Original Research

‘a grate contribyushun for sience’: Promise, threat, and the trauma of failure in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon

Tony Ullyatt
Literator | Vol 35, No 1 | a1076 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v35i1.1076 | © 2014 Tony Ullyatt | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 08 August 2013 | Published: 31 March 2014

About the author(s)

Tony Ullyatt, Research Unit: Languages and Literature in the South African Context, North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus, South Africa


Using aspects of Arthur Frank’s The wounded storyteller: Body, illness, and ethics as its basis, this article explores promise, threat and the trauma of failure in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and in so doing, offers two alternative metaphors for the curative journey. The first is the plateau or medical model which begins in health, declines into illness and subsequently seeks to restore health to the ill individual. The second, parabolic metaphor begins in illness, rises out of that state but, eventually, regresses into ill-health again. This metaphor is akin to the inverted U-curve. As the novel’s protagonist, Charlie Gordon is the first human to undergo experimental surgery to ameliorate his mental retardation by raising his intelligence to a level approximating normality at least. The experiment has been carried out successfully on laboratory mice, including one named Algernon. Charlie’s progress through the experiment and its consequences is charted through a series of progress reports he writes. The language of the reports themselves epitomises his progress whilst providing an account of what transpires in Algernon’s case. Promise, threat and the trauma of failure, characterised by the ascent, apogee and descent of the parabolic metaphor, provide a tripartite structure for the article.


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