A justified classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a well choreographed and rewarding story with many layers. This is the story of the 1950’s psychiatric institution, no, wait, this is an anti-establishment story of rebellion from the system of incarceration, no, wait, this is the story of a Native American who has lost his cultural heritage and way of life, no, wait this story questions sanity and reality, no, wait, this is a story of liberation from the capitalistic system, no, this is all of those stories at once. Powerful and memorable, saddening and amusing, demoralizing and inspiring. If you want it, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest offers it to you. This is nearly a perfect book.
Since this is a well-worn and frequently read classic there isn’t much that I could say about it that hasn’t already been said. I had put it off for so long simply because a copy never made its way into my hands. This is possibly because I saw the 1970’s Jack Nicholson movie adaption sometime in my mid-teens and although I enjoyed the movie, it was extremely melodramatic and character driven and therefore I wasn’t ever drawn to the book until recently. It is totally cliche to say this but, the book definitely offers much more than the movie could ever hope. First off, the book is told from the unique perspective of a schizophrenic, which really couldn’t work very well in the visual format of a movie.
The schizophrenic, Chief Bromden, is a resident at a psychiatric hospital in Oregon. His character speaks volumes as he is a contradiction of expectations. He is a giant of a man but is docile and afraid of his own shadow. He serves as the perfect observational narrative voice because he is thought to be both “deaf and dumb” and therefore provides an inside and observational first person perspective that is removed from the action surrounding him because he rarely interacts with others. Though much of the novel’s action is focused on the disruptive force of the new psychiatric resident, Randle McMurphy, the thoughts voiced by the Chief depict a troubled and conflicted man who has become invisible and apart from society (the “Combine” as he refers to it). Although he rarely interacts, the Chief’s personal story and the choices he makes provide an alternative to both the rigid institutional system controlled by Nurse Ratched and the rebellious path modeled by McMurhphy. The Chief’s reflections on his childhood memories living in a village that was sold to the government to make way for a hydroelectric damn serve as a nostalgic pining for a way of life in the natural world that is separate from the Combine and mechanization of the societal system.
The Chief’s unique voice often trails off in hallucinatory visions of time slowing down, floors falling apart, and machinery controlling all aspects of human life. The author, Ken Kesey, was an early proponent of LSD and the inspiration for the novel was influenced both by his use of LSD and his time working as an orderly at a Menlo Park mental institution. The hallucinatory visions of Chief Bromden are vivid and believable and Kesey’s psychedelic experiences were obviously influential in the artistic liberties the author explored with his narrator’s version of reality. Early in the novel the chief opens with one of the most memorable lines of fiction that give merit towards his hallucinations as well as the artistic art-form of the novel: “but it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” (8).
As I alluded to in my introduction, this was a well choreographed piece of work and I say this because the novel stirred up a lot of emotion within me. The book is split into four chapters and each section ends with a back and forth one-up in the game of conflict between the controlling and restrictive nurse Ratched and the free spirited trickster McMurphy. Each chapter ends with a thud of emotion that resets and escalates the tone of the conflict between the two, especially as McMurphy’s actions begin to influence and boost the confidence of his fellow psychiatric inmates. The story doesn’t end well for either McMurphy or nurse Ratched, but the progression is well timed, engaging, and comes together in an emotionally charged and believable way despite the extreme nature of the nurse’s controlling God complex and McMurphy’s offensive, gambling and womanizing mannerisms.
“He knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running plumb crazy.” (214)
I had indicated that the novel is nearly perfect. Many readers may find their sensibilities negatively gravitating towards the racist and chauvinistic undertones within the book. True, the hospital orderlies referred to as the “black boys” are often referred to as abusive or dumb (like the overnight orderly that is easily manipulated by McMurphy) and rarely are their names even mentioned. Although, the novel is explicit towards indicating that Nurse Ratched had hand-picked the orderlies through the years to be the most hateful to better serve her system of control, the fact that they are black is as much a casualty to the time when the novel was written as it is a means to the metaphorical and narrative goals of the author to depict extreme characters in a world that is a microcosm to the conflicts of a society outside the mental institution. The same could be said of the negative depiction of women that includes the ultra-bitch, Nurse Ratched, the naive and pious night nurse, or the loose whores that McMurphy sneaks into the mental ward. Even the novel’s hero, McMurphy could be seen negatively since he is a convicted felon who has confessed to statutory rape, and is both manipulative and self-serving. All of these elements may detract many readers from appreciating the greater aim of the story as a metaphor for the constrictions of the cultural and social systems that limit an individual from enjoying life.