Charlie Gordon is not very bright, but has a life that works for him. He does not understand the cruelty of his coworkers, so is able to see them as his friends. Because Charlie does not understand the limits of his mental handicap, he pursues adult education classes with hope of making himself smarter. His life seems sad to the reader, but Charlie is mercifully insulated from awareness of the world beyond his reach.
His life changes when Charlie participates in a surgical experiment designed to improve intelligence. The experiment succeeds, and Charlie quickly develops first ordinary, and then extraordinary intelligence. Readers see the results in Charlie's life and in his understanding of those around him. Some of these realizations are painful, for both Charlie and the reader. Charlie's life changes direction again when it becomes clear that his increased intelligence is temporary. Algernon, a lab rat that also benefitted from the experimental surgery, begins losing his abilities and soon dies. Charlie declines as well, descending back into the familiar mental fog of his former life. But now he carries the emotional burdens of self-awareness and memory of a more complex world.
This is classic science fiction and one of the most moving stories about mental handicaps ever written. Although it was originally banned from public school curricula, it is now widely recognized as a valuable part of children's emotional education. The book's painful emotions produce a worthwhile educational experience. I highly recommend Daniel Keyes' book to anyone who teaches and loves children, especially those with special needs.
Forgive a personal note: I gave a copy of this book to my wife, Lynnette, while we were dating in college. It was a rewarding bridge between her mature interests in special education and my lighthearted fondness for science fiction. Like Charlie Gordon, we build the bridges to others that we can. And remember them.