“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.