One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey: A Book Review
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
“One flew East, one flew West, and one flew over…”
Published in 1962, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the first and highly acclaimed novel by American author Ken Kesey. The book spans 320 pages and is split into four parts. Time Magazine listed the book as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. The book has been adapted to theater and film, the latter of the two, directed by Milos Forman and released in 1975, won five Academy Awards.
Kesey began writing the novel in 1959 when he worked as a night-shift orderly at a mental health hospital in California where he experienced first-hand accounts of the conditions of ward, the abuse patients were subjected to, as well as the experiments involving psychotropic drugs conducted on such patients. His experiences would heavily influence his story.
The book has been the source of much controversy since its release. It is one of the most banned novels in America, often deemed “pornographic.” In 1975, residents of Strongsville, Ohio sued to remove the book from schools, citing that the book “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.”
The book is told from the first-person point of view of “Chief” Bromden, a seemingly deaf-mute Native American patient in an unnamed psychiatric hospital in Oregon sometime after WW2. He is among the many patients who live obediently under the strict rule of the intimidating and indomitable Nurse Ratched.
The story truly begins when a new patient, Randle McMurphy joins the case of patients. He is a tall, large, talkative, tough, street-smart, con-man who has been transferred from a prison sentence on a work farm under the faked guise of insanity. Upon his arrival, he immediately recognizes the unjust hierarchy of the nurse-patient dynamic. He sees that Nurse Ratched is the force to the be reckoned with, and he vows to slowly but surely psychologically wear her down.
McMurphy gains the loyalty of the other patients quickly and begins planning a long series of meticulously manipulations, some of which involve a pair of whale-covered boxers, getting access to watch a World Series game, an out-of-hospital fishing trip with a prostitute he knows. Each maneuver is a sleight to Nurse Ratched, every one giving McMurphy a little ounce of power. But soon the power starts to get to his head, and tension between the patients and staff rises and culminates with a fight breaking out between Chief and McMurphy against two aides in a communal shower.
The two patients are reprimanded with electro-shock therapy, and while it appears to have little effect on McMurphy, Chief is wary about further protests. But nonetheless, McMurphy has another plan: he invites his prostitute friend, Candy, on a date with another patient, Billy Bibbit, and when she arrives in the middle night, she has brought her friend, Sandy, another prostitute. The girls and the patients have a wild night getting drunk and partying in secret, and the night ends with Billy sleeping with Candy, and McMurphy with Sandy. The plan was that McMurphy would escape with the two girls before the aides did their rounds, but when the aides came in early, their plan was busted.
Billy is caught with Candy, and he is so distraught and embarrassed that he commits suicide. At the news of Billy’s death, McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched attempting to strangle her ultimately proving unsuccessful. As punishment for the attack, as well as Billy’s death and everything that has occurred in the month leading up to this event, McMurphy is lobotomized. When he returns to the ward, he is like a zombie, totally immobile and a shell of the person he used to be. The book ends with Chief smothering McMurphy with a pillow in the middle of the night, then proceeding to break out of the hospital where he hitchhikes his way up to Canada.
The book is about resistance, insurgence, rebellion in the face of tyrannical oppression, though in what form that notion takes depends entirely on the specific placement and attribution of such meanings. Who do the patients represent? Who does Nurse Ratched represent? However, these opposing forces and their associated positions fluctuate as the novel progresses, forcing the reader to constantly switch sides thus making these allegorical forms even harder to determine.
If the patients represent society–specifically the middle and lower classes, then Nurse Ratched represents an authoritarian government and the story is about revolution; if the patients represent the upper hand, then Nurse Ratched is the victim, and the story is about exploitation and abuse of power; if the patients represent certain aspects of an individual, and nurse Ratched represents a negative trait or disease, then the story is about an internal struggle and a fight for one’s life. There is a vast amount of different themes that arise depending on where and how a reader places meaning.
Many also believe that there are religious allegories throughout the novel. McMurphy may represent Christ and as such, he leads the patients into the light, thus saving them from evil and sin aka Nurse Ratched, and then dying for their sins in the end. Or perhaps, it’s reversed (a theory that I particularly like): that McMurphy represents the devil and Nurse Ratched represents God, and the story is now about rebellion against religious oppression and brainwashing.
But despite whatever attribution are made to the characters, the interchanging power struggle shifts between opposing forces as the story goes on leading the reader to switch sides at multiple marks in the novel. At first, we root for McMurphy against the evil Nurse Ratched, but then that changes. The reader is led to empathize with the nurse and the staff more as the patients descend into disrepair. But then that changes, and we find ourselves feeling more for the patients. But that changes, and on and on. All the while, this moving emphasis blurs the line between good and evil, and we are left wondering who is actually to blame? Whose fault was Billy’s death? McMurphy’s demise?
Regardless of the novel’s ambiguous allegories, one thing is for certain: Kesey strove to shed light on the atrocities taking place in psychiatric hospitals during the sixties. The undeniable abuse and horrific conditions were a taboo subject at the time (the 1960’s ushered the movement of deinstitutionalization), one that many chose not to engage in. Kesey tackled the topic head on and wrote to reveal what was really happening using his own experiences. His first-hand accounts were too horrific not to write about, and the fact that he accomplished this in his first novel is truly an astounding feat.
Ken Kesey is regarded as a countercultural icon, specifically associated with the Beats Generation. He was close friends with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg and even mentored the Grateful Dead back in the sixties. But one thing he is most known for is his cross-country excursion with his Merry Pranksters all the while tripping on acid, the story of which is detailed in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Test. Kesey’s life was nothing short of a movie and something certainly worth reading about.
Truthfully, I did not enjoy this one as much as I would have liked. Kesey’s prose took a while to get used to, and even as I finished the book, I still felt it was too bland. The story is told from a character’s point of view as he himself is telling the story, and so the writing is riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings so as to convey the dialect of the character. Many authors take this kind of risk, but only few can get away with it. It was done poorly in my opinion.
Moreover, there were certain scenes that made me cringe, and cringe not in the fun way. Scenes that were just really corny and unrealistic; scenes that seemed like the writer’s poor attempts at humor; scenes that were simply awkward and juvenile; and scenes that had the potential to be great, but would fall short just as the climax approached.
I’m led to lump One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in with the “books that are fun to read in high school, but not so much as a 25-year-old,” alongside Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice & Men, you know those kind of books.
But nonetheless, if you’re looking for an easy, somewhat dark, at times awkwardly funny, redemption kind of read, you may consider giving this one a try, though I personally probably won’t go through it again.
I’ll be taking a little break from the reviews/analyses for the next month; my life is about to get super busy, plus I’m going to try to read a really long book that’s certainly going to take some time. HOWEVER, I have some super cool and spooky things planned for October which I cannot wait for. So get ready!