on September 9, 2001
This novel officially ends the 4-book reading that I had set forth to get my teeth into this summer. I must say, that it truly stands out from anything I had read before it, be it this summer or anytime for that matter. Ken Kesey weaves a tale that is smart, witty, sometimes insane and ultimately tragic. Though the setting is mainly in a mental asylum somewhere in Oregon, this story has a universal appeal to it that can be felt by anyone, anwhere in this world.
R.P. McMurphy is a sane man that, due to a brush with the law, opts for being committed in a mental asylum rather than be incarcerated with hard labor. Upon his entry in the secluded world of the asylum, he strips all the barriers formed and starts laying his own rules, in his own way. This leads to problems with the head honcho of the place. A big, gruesome, and menacingly evil Nurse Ratched, dubbed Big Nurse for her huge frame and even huger bosom. The rollercoaster, that patient McMurphy takes the inmates through, finally leads them to realize the ultimate goal. That man, no matter the situation, can always hold his destiny in his hands. This knowledge, achieved in the end, does not come without a price.
Set in the late 60s, early 70s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a gem of modern literary works that came out at the time. It brought out a wonderfully-made movie, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. The role defined him as an actor to be reckoned with. Though the mavie is seen through the eyes of McMurphy, the novel's perspective looks at things through the eyes of a big half white, half Native American inmate, that acts deaf and dumb in front of the asylum's staff. The narrative, because it is through the eyes of a mental patient, can at times be truly insane. That's where the fun really lies. Kesey works his magic in making us feel the insanity and despair of the patients. He can be funny, in a laugh out loud kind of fashion. He can also be tragic, when you realize what the inmates go through each passing day. The novel is a definitive treatment of the age old abode of individual versus establishment.
This is a very human story, with a lot of suffering and exploration of man's insecurities. It has become a classic that some schools have even recommended as part of their curriculum. Through all the ups and downs of the story, I was, forever inspired and ultimately liberated in mind to finally realize that you can take away a man's life, but never his freedom. The book receives my highest recommendation.
on June 12, 2011
This is a great book and I'm sure you can read the other reviews for insight into why it is so great, but the Kindle edition isn't very good. It's like they ran the book through a cheap OCR and just threw it at Amazon. There are lots of scanning errors. 'He' often comes thorough as 'I Ie' and the letter 'c' and 'e' appear to be interchangeable in multiple places. Avoid the Kindle edition.
Counterculture icon and author Ken Kesey (1935-2001) wrote his first novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in 1960. The book was a response to the author's experiences testing mind-altering drugs for the federal government and his later tenure as a nurse's aide in the same facility. In the introduction to the novel, Robert Faggen places this seminal novel in its proper context, arguing that this book incorporates several themes of the 1950's: the Cold War, the plight of the Native Americans, the reliance on psychiatry as a cure all for social problems, and the vestigial remnants of McCarthyism. Even if you could care less about how Kesey's book fits into American cultural history, you could hardly fail to miss the overarching theme of his novel: the tensions between the individual and the state, between those trapped in an industrial society and those who wish to live in freedom. There is a film version of this book starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher that adequately captures Kesey's stark visions.
The author's tale takes place in a mental asylum at an unknown time. Perhaps this is because time has little importance to the inmates in the facility. The people in this particular ward of the hospital fall into categories of `acute' or `chronic,' depending on whether they have hope of recovery or are irrevocably ill. The days are full of drudgery, an endless round of medications interspersed with playing cards against the background of canned polka music. Everyday the acute patients meet for group therapy that really doubles as a McCarythyesque tattling session. The name of the game is acquiescence to the myriad rules and regulations of the institution. Those inmates who violate the rules earn a trip to the disturbed ward or a quick trip to the electroshock chamber. Repeated disobedience could lead to a lobotomy. Predictably, fear is the perpetual state in which most of the patients live. But with the appearance of a nonconformist named Randle McMurphy, fear starts to give way to a burgeoning hope that life will become better in this hospital.
The narrator of this story is Chief Bromden, a mixed blood Indian who is a patient in the ward. This man spends his days mopping and sweeping the floors while hearing and seeing everything that goes on around him. The Chief fears that something called the `Combine' controls the world. For him, the `Combine' is the machinery that fills the walls and floors of the hospital, constantly spying on and controlling the men in the ward. He believes that those who work in the asylum are actually full of cogs and gears, are part of this giant, controlling machine. Moreover, the staff and the patients believe that Bromden is a deaf mute. He isn't, but Kesey's choice of this Indian as the narrator of unfolding events is a stroke of brilliance. Since no one thinks the Chief can hear or speak, he becomes privy to every activity in the institution. The staff speaks freely around him because they feel they have nothing to worry about. His cleaning duties allow him full access to every area of the floor, including the room where the staff meets to discuss other inmates. You cannot help but like Bromden, and you quickly question whether his observations are truly the ramblings of a madman.
The central figure in Bromden's `Combine' theory is Nurse Ratched, sometimes referred to as `Big Nurse.' This seemingly grandmotherly woman personifies the Chief's fear of control and cold aloofness. Ratched runs the floor from her little glass booth, her hands on the levers of the machinery that controls the lights, the music, the group therapy sessions, and even most of the doctors. Her voice alone controls the destiny of the inmates. Ratched enforces the rules and regulations, and she decides who receives punishment or release. Big Nurse encourages stool pigeons and belittles the patients with implied threats and stony glares, often masked under an ersatz exterior of patience and cheerfulness. With the arrival of McMurphy, Ratched prepares for a battle of wills that by extension is a war between the individual and the state.
Randle McMurphy is a boisterous, tattooed, redheaded troublemaker ducking a sentence on a work farm by acting crazy. Right from the start, McMurphy undermines the rules and regulations of the hospital. He gambles for money, wonders the hall wearing nothing but towels, sings, and challenges Ratched's authority by going to the floor doctor to receive rule waivers. But far, far worse is McMurphy's effect on the other inmates in the institution. His breezy spirit and tenaciousness encourages others to demand changes in the daily routine. Randle is a subversive of the worst type, and Ratched will do anything in her power to slap down this upstart to her fascistic rule. The end of the story seems to mark a significant defeat for the concept of individualism, but if one reads closely it is apparent Kesey keeps the dream of freedom alive however ephemeral it may be.
Although I disagree strongly with Kesey's career as a counterculture mainstay, I loved this book. Everything about it is brilliant, from the characterization to the tight writing style. The Penguin edition even includes pencil sketches of people Kesey drew during his work as a nurse's aide. These haunting sketches add a special dimension to the text. Ultimately, the novel works because of its messages of freedom versus entrapment and the dangers of both conformity and nonconformity to the human soul. I recommend you run, not walk, to get this book.
on February 25, 2004
I had the pleasure of reading this classic a few months ago after I chose it off a list of books for an english paper. Little did I know that I had made a great choice. I have always enjoyed books that centered on individuality and rebellion's against the rest of the society. This book is no different. It follows the story of Randall McMurphy, who throughout the novel tries in every which way to disobey those with power in order to find a way out of the mental hospital for himself and to help the other members of the ward in escaping as well. He becomes a teacher for the ward, a helper for them. Many characterize him as a Christ like figure, as Kesey does provide enough evidence that he may have been notioning such an idea from the beginning through language, character descriptions, and events that parallel events from the Bible. This novel has become one of my favorites and opened up my heart to other classics such as The Great Gatsby and Catch-22. If it were not for "One Flew Over," I'd probably still be content with more recent novels. Thank you, Mr. Kesey, for such a fantastic book. It reads rather quickly and leaves you with a satisfied feeling at the end. "One Flew Over" has one of the best endings I've read in a very long time, possibly ever. I did not believe it would end as it did, but it makes complete sense when you sit back and think of the novel as a whole. Well done, Kesey, your effort is well appreciated and strongly recommended!
on April 15, 2007
As I commented on one young reviewer's post...there should be a rule stating that if you have not read the book then you should not be allowed to write a review for it or even rate it. Most of the poor reviews and low ratings for this novel are from ignorant teenagers whose reviews are barely coherent and furthermore who have not even actually read the book beyond a few pages. Rant over, thanks.
Moving on, I have owned this book for several years but simply never got around to reading it until now. Things to keep in mind: I did see a stage production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but I have never seen the movie. I am not going to summarize the book, I will just get to my point. I will say that Cuckoo's Nest is not by any means a breezy read, and I also had a little bit of difficulty in the beginning fully comprehending some of what was going on mainly because it is not written in any typical fashion and yes, it is written from the perspective of a mental patient whose perception is not always clear...or is it? Not only that but Kesey was volunteering to take part in LSD testing during the time he wrote the book, which he wrote from his experience working in a Veteran's hospital. The first portion of the book is a bit slow, but once you get past the introductions, so to speak, and adjust to the style of the narrator's prose it takes a turn and you can't help but care for these characters and feel what they feel and go through and how they change and evolve. You might even see some of your own experiences or selves in the situations in Cuckoo's Nest, mental patients or not.
I finished what started as a difficult read within two days and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding novels I have read in a long time. I actually cried; this is now one of only three books that has ever hit me in such a way! It's an inspiring and sad story about the power of ideas, spirit, conformity and freedom. Although it may be a little rough at the start, I highly recommend getting through that part and finishing the story...you'll be glad you did!
on January 20, 2000
...and i thought the movie was great when I first saw it. I was amazed by the performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, so I told myself I have got to read the book.
Luckily, my english litterature teacher in college gave us an assignement on that book. I have read it through and through, over and over. I have read it twice in about two days. I couldn't stop reading. The slang that Ken Kesey uses when Chief narrates the story is just great and really brings us back in that period.
But what i really loved in the book, is that you get to know why chief is like that. In the movie, you only get a little bit of the story, and that's a shame. I really enjoyed the book and the movie. But if you only saw the movie, you're only getting half the picture, so I say, if you liked what you saw, then buy that book and read it, you won't be disappointed.
on January 8, 2002
Ken Kesey's great accomplishment here is that he's brought a grand sense of authority to this book. He worked for a spell at a similar mental hospital in Oregon, even going so far as to subject himself to shock treatments. These experiences allowed him to add authentic detail to his world, such as the classification of the patients as Chronics, Acutes, Walkers, Wheelers, and, most ominously, Disturbed. The lucid descriptions he provides of each phylum are heartbreaking. Life in his ward world is made up of mindless repetition and routine, where patients are watched over by hapless staff, and institutionalized racism is never given a second thought. All of these aspects of the hospital work together to provide a nifty little microcosm of a radicalized 1960's America.
Much of the novel is internalized. Chief Bromden, our humble narrator, begins life as a deaf and dumb Chronic. Only he's got a secret (I'll never tell). The story, as told from the Chief's point of view, is disjointed and fragmented. This is not an ineffective technique, however. In fact, it helps bring the reader into the mind of the insane, because as the Chief suffers through his hallucinations, we get to suffer along with him. Kesey, to his credit, never goes overboard with the Chief's dreamlike states. He works hard to keep the Chief's meanderings intelligible, always getting back to the story just in time before he lost the reader completely in that mania. He lets the Chief reign himself in if only to provide lucid commentary on the events at the hospital. This duality, this schizophrenia, makes the Chief one of the great unreliable narrators of the postmodern age. He's not consciously covering his tracks to make himself look better. He really believes the things he says, even if the reader can't fully. "[What follows is] the truth," he says early on. "Even if it didn't happen."
The real strength of "Cuckoo's Nest" is that it not only gives us a strong internal narrative, but the external one is pretty strong as well. Otherwise it would have made for a pretty convoluted movie. Most novels do one well but not the other.
The reason that the external portions are strong is that they're anchored on the fate of a truly memorable literary character: Randall Patrick McMurphy. McMurphy, a former work farm employee just new to the hospital, is a more complex character than I thought he'd be. I was expecting from him only unbridled, ego-less action. Instead, he was also quite focused, rational, and well thought out (listen to him cut through Harding's bull, with his neat "'peckin' party" analogy). This brings up one of the novel's central questions: whether or not McMurphy really should be in the asylum, or if he's just faking to get off the work farm (in fact, this question can be asked of all the novel's characters, except, of course, for the Chief. We've been inside his head and can surely testify that not only does he have a few loose screws, but also his screwdriver is broken). This question makes the ending all the more tragic. I'll not give the ending away, but be aware that knowing what ultimately happens to McMurphy didn't lessen the experience for me, and it probably won't for you. Kesey manages to hold the suspense until the reader gets there. When he finally lets go, the shock of it hits you like a fist through a window.
The novel's central and scariest truth is that the system (i.e., what the Chief calls "the Combine") can't be beat. That's very much a 1960's attitude, but still relevant in contemporary culture, especially for those of us still trying to make our way in the world. It is personified here by Nurse Ratched, who, no matter how persistent you are as an opponent, will always hold all the cards. And the sad irony is that this fact, once known, makes McMurphy's final punishment seem more like a blessing than a curse.
on May 28, 2002
This novel is a dark look into the life of an insane asylum, told through the eyes of the committed Chief Bromden, who has faked being deaf and dumb for his entire ten-year stay at the ward. Randle Patrick McMurphy is a newcomer to the asylum, and his self-assured competitive outlook on life upsets the rules and regulations of the ward. He is the first to challenge the ultimate authority, the Big Nurse, and he helps the other men gain the bravery and willpower to stand up for themselves. McMurphy helps Chief Bromden find himself and ultimately break out of his shell. This book presents some ideas and images that are difficult to follow, but this only makes the book more realistic, because it is expected that it would be hard to comprehend the workings of a troubled mind. As the characters evolve and adapt to their changing surroundings, Kesey sheds light on human morals, and the sometimes corrupt short-term solutions to problems that people come up with to make their lives easier. Through the power struggles between the Big Nurse and her patients, Kesey also demonstrates that there is a fine line between sanity and insanity. Many of the narrator's mysterious observations are metaphors for how people act in reality, and it is fascinating to journey through his warped mind and see the world as he sees it. I highly suggest this book to anybody who likes to read books that call for a fair amount of thought and deciphering, but are rewarding in the end.
on March 16, 2009
Ken Kesey's novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a whirlwind of eccentricity and brilliance. In a plot that is completely character-driven, Kesey skillfully manipulates stock characters to reflect on larger ideas regarding the individual and his place in society (both on the ward, and at large). The evolution of character and self - highlighted by the "reality" of life on their ward - is fascinating; Kesey attempts to prove that insanity is a product of contemporary culture, and that reality is not as fixed as those in power would have the masses believe. I am currently teaching this novel in an introductory-level English class, and it has proved to be through-provoking and inspiring - even to students who otherwise have no interest in reading novels. This is a novel everyone should read at least once.
on January 30, 2001
Ken Kesey himself will be forever associated with the happenings of the 1960s, but "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (1962), like other great novels, transcends its countercultural origins. Nearly forty years on, with over 8 million copies sold, it has become an essential part of postwar American literature.
The setting: a mental hospital in Portland, Oregon, in the 1950s. The terrified, ill-treated inmates cower under the evil Nurse Ratched, who is all-seeing, all-controlling. Enter the hero, Randall Patrick McMurphy, a brawling, gambling womaniser who, as his initials suggest, is there to induce a revolution. The slowly escalating conflict is played out in a simple four-part structure, building towards an inevitable and moving climax. "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is narrated in the first person by Chief Bromden, a half-Indian thought by all to be deaf-mute, and his extended flashback of events allows Kesey to mix reality and hallucinations to brilliant effect. By presenting the mental hospital, explicitly, as a microcosm of broader society, Kesey urges us to consider our own lives in the light of the events he describes.
Its simple structure belies the fact that "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is a feast of allegory: of good versus evil, man versus machine, sexual freedom versus repression; of McMurphy himself as humorously subversive Christ figure, as bringer of fertility, and many more - and watch out for the white whale shorts and stuttering Billy, "Faulknerian brain burning", and even some hidden rhymes at the end of part 3!
But spare us the half-baked Freudian interpretations which Kesey himself so roundly mocks. And pay no heed to the charges of sexism and racism levelled at Kesey's novel: his playful plotting and comic-strip characters make such criticism futile. Kesey balances it beautifully: amidst the ribald humour, there is just enough realism to keep us engrossed; and this reviewer little doubts that the systematic cruelty and dehumanisation practised by Ratched and her aides is commonplace in our prisons, mental hospitals and wherever else we lock away the "undesirables".
Indeed, it isn't surprising to find that Kesey worked in a mental hospital before writing "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", and his acquaintances there filtered into the novel; some a little too obviously, perhaps, viz. the (originally female) "Public Relations" who sued Kesey in order to get her character changed. Kesey also tried out electric shock treatment firsthand, and was part of a government program testing psychoactive drugs, his experiences with LSD forming the basis of Bromden's electrifying hallucinations. Now, although Kesey himself may be pretty wacky, he has no personal experience of schizophrenia, and his portrayal of mental illness and its causes has been justly criticised as simplistic. But "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is not, primarily, meant as a contribution to psychiatric therapy, and criticism of it on these grounds is somewhat wide of the mark. We should be glad that Kesey successfully attempted a greater task: to write an anti-authoritarian novel of immense power, forcing us to question the "Combine" seeking to control us all.
Kesey's next book "Sometimes A Great Notion" (1964) is more subtle: a long, complex, involving tale set in an Oregon logging town. Fans of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" should perhaps first try "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe, in which Kesey himself challenges 1960s America with some crazy escapades of his own, thumbing his nose at authority in the same spirit, one senses, as his hero Mr McMurphy.