Challenged and Banned: Flowers for Algernon


Challenged/Banned Info:


  • Banned in Emporium, PA, due to sexually explicit passages that parents feared would awaken their children’s “natural impulses.” 1977 (link opens PDF file)
  • Challenged in Oberlin, OH, due to sexually explicit passages. 1984 (link opens PDF file)
  • Banned in Glen Rose, AR, due to language and sexually explicit passages. Objectors compared Flowers for Algernon to “books in plastic covers you see at newsstands.” 1981 (link opens PDF file)
  • Challenged in Glenrock, WY for sexually explicit passages and language. Objector compared the novel to Playboy and Hustler among other, um, photo-centric publications. 1984 (link opens PDF file)
  • Challenged in Plant City, FL, (and Arizona, Virginia, and Georgia) for sexually explicit passages, adult themes, and profanity. 1976, 1981, 1996, 1997 (link opens PDF file)
  • Banned from Aledo (Texas) Middle School, subsequently re-shelved at the school library, but not reinstated into the curriculum. (1999)
  • Frequently challenged due to objections to “sexually explicit” content.
  • Ranks no. 47 on ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.

Looking at that list above, how many of you out there are thinking: “Flowers for Algernon? Seriously?”

Surprise, I’m serious!

Flowers for Algernon was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and concerns itself with the thoughts of Charlie Gordon. Charlie is mentally-disabled man who works as a janitor and lives a pretty simple life. But it isn’t a “content” life. Charlie wants to be smarter, and in this way he is knowledgeable of his differences from other people. What he doesn’t realize, and what so many readers don’t initially recognize, is that his mental-disability colors the way in which he perceives the world around him.

That is to say, to rip-off twist the popular Spider-Man tag: With greater intelligence comes greater awareness. Charlie, and the reader, will come to find out exactly what that means.

So where’s the Sci-Fi? Charlie is offered the chance to undergo a series of treatments that have been designed to increase intelligence. The treatments have been successfully completed on a mouse named Algernon and Charlie represents the human guinea pig of the test trials. As the book is told through Charlie’s journal entries, we see his IQ grow as his entries become better composed and express more complex thoughts. Unfortunately, things aren’t as easy as suddenly being smarter and well-liked. Charlie starts to re-examine everything he thought he knew before. He is aware now of abuses, veiled insults, and so on, and many of his relationships are strained or broken as a direct result of his growing intelligence.

It’s sad stuff, to be sure, and Flowers for Algernon has been pulling at people’s heartstrings for quite some time now (40+ years). But not all heartstrings are willing to be pulled. Some want to pull Flowers for Algernon in return…right off the shelf and into the nearest trash can, that is.

Unlike some other challenged and banned books, you’ll have to actually go looking for the passages in Flowers that continually set the censors off. They just aren’t very big and, in context with the novel, they aren’t very lurid or overly erotic. More than any other theme, Flowers for Algernon is frequently hit for being too sexually explicit, meaning censors are zeroing in on Charlie’s growing awareness of his attraction to Alice, his fling-relationship with Fay, or an incredibly brief passage about an incident early in Charlie’s life when he is sent away.

The longest of these involves Alice, Charlie’s big-love. There are a couple of paragraphs that deal with their first time together, Charlie also comes to write that sex without love is an incomplete endeavor. It’s a scary thought, right? And what about those couple of paragraphs? Are they dirty, filthy, steam-up-the-windows, make-a-sailor-blush prose? Yeah, not so much. By that point in the novel Charlie is considerably more introspective in nature and, while you’re not going to go into the scene unaware of what is happening, it’s hardly the stuff that’s going to, oh say, “awaken natural impulses” in Charlie’s readers. Regardless, these elements beyond any other cause Flowers for Algernon to face challenge after challenge more than any other piece of text or thought in the novel.

It’s too bad. Daniel Keyes’ book addresses several other points that make the book worthwhile reading; lessons like forgiveness, the universal nature of struggles for love and friendship, and the ideas of self-acceptance and tolerance. Hmmm…dangerous stuff there.

If you haven’t already, or if it’s been a while, you really should pick up this “offensive” book and give it a read. Like Charlie, you might just see the world afterward with new eyes.