One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestKen Kesey
For Further Study
Ken Kesey's tragicomic novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, takes place in a mental hospital during the late 1950s. The book can be read on two levels; if one looks on the surface, there is the story of how a highly individualistic, near-superman named McMurphy becomes a patient and for a time overturns the senseless and dehumanizing routines of the ward. If one looks deeper, however, there is a commentary on U.S. society, which the Beat generation of the late 1950s viewed as so hopelessly conformist as to stifle individuality and creativity.
First published in 1962, Kesey's book bridges the transition from the Beatniks of the late 1950s, who used poetry, music, and fashion to express their dissatisfaction with conformist society, to the hippies of the 1960s, whose counterculture rebellion included free love and drug use. Because Cuckoo's Nest was both timely and provocative, it became an instant hit with critics and with a college generation that was ready to take on the establishment full-tilt. Over the years, the book has enjoyed many reprintings in paperback form. It started receiving scholarly attention in the 1970s, particularly after it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie of the same title starring Jack Nicholson, who gave a brilliant performance as the irrepressible McMurphy. Although the novel has sometimes been faulted as sexist and racist, it still endures as an example of the individual's battle not to succumb to the forces of a dehumanizing, demoralizing society.
Ken Kesey was born in 1935 in LaJunta, Colorado. The family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where he attended public school before attending and graduating from the University of Oregon. While in college, he pursued drama and athletics. A champion wrestler, he nearly won a place on the U.S. Olympic team. After graduating, he worked for a year, thought about becoming a movie actor, and wrote an unpublished novel about college athletics entitled "End of Autumn." Kesey married his high-school sweetheart, Faye Haxy, in 1956, and the couple became the parents of three children. In 1958, Kesey began graduate work in creative writing at Stanford University in California, where he studied with several noted writers, including novelist Wallace Stegner. He wrote a second unpublished novel, "Zoo," before beginning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the summer of 1960. Around this time, he became a paid volunteer in government-sponsored drug experiments at the Veteran's Hospital in Menlo Park, California. There he was introduced to psychoactive drugs such as mescaline and LSD, and became a frequent user of them. He was under the influence of these drugs during some of the time he wrote this, his first published novel.
Cuckoo's Nest enjoyed considerable critical and popular success after its 1962 publication, becoming especially popular on college campuses. Kesey himself gained additional notoriety with a group of friends who titled themselves the "Merry Pranksters" and travelled the country promoting the new "counterculture" of social protest and psychedelic drugs. The experiences of Kesey and his friends were chronicled in Tom Wolfe's noted 1968 work The Electric Kool- Aid Acid Test. This trip was not without cost, however, for Kesey was arrested in 1965 for drug possession and eventually spent about five months in jail and in the San Mateo County Sheriff's Honor Camp. Released in 1967, he moved back to Oregon in 1968, taking up residence on a farm in Pleasant Hills. He gave up writing for a period of time before returning to his former art. He also kicked his drug habit successfully, and has since disavowed experimental drug use, saying "There are dues." None of his subsequent works have received the same attention as Cuckoo's Nest, which is seen as both a predecessor to and representative of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of a few remarkable weeks in an Oregon insane asylum and the events that lead to the narrator's escape. A tall and broad Indian, Chief Bromden is a long-term inmate who tells the story. His insanity appears to stem from a paranoid belief in the existence of a machine, "The Combine," which controls people's behavior. He feigns deafness and dumbness in order to fight this control. In looking back on his time in the ward, he finds that he must recount the horrible experiences suffered by him and his fellow inmates. In particular he tells of the conflict between Randle McMurphy and Big Nurse Ratched.
Bromden's story begins with the day McMurphy is first admitted to the ward. McMurphy is loud and disruptive, and introduces himself as a gambling man who has only pretended to be crazy in order to get out of a work camp. He introduces himself to the "Chronics" (permanent residents), including Bromden himself, and the "Acutes" (who may still recover). McMurphy immediately attempts to take charge of the bunch by instigating a who-is-crazier-than-whom debate with Harding, an Acute who is president of the Patients Council.
Nurse Ratched knows that McMurphy represents a disruptive force on the ward, and Bromden explains her reaction to disruptive forces:
The big nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she's tense as steel. I know, I can feel it. And she don't relax a hair till she gets the nuisance attended to—what she calls "adjusted to surroundings."
McMurphy questions the others, particularly Harding, about why they accept her power over them. He bets the entire ward that within a week he can force Nurse Ratched to lose control without her gaining any over him.
Interspersed with his own hallucinations, Bromden recounts how McMurphy persistently taunts the Nurse and her attendants. Some ward-members gain access to an old hydrotherapy room—the "tub room"— to escape the very loud music in the day room. In an effort to motivate the Acutes into fighting Big Nurse, McMurphy purposefully loses a wager that he can heave an old concrete console through a tub room window and escape. One week after the original bet, he succeeds in turning the entire ward against Ratched in a vote over television privileges during the World Series. Bromden's is the decisive vote, and McMurphy gains the majority he needs to win. The nurse refuses to turn the television on, but the entire ward ignores her orders and sits patiently in front of the blank set while she screams hysterically.
In response to her failure, Nurse Ratched decides to wait until McMurphy realizes his fate is ultimately in her hands. At the same time, Bromden grows stronger from McMurphy's tireless example, hallucinating less and avoiding his medication. The other patients follow suit, growing more unruly and argumentative.
One day while swimming at the hospital pool, a lifeguard/inmate explains to McMurphy the danger of being permanently committed. As a result, McMurphy's unruliness seems to end. The other patients are not surprised by his change in attitude and recognize that he wants to avoid being committed. Bromden's mechanistic hallucinations return, however, and although Cheswick claims to understand McMurphy's attitude, he kills himself at the bottom of the swimming pool.
In the days following this last incident, McMurphy learns more about the contradictions of medication and other forms of treatment at the hospital. He sees the dilemma faced by epileptics regarding their medication. Harding and Billy Bibbit explain not only the horrors of shock treatment and lobotomy, but also reveal that they are voluntary detainees of the mental hospital. McMurphy is angry and confused at these revelations. When Big Nurse takes away the ward's tub room privileges in an attempt to cement her victory, McMurphy responds by smashing the window that separates the Nurse's Station from the day room.
In the days that follow, McMurphy continues to harass the nurse by organizing a deep-sea fishing expedition for the ward. Bromden's hallucinations recede once more, and he begins to think about joining the salmon-fishing list. He worries again about disclosing his ability to hear and talk, but eventually speaks to McMurphy almost without realizing it. McMurphy helps to build the Chiefs confidence by signing his name to the fishing list, and by convincing him that he can once again feel tall and strong—strong enough, in fact, to lift the cement console in the tub room.
McMurphy surpasses several hurdles while the appointed fishing-day approaches. When one of the prostitutes hired to take them to the boat doesn't show up, McMurphy even convinces the hospital's Doctor Spivey to drive half of them to the boat and join them fishing. Along the way, they encounter unfriendly outsiders and the group awaits McMurphy's leadership to turn their morale around.
As they set sail in the fishing boat with the obsessive-compulsive George Sorensen at the helm, McMurphy reveals that the boat owner, Captain Block, has been duped, and that they will be renting the boat without his permission. After a spectacular day, Captain Block and the police await them at the docks. Doctor Spivey discourages legal action by disputing local jurisdiction and the safety of the boat. The catcallers who insulted the group upon their first arrival are humbled by the success of the fishing expedition. During the drive back to the hospital, Billy Bibbit and Candy sit together, and McMurphy encourages a clandestine late-night "date" between the innocent Billy and the prostitute at the hospital. Thus inspired, they pause in front of the house in which McMurphy was raised while he brags about his first sexual experience.
Nurse Ratched's response to McMurphy's success is to try to turn the men on the ward against him by demonstrating how much money he has taken from them since his arrival. As the Chief's confidence grows and, with McMurphy's help, he begins to recognize his own physical size and strength, and the bet regarding the cement console in the tub room is revived. McMurphy makes a bet that it is possible for a man to lift the console, and Bromden lifts it. McMurphy attempts to compensate the Chief with a piece of the winnings, but Bromden becomes upset, saying of McMurphy's activities on the ward, "we thought it wasn't to be winning things!"
When Big Nurse orders that the men be cleaned with a special liquid because of vermin they may have encountered on their fishing trip, a fight breaks out. Sorensen is compulsively clean and cannot bear the thought of having the strong smelling disinfectant on (or in) his body. The attendants persist and McMurphy picks a fight with one of them. When the other attendants join in, Bromden enters the fray and settles it decisively in favor of the ward. They thus provide Nurse Ratched with the excuse she needs, and she sends both of the men to the "Disturbed" ward, where they face electroshock therapy. McMurphy refuses to concede victory to Ratched by admitting his fault and undergoes several shock treatments.
Eventually, the day for Billy and Candy's late-night date arrives. The ward prepares by bribing Turkle, the night orderly, and Candy arrives with her friend Sandy in tow. A great party ensues, and although McMurphy's plan is to escape with girls before morning, the entire ward drunkenly falls asleep until discovered the next morning. Billy Bibbit and Candy are found naked together in the Seclusion Room, and Nurse Ratched taunts Billy with the prospect of revealing his activities to his mother. Unable to bear this possibility, Billy kills himself while waiting in Doctor Spivey's office. McMurphy, enraged but calm, smashes into the Nurses' Station and attempts to strangle Ratched. The Nurse is badly shaken in the days that follow, and orders McMurphy's lobotomy. He is wheeled, comatose, to the ward for all to see. Late that night, Bromden suffocates McMurphy, then heaves the cement console through the window and escapes.
A self-pitying patient who suffered brain damage at birth and says he's been dead for all of his fifty-five years. Constantly complaining of being tired, at times he is forcibly removed from group therapy session and put to bed. As the book unfolds, however, Bancini begins to escape the imprisonment of his fixation on the past and take a more active role in the ward.
A weak mama's boy who is totally under Big Nurse's thumb. She has extra control over him because she has befriended his mother, who works for the hospital. Billy's most notable feature is his severe stutter, which he says he's had since he said his first word: "M-m-m-m-mamma." His mother still treats him as a child, even though he is over thirty years old, and he has problems dealing with women. He eventually begins to assert some limited independence, and loses his virginity with one of McMurphy's girls. But in the end, he becomes victim to Nurse Ratched's manipulation and commits suicide.
See Nurse Ratched
The Three Black Boys
How Chief refers to the black men who come in early, clean the ward, and herd the patients around according to Nurse Ratched's orders. They hate the nurse, who manipulates them, and take their frustration out on the inmates, often taunting them and otherwise taking advantage of them. McMurphy finally comes to blows with them after they torture Rub-a-Dub George with threats of dirt and bugs. The one-dimensional depiction of these characters has been faulted as racist and stereotypical by several critics.
Chief Bromden is the schizophrenic narrator of story, and has been in the mental institution since leaving the Army shortly after World War II. Harding says he's heard that Chief has received over two hundred shock treatments. The son of an American Indian father and a Caucasian mother, he attributes his shrewdness to his Native American heritage. Chief has a paranoid belief in something he calls the "Combine," a collaboration of govern-mental and industrial groups he believes are trying to control people by way of machines. For many years, Chief has isolated himself from the bizarre environment of the Chronic and Acute ward by pretending to be deaf and dumb. This way, he finds out everything he wants to know and yet is able to keep his own counsel and stay out of trouble.
Chief pushes a broom all day, sweeping the same territory over and over again. He's classified as a Chronic: "Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking about the street giving the product a bad name," muses Chief. "Chronic are in for good … divided into Walkers like me, can still walk around if you keep fed, and Wheelers and Vegetables." Chief harbors a deep hatred of the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched, and like all the other ward residents fears her power. Chief holds an almost equal anger at the three black assistants who do Miss Ratched's icy bidding—and worse. (In fact, some consider the book racist because of the negative way in which author—and his narrator storyteller—portray these black characters.)
Chief imagines that every day the staff creates a fog that hangs over the ward. Sometimes the fog is smoke because he believes that walls are wired and filled with humming mechanisms. But he snaps to awareness when a new admission, the irrepressible, irreverent McMurphy, arrives and immediately tries to take over as boss of the ward. At first, Chief is able to hide behind his feigned deafness and just watch McMurphy's antics. But McMurphy soon tricks him into revealing to him that he can both hear and speak—a secret guarded from everyone else. Gradually, under McMurphy's influence, Chief begins to withdraw from his hallucinatory world and begins to join the other residents in activities, even joining them on a fishing expedition.
At one point, he thinks to himself: "I noticed vaguely that I was getting so's I could see some good in the life around me. McMurphy was teaching me. I was feeling better than I'd remembered feeling since I was a kid, when everything was good and land still singing kids' poetry to me." Finally he reveals the source of the book's title, a singsong chant his grandmother used to say as they played a finger game: "one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo's nest… O-U-T spells out… goose swoops down and plucks you out." Although McMurphy's power over Nurse Ratched eventually ends, his sacrifice serves as an inspiration for Chief. Chief takes pity on McMurphy after he is left a vegetable from a lobotomy, smothering him with a pillow, and then leaves the institution to take control of his own destiny.
- A play version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written by Dale Wasserman and appeared on Broadway with Kirk Douglas as McMurphy in 1963; the play was revived in 1971. Published by Samuel French, 1970.
- An acclaimed film version of Cuckoo's Nest appeared in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. Named best film of the year at the Academy Awards, the film also won Oscars for the two leads, as well as director Milos Forman and screenwriter Bo Goldman. It is available from Republic Pictures Home Video.
See Chief Bromden
Supposedly tough and aggressive, Cheswick is actually afraid to take any definitive actions. Faced with a challenge, he makes noise as if he will attack, but he always backs down. But he likes to cheer others on from the sidelines, and soon becomes an enthusiastic supporter of McMurphy's ideas. Soon after making a fuss when McMurphy won't protest against Nurse Ratched's cigarette rationing, Cheswick drowns in the swimming pool, something Big Nurse blames on McMurphy.
A Chronic who was an Acute before undergoing shock treatment, Ellis is "nailed" to the wall in a position that recalls Christ's crucifixion.
Sefelt's friend and protector, he worries about having epileptic fits and secretly takes Sefelt's medicine for him. After McMurphy is sent from the ward, he and Sefelt sign out of the hospital together.
Mr. Dale Harding
Mr. Harding is president of the Patient's Council. Intelligent, college-educated, he speaks to his fellow-patients like a professor. McMurphy takes him on verbally right away, saying he wants to displace him as the "bull goose loony" who runs things. Harding pretends to compete, but gives McMurphy his position as king of the card games. Harding, while articulate and assertive, is basically like a frightened child, and waves his overly pretty hands when he gets upset. His psychological problems include the inferiority and insecurity he feels because of his young, sexy wife, who continually casts doubts on his manhood. He submits to Big Nurse's verbal humiliations during the group therapy sessions unprotestingly. McMurphy tells Harding these sessions are like pecking parties, in which a flock of chickens rip one of their own to shreds, but Harding refuses to believe that Big Nurse does not intend to help him with these sessions. Under McMurphy's influence, Harding gradually begins to see the truth—that the Big Nurse is slowly emasculating the patients. When the Nurse lies to him about McMurphy's retum, he checks himself out of the hospital.
Mrs. Vera Harding
Dale Harding's attractive wife, who has been the subject of many of Big Nurse's group-therapy meetings because Harding thinks Vera may be cheating on him. She makes a brief appearance on a cursory visit to her husband in the hospital, during which she flirts with many of the staff and inmates and casts doubts on her husband's manhood. Later, Harding retums home to her.
One the patients who often seems to be suffering hallucinations, a fact McMurphy uses to cheat against him in Monopoly.
The oldest Chronic on the ward, a World War I veteran who lectures the other inmates by reading from his palm.
Randle Patrick McMurphy
McMurphy bursts on the well-ordered, claustrophobic scene of the psychiatric ward like a psychological bombshell. Streetwise, smart, aggressive, vigorous, he challenges the status quo—the "way things are"—from day one. He introduces himself to everyone in the ward, shaking hands and filling the silence with loud laughter. Is this man mentally ill? Probably not. He has elected to be sent to the psychiatric hospital because he did not like to work on the prison farm, where he had six months to go before his release. His crime: statutory rape of a willing fifteen year old. The attraction of the psychiatric hospital for him was the idea of enjoying better meals and an easier lifestyle. This is not exactly what he finds.
McMurphy immediately engages in a long, hopeless, and endless battle with Big Nurse, a classic control freak. What McMurphy has brought to the ward is a touch of normalcy. What Nurse Ratched wants is a group of docile and quiet men who do not upset or question how she has ordered things. It is their incarceration, voluntary or otherwise, upon which her job and role in life depends. Therefore McMurphy is the ultimate threat—a nonconformist who stirs the residents into a desire for action. He wakes them up out of the dullness and quiet in which they have been dwelling. In fact, he provides them with the beginning of a cure to their problems.
The more successful McMurphy is at upsetting the status quo, the more intense the battle becomes between him and Nurse Ratched. He takes over as boss of the endless poker game played by some of the Acutes. He also demands in group therapy meetings that democracy reign and that Nurse Ratched loosen up some of the ties that bind the residents to a senseless, rigid schedule that only serves to dehumanize them.
McMurphy is a very funny character. But the humor ends when he discovers that Big Nurse has total control over his fate—over what treatment he receives and when he is discharged—because he is one of the two residents who have been committed. The other is Chief, McMurphy's best friend. What starts as a rollicking rebellion against authority becomes a tragedy. McMurphy is repeatedly subjected to electric shock therapy. He manages to joke about it and to gather the strength to organize a fishing expedition for some of the men. His final challenge is a party at night in the ward that turns into a fiasco. The drunken orgy, complete with prostitutes, is McMurphy's demise. Big Nurse finally pulls the plug and sends him for psychosurgery. He returns, lobotomized, as a human vegetable. All the lights in this bright mind and brave personality have been extinguished. His energizing influence on the residents lives on, however. Several leave to go home after McMurphy's demise as their leader, and Chief Bromden escapes from the ward and heads for the country. Despite his final degradation to a vegetative state, he wins the fight for freedom that he has fought so bravely. But the rewards are not his. They belong to his fellow patients.
See Pete Bancini
One of Nurse Ratched's timid assistants, Miss Pilbow has a highly noticeable blood-colored birth-mark. Because of Big Nurse's warnings, she is frightened of McMurphy even when he speaks kindly to her.
An obnoxiously jolly public relations man who shows local society matrons around the ward, pointing out how great everything is. He is more concerned with the appearance of the ward than with the quality of life there.
A sexless, rigid caricature of a nurse, Nurse Ratched imposes discipline on her ward with all the fervor of an Army nurse, which she had been. Large, with huge breasts only partially disguised by her ultra-starched white uniform, she nevertheless has a pretty, delicate face that belies her cruelty.
Manipulative to the core, the only thing that really matters to Ratched is her desire to control everything around her—the environment, the staff, the patients. She has rendered the staff doctor who is in charge of the ward helpless and ineffectual. Her methods are subtle: She speaks with the calm voice of reason, dealing with patients as though they are children. Her group therapy sessions are intentionally humiliating to patients. Her agenda clearly is to turn the group members against one another. That protects her from any unified action against her rules and her dominating role. As long as everyone stays in line, she retreats to her safe place—a glassed-in office overlooking the ward.
Chief sums her up mentally as follows: "So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman's clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses' Station."
Small wonder that McMurphy becomes the ultimate threat to her tight, close little domain. He demands that the patients be given rights. She believes they have only the rights she decides to give them. Cruel in the extreme, she plays repetitious loud music over the ward's speaker system, successfully drowning out normal conversation. As her battle with McMurphy intensifies, his hatred of her leads him to aggressive actions against her. Finally, he can stand no more. In his last battle against reasonless authority, he tries to strangle her. That may be the end of both of them, not just McMurphy, for his example inspires several of the inmates to check themselves out of the ward and out of her power.
Nurse Ratched's character has been the subject of much critical discussion and even controversy, for several observers consider her a sexist stereotype of the controlling female.
See George Sorenson
A Chronic who is considered one of the ward's "failures." Aggressive and violent before undergoing a lobotomy, now all Ruckly can say is "Fffffuck da wife!"
Candy's prostitute friend, who does not make it to the fishing trip, but joins her at the clandestine ward party.
A stubborn patient preoccupied with explosives who depends on seeing the six o'clock news every day to make sure the country has not been bombed. He is one of the few Acutes who has been committed. He encourages Chief Bromden to leave after the Chief smothers McMurphy.
Mr. Bruce Sefelt
An epileptic, Sefelt is constantly suspicious that his anticonvulsant medication is causing severe medical problems, so he gives his drugs to Fredrickson, who worries about having fits. After McMurphy is sent away for an operation, Sefelt and Fredrickson sign out of the hospital together.
A "big, toothless knotty old Swede" who has a fetish about cleanliness. When the group goes on a fishing trip organized by McMurphy, George is the captain. It turns out that he skippered a PT boat during World War II and was a fisherman for twenty-five years. After McMurphy's lobotomy, he transfers to another ward.
Dr. Spivey is generally spineless when dealing with Nurse Ratched, because his job depends on the hospital's administrator, a woman who is an exArmy friend of Nurse Ratched's. Dr. Spivey finds McMurphy as amusing as the patients do, and discovers that he and McMurphy attended the same high school. He begins to assert his authority as a doctor, sticking up for the patients when they want to continue their basketball games and joining them on the hilarious fishing trip set up by McMurphy.
McMurphy's prostitute friend who joins the patients and the doctor on the fishing trip and later at McMurphy's final jaunt, the party. She has sex with Billy Bibbit, which leads to tragedy. Her stereotypical portrayal as a "hooker with a heart of gold" has led some critics to call the book sexist.
Maxwell Wilson Taber
A patient who is forcibly given a shot of medicine after he questions what is in it. Chief Bromden pictures him as a success story—a "Dismissal" who returns to the community, readjusted from his stay at the hospital.
An older black man who is an orderly on the night shift. He treats the patients kindly, even though he fears if he is discovered he might be fired. He cooperates with McMurphy's plans to have a party on the ward, but resigns the next day after things get out of hand.
See The Three Black Boys
See The Three Black Boys
See The Three Black Boys
Individual vs. Society
The main action of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest consists of McMurphy's struggles against the strict rules of Big Nurse Ratched. Her ward at the hospital is a society in itself, for it has its own laws and punishments, both for the inmates and for the orderlies and nurses who watch over them. McMurphy challenges the rules from the time he arrives, from upsetting the supposedly "democratic" procedure of group therapy to brushing his teeth before the appointed time. By having McMurphy question and ridicule Nurse Ratched's ludicrous, controlling rules, Kesey portrays the individual's struggle against a conformist society as a noble, meaningful task. McMurphy's fight within the small world of the hospital can also be extended to the outside world. During the time Kesey was writing the novel, society emphasized conformity as a means of upholding law and order. Through the portrayal of one individual's meaningful fight against a small society, Kesey brought into question the standards of his own society at large.
Sanity and Insanity
One of society's standards provides the most pervasive theme in the book: What is sane—and what is insane? Is sanity conformance with society and its norms? Or is sanity a sense of self as separate from society? These are questions that psychiatrists have wrestled with for over a century. Is it their job to reprogram a person to fit better into what may be an unsatisfactory life or a flawed society? Or is it their responsibility to guide a person toward self-realization, no matter how that differs from the norm of the patient's environment?
In portraying McMurphy's struggles on the Acute/Chronic Ward, Kesey questions his society's definitions of sanity, which seem to ask all people to conform to the same standards of behavior. When McMurphy discovers that many of the Acutes are at the hospital voluntarily, he wants to know why: "You, you're not exactly the everyday man on the street, but you're not nuts." Billy Bibbit replies that they don't have the "guts" to get along in outside society, but ironically, Nurse Ratched's methods are designed to undermine the men's confidence, not encourage it. In this way, Kesey portrays his society's definition of "madness" as something used by an authoritarian culture to dehumanize the individual and replace it with an automaton that dwells in a safe, blind conformity. His hero, McMurphy, is the person who sees through this sham. By showing his fellow patients how to create their own standards of sanity, McMurphy leads a bunch of institutionalized robots back towards their humanity. In the process, he suffers greatly and in fact lays down his life.
McMurphy's struggle against Nurse Ratched, although eventually lost, is shown to be a sacrifice which liberates his fellow inmates. As Scanlon encourages Chief Bromden to escape at the end of the novel, he says that McMurphy "showed you how one time, if you think back." Reinforcing this theme of sacrifice are the recurring images of crucifixion that appear throughout the book. Consider the pathetic character of the mind-destroyed Chronic Ellis, "nailed" in Chief's eyes to the wall behind which sinister wires and machinery hum. Or the cross-shaped table on which the victims of electroshock therapy lie. The image of the cross is repeated in Chief's description of the position in which Sefelt lies after he suffers an epileptic episode: "His hands are nailed out to each side with the palms up and the fingers jerking open and shut, just the way I've watched men jerk at the Shock Shop strapped to the crossed table, smoke curling up out of the palms from the current."
Topics for Further Study
- Write a short essay or story on what would happen if McMurphy took a job in a large corporation with a formal culture and a hierarchical structure. Be imaginative. Create characters who represent a variety of corporate types (the boss, the flatterer, the slacker, the busybody). Do not change McMurphy's personality, character, or behavior.
- Research the definitions of various mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. Was McMurphy mentally ill or just a maverick who didn't fit into structured society? Defend your point of view with facts and illustrations.
- If you consider McMurphy to be a hero, how would you categorize Chief Bromden? Defend your points with facts and illustrations from the book, and compare him to other characters in the book.
- Research current laws concerning mental illness and criminal prosecution. Explain how a person might be classified as "mentally ill" and prosecuted under current law, and explain whether or not McMurphy would have received the same sentencing today.
Point of View
Kesey seems to follow a fairly straightforward course in unfolding the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Except for a few flashbacks and digressions, the story is essentially told from beginning to end. The first-person ("I") narrator Chief Bromden, however, is a schizophrenic—a person prone to hallucinations and delusions. As a result, the reader is sometimes unsure whether some of the events he describes really happened or not. After all, Chief believes he sees small mechanical items inside the capsules of medicine he receives and believes that a machine is responsible for creating the "fog" that enfolds his perceptions. Having Chief as a narrator also adds to the development of the story, however, for told through his eyes, the story unfolds in part through Chief's changing emotional and intellectual state. After McMurphy leads the revolt over the World Series, for example, Chief notes that "there's no more fog any place," implying that McMurphy is actually helping to bring sanity to the ward.
The setting plays a pivotal role in the novel, especially because it rarely changes. By keeping the action in one place—the Chronic/Acute Ward of a mental institution—Kesey is able to create a whole society in miniature. As the novel opens, this society is an ordered holding pen for men who have various degrees of mental illness. When the outsider McMurphy arrives, he brings the monotonous, repetitive qualities of this setting into focus. Only on one occasion does the action take place outside of the hospital, when the men go on the fishing party. With the vivid descriptions of this trip, the pace picks up as the men come alive. This provides further contrast to life on the ward, which is increasingly seen as cruel and dehumanizing. The author further enriches the setting with language that is strong, concrete, direct, and vivid. It brings the reader right into the midst of the action.
The portrayal of the inmates of the institution, for the most part, are real and believable. Some are modeled on patients Kesey observed while doing night supervisory duty on a mental ward. For instance, the behavior of George Sorenson, known as "Rub-a-Dub," who is so concerned about cleanliness he won't touch anyone, is an example of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Especially moving is Chief's slow awakening to a validation of himself as a person, after experiencing years of racial slurs and physical degradation. The novel's portrayal of female and African American characters, however, is more problematic. Women are either control freaks who emasculate the men around them, such as Nurse Ratched, Vera Harding, and Billy Bibbit's mother, or objects for sexual gratification, such as the two hookers Candy and Sandy. The "black boys" Chief describes are alternately servile to their boss, Nurse Ratched, and cruel to the patients, showing no emotion but hatred. While Mr. Turkle's character is more sympathetic, he too is portrayed as fearful of authority and responsibility. While broad stereotypes such as these serve a purpose in creating a satire such as Cuckoo's Nest, they have still led to accusations of sexism and racism.
The 1950s: Conformity and Change
The late 1950s, the time period in which the book was written and set, saw the end of a decade in which people outside the mainstream were often viewed with suspicion. The United States was engaged in a "cold war" with the Soviet Union, in which relations were tense and hostile even though no open warfare was declared. Americans feared the possibility of a nuclear conflict, and people identified as communist sympathizers—"reds"— were frequently ostracized and even persecuted for their supposed beliefs by government committees such as that headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. But toward the end of the decade, a national rebellion against civil injustice and cultural mediocrity was in the making. Young people in particular began questioning the values and beliefs of those in power. One such group of people were the Beat Generation, who expressed their dissatisfaction with society through art, dress, and nonviolent action. Poetry readings were a common forum beatniks used to communicate their ideas, and Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem "Howl" articulated what many people saw as the moral and social problems of the time.
Groups such as the Beat generation became part of a larger movement known as the counter-culture. What began as a band of political protesters eventually gave rise in the 1960s to the hippies, a group dedicated to peace, love, and the quest to expand one's inner horizons through the use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD. Kesey's experiences bridged the two groups, for he was a subject in a scientific experiment on the effects of LSD— lysergic acid diethylamide-25, one of the most potent mind-altering chemicals known. The drug had been discovered in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann, and scientists determined that when carefully regulated, LSD was nonfatal and could even be used in the treatment of such psychological disorders as schizophrenia. In treating these disorders, however, successful results were often marred by the sometimes dramatic and unpleasant reactions—usually manifested in visual and/or audible hallucinations—that would accompany them. To the rising counterculture of the 1960s, LSD served as a way to help explore their own minds and expand their horizons. However, the hallucinations could induce aggressive, even dangerous, behavior in users, who also were prone to uncontrollable "flashback" episodes. LSD has been a controlled substance—illegal to make, distribute, sell, or possess—since 1966, and Kesey himself has since disavowed the use of drugs, saying that the costs far exceed the benefits.
Mental Illness and Its Treatment
For many years in the United States, mental illness was often ignored or misinterpreted; treatment often consisted of nothing more than chaining or caging the sufferer. During the mid-1800s, attitudes regarding the mentally ill slowly began to change. Thanks to the efforts of humanitarian reformers such as Dorothea Dix, millions of dollars were raised to establish state mental institutions capable of caring for large numbers of patients. After World War II, when more soldiers were medically discharged because of neuropsychiatric disorders than for any other reason, the medical community began to more closely evaluate the conditions that existed in the mental health care system.
Compare & Contrast
Early 1960s: In 1962, the Cold War reaches its most fevered pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposes a naval blockade on Cuba after discovering evidence of Soviet missile construction on the island, and the U.S.S.R. goes on special military alert.
Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia, the largest country left from the Soviet breakup, has a democratically elected president. The Russian government's biggest problems are paying their military, funding the government, and rising organized crime.
Early 1960s: After the government shuts down official studies of LSD in the late 1950s, research into the effects of the hallucinogenic drug is carried on at a few universities. The drug, still legal, becomes popular with young people, particularly members of the "counterculture."
Today: A controlled substance since 1966, LSD is illegal throughout the United States. Although its popularity has largely been replaced by drugs like cocaine and heroin, its use has increased over the last decade.
Early 1960s: New thinking on the nature of mental illness—that it might not be medically related to the brain—leads to a decrease in the number of institutionalized patients. Where in 1955 half of all hospital beds were occupied by the mentally ill, over the next two decades there is a 65% reduction in the number of mental patients, many of whom end up on the street.
Today: Many forms of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, have been traced to malfunctions in specific areas of the brain. Researchers have even located the genes which, if defective, can lead to certain types of mental illness. In 1997, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that 20–25% of all homeless people have some form of mental illness.
In the 1950s, advances in pharmaceuticals led to more methods of treatment for mental patients; in 1956, more patients were being discharged from U.S. mental institutions than admitted for the first time in over a century, many aided by prescribed drugs to manage irrational behavior. In addition to medication, the use of electroshock therapy and psychosurgery were common treatments for psychiatric disorders. Electroshock therapy, or ECT, was discovered in 1937 by two Italian psychiatrists who thought to apply an electrical charge directly to the brain. Despite the harsh stigma that has been unfairly associated with this type of treatment—in Kesey's novel it is seen as a means of punishment rather than a cure—the use of electroshock therapy has proven immensely successful in cases involving moderate to severe bouts of depression. Others argue that its side effects make it one of the more barbaric forms of legal medical procedures in the modern age.
A third mode of treatment, and by far the most controversial, is the destruction of certain cells or fibers in the brain through surgical measures. At the onset, this technique was labeled a "lobotomy" because it required the removal of the frontal lobe of the brain. Later, with modern, more precise means of locating desired tissues, it is more commonly referred to as psychosurgery. The first lobotomy on record was performed in the United States in 1936 by Dr. Walter Freeman. Although original results proved successful in calming down patients with highly energetic or exceedingly violent personalities, soon physicians began noticing undesirable effects on the patient's mental and physical health. These effects are epitomized by Kesey's character McMurphy after his experience in undergoing such surgery.
When One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1962, it was well received by the critics and swiftly gained popularity among college-age readers. Critic Malcolm Cowley, one of Kesey's teachers at Standard, commented in a letter to Kesey that the book (which he read in rough draft) contained "some of the most brilliant scenes I have ever read" and "passion like I've not seen in young writers before." R. A. Jelliffe, writing in the Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, praised the novel for its brilliant mixture of realism and myth, noting "this is an allegory with a difference." Time magazine praised Kesey for both his power and humor, describing the book as "a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil, despite the macabre setting." While some initial reviews faulted the novel as rambling, the majority agreed with New York Times Book Review contributor Martin Levin that Cuckoo's Nest was "a work of genuine literary merit."
It wasn't long after the novel appeared, however, that criticism arose over its negative portrayal of female characters. Julian Moynahan, for instance, argued in a 1964 New York Review of Books article that Cuckoo's Nest was "a very beautiful and inventive book violated by a fifth-rate idea which made Woman, in alliance with modern technology, the destroyer of masculinity and sensuous enjoyment." Similarly, Marcia L. Falk criticized the popular acceptance of the work and its Broadway adaptation in a 1971 letter to the New York Times. She noted that people "never even noticed, or cared to question, the psychic disease out of which the book's vision was born." Other critics have defended the work by noting, for instance, that the negative female stereotypes are there to support the novel's satire or that these negative characters are not truly representatives of women, but rather representatives of evil. Either way, the novel has inspired many articles analyzing how it portrays gender conflict and defines masculinity and humanity in general. As Richard D. Maxwell wrote in Twenty-Seven to One: "It is apparent that Kesey is not putting the entire blame [on women for men's loss of power].… It is the male who is allowing the female and the corporation to chip away at his masculinity."
Another debated aspect of the novel has been its portrayal of racial groups, specifically the black orderlies who work on the ward. Chief expresses hatred for these men, who are little more than stupid and cruel stereotypes, and he and McMurphy often express their anger with racial slurs. Several critics have pointed out, however, that these men are seen through the mind of the Chief, who himself has been the victim of prejudice as well as the "Combine" that dehumanizes people of all races. In this fashion Chief's racial observations create an ironic commentary on the nature of racism, as Janet R. Sutherland remarked in English Journal: "Just as the reader has to look beyond the typically racist language of the inmate to find in the book as a whole a document of witness against the dehumanizing, sick effects of racism in our society, so Bromden has to look beyond the perception of the world which limits his concept of self."
A large number of articles have examined how the novel defines the role of the hero in a society which stifles individuality, and who exactly is the hero of the novel. While some observers have argued that McMurphy, who through his example and sacrifice shows the men how to escape, is the hero, many others suggest that it is Chief Bromden who is ultimately the hero of the work. While McMurphy leads his "disciple" Bromden to a new understanding, Barry H. Leeds noted in Connecticut Review, "it is not until the very end of the novel … that it becomes clear that Bromden has surpassed his teacher in the capacity to survive in American society." Ronald Wallace likewise argued in his The Last Laugh that Bromden rejects the "extreme" of total freedom and chaos that McMurphy represents and "has recreated himself in his own best image: strong, independent, sensitive, sympathetic, and loving, with a comic perspective on his human limitations." In the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Thomas H. Fick placed Bromden's triumph as the hero in the tradition of the mythology of the American West, where a Native American guides a white man to greater understanding. Kesey has turned this myth on its side, noted Fick, creating "the first [instance], surely, that the Indian partner in such a pair has outlived his White brother." The result, concluded the critic, is "a powerful novel which effectively translates into contemporary terms the enduring American concern with a freedom found only in—or in between—irreconcilable oppositions."
Currie is a freelance writer based in British Columbia who has taught at Dalhousie University. In the following essay he looks at the cultural climate that inspired the writing of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and discusses how a reader may interpret the book by keeping its origins in mind.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has sold over eight million copies since its publication in 1962. Imagine a first novel so relevant to popular audiences and universities alike that it has spawned an Academy Award-winning film as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of academic articles, essays, and dissertations. Ken Kesey's first novel was certainly a blockbuster in every sense of the word, but what does this mean to readers thirty-five years and more after the fact? Cuckoo's Nest captured the fear and uncertainty of a postwar generation who came of age with the still-new and very real possibility of total nuclear destruction. Dissatisfied with the easy answers and assurances of their parents' generation, people began to explore for themselves new ways of coping with a rapidly changing world. The result was a culture of rebellion in the form of social protest, usually aided and abetted by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Kesey's novel, like many others written between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, is a chronicle of that exploration of new possibilities. In the years since the publication of Cuckoo's Nest, new readers of the novel are not only further away in time from that era, they are also shaped by modern sensibilities about culture (especially music and literature) that were born in the 1960s. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has endured because under these influences and through the passage of time, reading the novel has become a much more complicated task.
Perhaps the biggest of these ongoing influences is Kesey himself. Although his celebrity status has considerably diminished, he was for years as well known as anyone in popular culture. Tom Wolfe, a novelist and frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Esquire magazines, wrote a novel (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) about Kesey and his group of friends, the Merry Pranksters. The group, including authors Larry McMurtry and Ken Babbs, met at Stanford University in 1959, and many volunteered for government experiments with LSD and related pharmaceuticals. Their most famous stunt was a cross-country bus trip made with movie cameras in hand so that the trip could be made into "The Movie." In 1961, Kesey volunteered on the mental ward of a veteran's hospital, whose patients inspired the characters in Cuckoo's Nest.
The novel's narrator is Chief "Broom" Bromden, a man whose madness stems from a long process of isolation from his community of Native Americans in Oregon. This ultimately leads to confinement in the asylum and an attempted withdrawal from all of his surroundings as he feigns deafness and dumbness. Similarly, he clings to the drug-induced "fog" that he perceives around him because "you can slip back in it and feel safe." He needs to feel safe from "The Combine," that evil mechanical power whose stronghold is the mental hospital, and whose chief instrument is Big Nurse Ratched
Bromden's situation paints a tiny picture of society as many saw it in the 1960s. Individual needs and desires were becoming less individual; government and corporate powers seemed to be either marginalizing these needs or making them conform to arbitrary moral standards about everything from race to sex to drugs and alcohol (Kesey himself was in and out of court and jail for over a year on the basis of a marijuana possession charge). Bromden' s reaction is to withdraw from a society that wants control over him. He retains some sense of himself by pretending to be overcome by Nurse Ratched; this allows him to see and hear things that others do not. For example, he is permitted to clean the staff room during meetings because he is assumed to be deaf.
Into this world marches Randle P. McMurphy. A confessed con-man and brawler, he is determined to manipulate the system rather than allow it to manipulate him. While serving a sentence in a work camp, he gains access to the comparatively easy life of the mental hospital by playing at insanity as a fighting madman. Once admitted to Big Nurse's ward, he begins to subvert her systematic control by using it against her: his first big victory about television privileges during the World Series is gained through authorized patient voting, and he turns Doctor Spivey, the ward psychiatrist, to his side on issues like the basketball team and the fishing expedition. In the process, other patients are urged to do the same. Cheswick becomes more argumentative; voluntary inmates like Harding and the innocent Billy Bibbit begin to think about leaving, and Bromden defeats his fear of the system by choosing to speak again, and eventually escapes from the hospital.
What Do I Read Next?
- In the 1986 collection Demon Box, Kesey reflects on his experiences as a member of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s.
- J. D. Salinger's classic of adolescent rebellion, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) tells of how sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield rebels against all that he perceives as phony in upper-middle-class 1940s society.
- The semiautobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963), by poet Sylvia Plath, traces protagonist Esther Greenwood's battles with depression as she struggles to find her place in a society which limits women's roles to that of wife and mother.
- Nobody Nowhere (1992) is Donna Williams's powerful autobiography about growing up autistic—unable to process emotions normally—and discovering how to relate to the outside world.
- Mary Jane Ward's classic 1946 novel The Snake Pit tells of a young woman's year of treatment in a mental hospital. The book inspired a 1948 movie of the same title, starring Olivia de Havilland, which in turn prompted legislation on treatment for the mentally ill in several states.
Of course, the system is not defeated so easily. Cheswick kills himself out of despair when McMurphy temporarily gives up the fight for fear of being permanently committed; Billy Bibbit kills himself rather than face his mother with the shame of having slept with a prostitute; and McMurphy is lobotomized into a comatose state by Nurse Ratched when he is finally pushed too far and tries to kill her. If the mental ward is a miniature version, a microcosm, of the world as seen by a generation of young people in the 1960s, then these losses are symbolic of a warning. In the fight between the individual and those who would disempower him or her, there will be losses, and a clear winner may not emerge. McMurphy loses his life, certainly, but in the process, Chief Bromden regains his, as do Sefelt, Frederickson and three other voluntary patients who choose the dangers of freedom over the safety of a controlled environment.
These distinctions make for grey areas in any modern reading of the novel. Big Nurse Ratched and the system with which she controls the hospital are clearly evil, and McMurphy's ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his friends on the ward is clearly good. But do readers still see all of society reflected in Big Nurse's hospital? Do we, like Kesey and like so many novelists of his generation, see the same need to fight or escape from a tyrannical society?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fits into a series of works that set a protagonist in search of freedom against a society determined to restrict that freedom. In 1953, Ralph Ellison published The Invisible Man. In it, Ellison chillingly portrays a black man bouncing off the walls of a white world where he had no voice and no power. Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road is a much less gloomy novel that focuses on freedom rather than constraint. Its protagonist is Dean Moriarty, an unstoppable vagabond who pursues women, jazz music, and marijuana on coast-to-coast rides across the country in borrowed cars. Other members of Kerouac's "Beat Generation" included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, whose long poem "Howl" (1956) is just that: a long and bitter complaint that "the best minds of [his] generation" have been destroyed by a brutally cold society. In 1961, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, in which the members of a World War II bomber squadron find themselves in absurd and unfair conflict with their superior officers and the rules and regulations they control. This trend continues in the more obscure works of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow depicts a World War II U.S. Army soldier whose entire life is a sinister experiment by world governments and international corporations.
Like these novels, Cuckoo's Nest raises serious issues about the individual's relationship with an often unfair society. Perhaps because these issues have become less central to contemporary readers, literary critics have over the years chosen very different paths in discussing Kesey's novel. Early interviews with Kesey reveal a standard interpretation of the novel. One, in The Whole Earth Catalog, has the interviewer asking questions like, "Do you think policemen and Richard Nixon and the rich people who run the country can relate to that?" Some years later, Leslie Fiedler and Carol Pearson argued that the novel owes more to ancient myths than social turmoil. Fiedler sees in the novel a pattern that dates back to ancient English verse, in which "the white outcast" (McMurphy) and the "noble Red Man" (Bromden) join forces against "home and mother" (Big Nurse). Pearson finds another myth wherein the buffoon (McMurphy) and the quiet hero (Bromden) defeat an evil king (Big Nurse) who has laid waste to the kingdom in pursuit of ultimate power.
Fiedler and other critics also see the novel as an updated version of the western. McMurphy ("He's got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes") is the cowboy come to a corrupt town to set it right. Still another interpretation, popularized by Joseph Waldmeir, is that Cuckoo's Nest is a "Novel of the Absurd," a novel that presents an unreasonable, impossible world with usually comic results. Another critical catch-phrase is "the Carnivalesque": some critics believe that the novel fits into an ancient tradition of stories whose meaning derives from the pleasures and perils of wild carnivals. These critics usually point to the disorganized fun McMurphy brings to the ward with basketball, gambling, and fishing, despite Big Nurse's efforts to spoil the party. These different critical points of view all bring something to a modern reader's understanding of the novel.
Any interpretation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, however, must address basic story elements like character and narrative voice. As critical views multiply, this task becomes more difficult. For example, if this is truly a "Novel of the Absurd" that portrays an impossible, unrealistic world, what can we say about characters like McMurphy and Bromden? If they are not supposed to represent real people with real emotions and motivations, they are flat characters stripped of much of what Kesey has given them. Yes, McMurphy's behavior is sometimes inhuman. It seems doubtful that anyone could remain untouched by the multitude of shock treatments he undergoes, and his emotional reactions are not consistent: he barely notices Cheswick's suicide, while Billy Bibbitt's sends him over the edge. But Kesey does make the effort to round out McMurphy's character: "I'd see him do things … like painting a picture at OT with real paints on a blank paper … or like writing letters to somebody in a beautiful flowing hand." And once, he even looks "upset and worried."
We must also remember that all these observations are Chief Broom's. Bromden is both a character and the narrator who tells the story, and he is certainly insane. Perhaps the novel only seems absurd because its narrator believes that most everyone around him is built of metal, springs, and cogs. This type of narration makes it difficult to distinguish between the observations of the storyteller, Bromden, and the insights of the novelist, Kesey. For example, when McMurphy moves to kill Nurse Ratched, Bromden sees "slow, mechanical gestures" and hears "iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile." At this point, we either hear Bromden telling us that McMurphy in nothing but boxer shorts is still the cowboy hero, or we hear Kesey telling us that McMurphy has lost and become one with his enemy, as mechanical and metallic as "The Combine" itself.
The greatest challenge presented by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and by any novel of its stature in American literature, is to find the right balance of critical insight and personal opinion. Ken Kesey has gone on to write ten works of fiction and nonfiction, and the criticism and reviews of these books are ongoing. Kesey's second published novel, Sometimes a Great Notion explores many of the same themes we see in Cuckoo's Nest, as its hero Hank Stamper struggles for freedom and independence within his Oregon home town. If Cuckoo's Nest is the first in Kesey's line of works to explore the theme of individual freedom, then it is the modern reader's enviable task to read it with a sort of double vision: one eye on the social history that inspired Kesey and his generation, and one eye on the contemporary critical views that continue to expand our understanding of it.
Source: Ian Currie, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt, Quinn argues that despite its language, sexual content, and graphic portrayal of psychological treatments, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest can be a valuable subject for high-school discussion if issues of sexism and racism are addressed.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey's 1962 novel of life in a hospital for the mentally ill, is a document of the sixties. Its anti-institutionalism, its celebration of boisterous rebellion against a seemingly rational (but actually unnecessarily repressive) establishment spoke to a generation of long-haired beaded and bearded anti-war activists. That the novel records something important to that era is not enough (perhaps) to justify its inclusion in a public school curriculum; we generally seek a universal and timeless quality in the works we teach to students. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest possesses this broader vision, however, and transcends its own timeliness by addressing a social problem that is both ever and omnipresent— that of the relationship between institutional authority and individual and/or subjected group desire for autonomy and self-determination. Kesey's novel raises crucial questions about power and control, about how groups establish and maintain the particular kind of order that they deem necessary to their survival, about ways in which the "controlled" resist that order. This book belongs in the high school curriculum for the following reasons:
- It "opens" the issue of social control in the truest sense. The novel offers no simple answers to the question of what to do with the "dysfunctional"—with those whose behavior disrupts the social order. While some of the ward's inmates are there for socio-cultural reasons (Chief Bromden, the narrator, most notably), others are "voluntary," that is, self-committed and clearly hiding from a threatening and hostile outside world; still others are Chronics, the radically dysfunctional psychically and physically, in need of total institutional care—though the question is repeatedly raised in the novel of whether the institution itself is not the agent of much of the dysfunction of its wards.
- It treats a problem that is particularly relevant to teenaged readers, whose chafing under institutional rules and constraints and whose ambivalence toward authority is often acute.
- It is a readable book, dramatic, immediate, accessible to young readers.
- It is a work of substantial literary merit that features an interesting narrative situation—Chief Bromden, the towering Indian who has posed as a deaf-mute on the ward for many years, narrates the novel, creating a complex, ironic, and privileged perspective on events and personalities in the hospital, privileged by virtue of his deaf-mute disguise which tricks authority figures into speaking freely in his presence.
- Finally, it is a work that is seriously problematic in its treatment of gender and race. While this might seem a spurious asset in our age of multicultural and gender-balanced curricular imperatives, I believe that the particular nature of its race and gender problems as a text makes these issues accessible at the high school level in illuminating ways. Far from justifying any censorship in the interests of political correctness, the novel's lapses afford teaching opportunities (to be elaborated later in this chapter).
The novel's structure is that of a contest between Nurse Ratched and Randle McMurphy, the new guy on the block/ward. The contest is waged and staged in the mind of Chief Bromden, whose narrative goes back in time (when prompted to do so by disturbing events on the ward) to recall his father's degradation at the hands of white government agents who coerced him into selling the tribal lands. In shame his father descended into drunken oblivion while the young son lapsed into silence as a means of self-protection and as a reaction to the discovery that he was a voiceless nonentity anyway in the white community. In addition to his silenced persona, the Chief (his ward nickname) has developed the theory of the "Combine," his reification of the ubiquitous social control machine which subdues all autonomous human behavior by means of wires, fogs, implants, recording devices, and robotics; only, he muses, moving targets like McMurphy, those who stay outside of and on the edges of institutions, can evade the Combine, and their evasions are precarious. The notion of the Combine is important, because it connects the abuses of authority within the hospital to the larger society outside; as one patient, Harding, says, (referring to the submissiveness of the ward's population) "we are—the rabbits, one might say, of the rabbit world!" Clearly the inmates/rabbits have been waiting for a savior, for a newcomer with "a very wolfy roar" to model resistance to the form that the Combine takes on the hospital ward, to the "Big Nurse."…
Since it achieved popularity in the sixties, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been subject to censorship in the public school system in the United States.… All of these charges are, from a surface standpoint, understandable; the novel contains four-letter words in abundance, and McMurphy expresses his sexuality blatantly, constantly, and in a sexist manner. Moreover, the four-letter words and the sexual language are uttered by characters with whom we sympathize and identify, often in reaction to characters with far more propriety and institutional legitimacy whom we, as readers, loathe. The book, thus, seems to advocate or at least sanction profanity and male sexual braggadocio. Further, it seems to encourage and support disruptive, anti-authoritarian behavior. The reader experiences exhilaration when McMurphy puts his fist through the nurses' station window to grab a forbidden pack of cigarettes; we applaud the weekend furlough fishing expedition in which the group from the ward, led by Mac, steals a fishing boat. Disregard for rules, property, and the fights of others on the part of protagonist/heroes may (somewhat understandably) not be what parents and teachers beset with disciplinary problems want their children to celebrate in their reading.
Those who don't find raw language, sexual remarks or mutinous behavior necessarily offensive in reading material for young people may still take issue with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for two other reasons: first, it contains disturbing material that some may find too distressing for young readers. Kesey depicts electro-shock therapy and lobotomy graphically. The patients who die in the text die gruesomely—Cheswick, Mac's first disciple, drowns in the therapeutic swimming pool when his fingers get stuck in the grate at the bottom; Billy Bibbit, the overaged, underdeveloped stutterer, cuts his own throat when Big Nurse threatens to tell his overpowering mother of his sexual escapade with a prostitute, sneaked onto the ward by McMurphy; the lobotomized Irish hero himself is smothered, flailing in his bed, by the Chief.…
This is a difficult moment for a reader. The resistance of McMurphy's body to death is consistent with his character, the euthanasia decision taken by the Chief may be controversial, the homoerotic overtones of the passage are unmistakable. Even though the novel ends on a positive note with the empowering and the escape of the Chief, much of what facilitates his liberation is brutal.
The second "liberal" objection to the novel as a high school text is to its stereotyped treatment of blacks and women. Big Nurse's hatchet men are three black orderlies who are despised and feared by patients, are referred to as boys, coons, and niggers at various moments in the text, and who are presented as being lazy and sneaky. The Chief first presents the trio to us in this way:
They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get mopped up before I can catch them.
The black orderlies are "them," the enemy, or, at least, agents of the enemy Big Nurse. They are sneaky, perverted, and sadistic (in the eyes of the inmate/narrator), but they are also powerless, like the patients, in the face of Big Nurse's authority and powerful manipulative skills. She is herself, of course, a stereotyped castrating female of mythic proportions. Chief Bromden alludes to her size and sees her grow larger at times—this from a man who is 6'8" whom Mac calls the biggest Indian he's ever seen. Big Nurse is also known as Mother Ratched by the male patients. The Chief gives us McMurphy assessing her power in these terms:
There's something strange about a place where the men won't let themselves loose and laugh, something strange about the way they all knuckle under to that smiling flour-faced old mother there with the too red lipstick and the too big boobs.
That "something strange" is what Mac, new-comer on the ward, is so incredulous about—the fact that grown men tremble in the formidable woman's presence. She fuels the Chief's imagination in a variety of interesting ways; he, whose white mother tricked his Indian father into selling tribal land, whose father took the white mother's name upon their marriage, believes that a gust of cold follows Big Nurse as she walks through the ward, believes that, as she gets angry, "she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load." Images of cold steel, machinery, wires, porcelain, hard glitter, and whiteness are what he repeatedly associates with her. She is the nexus of all of his fears, and the main reason the Chief grows to love and admire McMurphy is that the latter refuses to fear her.
Authority, then, in the novel is female—a large-breasted mother figure, "a bitch and a buzzard and a ballcutter." Strong women are evil and emasculating. The women viewed positively in the novel are the kind-hearted whores whom Mac introduces to the men and the sympathetic—-and very tiny—Japanese nurse who works on the Disturbed ward. Once authority is constituted in this gendered manner—and once the cliched mother/whore dichotomy is established in the novel— the form that resistance "naturally" takes is that of machismo, of the restoration and reemergence of phallic power. The intellectual and articulate patient, Harding, explains to McMurphy that "we are victims of a matriarchy here, my friend," and a bit later refers to big Nurse as being "impregnable." All of the challenges that McMurphy organizes against institutional authority are reassertions of maleness— poker games, fishing trips, watching the World Series on television, smuggling in prostitutes, drinking, locker-room jokes, insistently asking Big Nurse if she wears C or D cups. A teacher or parent may well hesitate to recommend or teach a text in which the center of authority is a large, white mother figure, the subordinate authority figures are black males, and the endorsed protagonists are all subjugated white males (with the exception of Chief Bromden, whose treatment as a Native American figure in the text also partakes of clich6 and stereotype, even if he is given the subject position of narrator) who are exuberantly acting out adolescent male fantasies of competition and sexual aggression. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a text which violates a whole spectrum of contemporary versions of "political correctness."
I wish to argue that it is the proliferation of "problems" with the book that combines with its anti-authoritarian appeal to render this novel a profitably teachable text for high school students. Indeed, each of the objections presented above (and there may well be more I've missed)—to the book's language, its sexuality, its anti-institutionalism, its particularly disturbing violence, its racism, sexism, celebration of machismo—can open stimulating, illuminating, and, indeed, vital classroom discussions.…
[For instance,] any teacher of this text must ad-dress the problems of racial and sexual stereotypes directly. At one point early in the novel Chief chronicles the history of black "boys" who have come and gone as ward workers:
The first one she gets five years after I been on the ward, a twisted sinewy dwarf the color of cold asphalt. His mother was raped in Georgia while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with plow-traces, blood streaming into his shoes. The boy watched from a closet, five years old and squinting his eyes to peep out the crack between the door and the jamb, and he never grew an inch after.
The Chief has contempt for this black dwarf as he has for all of the orderlies, but he does supply us with this mitigating narrative, one that calls attention to and makes connection with the experience of people of color in the United States. The Chief also lets us know that Big Nurse treats her black orderlies (wonderful job title in this institutional context) in a degrading, dehumanizing manner; they, in turn, "kick ass below," by mistreating the patients. The fact that their jobs are demeaning, low-level, no doubt poorly paid, dangerous, and unlikely to lead anywhere needs to be brought to light in a discussion of the treatment of race in the novel. When Chief Bromden awakes one night (he is tied to his bed) to discover one of the orderlies scraping his carefully hoarded and rechewed gum from the underside of his bunk, we see all the pathos and degradation of the orderlies' work life, of the Chief's poverty (he is a ward indigent) and of the antagonism that this institution generates in two characters who may have a connection to one another as men of color in white America. Discussions of race and racism in the novel must attend to such narrative moments, to the position of the black orderlies within the institution, and to the class and ethnic background that helps to account for McMurphy's bantering racist remarks.
It is not, alas, so easy to mitigate the castrating female stereotype that Big Nurse embodies nor the way in which institutional power and authority are so aggressively gendered in the novel. Here, it is crucial to bring students to an understanding of the limitations of first person narrative. Big Nurse is far more a creation of the Chief's and other residents' imaginations than she is a representative reality. Deep archetypal male fear of a dominant mother figure finds expression in her narrative treatment. The Chief's own experience of his traitorous white mother is projected onto Big Nurse. Student readers must learn to step back from the narrative perspective to see that the Chief's unreliability—to a degree—lies in his overblown sense of this woman—a distortion in which all of the residents participate. Because so much of the Chief's experience is perceived metaphorically—the wires, gadgets, buttons, fog machine, that he sees Big Nurse manipulating are metaphors for her manipulative skills, institutional power, and pharmaceutical regime—her representation in his narrative can, by extension, be seen as metaphoric; indeed, the way in which she grows larger and then reverts to size for him, regularly, places her in the metaphoric field. Careful readerly attention to those moments in which she expands in the Chief's eyes will help students to see her as an allegorized force rather than a realistic character in the novel. Still, we must eventually confront the distressing artistic choice that Kesey made when he chose to present his conflict in gendered terms. I find myself resisting angrily the unfairness of such a portrait of power, of locating what is vile and repressive in the novel in a female figure that is granted no mitigating story of her own, no redemptive moments, no context that will at least reveal her power to be exceptional, unusual, unnurse-like. Nonetheless, I would teach this book to high school students. In teaching it, as a feminist teacher, I would engage in the following interventions:
- I would acknowledge to students—at an advanced rather than an early stage of the discussion, so as not to establish mine as the "original" position on gender in the novel—my resistance to the use to which Big Nurse is put in the text.
- I would encourage full discussion of gender and power, of male fears of emasculation, or the mother as a site of power, of the way in which Big Nurse's body—her breasts in particular—becomes the target of male anger.
- I would pair One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with a parallel text that represents institutional power as male; Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale could each engage Kesey's novel in a dialectic that would preclude reductive reader acceptance of Big Nurse as quintessential female power principle.
Finally, the novel opens one way out of the gendered deadlock that it creates, and that is the particular form that male bonding ultimately takes in the narrative; there is identifiable tenderness in this bond that transcends the locker room talk, the poker games, the fishing trip, the "rape" of Big Nurse as projected solution to the ward's problems. The group develops a solidarity, sensitivity, and protectiveness that permits McMurphy to subside for a while as their leader/savior when he begins to realize the price he will pay for assuming that role. When he does pay this price—the lobotomy—for having resumed leadership to avenge the death of Billy Bibbit, the love which prompts Chief to murder him is much like that which moves George to shoot Lenny in Of Mice and Men. After Chief breaks his silence and he and Mac have their first conversation from their neighboring bunks, the Indian experiences a strong urge to touch McMurphy. He fears for his masculinity at first, then realizes that he just wants to touch him because of who he is and what he means to all of the men on the ward. McMurphy's gift to him includes more than the power to speak, more than the restoration of his mammoth strength— it includes the power to love and, thereby, goes some distance toward subverting the machismo that provides so much of the text's momentum.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is rich in teaching possibilities; it stimulates literary, cultural, historical, and psychological questions. It is alas, for many of us, a problematic text. Because the classroom is a space in which teachers and students can and should grapple with difficult problems, this book should be taught.
Source: Laura Quinn, "Moby Dick vs. Big Nurse: A Feminist Defense of a Misogynist Text: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 398–413.
In the following essay, McMahan argues that despite the sexist portrayal of Nurse Ratched's character, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can be a valuable book for classroom study when issues of sexism are addressed.
Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a good novel—a really teachable novel. Students get caught up in it and are eager to talk about the characters and to explore the ramifications of the partial allegory. But despite these positive qualities, Cuckoo's Nest is a sexist novel. Certainly I don't want to discourage anyone from teaching it, but I do urge that colleagues should present the novel in a way that will disclose its concealed sexist bias. In order to get at the invidious aspect of Cuckoo's Nest, let me review the way Kesey structures his microcosm.
The novel offers a compelling presentation of the way society manipulates individuals in order to keep the bureaucracy running smoothly. The mental hospital is "a little world Inside that is a made to scale prototype of the big world Outside," with both worlds being operated by the Combine, Chief Broom's appropriate name for the Establishment. A combine is a group united to pursue commercial or political interests and is also a machine that cuts off and chews up and spits out a product. Kesey has fused both meanings in his image, with the by-product being us—the members of society.
Boss of that "factor for the Combine" is the Big Nurse, the embodiment of the castrating female. If you're old enough to remember Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers, you have met the Big Nurse before: she is Mom. Wylie described her this way:
She is a middle-aged puffin with an eye like a hawk that has just seen a rabbit twitch far below. She is about twenty-five pounds overweight … with sharp heels and a hard backhand which she does not regard as a foul but a womanly defense. In a thousand of her there is not sex appeal enough to budge a hermit ten paces off a rock ledge.
You remember good old Mom. Kesey calls her Miss Ratched and thus acknowledges her role as a tool of the Combine. A ratchet is a mechanism that engages the teeth of a wheel permitting motion in one direction only. Kesey's metaphor is perfect. The ward is littered with casualties of "momism": Billy Bibbit's stuttering began with his first word, M-m-m-m-mama; Ruckley's only utterance throughout the novel is "Ffffuck da wife"; Harding's neurosis stems from inferiority feelings agitated by his wife's "ample bosom"; Chief Broom's self-concept shrank in sympathy with his once-powerful father after, he says, "my mother made him too little to fight any more and he gave up." McMurphy, on the other hand, has escaped the controls of the Combine because he has "no wife wanting new linoleum."
Kesey's eye is accurate in his depiction of this microcosm. The ward hums along on beams of fear and hate. The black boys are clearly serving the Combine in order to wreak vengeance on their white oppressors. The best hater of the bunch, "a dwarf the color of cold asphalt," peered from a closet at age five to watch his mother's rape, "while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with plow traces, blood streaming into his shoes." Kesey makes his point melodramatically clear: the blacks are portrayed as villains because society has victimized them. They are merely retaliating.
But why is the Big Nurse so eager to emasculate the men in her charge? Why does she serve as a dedicated tool of the Combine? This is a question Kesey never answers; he apparently never thinks to ask it. He understands and castigates the injustice of prejudice against Indians. Remember how Chief Broom developed his habit of feigning deaf and dumbness: it was his response to people, he says, "that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all." You recall how the Indians are conned out of their homes and their way of life by the sneering, deprecating white people from town. Kesey shows himself sympathetic to oppressed minorities in our society. But what about our oppressed majority?
It never seems to occur to Kesey that possibly the Big Nurse relishes her job as "ball cutter" for precisely the same reason that the black boys take pleasure in their work. But anyone who has read Germain Greer's The Female Eunuch can see in the novel the fulfillment of the biblical injunction: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a castration for a castration. Philip Wylie thirty years ago observed that "the mealy look of men today is the result of momism and so is the pinched and baffled fury in the eyes of womankind." True, perhaps. But Wylie thought the solution to the problem was to force woman back into her proper subservient place where she would become content again—like those happy slaves on the plantation, I suppose. And you remember Kesey's solution: Harding suggests that "man has only one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy." But even our virile hero McMurphy confesses that there's no way he could "get a bone up over that old buzzard." "There you are," says Harding. "She's won."
Women, you notice, keep winning these sexual battles—according to the men who manufacture them. Truth is, nobody wins—certainly not women. Consider how women are portrayed in Kesey's novel. We've already noted examples of the castrating bitch—Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Bibbit, Mrs. Harding, and Mrs. Bromden. Then we have the little nurse who hates the patients because her weak mind has been so warped by the Church that she thinks her birthmark a stain visited upon her because of her association with the depraved inmates. And there is the townswoman with the eyes that "spring up like the numbers in a cash register," who dupes the Indians by negotiating with Mrs. Bromden, rather than dealing with the Chief.
You may ask, are there no good women in Kesey's estimation? Well, yes. There is the nurse on the Disturbed Ward, an angel of mercy by virtue of ethnic origin—the little Japanese nurse. She accepts woman's time-honored role as nurturer of men and agrees with McMurphy that sexual starvation prompts Miss Ratched's perversity. "I sometimes think," she says, "all single nurses should be fired after they reach thirty-five." A sympathetic woman—to men, at least.
And there is also Candy, the whore with a heart of gold, and her friend, Sandy, who is equally charitable with her body. These women ask nothing of the men—not even money for their sexual performances. Kesey fantasizes that they come willingly to this insane asylum to service the inmates for the sheer joy of it. In his euphoric state, Chief Broom marvels:
Drunk and running and laughing and carrying on with women square in the center of the Combine's most powerful stronghold! … I had to remind myself that it had truly happened, that we had made it happen. We had just unlocked a window and let it in like you let in the fresh air. Maybe the Combine wasn't so all-powerful.
What came in through the window "like fresh air"? The two prostitutes. Kesey implies that if all women would just behave generously like Candy and Sandy, the Combine might then become vulnerable.
Kesey, I think, is wrong about the way to loosen the stranglehold of the emasculating female and break up the Combine. He is simply visionary to suggest that women should emulate the attitude of the happy hookers. The truth is that women are not likely at this point to give up bossing their men around when this remains their only means of achieving a semblance of importance in society. Yet I agree with Ann Nietzke [who writes in Human Behavior] that
contrary to popular belief, women do not want to castrate men; it's just that we are tired of being eunuchs ourselves. This does not mean that women want penises but that we want the powers, freedoms, and dignities that are automatically granted to the people who happen to have them.
If the Combine could be subverted to the extent of giving up its ratchet—of allowing women genuine equality—then women could stop emasculating men and turn their energies to more self-fulfilling pursuits. Given the opportunity to run that ward in her own right, instead of having to manipulate the rabbity doctor, perhaps Miss Ratched might have run it more humanely. Forcing people into deviousness can hardly be expected to improve their character. And inequality is almost guaranteed to generate malice.
Thus we need to help students see that Nurse Ratched is no more to blame for her malice than the black boys are for theirs. The Big Nurse happens also to be the Big Victim when viewed with an awareness of the social and economic exploitation of women. Kesey didn't have exactly this in mind, I grant, but we can still derive this insight from his novel and correct the damaging impression that the book leaves—that women, through some innate perversity, are the cause of all of society's failings.
Source: Elizabeth McMahan, "The Big Nurse as Ratchet: Sexism in Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest," in CEA Critic, Vol. 37, 1975, reprinted in A Casebook on Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," edited by George J. Searles, University of New Mexico Press, 1992, pp. 145–49.
Marcia L. Falk, in a letter to the New York Times, December 5, 1971, reprinted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Text and Criticism by Ken Kesey, edited by John Clark Pratt, Viking, 1973, pp. 450–53.
Thomas H. Fick, "The Hipster, the Hero, and the Psychic Frontier in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Rocky Mountain Review ofLanguage and Literature, Vol. 43, Nos. 1–2, 1989, pp. 19–32.
R. A. Jelliffe, review of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, in Chicago Sunday Tribune, February 4, 1962, p. 3.
Barry H. Leeds, 'Theme and Technique in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Connecticut ReviewVol. 7, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 35–50.
Martin Levin, review of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, in New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1962, p. 32.
Richard D. Maxwell, "The Abdication of Masculinity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Twenty-Seven to One, edited by Bradford C. Broughton, Ryan Press, 1970, pp. 203–11.
Julian Moynahan, "Only in America," in New York Review of Books, Vol. III, No. 2, September 10, 1964, pp. 14–15.
A review of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, in Time, Vol. 79, February 16, 1962, p. 90.
Janet Sutherland, "A Defense of Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,"' in English Joumal, Vol. 61, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 28–31.
Ronald Wallace, "What Laughter Can Do: Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,"' in his The Last Laugh: Form andAffirrmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel, University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 90–114.
John A. Barsness, "Ken Kesey: The Hero in Modern Dress," in Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, pp. 27–33.
Argues that the novel is an updated version of the Westem and its cowboy hero.
Annette Benert, "The Forces of Fear: Kesey's Anatomy of Insanity," in Lex et Scientia Vol. 13, Nos. 1–2, January-June, 1977, pp. 22–26.
Analyzes the novel's connections to fear of woman, fear of the machine, and glorification of the hero.
Robert Boyers, "Pomo-Politics," in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, No. 376, March, 1968, pp. 36–52.
Examines the novel's attitudes towards sex and the linkages between sexuality and laughter.
Leslie A. Fiedler, in his The Retum of the Vanishing American, Stein & Day, 1968.
Fiedler's views on the mythic relationships in Cuckoo's Nest are almost as well-known as the novel itself.
Benjamin Goluboff, "The Carnival Artist in The Cuckoo's Nest," in Northwest Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1991, pp. 109–122.
A contemporary reading of the novel employing the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas of the camivalesque.
Leslie Horst, "Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex-Role Failure and Caricature," in Lex et Scientia Vol. 13, Nos. 1–2, January-June, 1977, pp. 14–17.
This essay frankly confronts the novel's narrow portrayals of sex roles, both masculine and feminine.
Ken Kesey, Kesey's Garage Sale, Viking, 1973.
Contains stories and interviews, as well as a screenplay.
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Text and Criticism by Ken Kesey, edited by John Clark Pratt, Viking, 1973, pp. 450–53.
An edition of the novel that includes reprints of important early critical essays on the novel.
Irving Malin, "Ken Kesey: 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,"' in Critique, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1962, pp. 81–84.
Irving's essay situates the novel in the mode of the New American Gothic, which "gives us violent juxtapositions, distorted vision, even prophecy."
Carol Pearson, "The Cowboy Saint and the Indian Poet: The Comic Hero in Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,"' in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 1, No. 2, October, 1974, pp. 91–98.
Employs the myth of the king, the hero, and fool to an understanding of the novel.
M. Gilbert Porter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rising to Heroism, Twayne Masterwork Studies No. 22, Twayne, 1989.
A book-length study of Kesey's novel which explores the concept of heroism in the novel.
Terry G. Sherwood, "'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and the Comic Strip," in Critique, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1971, pp. 96–109.
A clever analysis of the role of comic books and comic book figures in the novel.
Joseph J. Waldmeir, "Two Novels of the Absurd: Heller and Kesey," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1964, pp. 192–204.
This essay argues that Kesey's novel is in fact a better example of the absurd than Heller's Catch-22.
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Farrar, Strauss, 1968.
Wolfe's "New Joumalism" novel about Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/one-flew-over-cuckoos-nest
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