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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Mass Market Paperback – February 1, 1963
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
“A work of genuine literary merit...What Mr. Kesey has done in his unusual novel is to transform the plight of a ward of inmates in a mental hospital into a glittering parable of good and evil.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[A] brilliant first novel...a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil...Keysey has made his book a roar of protest against middlebrow society's Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them.”—Time
“The final triumph of these men at the cost of a terrifying sacrifice should send chills down any reader's back....This novel's scenes have the liveliness of a motion picture.”—The Washington Post
“An outstanding book...[Kesey's] characters are original and real....This is a tirade against the increasing controls over man and his mind, yet the author never gets on a soap box. Nor does he forget that there is a thin line between tragedy and comedy.”—Houston Chronicle
About the Author
Ken Kesey (1935-2001) grew up in Oregon. He graduated from the University of Oregon and later studied at Stanford with Wallace Stegner, Malcolm Cowley, Richard Scowcroft, and Frank O' Connor. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his first novel, was published in 1962. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, followed in 1964. His other books include Kesey's Garage Sale, Demon Box, Caverns (with O. U. Levon), The Further Inquiry, Sailor Song, and Last Go Round (with Ken Babbs). His two children's books are Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear and The Sea Lion.
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The story at its core encompasses the struggle between the individual (portrayed by Randall McMurphy) and the establishment (Portrayed by nurse Ratched.) It is told through the eyes of the schizophrenic half-Indian known as Chief Bromden. Bromden has pretended to be deaf and dumb for so long that everyone takes this fact for granted. It also allows him to overhear comments from the staff that others would not. The Chief is an interesting choice as narrator, and at times it seemed like he was rambling on about nothing. Unreliable narrators can be a touchy thing, but Kesey is able to navigate his way through the Chief's mind, and in time we find his ramblings have a purpose. He views the establishment as a machine, which he refers to as "the combine." He speaks of fog machines, wires in the walls, and robotic people, and views them as part of the combine. Even the name of the nurse, Ratched, sounds almost like "ratchet," which is a common tool. The Chief sees the struggle between the Big Nurse, as he calls Ratched, and McMurphy, and even though he has a sense right away that McMurphy is different, Bromden doesn't hold out much hope. After all, the combine is a massive machine and the Chief knows what it did to him. Bromden tells McMurphy he "used to be big," but not any more. The Chief's mother, a white woman from town, along with the government, broke down both he and his father and became bigger than both of them put together.
The antagonist is Ratched, an ex-army nurse who rules the ward with an iron fist. She preys on the weaknesses of the patients and attacks them in those areas. She is all about control and power, and over her long career has devised many ways of projecting this with a cold, machine-like efficiency. Ratched has hand picked her staff based on their cruelty and submissiveness. The Chief calls her "The Big Nurse," which reminds me of Orwell's Big Brother, and mentions early on that "The Big Nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine" (pg 24). Indeed the Chief sees her as a machine, part of the combine who's purpose is to make others small. Ratched represents the oppressive nature and de-humanization present in modern society.
And then there is Randle McMurphy. Sent to the ward from a work farm (because it's "easier" time), McMurphy comes in loud and confident. His singing and laughter are something new for the patients so used to suppressing their emotions. And he is definitely not the kind of patient the mechanical and repressive Nurse Ratched wants. It only takes McMurphy one group session to see Ratched's method of exposing the patient's weakest areas and pecking them into submission. Harding, the subject of the group meetings earlier frenzy, explains that it was all therapeutic. McMurphy, however, gives Harding his perception: "what she is is a ball-cutter. I've seen a thousand of 'em...people who try to make you weak so they can get you to...live like they want you to. And the best way to do this...is to weaken you by gettin' you where it hurts the worst" (pg 56). So McMurphy, ever the gambling man, makes a bet with his fellow patients that he would be able to make Ratched lose her composure, and he accomplished this by using her own tactics against her. As he pulls Bromden and the others out of the "fog" and makes them big again, McMurphy unwittingly becomes the savior of his fellow patients. It did not go un-noticed that the electroshock table was cross-shaped with the patient restrained by the wrists and feet and a "crown" placed over his head. When McMurphy rips Nurse Ratched's tightly starched uniform and exposes her breasts, he is symbolically exposing her hypocrisy and breaking the power she had once wielded over the patients. Chief Bromden's final act of mercy cemented Nurse Ratched's fall as well as giving McMurphy the dignity that he had earned.
Perhaps the largest piece of advice I pulled from this novel is to never let anyone or anything take your individuality. Society in general would like to have everyone fit into the same mold because then the people are easier to predict and control. However, we all need a McMurphy in our lives to show us that we can still be individuals and fit into society. And when The Combine tries to weaken you and make you conform, just throw your head back and laugh like McMurphy, "because he knows you have laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy" (pg 233).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest deals with the relationship between freedom and power, and about how mental illness develops when the power of others dominates an individual to such a great extent that he/she can no longer act free. The individuals in the hospital are shown by Kesey to be lacking in courage and self-belief, and demonstrate an unwillingness to act without permission and approval. While the hospital should be making patients better it actually makes them worse by actively discouraging attempts to be assertive and by labelling any attempt to act free from the constraints of institutional power as symptomatic of a worsening of the underlying disorder.
The book is told through the eyes of Chief Bowden: a part Indian man that has spent a long time in the hospital pretending to be deaf and mute. Through the subjective experiences of the Chief, Kesey presents the actual experiences of mental illness. Kesey in doing this dismisses the notion that mental illness is unreal but reveals how its treatment is sometimes abused to keep people in line. Chief Bowden experiences things through metaphorical hallucinations. For example, when speaking of the power held by the Big Nurse, he literally sees wires running from her office into the bodies of those that she controls. This conception of mental illness is similar to that found in R.D Laing’s book the Divided Self: the mentally ill person is someone that cannot face the pain of reality and retreats into their own realm, but reality still intrudes via metaphorical representations.
Throughout the novel Chief Bowden focuses on the power struggle taking place between Randle McMurphy and the Big Nurse. McMurphy is not in hospital voluntarily but has committed an offence which landed him on a work farm. He is transferred to the mental hospital partly of his own design to escape drudgery. McMurphy immediately emerges as a threat to the Big Nurse due to his willingness to question process and act without fear. He is not scared of authority and does not censor himself when confronted with the subtle shaming techniques of the Big Nurse.
The Big Nurse effectively runs the hospital. She is shown through the subjective eye of Chief Bowden to be solely concerned with maintaining her grip of power over the hospital. She is obsessed with process; she pretends to enforce process for the therapeutic value that the processes have on the patients, when in reality she loves the process because it is her process and provides her with a sense of security and power.
The interactions between McMurphy and Big Nurse question the extent to which people can be free. Sartre once argued that individuals are totally free so that even if facing the death penalty we are free to defy the executioners by mentally not accepting their interpretation of events and the descriptions placed on them. McMurphy is a Sartrean hero as he does not allow the views of others and the subtle attempts to shun and devalue him dictate how he behaves. However, as the book plays out Kesey demonstrates that living in this manner may not lead to a life of pleasure or fame but may involve the free person being crushed by power structures and processes that do not appreciate the questioning of where power lies.
I would argue that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest offers a modern presentation of the story found in the New Testament. Like Christ, McMurphy questions the powers of his time: in this case psychiatry and bureaucratic process rather than the Jewish religious leaders. Like Christ he questioned the intentions of the powers that be and acted as a free human rather than someone embarrassed by their true nature. Moreover, like Christ, McMurphy suffers at the hands of an authority that pretends to be in place for the concern of the many when in reality it gives power to the few, and in suffering on the Cross gives the weak a lasting sense of freedom.
See my other reviews at amateurreviewspace.blogspot.com
I'm a psychologist, so it never fails to disturb me - I want to educate others as to what mental heath treatment is like today. It does not resemble One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at all. I have used excepts of this book and the movie (Jack Nicholson was really hot!) in my classes to spark discussions about perceptions of mental health facilities and treatment. Students seem to like this - they are more engaged and willing to participate.
Definitely worth a permanent spot on your bookshelf or ereader, psychologist or not. Highly recommend.