Even the best-behaved Admission is bound to need some work to swing into routine, and, also, you never can tell when just that certain one might come in who’s free enough to foul things up right and left, really make a hell of a mess and constitute a threat to the whole smoothness of the outfit. And, like I explain, the Big Nurse gets real put out if anything keeps her outfit from running smooth. – from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, page 39 –
Ken Kesey’s classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962 – but the themes it embodies are as relevant today as they were then. Most people are familiar with the plot and characters (who has not referred to someone as a Nurse Ratched from time to time?!??!). The story takes place behind the walls of an Oregon mental institution, specifically on one ward run by the tyrannical Big Nurse. When Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives – a convict who has faked mental illness in order to get out of the work farm – no one is left unscathed.
Narrated from the point of view of Chief Bromden, a native American patient on the ward who pretends to be deaf and mute, readers are treated to a cynical look at society and its rules. He refers to the authority figures in the book as “The Combine” in reference to the mechanical way they manipulate individuals. The story is really a modern day parable of good vs. evil, and misfits vs. society. McMurphy represents the freedom that the patients have voluntarily given up – and it is McMurphy who shows them how to find the courage to stand up and be true to who they are.
He’d shown us what a little bravado and courage could accomplish, and we thought he’d taught us how to use it. – from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, page 227 –
Nurse Ratched controls her charges with a subtle, but dangerous combination of coercion and subtle threats. The battle between her and McMurphy gradually scales out of control as McMurphy’s influence over the patients escalates.
Themes of the book include the ostracizing of those who are different, and the emasculation of men (especially Harding, who is effeminate and is bullied by his wife; and Billy who stutters and is treated like a “boy” by his mother and Nurse Ratched even though he is thirty-one years old).
Although McMurphy, Bromden and Nurse Ratched play central roles in the novel, other characters are just as memorable including the already mentioned Billy Bibbit, Harding, “the black boys” (the cruel and jaded attendants on the ward), Martini (a man consumed by his hallucinations), and The Chronics (those patients who will never be cured).
Some readers may feel offended by the treatment of women in the novel – besides the Big Nurse, there are two prostitutes who take large roles in the book, as well as several other nurses who are stereotyped characters rather than individuals. Although I consider myself a feminist, I was not put off by this aspect of the book because I don’t think Kesey was degrading women…quite the opposite, I think he was showing yet another aspect of society of which he is critical (the compartmentalizing of the sexes).
Kesey’s novel deserves its reputation as a classic work of literature. The characters are well developed and although the subject matter could be perceived as being depressing, Kesey’s sharp sense of humor rescues the book from bleakness.
Readers who have enjoyed the movie, will also love the book.