One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey has grabbed a lot of attention since it was published in the 1960s. It's known for its controversial themes and symbolism, and it gives us a harsh look at a world ruled by a matriarchal dictatorship. A protest novel of its time, this story continues to remain prevalent today and asks us: what are we willing to risk for change?
On the surface, this is a story about a group of men in a mental asylum somewhere in Oregon narrated by Chief Bromden, a patient. The authority figure, Nurse Ratched, keeps the men in line with strict routines and procedures, each day bringing the same ol' thing. That's until Randle McMurphy enters the hospital who is admitted after being diagnosed as a psychopath, which means he avoids six months in jail. His boisterous personality causes chaos in the routine and encourages the patients to believe in the concept of freedom. After a bit of mischief and a dooming conversation with a lifeguard, his behaviour settles... but not for long. What happens next shows the influence one person can have on a group of people, with McMurphy encouraging the patients to believe in themselves and their ability to leave the hospital. They go on a fishing trip, which gives the men a taste of what freedom and fun feels like. However, it all comes at a risk, one that McMurphy is aware of but results in a shift of power that saves the patients from a life of control.
This story is jam-packed full of ups and downs, making it an engaging book to read. However, there is so much hidden underneath the surface that makes this text a powerful tool to learn from. As mentioned earlier, this was a protest novel for its time, protesting the many issues regarding political movements and the government in the 1950s, comparing society to a mental asylum.
The asylum in this text acts as a microcosm of the world, a miniature version of society placed within four walls. Each character is carefully placed and crafted to symbolise an aspect of life. The narrator, Chief Bromden, is a paranoid schizophrenic who has hallucinations of machinery and believes a larger power, 'The Combine' as he calls it, dictates how the world works. This power programs authorities like Nurse Ratched to fix the broken machinery within the patients on the ward to make them work like the rest of the people outside the asylums four walls. Having Bromden as the narrator provides an evocative and despairing picture of the world, subtly planting the idea of our government systems being like large machines and us as robots with bolts and wires that must be programmed to act in certain ways.
Nurse Ratched portrays the idea of a matriarchal society, This was in protest of women gaining power and the problems that would occur in that instance. Ratched rules over the ward like a dictator, making all the decisions without much influence from the patients, rewarding those who do what she wants and punishing those who step even slightly out of line. The hospital aides, otherwise known as 'the black boys', are in her control. They do the punishing while Ratched looks the other way. Having her at the head of the ward focuses in on the loss of freedom and masculinity that would apparently occur if a woman was put in control.
Then there's McMurphy, the protagonist. His entrance onto the ward and his presence mimics that of Christ, causing a shift in attitude and power with his loud laughter and his boisterous ways. It breaks the strict routine and he tests the boundaries. He becomes quickly aware of the corruption of power on the ward and stands up against it, becoming a shining beacon for revolution. His rise, fall and inevitable end all parallel the storyline of Christ, and just like the biblical tale he save the patients. Not from sin but from the control of Ratched, regaining their masculinity and independence.
Other characters, although not as loud or noticeable, play important roles in creating this microcosm of the world. Dale Harding speaks as the voice of reason. he explains how the world is and mimics the voices of those who are under control. The continuous thought of 'this is how it is because it just is' echoes in most of his speech. Cheswick portrays the people who are easily influenced, the people who stand up in the first wave and depicts how influential people like McMurphy are for people who wish to believe in something... and the devastating effects when they are not supported. Then there's Billy Bibbit, a man who has been emasculated by his mother and now Ratched. He portrays an innocence and naivety, but his transformation and fate shows the collateral of revolutions. These are just some of the characters, but their careful placement emphasises the different aspects of society and how dangerous both conformity and revolution can be.
As you can see, there are many layers to this beautifully crafted text. From the themes of the dangers of women in power or societies need to manipulate and change what is deemed 'different', to motifs and symbols such as invisibility, the power of laughter, and even the electroshock therapy table (shaped like a cross, so the symbolism is right in your face for that one) all play important roles in forming this microcosm of the world set in the ward. How it all plays out... well, you'll need to open the book and step into the asylum to find out.
What I thought
I have always loved stories that protest against something. Having so many layers to a story makes me want to know more and analyse further. I begin to start coming up with my own theories and start imparting my own experiences into the actions of the characters. It's a dark, deep rabbit hole I fall into it... and I love it.
I first came across One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for a Year 12 assignment. It was the first time I was really forced to deeply analyse a text. I didn't like it the first time I read through it but I think I didn't like it because I had to write a long essay about it (it wasn't actually that long, maybe 1000 words, but at the time it seemed monstrous). However, not having the pressure of reading, analysing and writing something that will determine my grade made reading it this time more enjoyable.
I would expect reading it with little to no understanding of the underlying symbolism being a bit difficult. The language and descriptions can seem a bit wrong and distorted. However, that is part of why Chief Bromden is the narrator. His mental health and way of seeing things shows the world in all it's distortions. Nonetheless, I think there is enough action in McMurphy's rebellious behaviour and the patients reactions to make this an enjoyable read for anyone with or without any background knowledge. I do think that having the analytical mind or knowledge to notice and understand the symbols, motifs and themes encapsulates the true meaning behind the text. It is educational to some degree, showing us the risks of conformity and revolution, and the need we have for freedom.
Who would I recommend this to? Anyone who likes a book that challenges the reader to think beyond the book itself will definitely enjoy it since it really leaves you pondering life, the world and everyone in it. Anyone who's into stories that have a political stance and agenda would probably also enjoy it. Or, if you're interested in history, corruption and mental asylums, you'll probably enjoy it too.
It really is a tale that makes you question what you are willing to risk for change. Would you sacrifice yourself so that others have a better future? Would you instigate a revolution, even if the risk is great? Is it even worth it?
Oooh, I really do love a book that makes me question life.
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.