Flowers for Algernon

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Flowers for Algernon Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Daniel Keyes
 Daniel Keyes grew up in Brooklyn, and studied psychology at Brooklyn College. He took an interest in writing during his time in school, and after graduating he began working as the editor of the pulp science fiction magazine Marvel Science Stories, the precursor to Marvel Comics. It was during his time working for Marvel that Keyes developed the idea for the short story “Flowers for Algernon,” his most famous work. He published the story in 1959, and was honored for his work with a Hugo Award, the most prestigious honor given to American science fiction authors. Encouraged by his success, Keyes set to work converting his short story into a full-length novel. When he published the novel in 1966, it won the Nebula Award—the other most prestigious award given for American science fiction. After 1966, Keyes continued to write stories and novels, though none were remotely as successful as Flowers for Algernon. He taught creative writing at Wayne State University in Michigan until his death from pneumonia in 2014. He’s survived by two daughters.
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Historical Context of Flowers for Algernon
 Flowers for Algernon doesn’t allude to many specific historical events, but its portrayal of sex and love is unmistakably a product of the 1960s. At this time, American culture was becoming more open to sexuality and frank discussions of sex. The so-called “Sexual Revolution” saw increased sexual education in school, further research into human sexuality (pioneered by Dr. Alfred Kinsey), the wide availability of birth control, and the decriminalization of extramarital sex. In this way, Charlie Gordon’s discovery of his own sexuality could be said to symbolize the way the U.S. was “discovering” its own sexuality at the same time.
Other Books Related to Flowers for Algernon
 Flowers for Algernon alludes to many literary works, including the Bible and Daniel Dafoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. Several times, the characters mention the Adam and Eve story, in which the first human beings eat the forbidden fruit, essentially trading eternal life and happiness for knowledge. Charlie Gordon thinks of himself in Adam’s place, sacrificing his own blissful ignorance for a chance at genius. Charlie also mentions reading Robinson Crusoe, which is about a man who lives alone on a desert island. Charlie sees a lot of himself in Crusoe: he’s a lonely man, forced to confront his own problems on the “desert island” of his isolation.
Key Facts about Flowers for Algernon
  • Full Title: Flowers for Algernon
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: March 1966
  • Literary Period: 1960s science fiction
  • Genre: Science fiction / Bildungsroman
  • Setting: New York City / Chicago, the 1960s
  • Climax: Charlie Gordon reunites with his mother and his sister
  • Antagonist: Charlie’s hubris and arrogance
  • Point of View: The novel is written in the “epistolary” style, consisting of a series of journal entries and letters, written by Charlie Gordon in the first person
Extra Credit for Flowers for Algernon

Tearjerker: Flowers for Algernon was popular when it was published in 1966, and within 2 years it had been made into the film Charly, starring Cliff Robertson. The film was a commercial and critical success, and wound up winning Robertson the Academy Award for Best Actor. It’s still regarded as one of the most effective Hollywood tearjerkers.

Never trust your editor: When Daniel Keyes sent in the original short story version of “Flowers for Algernon,” his editor almost forced him to change the ending. Apparently, the editor felt that Keyes’ ending was too depressing, and thought that an ending in which Charlie gets to keep his intelligence would be more popular. Good thing Keyes didn’t listen.