Book Review: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Do you feel it? The floor is slipping away and there are evil, little mechanical wheels turning, turning. It is controlled by them, the Combine. They are out to get you. Just like before, when they strapped you down and gave you your crown of wires and zap- you don’t remember anything after that. Why is it so foggy in here? They don’t let you think anything; it’s best just to hide.

Eery, isn’t it? This represents the picture that author Ken Kesey.

“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” recounts the events of a psychiatric inpatient ward in the early 1960’s. Chief Bromden, also known as “Chief Broom” our narrator, is a paranoid schizophrenic who pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to be left alone. He has been committed since the end of World War II, the longest-residing patient. R.P. McMurphy, our hero, shows up one day fresh off the work farm. It is suspected that he merely pretended to be insane, in order to escape the hard labor he was subjected to there. Chief Boom takes an immediate interest in McMurphy and begins to recount us a story of his exploits.

This novel has so many layers that our group was able to have its longest-running discussion over what has been our shortest selection to date. There’s women’s lib, race relations, man versus the Man, man versus machine, what it means to be crazy, treatment of the mentally incompetent, and much, much more.

The 1975 film adaptation pushes many of these issues under the rug. Like so many movies based on novels do, the story became merely that – a story. The Big Nurse, Nurse Ratched, was presented in a much more amicable light. In the movie she is almost sympathetic; whereas in the book, we all hate her relatively early on. Racial tensions were also suppressed. Each African-American aide was referred to by name and not just as “the black boys”. Racial epithets were removed, which had been used to refer to the aids, our Native-American narrator and a beneficent Japanese nurse.

Kesey was one committed author, when it came down to it. His interest in the mind-altering abilities of LSD and its abilities to create a new form of consciousness led him to seek work at a mental hospital. He figured that LSD and insanity probably had a lot in common. Kesey even voluntarily submitted himself to electroshock therapy so that he could better describe the effects that this radical treatment had on the mind. Talk about traveling for work.

There’s so much that can be taken away from this novel. Please share your thoughts about some of the themes I have mentioned above or about others that I neglected to mention. Was McMurphy crazy when he entered the ward? Was he when he left it? What makes someone crazy? What does Kesey’s representation of his two primary female characters (an antagonistic nurse and a prostitute) say about his attitude toward women’s rights? Was McMurphy Christ-like? Was he right to push the system to the benefit of the other patients or should he have left it alone? Did we like Broom as the narrator? Was he reliable? How do we feel about Broom’s mercy killing in the end? Where did he go once he committed the deed and escaped from the hospital? What will become of the released patients in the new world? Will Ratched continue to run her tight ship after the rebellion and attack or will she seek other employment? Could this story have happened in the real world?

Mrs. Storm

Writing everything from Sweet Romance to Children's Books to Nonfiction, Melissa loves books, birds, and bonbons--in that order. She has an advanced degree that she never uses.

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