Though Flowers for Algernon is a fictionalized account, it addresses genuine issues, many of which are universal. Published in 1966, the novel reflects the less sensitive treatment of mentally disabled people during that time period. Allowing a unique perspective through the eyes of a man who lacks, gains, then loses genius, the novel is both tragic and inspirational, making definitive statements about high intelligence's great impact in some areas and lack of impact in other areas of human life.
How Has the Treatment of Individuals with Mental Disabilities Changed since Flowers for Algernon was Written?
Flowers for Algernon (Keyes, 1966) was published in 1966. In the 56 years since that novel's publication, the treatment of individuals with mental disabilities has dramatically changed in several ways. For purposes of this paper, the change regarding the word "retarded" will be considered. The attitude expressed through language has changed significantly. As the assignment pointed out, Charlie often speaks of himself as "retarded." For example, a journal entry about his mother says, "Why is it so important for me to say to her: 'Mom, look at me. I'm not retarded any more. I'm normal'" (Keyes, 1966, p. 156). What's much worse is the fact that a mental health professional -- Miss Kinnian -- apparently also calls Charlie retarded: reporting his March 30 conversation with Miss Kinnian, Charlie writes that she said, "At werst you will have it all for a little wile and your doing something for other retarded pepul" (Keyes, 1966, p. 31). Even official titles included the term "retarded": Charlie writes, "Then we're at the Adult Center for the Retarded" (Keyes, 1966, p. 48). Fortunately, there is now a greater sensitivity to the impact of words such as "retard." The most striking change has fittingly occurred in the professional area of Psychology, as the 2010 manual used by psychologists use for diagnosis eliminates the term "Mental retardation" and substitutes it with "Intellectual disability" (Chandler, 2010). This enlightenment has also gained support in the social arena. According to Tim Shriver, Jr., a 2008 co-founder of Spread the Word to End the Word, "Words with negative connotations can also greatly affect how people with disabilities of all kinds are treated and can influence public policy" (Groff & Wildman, 2012); consequently, Shriver publicly stresses the harm caused by this term and has worked to end its use. In addition, the AP Stylebook, which sets standards for Associated Press journalists, has set "mentally disabled" as the preferred term after consulting with medical professionals about appropriate terminology (Groff & Wildman, 2012). These efforts apparently have some effect, as U.S. newspapers' and wires' use of "retarded" markedly decreased in the years from 2006 to 2010 and the use of "mentally disabled" has continually increased in the years from 1980 to 2010 (Groff & Wildman, 2012).
Is Flowers for Algernon Tragic or Inspiring?
Flowers for Algernon is both tragic and inspiring. It is tragic on several levels. One obvious tragedy is the fact that Charlie gets a taste of true genius, only to gradually lose it again. Charlie realizes when the rat Algernon loses its intelligence and dies (Keyes, 1966, pp. 237-8) that Charlie could also lose his intelligence and die (Keyes, 1966, p. 238). Eventually, the worst possible outcome is true: Charlie only briefly experiences true genius, then gradually fails and goes "Downhill" (Keyes, 1966, p. 256), and will probably eventually pay the ultimate price of death, all of which must be exquisite torture. Another tragedy is Charlie's loneliness after achieving high intelligence. Before Charlie's experimental surgery, he sweeps floors in a bakery where his coworker friends play practical jokes on him and laugh at him, with Charlie laughing right along (Keyes, 1966, p. 39). However, due to his increasing intelligence after the surgery, Charlie realizes that his coworker friends are actually being mean to him and are laughing at him (Keyes, 1966, p. 40). Charlie also realizes that his coworkers are beginning to fear and resent him for outgrowing them intellectually (Keyes, 1966, pp. 55-6). At least with respect to his work, Charlie goes from being a happy mentally disabled man with friends to a lonely genius. These are only two examples of the novel's tragic themes but certainly Charlie's rapid gain/loss, his awareness of it, his probable death from it, and his growing loneliness are all tragic.