Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has long been heralded as one of the most influential pieces of literature that has ever been written by an American author. The novel depicts the battle between conventional means of what is accepted from society and deemed to be “normal” against that of what many would consider to be insanity or madness. Through the character interactions of the patients, especially those of McMurphy and the hospital’s staff, the audience are exposed to a power struggle that is prevalent throughout the book. The lasting effects of this sort of hostile interaction has lead many to questions the physicians' ethics and interactions between mental hospital’s patients and that of their staffs in real life. As the novel was written from the interactions between Kesey and actual psychiatric ward patients through his late night shifts working at a mental hospital, many have felt that the real life counterparts of the hospitals that were portrayed within the book could be as oppressive and authoritarian. The novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest serves as a constant reminder to society that the concept of insanity is very opened and subjective and that the individuals afflicted by this condition are still people and must be treated with the dignity and basic rights that all those of our society are entitled to.
One of the most striking themes of the novel is the authoritarian atmosphere that the mental hospital has to it. Through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden, the audience is given the description of the hospital as, “The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's 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…” (Kesey 40). The almost dictatorial rule of the head nurse known as Nurse Ratched or ‘Big Nurse’ is unchallenged and complete to both the patients and staff of the institution. Bromden explains to the audience that through fear and manipulation, Nurse Ratched is able to keep the patients in line through physical punishment, mental distress, or medical procedures and the staff by intimidation and threats of revealing incriminating evidence against them. Big Nurse is described in her tactics with the statement, “as soon as you lose once, she’s won for good. And eventually we all got to lose. Nobody can help that” (Kesey 101). Big Nurse acts in such a manner that completely disregards the health, safety, and overall treatment of those under her care, and only cares that they obey her commands and follow her rules. This is summed up with the interaction between herself and Billy Bibbit when he finally begins to overcome his stutter and stands up to Ratched. She casually remarks in light of their argument, “what worries me, Billy, is how your mother is going to take this” (Kesey 264). Knowing fully that this sort of commentary will send Billy back into a downward spiraling depression, the comment actually leads to his suicide at the thought of displeasing her mother, which Ratched is merely using to further her actions against McMurphy.
The idea that mental hospitals were abusing their patients was very popularized because of this novel and lead to fundamental changes in the operating procedures that institutions of this nature must operate under. Based largely in part with the popularization of the novel and based upon the fact that Kesey had spent time working within an actual mental institution when writing it, the government took action to reform the practices in psychiatric treatment. Though the novel directly calls out Nurse Ratched’s actions through McMurphy’s declaration, “First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives- gambling with human lives- as if you though yourself to be a God!” (Kesey 266). In the early 1970s, “the antipsychiatry attorney Bruce Ennis created the ‘Mental Health Bar,” whose goal was “to completely abolish involuntary commitments or prevent them by making them too arduous to secure” (Rissmiller & Rissmiller). The notion drew its base largely in cases that were presented in examples such as Kesey’s novel. In the novel, characters were told they could not leave the hospital system until the staff deemed that they were fit to reenter society, however in certain cases such as between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, there was no conceivable way the staff would sign off on his release because of the mutual dislike for either side.
The arrival of McMurphy would have the most dramatic and lasting effect on those that were being treated within the mental hospital within the novel. Unlike the majority of patients there, McMurphy faked his way into the system under the assumption that life within the mental hospital would be easier than that of normal prison. Because of this, he does not bend to the usual threats from the staff, namely Nurse Ratched. He, instead, pushes the patients of the ward to go beyond what is allowed and expected of them and to, in a sense, become free. His demeanor and attitude can be fully summed up in the instance of when he attempts to lift the heavy shower room control panel. Though his attempt was unsuccessful, he triumphantly declares, “But I tried though. Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, now, didn’t I?” (Kesey 111). He inspires a sense of hope and unity within the other patients. He gets the others to partake in activities such as poker games, deep-sea fishing trips, and even alcohol-fueled parties in the ward. He wants his fellow patients to realize that they are not so out of place with the rest of society and that they too are their own sort of functional group. “’It is us.’ He swept his hand about him in a soft white circle and repeated, ‘Us’” (Kesey 258). This sense of unity relays a deeper message from the novel, that those that are labeled as different or strange are not so different from the rest of society.
Many times, it is easier for society to act with a sense of removal from those that are different to the majority of us. Criminals are taken away and placed within prisons, the elderly are placed in nursing homes, the sick within hospitals, and the mentally ill within mental health institutions -afflicted from anything from severe psychiatric to anxiety disorders. Society seems to naturally want to remove those that are different from the majority and label them as being “ill” or “incapacitated,” however the novel shows that they are not so different from most of us. As state by Billy, “you think I wuh-wuh-wuh-want to stay in here? You thin I wouldn’t like a con-con-vertible and a guh-guh-girl friend? Bud did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you?” (Kesey 168). Billy, like many of the patients, doesn’t want that which is very different from normal lives, it is just his current mental state that keeps him from obtaining such things.
Further, his statement that people in the outside world mistreat him because of his condition reveals a darker side to society. This is summed up as a “powerful critique of American society and of the function of madness in that society” (Viktus 65). It shows a, “process of transforming the patients into obedient automatons” (Viktus 65). We can see this in the actions such as the most disturbed patients like Pete Bancini, who angrily declares, “I can’t help it. I was born a miscarriage. I had so many insults I died. I was born dead. I can’t help it….I’m tired” (Kesey 52) What is most important from the novel is that the patients do not view themselves as being incapable of living within society until they have spent more and more time living in the institution that has ingrained the concept that they are outcasts into their heads.
One of the outcomes of the interactions of the characters with McMurphy is seen as them gaining confidence in their own abilities and standing up for what they believe in. Though McMurphy himself suffers a terrible fate from attacking and almost killing Nurse Ratched, the patients utilize his sacrifice as a means to improve their own lives. This sort of thematic closing to the novel shows the notion, “if individuals are strong enough to refuse to comply in their own destruction, they can overcome” (Sullivan). Even before his eventual sacrifice, his antics were helping those feel confident in them such as when the group steals a ship for a deep-sea fishing trip. Upon taking the vessel, the captain defies those against him and states, “he regretted that he had but one life to give for his country and she could kiss his rosy red ass before he’d give up the goddam ship” (Kesey 242). In many ways, it appears that McMurphy could be seen as a father figure to the patients in a search for their lost masculinity through the system.
One of the comparisons that the novel has received is from the quest of the patients to gain a sense of identity and self through their interactions with the staff and, eventually, McMurphy. The patients view Nurse Ratched as a mother figure that they constantly look for love and acceptance from, and they view McMurphy as a father figure who will show them guidance and a way to become men again (Sullivan). McMurphy serves as almost a messiah figure, in a sense because of the way in which he ends up sacrificing himself for the good of the patients. His sacrifice prompts the patients, and much of the staff, to stand up to Nurse Ratched who has lost her most powerful weapon, her voice. After his lobotomy, McMurphy is no longer ever the same, and the anger prompts the most docile character of all, Chief Bromden, into action. Seeing the loss of the only person that he would speak to, Chief Bromden does what McMurphy could not do and lifts the heavy shower control panel and uses it to smash through the window and make his escape. Even after the escape and recount of the ordeal, the Chief does admit, “it’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” (Kesey 13), which prompts the audience to question the whole ordeal as it is revealed that the Chief does suffer from hallucinations.
The novel has a clear message of warning in the way in which Nurse Ratched shows her dominance and authoritarianism throughout the plot. Like many tyrannical leaders throughout history, she draws the majority of her danger and power from her voice. Her actions clearly speak reality and give power to her words, but it is through the threats that she has issued to the subordinates and patients that the majority of her danger and aura are given strength. Even the staff that she employees serves as a sort of reference to the muscle of the followers that many of history’s greatest tyrannical dictators have employed in the rise and control of their regimes. The staffers referred to as the “Black Boys” named Washington, Williams, and Warren are noted for their ability to follow Ratched’s orders unquestionably and for their sadistic nature. The readers can clearly see some real world examples of regimes that rule in similar manners, especially those that have had a blatant disregard for human lives.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has long been viewed as one of the most influential pieces of literature written in modern times. The story itself tells the tragic events that lead to the loss of the inspirational patient Randle McMurphy, while at the same time telling the uplifting tale of the way in which he is able to inspire and build up the patients of the mental hospital that he is placed within. Chief Bromden recounts the events that lead up to and those that followed the time that McMurphy was admitted to the hospital and shows several key areas that are worth noting and have been the subject to much analysis and societal criticism over the years. The novel revealed the oppressive nature that many of the mental hospitals in the United States operated under. Being that the patients that were held there have no real credibility for the conditions that they live under, their testimony on the subject had never raised real concerns of questions prior to the novel’s release. But, since Kesey had worked as a staff within a mental institution while writing the novel, the findings that are reported within the novel have raised questions that many had within the subject area.
Further, the novel reveals the general disregard that the majority of society has for those that are not within the usual constructs of being normal. The novel shows the way in which general society removes those that are not under the definition of ‘normal’ and will give little regard to the way that these outcasts are treated. Kesey creates a world in which the reader is able to realize that those that are apparently so different from themselves are not as different as they may have originally thought. As an outcome of this novel, the governments of the world have reformed the means by which intuitions such as mental hospitals operate, namely in the conditions that the patients are treated within the systems. This novel was written for the purpose of having the reader step outside of what they thought is the way in which society should handle those so very different from the common people and to gain an appreciation of the differences that are not as condemning as one would initially think. The story paints a picture of the way that a “normal” individual enters a different world in which he is able to identify and befriend those that are completely different from himself. His actions and disregard for authority in the system eventually leads to the patients rising up and confronting those that have oppressed them for so long. The novel calls into question many different things that many have taken for granted, and will continue to serve as a reminder that the differences that many expect to separate them from others are not as separating as they may have initially thought.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962.
Rissmiller, David J., and Joshua H. Rissmiller. "Open Forum: Evolution of the Antipsychiatry Movement Into Mental Health Consumerism." Psychiatric Services, vol. 57, no. 6, 2006, http://journals.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=96788.
Sullivan, Ruth. "Big Mama, Big Papa, and Little Sons in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Literature and Psychology, vol. 25, no. 1, 1975, http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1978-22712-001.
Viktus, Daniel J. "Madness and Misogyny in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Journal of Comparative Poetics, vol. 14, 1994, pp. 64-90.