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Keyes is best known for his short story and novel Flowers for Algernon (1959; 1966), a poignant story of a mentally handicapped man who temporarily acquires extraordinary intelligence. Composed of the journal entries written by the protagonist, Charlie Gordon, the novel reveals the aftermath of his undergoing a neurosurgical procedure that previously had been tried only on a laboratory mouse named Algernon. Although Flowers for Algernon is generally classified as a work of science fiction, it addresses several themes considered atypical for the genre, such as discrimination, love, and self-esteem.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Creation of Charlie Gordon
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Keyes was educated at Brooklyn College. At the age of seventeen, Keyes enlisted with the U.S. Maritime Service, working as a ship s purser. While working as a high school English teacher, Keyes wrote the short story ”Flowers for Algernon” and published it in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959. He was inspired, in particular, while teaching a group of special needs students, and being approached by one student who expressed a desire to get smart and transfer to a ”normal class. Encouraged by a Hugo Award the same year and the successful adaptation of the story for the CBS television network in 1961, he expanded it into a novel.
Flowers for Algernon begins with the misspelled and simplistic prose of Charlie Gordon, who works as a janitor. Through these notes, the reader learns that an operation, developed by Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss, has enabled a lab mouse named Algernon to run through its maze with surprising alacrity, and the doctors are eager to see whether it will have a comparable effect on human beings. Charlie is the test subject for the human operation.
Gradually, Charlie becomes aware of his predicament, and his writings increase in sophistication; he ponders the ethics of the operation, the behavior of his old and new friends, his own identity, and the emotional needs that have surfaced as a result of his intellectual skills. Further, he discovers a critical flaw in the doctors’ calculations and witnesses Algernon’s regression, shown in the animal’s decreased ability to navigate the maze. It becomes apparent that Charlie will suffer the same end. Flowers for Algernon became a bestselling novel, and the film adaptation, Charly (1968), achieved popular and critical success, with Cliff Robertson winning an Academy Award for his performance in the title role.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
Charlie Gordon suffers discrimination because of his intelligence, both when it is significantly below average and when it is significantly above average. The people around him fail to recognize his humanity, causing him significant harm. Published during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time when many people—African Americans and women, for example—were fighting to have their humanity recognized and respected, Flowers for Algernon joined the chorus of voices calling for the equal treatment of minorities. In 1964, the Civil Rights Bill was passed, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race. Subsequently, in 1966—the same year Flowers for Algernon was published as a novel—The National Organization for Women was founded. In 1968, the Declaration of the General and Specific Rights of the Mentally Retarded was passed; the word “retardation” was replaced with ”developmental disability” in the 1970s.
Psychology and the Ethics of Scientific Inquiry
In addition to the discrimination he faced as an adult, Charlie Gordon also suffered abuse as a child. Framing his problems in this context was compatible with attitudes towards psychology during the 1950s and 1960s which emphasized a Freudian reading of human motivation. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, placed a heavy emphasis on unresolved issues from childhood in his explanations of people’s problems.
The scientific experiment conducted on Charlie Gordon and Algernon, the mouse, raises questions about the human impact of unchecked scientific inquiry. The structural dynamics of the scientific community in the novel directly reflect a shift in the federal government’s attitude toward science that occurred after World War II. After the United States used the atomic bomb in World War II, the 1950s and 1960s saw an incredible surge in funding for scientific research, including projects that aimed to better understand the world in general.
Exploring the Complexities of the Human Mind
While working as an English professor at Ohio University, Keyes continued to write fiction and nonfiction, exploring, in his own words, ”the complexities of the human mind.” While his later works did not achieve the phenomenal success of Flowers for Algernon, he received critical attention for his later works including The Touch (1968), a novel about human tragedy; The Fifth Sally (1980), a novel about a woman with four personalities; The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981), a nonfiction account of a rapist who was acquitted after it was discovered he had twenty-four personalities; and Unveiling Claudia: A True Story of Serial Murder (1986), detailing the police investigation into Claudia Elaine Yasko, who falsely confessed to committing three murders.
Popularity in Japan
After retiring from teaching at Ohio University, Keyes moved to Boca Raton, Florida. He continues to write and his most recent works—Daniel Keyes Collected Stories (1993), The Daniel Keyes Reader (1994), and The Milligan Wars (1993), the sequel to The Minds of Billy Milligan—have achieved immense popularity in Japan. In 2000, Keyes published a memoir, Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey.
Works in Literary Context
In Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey, Keyes offers readers the story behind himself as a writer and his most famous work, Flowers for Algernon, emphasizing the role his childhood experiences played in inspiring the work.
The Mysteries of the Human Mind
In addition to exploring the psychology of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon, Keyes is also the author of several works focusing on the human psyche. Two of his works, The Fifth Sally and The Minds of Billy Milligan, deal with the subject of multiple personalities and are dramatic recreations of factual cases. The title character of The Fifth Sally is Sally Porter, a woman who harbors four personalities that embody her emotional states: Nola, an intellectual artist; Derry, a free-spirited tomboy; Bella, a promiscuous woman; and Jinx, a murderous personality. The novel examines the efforts of Sally and her doctor to fuse the four beings into one complete person. The Minds of Billy Milligan is based on the case of Billy Milligan, who was arrested on rape charges in Ohio in 1977, and who later became the first person in U.S. history to be acquitted of a major felony by reason of a multiple personality disorder. At the time of his arrest, Billy Milligan was found to possess no fewer than twenty-four personalities—three of them female—with ages ranging from three to twenty-four years old. As in his two previous works, Keyes unravels the bizarre incidents in a mentally ill person’s life in Unveiling Claudia: A True Story of a Serial Murder. Claudia Elaine Yasko, having known both the victims and the murderers in three Ohio killings in the late 1970s, fantasized herself as the murderer. She confessed to the homicides in 1978 but the charges were dropped once the real killers were accidentally discovered.
Works in Critical Context
From the moment Flowers for Algernon was published as a short story, it was a success, earning Keyes the prestigious Hugo Award for science fiction. Its expansion into a serially published novel only increased the story’s popularity, and the full-length work earned Keyes a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1966. In addition to being widely anthologized and translated internationally, the work was adapted for a motion picture which, itself, was quite successful. Having established himself as a talented author, Keyes drew critical attention when he published his later works. However, none proved as successful or widely read as his first.
Flowers for Algernon
Writing for Punch, literature critic B. A. Young offers a brief but enthusiastic review of Flowers for Algernon, assuring readers that the work is compelling and accessible: ”There’s a touch of science-fiction about Flowers for Algernon, but not enough to nauseate and unman readers not at home with this genre. . . . Charlie’s mental vagaries are hardly subtle, but I found them continually interesting.” A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement judged: ”Charlie’s hopeless knowledge that he is destined to end in a home for the feeble-minded… is painful, and Mr. Keyes has the technical equipment to prevent us from shrugging off the pain.”
The Minds of Billy Milligan
According to Robert Coles in the New York Times Book Review, ”Keyes makes quite evident in The Minds of Billy Milligan, [that] historical tensions within the [medical] profession have yet to be resolved, and have, in fact, been given new expression in this instance.” Coles ultimately commends Keyes for telling ”this complicated story well. It reads like a play: Billy’s ‘personalities’ come onstage, leave to be replaced by others and then reappear.” Peter Gorner finds this distracting; in a Chicago Tribune review of the book, he states that the author ”interviews everybody, reconstructs, flashes back, and confuses the story in a chatty, conversational style. The alter egos seem to dance before our eyes like a stroboscope.” However, in the opinion of David Johnston in the Los Angeles Times, ”Keyes, on balance, carries it off quite well. While it shortchanges the reader by limiting explanation of motives almost exclusively to Milligan’s personalities, [The Minds of Billy Milligan]’is nonetheless a fascinating work.” Finally, Washington Post Book World reviewer Joseph McLellan points out that ”The challenge of first unearthing this story. . . and then telling it intelligibly was a daunting one. He has carried it off brilliantly. . . ”
- Devoe, Thelma. Flowers for Algernon: Daniel Keyes. Littleton, Mass.: Sundance, 1987.
- Scholes, Robert. Structural Tabulation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.
- Small, Robert, Jr. ‘Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.” Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1993, pp. 249-255.
- Keyes, Daniel. The Daniel Keyes Homepage. Retrieved September 25, 2008, from http://www. danielkeyesauthor.com/. Last updated December 2006.
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