“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” By Ken Kesey

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey is narrated by Chief Bromden who is a patient at a psychiatric hospital. The novel mostly centers around Randle McMurphy, a new patient that Bromden meets. Bromden starts the novel by describing how he pretends to be “deaf and dumb.” All of the orderlies and patients in the hospital speak freely around Bromden since they believe he can’t understand them. Bromden is able obtain information from overhearing these conversations. If Bromden did not overhear these conversations then neither would the reader. Kesey purposefully makes Bromden pretend to be “deaf and dumb” so that he can expose the reader to more information without directly telling it to them. Kesey is quite simply showing and not telling, which adds to the value of the novel.

Kesey also sets up the hospital as if it were a shrunken civilization. There are obvious comparisons between the hospital and a normal community such as how there are different groups within the hospital. All of the patients are either Acutes (curable) or Chronic (incurable). From these two groups there are three subgroups: the “Wheelers and Walkers and Vegetables” At one point, Bromden notes that some patients came in as “Acutes” but then were transformed into “Chronics” because of the hospital’s “intensive” care. It is very ironic that a hospital, a place where the sick are meant to be healed, actually does more harm than good to its patients. This adds to the notion that the community, or hospital in this case, is what keeps the social classes in place since the hospital is responsible for forcing some of the patients into different classes. 

 Nurse Ratched, or “the Big Nurse,” has strict control over the hospital. Bromden often observes her share embarrassing and humiliating confidential information about patients to small groups. Other members of the group then proceed to criticize and verbally attack the patient that Ratched decided to pick on. Bromden says, “The flock gets sight of a spot of blood on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it, see, till they rip the chicken to shreds, blood and bones and feathers.” This process allows Ratched to keep her control over the hospital. She does not have to keep the patients afraid and submissive; the patients do it to each other. Ratched does not have to directly interact with the patients to keep them in line. Her orders and wishes trickle down through the patients. The patients keep themselves oppressed within the hospital. During the time period the novel is set in women did not receive respect or authority. That is why it is odd that a group of grown men would obey a women. After examining the novel more closely, one realizes that Ratched is not the face of the oppression. She has implemented a system in which she can keep control while hiding behind the curtains.

Kesey also foreshadows during the first several chapters. McMurphy introduces himself as a “gambling fool” to the patients at the hospital. This seems to suggest that McMurphy is willing to take risks and make bold moves. McMurphy’s description lays the groundwork for tension and conflict in later chapters of the novel.

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One response to ““One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” By Ken Kesey

  1. Michael Murray

    The second part of the novel was much more fast paced then the first half. The climax of the novel occurs when McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched after Billy kills himself. McMurphy rips off the front of Ratched’s dress and then proceeds to try and strangle her. This moment relates back to gender roles in society at the time. The showing of Ratched’s breasts is a physical reminder to the male patients that their tyrant is a female. Remember, women were viewed as inferior to men at this time. This sudden realization causes the men to eventually transfer and check themselves out. I also found this moment ironic because of what happened in the previous scene. In the scene right before the climax, Ratched threatens to call Billy’s mother to tell her about Billy’s misdoings with a prostitute. Billy’s fear of his mother is what eventually causes him to slit is throat. Billy’s fear of a female figure seems to contradict the patient’s’ lack of fear of Nurse Ratched. This calls into question whether women at the time, and currently, are selectively discriminated against. In this case, Billy was so afraid of his mother that he rather die then face her. Is a mother guaranteed to receive a certain amount of respect from her children, even sons?
    Kesey also ends the novel with a very pointed metaphor. The novel ends with Bromden escaping from the hospital by breaking a window. The breaking of the window symbolizes Bromden finally taking control of his life and defying the oppressive hospital. Just before Bromden escapes, he kills McMurphy out of pity. This was the climax of Bromden’s transformation during the novel. McMurphy and Bromden had a close relationship throughout the novel. McMurphy taught Bromden to believe and himself and that he was better then the system that had oppressed him. Bromden’s mercy kill demonstrates the intimate relationship that McMurphy and him shared. Their relationship is also ironic because Bromden is Native American and McMurphy is a self described cowboy. Historically, these two groups have opposed each other, but yet in the novel they connect and help one another.
    Another part of the novel that I found interesting was Kesey’s examination of prisons. It is quite obvious that the hospital is a prison and the patients are its prisoners. However, at the end of the novel Bromden decides to kill McMurphy because he doesn’t want to leave him to live as a “vegetable.” Bromden believes that McMurphy was imprisoned in his own body because he was left brainless and voiceless. This view of McMurphy’s state shows the reader that a prison is not simply defined as a place that physically constricts you, it can also be a place that mentally constricts you.

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