The most memorable narrator: Flowers For Algernon

Purple flowers

Flower image courtesy of kzida, Morguefile.

Narration is a well-used tool among many authors. Some fiction writers, such as Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, prefer to tell the entire story through the first-person eyes of one character. Others vary the narrator from chapter to chapter (and in some books I’ve read, the narrator’s name is helpfully printed at the beginning of the chapter so you can easily tell who’s who).

And then there’s Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. This book is a collection of poems that serve as the epitaphs for the residents of a town and tell their life stories. Spoon River Anthology kept popping up on the book list during my school days; it’s strange to realize that the book is almost a hundred years old now. The narrator of each poem tells the individual story of how he or she lived and what led to his or her death.

The most memorable narrator I’ve ever read, however, is Charlie Gordon of Daniel Keyes’ book Flowers For Algernon. Keyes writes the book in a journal-type form, starting with Charlie’s beginning as a 32-year-old man who works as a janitor and delivery boy in a bakery. Charlie is learning-disabled and the beginning of the novel reflects it with punctuation errors, poor spelling and Charlie’s naive attitude.

Later on, Charlie undergoes an experimental operation designed to increase his intelligence, as it did with a lab mouse called Algernon. As Charlie recovers from the operation, his self-awareness grows, he becomes wiser (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) in the ways of the world and he sees other characters in his life differently. He sees their greed, condescension, fear and envy and the text changes to reflect his new literacy and attitudes. Charlie also starts his first romantic relationships.

Near the end, the operation affects both Algernon and Charlie. Charlie’s mental deterioration shows as more and more errors gradually appear in the book’s text.

So far, this book is the only one I’ve ever seen that has a character’s emotional and mental metamorphosis told through its first-person text. It’s a powerful storytelling device and it makes for a memorable book.

Blog readers, who is your most memorable narrator?

 

 

 

 

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27 Comments

Filed under Writing

27 responses to “The most memorable narrator: Flowers For Algernon

  1. Servetus

    Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

    We were forced to read Flowers for Algernon in school at least fifty times. Well, maybe not, but enough that I grew to hate the story. Spoon River Anthology, in contrast, I think of as one of the most definitive influences on my writing style.

  2. Death in The Book Thief. He was so unique I am still mesmerized by his tale.

  3. I loved teaching Flowers for Algernon. Students loved it and it raised some good issues for discussions. Other memorable narrators for me would be Holden Caulfield (taught Catcher also) and, I see someone mentioned Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies). I thought that was a terrific use of first person narration (which I usually don’t care for).

  4. Jeremy Irons reading The Alchemist proved a magical experience. Sissy Spacek provided the perfect Scout in reading To Kill a Mockingbird

  5. Truly too many to even start to sort them out. So many — most — of my favorite books are first-person narrated. In fact, I can’t think of any favorite books that aren’t written from a first-person perspective. Weird.

    Flowers for Algernon and the movie, Charly with Cliff Robertson always makes me sad. The knowledge of future loss seems more painful than anything I can imagine.

  6. I’m half afraid to leave a comment…after 4 years of living in China and studying Chinese, my husband tells me that I use Chinese grammar almost exclusively. Now I’m afraid to write in English :). But I’m adding Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies to my reading list…looks interesting.

    • Now you’ve got me curious…how is Chinese grammar different from English grammar?

      • Well, that’s pretty complicated. There are tons of differences. But the basic sentence pattern most common is: Subject + When + Where + How + Action. “I tomorrow at library with Lily study Chinese.” But you can string a whole load of things in there at each point, and you don’t need all the nice little things like a, the, and it, etc. And if the subject of the first half is the same as the subject of the last half, then all kinds of things are just assumed and you can leave them out. So now, when I write in English, I think I end up with a lot of run-on sentences or just a bunch of phrases stuck together and then just tack a verb onto the end.

      • Isn’t it interesting how grammar differs by culture? I speak German and German grammar also varies. For example, there are several words for the English word “the”. Plus, two-part verbs can be split up, with the second part appearing at the end of the sentence.

  7. Another vote for Wolf Hall here: but the prize for the best unreliable narrator has to go to John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. If you haven’t, do!

  8. Spoon River as a play is just too sad.

  9. There are so many great narrators. My first instinct was to say the Chief in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. After giving the matter some more thought, however, I’m going with The Lorax’s Onceler. There is such power and pathos in the manner in which he reflects on how his naked greed destroyed the world and ate away at his soul. It might be for children, but that story gives me chills every time I read it.

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