlie became smarter, he realized how others hid their selfishness under jokes and kind words. What he didn’t realize, though, was that selfishness is human nature which is found in everyone including himself. Suddenly, the bakery was no longer a warm home for him: it became a brutal circus stage where his foolishness was exhibited and laughed at, though the irony was masked under seemingly inadvertent jokes.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows at an overwhelming speed, he realized that everyone has limitations. He was constantly learning new things and exploring the world at higher levels. It is cool but too lonely sometimes.

It is scary to witness how Charlie turned into the kind of person he once hated: selfish, arrogant, and ignoring people whom he should cherish the most. His relationship with Fay was purely selfish: it was for him to overcome his fear of women. Fay was devoted to their relationship, but Charlie only wanted to have physical pleasure. By contrast, Charlie’s relationship with Ms. Kinnan is perhaps closer to love. Sadly, Charlie did not cherish Ms Kinnan when he could take care of her, and when he realized Ms. Kinnan was his true love he could only be a student in her class but not her lover any more.

The book is unique in its language and presentation. Narrated by Charlie, it creates an amazing intimacy between the changes in Charlie and the reader. This intimacy makes me the reader feel like I am living in Charlie’s world.

I will surely read this book again some time later, and hopefully I will be able to draw deeper insights from it as my life becomes richer. Thanks Jeff for recommending.


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