Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 1962. New York City. Signet.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in the Oregon State Mental Institution and is narrated by the protagonist, a patient named Chief Bromden. He tells the story of how Randle Patrick McMurphy faked his insanity to get out of a six month sentence on a work farm, not realizing that he had in fact been committed by the state. McMurphy is a gambling brawler and dislikes the restrictions placed on the facility by “BigNurse” Ratched. He befriends his fellow patients, including Chief, learning that most of them were voluntarily admitted and could leave at any time. Nurse Ratched sees that McMmurphy is getting the patients to lose their grip of their fears and from her tight control, in which she has no intention of losing her influence to McMurphy.
The book is told in first person by Chief Bromden, breaking down the different types of patients on the ward, the treatments administered to the patients, the appointed hospital staff and even the fog that doesn’t really exist. He also gives his vivid account of, not only how McMurphy turned the ward upside down, but also a glimpse of his own life recalling life on his Reservation, his service in the military and his early days as a football star while in school. The book is significant considering that it was published in 1962, the time of the 60’s Counter-Culture Movement in U.S. History. Kesey’s language may be deemed inflammatory with his usage of racial slurs, referring to Nurse Ratched as a b**** and of McMurphy’s female friends as whores. The struggle between the liberals vs. the conservatives is depicted in the day-to-day lives of the characters as they coexist under one institution. Despite the fact that the story takes place in a mental hospital, it typified the American Spirit at a time where social issues were in a serious struggle and America was in search for a new identity.
The Combine is the central theme of the novel. The Combine is described by Chief Bromden as a system designed to keep things in a very particular order. The origins of it come from Chief’s memories, having seen the effects of it crush his own father, who was once a respected tribal chief. Chief equates the very same system to the mental institution: the patients and the ward in a very particular order-and he plays deaf and dumb to avoid as much cruelty as possible. Nurse Ratched is the forefront of the Combine, as she has influential friends-friends she served in the Army hospital with, who enabled her to be the head nurse of the ward. She has particular staff selected to do her bidding; they may not like her, but either 1) she knows something she can use against them or 2) they enjoy their job, and it shows in their cruel treatment of the patients. McMurphy catches onto the same theme, though he couldn’t put a name to it and Chief tries to warn him of being beaten down by it if he didn’t tone down his behavior.
The author is clear on the antagonism between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, and Chief clues the reader in to the organization of the conflicting factions: on one side is the staff: Nurse Ratched-the head; Dr. Spivey-though a doctor, has no power over Nurse Ratched without the sly prodding of McMurphy; the three black orderlies-Nurse Ratched’s physical henchmen on the day shift; Nurse Pilbow-a nightshifter and a devout Catholic who punishes others for their seemingly sins against her; and Mr. Turkle-an elder black gentleman and fellow nightshifter who becomes a sort of ally of McMurphy. On the other side is McMurphy-the outrageous fiery redheaded Irish-American who turns the ward upside down; Harding-McMurphy’s go-to on the policies and philosophies of the ward; Chief Bromden-a 6’8” half-Native American whom McMurphy helps to regain the strength he buried within himself; Billy Bibbit-a shy, sweet 31 year-old (perhaps the youngest on the ward), whom McMurphy takes under his wing; Cheswick-the only other patient with the guts to stand up and question Nurse Ratched’s policies on the ward (which are democratic-under her jurisdiction, of course). Each character has such a unique trait and purpose in the novel that it’s hard to overlook them. Regardless of affiliation, each character helps the reader to understand the need for the mental ward, yet the struggle that exists in the ward as well.
“This is a thoroughly enthralling, brilliantly tempered novel, peopled by at least two unforgettable characters.”-Kirkus Reviews
“Every page and paragraph and sentence of this novel feels equally vivid, just as charged with creative energy and power. The book splits the back of its spine with anger. It telescopes out its arms to capture more and more of Kesey’s outrage at the powers that be.”-Charles McNair, Paste Magazine
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Reviewed by Peche C.