Author: Ken Kesey
Genre: Fiction, Classic
Source: Kindle (OK - have the paperback too, but I couldn't resist using the new toy!)
What you'll love: Fantastic writing, symbolism, foreshadowing. Great characters.
What will bug you: You'll want to kick Nurse Ratched in the face.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a recommendation from Dennis. It's one of those "classics" I've never read. While sitting in bed surrounded by a dozen or so books, he suggested it. He said I could even start a little segment called "Recommendations from my Husband". :) Done.I'm sure that most of you know the storyline. The story takes place on the mental ward of a hospital in what I'm assuming is the late 1950's/early 1960's. The ward is run by Big Nurse Ratched, a very ridged and manipulative woman. Life is moving along in a routine when Randal Patrick McMurphy arrives. He is full of life and energy - laughing and joking. What ensues is a battle of wills between Ratched and McMurphy, after he decides he will do whatever it takes to get under her skin. The entire story is told through the eyes of "Chief" Bromden, a Native American patient who appears to be deaf and mute, but in reality absorbs it all.
I'm so glad to have finally read this book. Head's up - this is a loooong review.
One of the first things I noticed as I began reading was this: most of these men are not insane at all. So this brings us to one of the major themes of the book - society and the "insane". I like to think that things are different now, but many of the men in this story were simply people who did not "fit in" with societal expectations. The ward served as a place to put these people, either for life, or until they could be re-trained to fit in. Is this really that far off?
"The ward is... for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart, something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold."
The characters in this story were very well written. Everyone had a distinct voice. For the sake of being concise let's talk about the "main" characters in my mind. Nurse Ratched, McMurphy, The Chief, Harding, and Billy Bibbit.
Billy Bibbit is not insane. His Mother is. A few years ago, I was discussing a particularly anxious student with another teacher. She said that she thinks it's mostly a MCP - "Mother Created Problem". Sometimes when the child is refusing to let go, it's actually a reflection of the mother refusing to let go. Billy Bibbit is in his 30's - he tells his mother he would like to get off the ward, go to college, start his life - wonderful things. Her response? "Sweetheart, you still have scads of time for things like that. Your whole life is ahead of you." Of course, if you treat your child like a child (especially when they're in their 30's), there will be some cases when they develop some severe attachment issues. Now, Nurse Ratched knows this - and she eventually uses it, in what I think is the most manipulative scene I've ever read. It was actually sickening.
Harding is another example of someone who just doesn't "fit in" with society, and ended up being labeled as "insane". He's not insane. He's gay! Kesey never comes out and says it - but I think it's pretty obvious that Harding is deep in the closet. Of course, keeping in mind the time period I'm not surprised he's in there so deep. I just had a similar conversation with my 88 year-old Grandmother recently. I forget exactly how this came up... but she said that it seems like there are so many gay people compared to when she was young. My response was that I'm pretty sure there aren't more, simply more that are out. Thankfully, we live in a society where it is safe to be who you are - at least I like to think that it's safe. So, clearly there was nothing wrong with Harding other than he didn't "fit".
Chief Bromden may be a little off the beam. Although, I'll bet that these days a little medication would take him a long way. He's definitely delusional, but I'm not sure how much of it is perpetuated by being on Nurse Ratched's ward. He sees the ward as a big piece of machinery called "The Combine" (which it kind of is - in a figurative sense). He seems to think that it is literally machinery, that they implant parts into the bodies of the patients, and the nurse uses controls in the Nurse's Station to control the ward. The nurse does use controls - but they are mental rather than physical. Also - The Chief is an enormous man - yet he thinks he is very small. I blame this on The Combine and the Nurse. She wants the men on the ward to feel small and helpless because it helps her stay in control. Although the story is centered around the battle between Ratched and McMurphy, it is wonderful seeing The Chief (literally) re-discover his voice.
McMurphy. He is life. He is awareness. He is definitely not insane. Nurse Ratched gets it right away.
"Don't overlook the possibility that this man might be feigning psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm."
Yeah. She's got it figured out. They are oil and water, and he decides to make it his purpose to mess with her. He represents everything that is full of life, and simply being a man - and she wants to beat him. I love McMurphy. Yeah, he's a criminal - a gambler, a cheat - but he's so likable, especially when he's messing with Ratched. He begins the story wanting to make a quick buck off of the men in the ward. His whole war with Ratched begins with a bet. By the end, he's doing it for the men.
Nurse Ratched. She's the craziest on the ward. We all know people like this - they have a system and expect everyone they associate with to fit into their system. She is truly a horrible person. She has control issues, and it becomes her mission to get McMurphy under her control. She has no business being a nurse - anyone who uses EST (Electro Shock Therapy) as punishment should not be responsible for human souls. I think that this character will stay with me long after the fine details of this book have faded. The reader develops a hate for this woman that runs very, very deep.
Kensey use of symbolism is really fantastic.
There are many passages that surround the theme of castration. Nurse Ratched is taking away the will of the men on her ward. She cuts them down until they are children - she takes away their ability to be grown men.
There were numerous references to machinery throughout the novel. "The Combine" is the system - society. Even the nurse makes mechanical movements. They can all hear the familiar metallic sound of the way she puts her key in the lock. They talk about her stiff, starched uniform. Her gaze is penetrating - like a beam.
The Chief talks a lot about "the fog" on the ward. He says it's literally fog that Ratched releases from the nurse's station. In reality, it's the medication, the mental control. McMurphy is able to lift the fog - he makes the men see who they are, and who Ratched really is. He makes them aware.
I was quite interested by the underlying religious symbolism surrounding McMurphy. Not to say that he's Jesus-like in his personality, because he's clearly not that great of a guy in some ways. There were 12 men who surround him on the ward. There were descriptions of him laying in a position similar to a man on a cross. When he receives EST they describe how they put this conducting salve on his temples - similar to holy water, or holy oils. And of course, McMurphy is sacrificing himself to Ratched for the men - she's in charge, and he knows it. She has the ability and authority to suggest many "treatments" for him. The more he interferes with her, the more the men on the ward find themselves again.
I can't say enough about this book. (Obviously, right?) I had always heard the title and envisioned the novel differently. As corny as this sounds, there were parts that made me completely enraged, parts that made me sad, and parts that had me laughing out loud. I appreciated the humor so much, because it is pretty tough subject matter.