Originally published in 1959 as a short story for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon won a Hugo Award in 1960 for the Best Science Fiction Novelette of the Year. The story was then telecast on the U.S. Steel Hour in 1961 as "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon." Keyes reworked the short-story version of Flowers for Algernon into his first full-length novel. The novel version was published in 1966 and won the Nebula Award (the Best Novel of the Year by the Science Fiction Writers of America). Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for Best Actor in CHARLY, the 1968 movie version of the book. The book was also developed into a dramatic musical called Charlie and Algernon, which has been performed in London, Washington, D.C., and on Broadway.
Flowers for Algernon, written in first person narration through the use of progress reports, brings the reader into the story as it happens. This technique allows the changes that occur in the main character to be apparent on both an internal and external level. Charlie Gordon — the main character and the subject of the experiment — is the author of these narratives; the reader views life through Charlie's eyes. His evolving syntax and spelling allow the reader to chart Charlie's development.
The novel, written in the mid-1960s, primarily takes place in New York City. It uses a vocabulary that today evokes a sense of political incorrectness, which is the only obvious characteristic that dates the book. To define Flowers for Algernon as a piece of science fiction only limits its appeal for many readers who choose not to read that genre. However, the science fiction label is justified be-cause the premise of the story is altering man's intelligence to superhuman proportions through surgical procedures that weren't possible when the story was written. Although this definition may not always constitute science fiction, it does so for this novel.
One of the central themes of Flowers for Algernon is the danger and/or impropriety of Man Playing God and reaching too high. Several characters in the book, including Charlie, bring up this theme, which must be included in any analysis of the book. Friendship as it is perceived and given, as well as its importance, is another recurring theme. A third, powerful theme revolves around the role and definition of human intelligence. Charlie was human before he was intelligent; what effect did his intelligence have on his own humanity, his treatment of others, and others' treatment of him? Did intelligence make him more or less "human" in how he related to himself and to other people? Algernon, who underwent the same operation and with whom Charlie felt the most connection, is a mouse. How does Algernon relate to Charlie's humanity? Readers should remember these questions as they read the novel and try to answer them.
Flowers for Algernon also touches on the importance of integrating sexuality into one's personal identity, not in the sense of engaging in sexual activity but on the higher level of acknowledging sex as a gift and a power and an expression of one's deepest self. Underlying these themes is the important issue of "family values." Having been emotionally abused and abandoned by his mother and father, what now constitutes "family" to Charlie? Despite his treatment, he retains the desire to please his parents throughout the book. But he also looks at his coworkers in the bakery as family, and he wants to please them, too. His birth family abandons him because he is not smart enough; his surrogate family abandons him because he is too smart. In the end, Charlie ends up in the Warren Home — despite Mr. Donner's pledge to keep Charlie out of the facility — to spare everyone's feelings. The powerful influence of family — and how family relates to friendship — is present through-out this book.