This post is my contribution to the literature blog chain hosted by John Hansen from Teens Can Write Too (which is an awesome blog and you should definitely check it out!)
This month the chain topic is:
“What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?”
The book that immediately came to mind was Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. After learning of his recent death, I feel that it is only appropriate that I pay homage to this brilliant author and his book that may be my favorite of all time.
The opening lines:
progris riport 1 martch 3
Dr Strauss says I should rite down what i think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart. I want to be smart.
These opening lines say everything about Charlie, the main character–his childish spelling, his desire to please others, his naivete. He is thrust in this experiment that he has been coaxed into by the promise of getting “get smart.” Keyes masterfully writes the entire book through progress reports in which readers can tangibly track the changes in his IQ and the realizations and emotions that come with it.
The question that sticks with me the most after reading this book is:
Is it better to be a happy simpleton or a tortured genius?
The original Charlie doesn’t usually understand the people around him and generally assumes the best of them. We see Charlie’s “frends” at the bakery and understand with heartbreaking clarity how they really treat him. The book makes you rage at how unfairly people treat Charlie; Dr. Strauss uses him as a guinea pig for his experiment and shows no concern for his welfare, and his “frends” use him as the butt of their jokes so they can feel superior. And Charlie’s inability to comprehend any of this only makes everything sadder. But as his IQ increases, he begins to realize how other people had been mistreating him for pleasure knowing that he would not understand, and his position of inferiority in society because of his disability. These realizations as well as his genius make him cynical and he begins to feel just as alienated from the rest of the world as he had been when he was disabled. Despite or maybe because of his mistreatment when he was disabled, Charlie, like his former bullies, also seems to develop a sense of superiority toward people of lower intellect. As a simpleton, Charlie felt hope; as a genius, Charlie felt bitterness.
I wonder if human nature is such that you can only be happy if you don’t understand the dark side of human nature. I’d like to think that the more knowledge you have, the better you are able to help others and live a plentiful life. But I think that the pursuit of knowledge comes secondary to making peace with all that comes with being human.
The premise of the book is reminiscent of that of Frankenstein and the age-old tale of Adam and Eve–the forbidden fruit, Tree of knowledge, and crazy scientist playing God. Since neither of those stories ended particularly well, I was on edge the entire book, waiting for the inevitable downhill. I think the foreshadowing only made the ending stronger; in the last progress report, I was waiting for the signs (deteriorating vocabulary, grammar mistakes) and for Charlie to come full circle, back to the place he started.
If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit… and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like evryone.
I don’t think Charlie regresses back to the place he started, despite the fact that his IQ has. He has experienced another side of life that he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t gone through the surgery. It didn’t bring him everything he wanted but life is all about the experience in the end. To know that he had a “family” and that he had loved is enough. He knows that no matter what his intellect, he is “a person just like evryone” else.
I think it is particularly uplifting to end with charlie thanking Alice Kinnian, the one true angel in this book. I think she is the embodiment of all that is good in humanity–she is love, compassion, and faith, the counterbalance to the darker facets of human nature present in the book. It makes the ending sad that their love couldn’t last but also hopeful because it happened.
My post has come to an end! Thank you for reading all of that; I wrote a little more about the book than just the beginning and ending!
Below are the links to the other wonderful blogs participating in the September 2014 blog chain! Make sure to check them out 🙂
8th – http://zarahoffman.com/
15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/