Sunday 20 February 2011

Revisiting Books... One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest is a book that, once read, doesn't easily escape you. I had only read it once before, and was almost scared to read it again, in case the reality didn't match up with my memory of it the first time round. I shouldn't have been worried. Everything was just as fraught and tense and completely amazing as I remembered it. I still loved McMurphy and the Chief, still hated Nurse Ratched and the establishment, and still wanted there to be more to the book once it was finished. To me, that's the mark of a really great story.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest basically chronicles the activities in a mental hospital in Oregon, which is ruled by a tyrannical nurse and her evil little helpers (these helpers are black, and the 'n' word is used to describe them more than once in the book. Which, I don't much appreciate, BUT no matter what race they were, their actions would still be evil. So I'm going to let this one slide for now). Things just move along within the ward, as narrated by Chief Bromden, a man who doesn't seem that mentally ill, but who does have delusions mostly based around the idea he is being spied on, which is quite ironic considering that he does most of the spying, as he pretends to be deaf and dumb when, in fact, he doesn't have any problems in this regard. He is, however, a sublime narrator,
"I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is, essentially, the story of Chief Bromden's return to sanity, which is entirely down to the influence of Randle P McMurphy, a man who is not at all mentally ill, but rather is larger than life, with the kind of personality that can light up an entire room and just make everyone feel so much better. This, however, turns out to be both a blessing and a curse, as McMurphy helps the Chief to find the beauty in life after twenty years, for instance; but also has the burden of the other men's expectations on him, even when he feels that there is nothing else he can do for them. When he finally attacks Nurse Ratched, he seems to feel like he absolutely has to because
"we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting..."
and it is this perhaps more than anything else that contributes to McMurphy's mental deterioration (that is not complete, but is there) in the novel.

One thing that Kesey highlights very clearly is the state of psychological treatment in America in the early 1960s. It is clear that he raises a protest in this novel, utilising his characters very well to make a really strong statements on the things that the entire establishment were doing wrong. McMurphy, predictably, is the voice of reason on this issue, and it is almost touching to hear his protest against ECT, which does sound like a completely barbaric treatment, "Didn't the public raise Cain about it?" he asks, clearly forgetting that the public doesn't care about things it can easily ignore. It is also true that, while Nurse Ratched is partially to blame for the way things are on the ward, there is something more fundamentally rotten at the heart of the whole system that the Nurse's removal would not solve;
"McMurphy doesn't know it, but he's onto what I realised a long time back, that it's not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it's the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that's the really big force, and the nurse is just a high ranking official for them."
It is clear from the reading that this insidious way of dealing with vulnerable people is something that Kesey thinks should change, and wants to change.

One thing that could easily be changed in this book is Nurse Ratched. Whilst she is not the only problem with the ward, she is still a grade A bitch, who probably shouldn't be around any people, let alone the vulnerable mentally ill patients of this book. She is painted so vividly that it is impossible not to side with the patients in the novel, and not to hate her for her subtle manipulations and steering of all their lives, something which is not at all conducive to their recovery. Ugh, I just hate her so much! McMurphy sees, from the very first group meeting, exactly what she has done and is still doing to the men- she emasculates them to the point where they can't do anything without her approval,
" 'what she is is a ball-cutter. I seen a thousand of 'em, old and young, men and women. Seen 'em all over the country and in the homes- people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to. And the best way to do this, to get you to knuckle under, is to weaken you by gettin' you where it hurts the most.'"
Calling her a ball-cutter is a little bit of a sexist way of putting what she does, since it excludes the possibility that women can also be treated this way, but the way she breaks the men could easily be applied to women, and I guess they'd just have to call her a boob-cutter or something similar in that case. But this is what she does- she has weakened these men to the point where they find themselves completely unable to live in the outside world anymore. Even more abhorrently, she commits some of the worst and cruellest acts in the novel, and then uses them to control and scare the men even more than they already are. Her absolute biggest crime comes at the end of the novel (which I'm NOT going to tell you about, because if you haven't already read it, it comes as quite a horrid shock), by which point you literally just wish she was dead, so that she could stop damaging these already broken people further.

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest has such a vivid cast of characters, and makes you think so much about the injustices in the world, and at times is extremely painful. It is also an incredibly rewarding read, and makes you consider the limits of 'normality' and sanity in a way that I never had done before. I implore you to read it if you haven't already, and I'd love to hear what you think about it if you have! Oh yeah, and see the film. Jack Nicholson is the absolute perfect McMurphy.


  1. I've never read the book, but I watched the movie in high school. I'm pretty sure that it traumatized me. LOL. The ending was something I did not expect. I will definitely need to read the book now.

    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today, and your kind words. (So glad you like my blog, that means a lot.) I love yours as well. I dig a lot of the same books, movies, tv (oh, Glee...seriously how much did I Want To Hold Your Hand make you cry? I was a puddle.) I'll be back. :)

  2. The book really is amazing! The film is pretty faithful, so it won't be that surprising, but the writing is just... wow!
    Also, Glee- I KNOW! I am so in love with Kurt already this season that it's insane (we're like way behind you guys in the UK, but Kurt's already been adorable, and found the guy that I seriously hope will be his boyfriend!) I'm happy you like my blog tooo, makes me feel special and not like I'm just wasting my time :) hehe

  3. cool any shorter thaughts