Flowers for Algernon

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Flowers for Algernon
First edition cover
AuthorDaniel Keyes
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherHarcourt, Brace & World
Publication date
April 1959 (short story)
March 1966 (novel)
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages311 (novel)[1]

Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction short story and subsequent novel written by Daniel Keyes. The short story, written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960.[2] The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year's Nebula Award for Best Novel (with Babel-17).[3]

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled.[4][5]

Although the book has often been challenged for removal from libraries in the United States and Canada,[6][7] sometimes successfully,[8] it is frequently taught in schools around the world[9] and has been adapted many times for television, theatre, radio, and as the Academy Award-winning film Charly.


The ideas for Flowers for Algernon developed over 14 years and were inspired by events in Keyes's life, starting in 1945 with Keyes's conflict with his parents who were pushing him through a pre-medical education despite his desire to pursue a writing career. Keyes felt that his education was driving a wedge between him and his parents, and this led him to wonder what would happen if it were possible to increase a person's intelligence.[5][9][10][11]

A pivotal moment occurred in 1957 while Keyes was teaching English to students with special needs; one of them asked him if it would be possible to be put into a regular class if he worked hard and became smart.[5][11][12] Keyes also witnessed the dramatic change in another learning-disabled student who regressed after he was removed from regular lessons. Keyes said that "When he came back to school, he had lost it all. He could not read. He reverted to what he had been. It was a heart-breaker."[5]

Characters in the book were based on people in Keyes's life. The character of Algernon was inspired by a university dissection class, and the name was inspired by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.[11] Nemur and Strauss, the scientists who develop the intelligence-enhancing surgery in the story, were based on professors Keyes met while studying psychoanalysis in graduate school.[11]

In 1958, Keyes was approached by Galaxy Science Fiction magazine to write a story, at which point the elements of Flowers for Algernon fell into place.[11] When the story was submitted to Galaxy, however, editor Horace Gold suggested changing the ending so that Charlie retained his intelligence, married Alice Kinnian, and lived happily ever after.[11][13] Keyes refused to make the change and sold the story to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction instead.[11]

Keyes worked on the expanded novel between 1962 and 1965[14] and first tried to sell it to Doubleday, but they also wanted to change the ending. Again, Keyes refused and gave Doubleday back their advance.[13] Five publishers rejected the story over the course of a year[13] until it was published by Harcourt in 1966.

Publication history[edit]

The short story "Flowers for Algernon" was first published as the lead story in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.[11] It was later reprinted in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 9th series (1960),[4][15] the Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best Science Fiction (1960),[4][16] Best Articles and Stories (1961),[4] Literary Cavalcade (1961),[4] The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964 (1970),[17] and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A 30-Year Retrospective (1980).[15]

The expanded novel was first published in 1966 by Harcourt Brace with the Bantam paperback following in 1968.[4] By 2004, it had been translated into 27 languages, published in 30 countries and sold more than 5 million copies.[18] Since its original publication, the novel has never been out of print.[13]


The short story and the novel share many similar plot points, but the novel expands significantly on Charlie's developing emotional state as well as his intelligence, his memories of childhood, and the relationship with his family.

Short story[edit]

The story is told through a series of journal entries written by the story's protagonist, Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who works a menial job as a janitor at Donnegan's Plastic Box Company. He is selected to undergo an experimental surgical technique to increase his intelligence. The technique had already been successfully tested on Algernon, a laboratory mouse. The surgery on Charlie is also a success, and his IQ more than doubles.

He realizes his co-workers at the factory, who he thought were his friends, only liked him around so they could tease him. His new intelligence scares his co-workers, and they start a petition to have him fired, but when Charlie learns about the petition, he quits. As Charlie's intelligence peaks, Algernon's suddenly declines—he loses his increased intelligence and mental age, and dies afterward, buried in the back yard of Charlie's home. Charlie realizes his intelligence increase is also temporary. He starts to experiment to find the cause of the flaw in the experiment, which he calls the "Algernon–Gordon Effect". When he finishes his experiments, his intelligence regresses to its original state. Charlie is aware of, and pained by, what is happening to him as he loses his knowledge and his ability to read and write. He tries to earn back his old job as a janitor, and tries to revert to normal, but he cannot stand the pity from his co-workers, landlady, and Ms. Kinnian. Charlie states he plans to "go away" from New York and move to a new place. His last wish is for someone to put flowers on Algernon's grave.


The novel opens with an epigraph taken from Book VII of Plato's The Republic:

Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.

Charlie Gordon, 32 years old, lives with phenylketonuria and demonstrates an IQ of 68. His uncle has arranged for him to hold a menial job at a bakery so that he will not have to live in a state institution. Desiring to improve himself, Charlie attends reading and writing classes at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults; his teacher is Miss Alice Kinnian. Two researchers at Beekman, Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, are looking for a human test subject on whom to try a new surgical technique intended to increase intelligence. They have already performed the surgery on a mouse named Algernon, resulting in a dramatic improvement in his mental performance. Based on Alice's recommendation and his motivation to improve, Nemur and Strauss choose Charlie over smarter pupils to undergo the procedure.

The operation is a success, and within the next three months Charlie's IQ reaches 185. However, as his intelligence, education, and understanding of the world increase, his relationships with people deteriorate. His co-workers at the bakery, who used to amuse themselves at his expense, now fear and resent his increased intelligence and persuade his boss to fire him. Later, Charlie confronts his scientific mentors about their condescending attitude toward him, particularly Dr. Nemur, because Charlie believed Dr. Nemur considered him a mere laboratory subject and not human before the operation.

When not drinking at night, Charlie spends weeks continuing his mentors' research and writing reports which include observations of Algernon, whom he keeps at his apartment. Charlie's research discovers a flaw in the theory behind Nemur and Strauss's intelligence-enhancing procedure that could cause him to revert to his original mental state. His conclusions prove true when Algernon starts behaving erratically, loses his own enhanced intelligence, and dies.

Charlie tries to mend the long-broken relationships with his parents, even as his own intelligence enhancements begin to slip away. He remembers as a boy his mother insisted on his institutionalization, overruling his father's wish to keep him in the household. His mother, who still lives in the family's old home in Brooklyn, has developed dementia and recognizes him only briefly; his father, who broke off contact with the family years earlier, does not recognize him at all. He is only able to reconnect with his now-friendly younger sister, Norma, who had hated him for his mental disability when they were growing up, and is now caring for their mother in their newly depressed neighborhood. When Norma asks Charlie to stay with his family, he refuses but promises to send her money.

Despite regressing to his former self, he remembers he was once a genius. He cannot bear to have his friends and co-workers pity him. He decides to live at the state-sponsored Warren Home School, where nobody knows about the operation. In a final postscript to his writings, he requests that someone put some flowers on Algernon's grave in Charlie's former backyard.


Both the novel and the short story are written in an epistolary style collecting together Charlie's personal "progress reports" from a few days before the operation until his final regression. Initially, the reports are filled with spelling errors and awkwardly constructed sentences.[19] Following the operation, however, the first signs of Charlie's increased intelligence are his improved accuracy in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and diction.[20][21] Charlie's regression is conveyed by the loss of these skills.[20]


Important themes in Flowers for Algernon include the treatment of the mentally disabled,[4][5][22] the impact on happiness of the conflict between intellect and emotion,[21][23][24] and how events in the past can influence a person later in life.[24] Algernon is an example of a story that incorporates the science-fiction theme of uplift.[25]


Algis Budrys of Galaxy Science Fiction praised Flowers for Algernon's realistic depiction of people as "rounded characters". Stating in August 1966 that Keyes had published little fiction and whether he would publish more was unknown, he concluded "If this is a beginning, then what a beginning it is, and if it is the high point in a very short career, then what a career".[26] In February 1967 Budrys named the book the best novel of the year.[27]


The original short story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960.[2] The expanded novel was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966, tied with Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany,[3] and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967, losing out to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.[28]

In the late 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) decided to give Nebula Awards retroactively and voted for their favourite science fiction stories of the era ending December 31, 1964 (before the Nebula Award was conceived). The short story version of Flowers for Algernon was voted third out of 132 nominees and was published in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964 in 1970.[29] Keyes was elected the SFWA Author Emeritus in 2000 for making a significant contribution to science fiction and fantasy, primarily as a result of Flowers for Algernon.[30]


Flowers for Algernon is on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999 at number 43.[6] The reasons for the challenges vary, but usually center on those parts of the novel in which Charlie struggles to understand and express his sexual desires.[8] Many of the challenges have proved unsuccessful, but the book has occasionally been removed from school libraries, including some in Pennsylvania and Texas.[8][31]

In January 1970, the school board of Cranbrook, British Columbia, as well as Calgary, Alberta, removed the Flowers for Algernon novel from the local age 14–15 curriculum and the school library, after a parent complained that it was "filthy and immoral". The president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation criticized the action. Flowers for Algernon was part of the British Columbia Department of Education list of approved books for grade nine and was recommended by the British Columbia Secondary Association of Teachers of English. A month later, the board reconsidered and returned the book to the library; they did not, however, lift its ban from the curriculum.[32][33]


Flowers for Algernon has been the inspiration for works that include the album A Curious Feeling by Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks.[34] It also inspired the 2006 modern dance work Holeulone by Karine Pontiès, which won the Prix de la Critique de la Communauté française de Belgique for best dance piece.[35] A 2001 episode of the TV series The Simpsons titled "HOMR" has a plot similar to the novel.[36] A 2013 episode the TV series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia titled "Flowers for Charlie" is heavily based on the novel.[37]

Film, television, and theatrical adaptations[edit]

Mona Freeman (Alice) and Cliff Robertson (Charlie Gordon) in "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon", a 1961 presentation of The United States Steel Hour. Robertson reprised his role in the film Charly.

Flowers for Algernon has been adapted many times for different media including stage, screen and radio. These adaptations include:

Further stage and radio adaptations have been produced in France (1982), Ireland (1983), Australia (1984), Poland (1985), Japan (1987, 1990), and Czechoslovakia (1988).[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ World Cat, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [1966], 1st Edition details
  2. ^ a b 1960 Hugo Awards,, retrieved April 23, 2008
  3. ^ a b "Past Winners of SWFA Nebula Awards". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Hill 2004, p. 4
  5. ^ a b c d e Emily Langer (June 18, 2014). "Daniel Keyes, author of the classic book 'Flowers for Algernon,' dies at 86". The Washington Post.
  6. ^ a b The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999
  7. ^ Kyle Munley (October 3, 2008). "Challenged and Banned: Flowers for Algernon". Suvudu.
  8. ^ a b c Hill 2004, pp. 7–9
  9. ^ a b "Frequently Asked Questions and Updates". Daniel Keyes. Retrieved April 24, 2008.
  10. ^ Keyes 1999, p. 16
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Hill 2004, p. 3
  12. ^ Keyes 1999, p. 97
  13. ^ a b c d "Daniel Keyes: 40 Years of Algernon". Locus Magazine. June 1997. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  14. ^ Bujalski 2002, p. 52
  15. ^ a b "Fantasy & Science Fiction: Anthology Stories (by author)". Retrieved April 30, 2008.
  16. ^ "The Fifth Annual of the Year's Best SF. Judith Merril. Simon & Schuster 1960". Archived from the original on March 16, 2008. Retrieved April 30, 2008.
  17. ^ Silverberg 1970
  18. ^ Hill 2004, p. 9
  19. ^ Bujalski 2002, p. 21
  20. ^ a b Bujalski 2002, p. 15
  21. ^ a b Hill 2004, p. 2
  22. ^ Bujalski 2002, p. 13
  23. ^ Coules 1991, p. ix
  24. ^ a b Bujalski 2002, p. 14
  25. ^ Langford, David (November 22, 2017). "Uplift". In Clute, John; Langford, David; Nicholls, Peter; Sleight, Graham. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Gollancz. For both the experimental mouse and the retarded narrator in Flowers for Algernon ... , the arc of uplifted intelligence rises high above the species norm into similarly lonely realms, only to fall again.
  26. ^ Budrys, Algis (August 1966). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 186–194.
  27. ^ Budrys, Algis (February 1967). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 188–194.
  28. ^ "1967 Hugo Awards". Retrieved April 30, 2008.
  29. ^ Silverberg 1970, p. xii
  30. ^ "Daniel Keyes to be Author Emeritus". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Retrieved April 21, 2008.
  31. ^ Jodi Mathews (June 22, 1999). "Controversial book removed from Texas middle school after one parent complains". Retrieved May 16, 2008.
  32. ^ Birdsall, Peter (1978). Mind War: Book Censorship in English Canada. CANLIT. p. 37. ISBN 0-920566-01-4.
  33. ^ Dick, Judith (1982). Not in Our Schools? School Book Censorship in Canada: A Discussion Guide. Canadian Library Assn. p. 8. ISBN 0-88802-162-3.
  34. ^ Tony Banks Biography,
  35. ^ "Agenda / Holeulone". La Terrasse. Retrieved November 26, 2010.
  36. ^ Beck, Marilyn; Smith, Stacy Jenel. "A Talk with 'The Simpsons' Al Jean on the Show's 25th Anniversary". Archived from the original on October 6, 2015. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  37. ^ "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" Flowers for Charlie (TV Episode 2013), retrieved 2018-09-24
  38. ^ a b c d e "Flowers for Algernon". Daniel Keyes. Retrieved April 22, 2008.
  39. ^ The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon on IMDb
  40. ^ Charly on IMDb
  41. ^ "Flowers for Algernon by David Rogers". Dramatic Publishing. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  42. ^ "Charlie and Algernon: book and lyrics by David Rogers, music by Charles Strouse". Dramatic Publishing. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  43. ^ "Charlie and Algernon". Musical Notes. Retrieved April 24, 2008.
  44. ^ Coules 1991, p. xxiv.


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