This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
The initial effect that reading Charlie's progress reports had upon me was significant. Though I was aware of the general plot of the book, I was not expecting to read first-person reports clearly meant to have been written by a retarded man. From the very beginning, I was enthralled with the book and felt very strongly for Charlie as a character. Without a doubt, had this book not been written in this way, it would not have been nearly as effective.
It is interesting how as Charlie has gotten smarter and begun to remember events from his life, he switches to third person in his progress reports. Though he criticizes Nemur for speaking of pre-operation Charlie as though he weren't human, to me this transition to third person is Charlie's way of distancing himself from what he used to be, even if he is not doing it consciously. As this theme first began to develop I wondered, how human does Charlie really think he was before the operation? This becomes a major theme of the book, and ultimately this dichotomy remains open to some interpretation. On one hand, Charlie continues to distance himself from his past self, even to the point of seeing him external to his own body and, at one point, having a conversation with his retarded past self. Yet, in spite of this disassociation, it is clear that Charlie still understands that he was human in the past, and his life was worth value.
At the climax of the book, just before Charlie completely understands that his deterioration is inevitable, he challenges Nemur, to his face, about how he believes he created Charlie by performing the surgery, and that before the operation, Charlie was nothing. Keyes obviously wanted to express to the reader the humanity of all people, no matter their intelligence.
The other primary theme of Flowers for Algernon analyzes the relationship between a person's overall intelligence, and how happy of a life they can lead. As Charlie's intelligence begins to grow it appears that Keyes is saying that the more intelligent you are the less satisfying, fulfilling, and happy your life can be. In the end, however, Keyes uses a rant from Charlie to express that it is not that you cannot be happy if you are intelligent, but rather that the two do not go hand in hand (as pre-operation Charlie had originally hoped). During the climactic dinner party, when Charlie challenges Nemur, the doctor accuses the rapid growth in intelligence to have destroyed Charlie"s faith in humanity. Charlie responds:
"That's not completely true," I said softly. "But I've learned that intelligence alone doesn't mean a damned thing. here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there's one thing you've all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn" (249).
Unfortunately, Charlie was not tempered by affection, thus rendering his intelligent life far more depressing and unhappy than others might experience. Thus, in the end we find Charlie to be a far happier, positive, and warm person now that he is retarded again than he ever was a genius.
I would strongly recommend Flowers for Algernon to anyone. The usage of first person to draw the reader into Charlie's mind, and Keyes' treatment of the major themes is excellent. However, the book is undoubtedly sad, especially if you are prone to compassion for the mentally retarded.
"How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes - how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence."Daniel Keyes in Flowers for Algernon
"It's one of those inexplicable things, how everything I've learned and experienced is brought to bear on the problem. Pushing too hard will only make things freeze up. How many great problems have gone unsolved because men didn't know enough, or have enough faith in the creative process and in themselves, to let go for the whole mind to work at it?"Daniel Keyes in Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes the Last Line of in Flowers for Algernon