Friday, 14 March 2014


Sometimes, something snaps inside our heads. We become disconnected; we can’t find our way. We are lost. We may be confused, babble, see visions. Sometimes, people take us away. The world whispers about us; around us. People say that we are mad.
And it is madness that inhabits the world of Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Not just madness, fear inhabits that world too.

I can’t claim, by a long way, to have read every novel written in the twentieth century, but I’ve read a helluva lot, and I really do believe that Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, published in 1962, is one of the finest. It’s startling in its originality; Kesey’s use of language is stunning in his poetic prose. He twists metaphor until it strains like tortured metal, and threatens to snap, and all the while, instantly, the reader knows exactly what Kesey is talking about. His novel deserves its reputation as a classic work of literature.

The narrative takes place in “the Big Nurse’s” ward in a mental institution. It sounds as if you are in for a tough read, but you’re not. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is funny, Kesey’s sharp sense of humour rescues the book from bleakness.

The novel is also poignant and ultimately heartbreaking.

The two main players in Kesey’s novel are McMurphy and “the Big Nurse;” Nurse Ratched.

Kesey has gravitas. His writing has dignity. Our emotions may be miniscule, set against the great profundities that human beings have to pit themselves against, but any writer who can make us think; “yes, I have felt like that too,” is worthy indeed.

Kesey demonstrates this understanding after McMurphy observes in the group therapy session, how the residents turn against Harding. “Pecking at him, like he was a wounded chicken”, all under the eye of Nurse Ratched and the doctor. McMurphy says that Nurse Ratched is a “Ball breaker” -- she sits with a small smile on her face as Harding is emotionally castrated.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is told in the first person, by Chief Bromden. The Chief is a patient on the Big Nurse’s ward. He has been there the longest of all the patients, and despite being considered a hopeless case, he has learnt to carve out a life for himself. He knows how to survive. The staff and patients all think that the Chief is mute; deaf and dumb. He isn’t; he can hear as well as anyone, and if he chose to, he could speak. Through the Chief, 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 about the abuse of power.

The Chief describes Nurse Ratched;

“Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh coloured enamel, blend of white and cream and baby blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils -- everything working together except the colour on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what would otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.”

The Chief introduces us to the ward. We immediately understand that this is a domain of lost souls. People with no power, who at some time in their lives have had their grip on sanity slip, never to regain their footing.

Enter, Randle P. McMurphy.

Faking insanity to get out of prison for a battery charge, McMurphy immediately begins upsetting Nurse Ratched’s routines, embroiling the two in a power struggle. As an upbeat character, McMurphy easily convinces the other patients—including the stuttering Billy Bibbit, the effeminate Dale Harding and the germaphobic George Sorenson—to gamble, to vote to watch the World Series on TV, to take a fishing trip and to start questioning the demands of the hospital staff. McMurphy is a strong, but flawed character; one who, at times, struggles with the expectations he has manipulated and the consequences he has brought about.

McMurphy represents the freedom that the patients have voluntarily given up – and it is McMurphy who shows them how to find the courage to reclaim their place in the world.

When McMurphy first enters the ward, the thing that immediately distinguishes him, aside from his lack of fear, are his jokes. He laughs out loud at everything, and makes fun of everyone. Laughter is very rarely heard in the ward, and by not taking anything too seriously, McMurphy is able to exert power over it. He manages to avoid any sort of insult or invasion by making a joke of it. And laughter is something that men do. McMurphy’s gut wrenching belly laugh is absolutely male. The Chief notices McMurphy’s calloused hands; his sunburnt skin. McMurphy is a man; a concept that the men in the ward have forgotten. Even through the pervasive odour of hospital smells, the stench of incontinence, the Chief scents on McMurphy;

“…the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work.”

McMurphy, having bet the rest of the men that he can get the Big Nurse to crack within a week, makes his first step by the use of a long joke. The Big Nurse is unable to fight back because it takes her by surprise. By making fun of her, he subverts her authority, and eliminates any power she might have over him.

McMurphy tells the other men jokes in an attempt to get them to laugh, but such an act smacks of rebellion, and the other men are unable to accomplish it. Laughter is equated with strength and an ability to not take everything seriously. It also means having an emotional reaction to something that isn't fear, an idea of which the men of the ward are terrified.

When for the first time, the men take part in the joke, pretending to be dangerous mental patients, they frighten the people around them into treating them with respect, giving the men a feeling of power. They become a team against the world, which they always were, but a team with an ability to actively fight back. For the first time, the joke is at the expense of the society that has terrorized them.

McMurphy laughs at seeing the men the way they are, both laughing at them and with them. He is able to survive for so long against the world that has destroyed the rest of them because he can laugh at it. He takes everything seriously by taking nothing seriously. He doesn't deny that there is pain and hardship, but he refuses to let that define and ruin him.

But McMurphy misunderstands the enormity of what he has taken on. He is playing a dangerous game. These men, really are people who are very ill. They are emotionally frail and while McMurphy reminds them of what it is like to have fun, there is danger ahead. And Nurse Ratched is a formidable foe.

The Chief muses;

"I thought for a minute there I saw her whipped. Maybe I did. But I see now that it don't make any difference.... To beat her you don't have to whip her two out of three or three out of five, but every time you meet. As soon as you let down your guard, as soon as you lose once, she's won for good. And eventually we all got to lose. Nobody can help that."

McMurphy slips up and shows the danger of constant jokes. The Big Nurse warns him of the possibility of a lobotomy, but instead of taking it seriously, he turns it into a joke about his testicles. McMurphy has no intention of backing down at this point, but by turning the warning into the joke, he increases the chances of it being acted upon.

Friday is the day that the men go to the X-Ray room to get checked up. While they wait, McMurphy notices another door and asks where it leads. Harding tells him that it goes to the Shock Shop, and explains the theory behind electro-shock therapy. Once again, it is revealed that the Big Nurse has the power to order such treatment as well as lobotomies. McMurphy realizes that it's the system that's behind everything, and tries to explain this to the rest of them; how even if they got rid of the Big Nurse, things wouldn't change, really. The men don't understand, and Harding finally admits that they've noticed that he's stopped fighting against the Nurse. McMurphy agrees, and tells them he realised he had as much to lose as the rest of them. Harding tells him no, McMurphy has more to lose, since all the Acutes are there voluntarily. McMurphy can't believe this, and he starts accosting all of them, until Billy Bibbit breaks down.

"'You think I wuh-wuh-wuh-want to stay in here? You think I wouldn't like a con-con-vertible and a guh-guh-girl friend? But did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you? No, because you're so b-big and so tough! Well, I'm not big and tough.'"

It’s the beginning of a downward spiralling tragedy, that for the Chief culminates in triumphant liberation, and ends in disaster for others.

McMurphy gets the doctor on his side, and they organise a fishing trip. It’s a chance to remind the men of who they are, outside the confines of the hospital. On the fishing expedition the patients laugh and feel complete humans again. This happens with McMurphy's guidance, his laughter booming in the face of chaos.

But later, all the men who went on the boat trip have to take a special shower, because Nurse Ratched thinks they might have caught some sort of bug. While they're in the shower, the black aides attack George, trying to get him to put on salve. George refuses, because of his neatness obsession and pathological fear of germs. McMurphy steps in to defend him, and he gets in a fight with the aides. The Chief helps throw them off, and the two of them get strapped down and sent up to “Disturbed”.

Things are dangerously out of control for McMurphy. This passage, where they are driving home from the fishing trip, stands out for me. The Chief narrates;

“Then -- as he was talking -- a set of tail-lights going past lit up McMurphy’s face, and the windshield reflected an expression that was only allowed because he figured it’d be too dark for anybody in the car to see, dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there wasn’t enough time left for something he had to do…While his relaxed, good natured voice doled out his life for us to live, a rollicking past full of kid fun and drinking buddies and loving women and barroom battles over meagre honours -- for all of us to dream ourselves into.”

This is a story of sacrifice. While the Chief and McMurphy are waiting for Electric Shock Treatment, Kesey sprinkles his prose with Christ images.

McMurphy arranges himself willingly on the table in a crucifix; arms outstretched, his ankles clamped together, he’s clamped down at the wrists.

“They put graphite salve on his temples. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘Conductant.’ the technician says. ‘Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?’”

Electro Shock Treatment is an obscene ritual and Kesey tells it so casually and that’s what makes it so horrifying. It is only when the Chief describes McMurphy’s body arcing, as the volts slam through him, that the reader offers up a silent scream.

“…light arcs across, stiffens him, bridges him up off the table till nothing is down but his wrists and ankles…”

The Chief is brought back to the ward, and the rest of the men greet him like a hero. They ask him all sorts of questions about what's going on with McMurphy, and when he responds, no one thinks it odd that the Chief is talking now.

The Big Nurse sees that McMurphy's legend is growing, and while he's away he's just getting bigger and bigger, so she starts making plans to bring him back down. The men anticipate this, and work out a plan to get McMurphy out of the ward that Saturday, forgetting it's the day that McMurphy has set up for Billy's date with Candy. They tell their plans to McMurphy when he returns to the ward, but he refuses to leave until after that night. He says to consider it his going away party.

McMurphy bribes the night aide, Mr. Turkle, with the promise of “booze and broads“, in order to get him to open up a window that night. Candy is late, but when she arrives, she's got a friend with her, the woman, Sandy, who was supposed to be with her earlier at the boat trip. The group hides from the night supervisor, and proceeds to get drunk on the liquor the women brought with them, along with whatever medication Harding can get out of the cabinet. Billy and Candy eventually sneak off for some privacy, and Harding tries to get McMurphy to leave. McMurphy asks why the others don't come with him, but all of them need a little more time. He asks Harding what made them so scared. Harding isn't able to say, exactly, just that they were beaten down by the rest of the world for the things they did, and who they were, and that they didn't have the strength to fight back. McMurphy says that he's always had people bugging him, and it's never brought him down that much. Harding admits that this is true, but that he's figured out who drives strong people like McMurphy to weakness.

"'Yeah? Not that I'm admitting I'm down that road, but what is this something else?'
'It is us.' He swept his hand about him in a soft white circle and repeated, 'Us.'"

It's five am, and McMurphy decides to get some sleep before leaving. He says goodbye to Harding and the Chief, then settles into bed. All of them fall asleep and don't wake up till the black aides come on the ward at six-thirty.

Harding tries to get McMurphy to leave in the morning, but he claims that he's too drunk to move. When roll call shows that Billy is missing, the aides and the Big Nurse do a room check. They find him and Candy in bed in one of the rooms. Nurse Ratched is shocked, and keeps telling Billy how ashamed she is for him, but Billy doesn't seem to notice, just gets his clothes together and comes out into the hall. He responds to her questions without a stutter. However, the Big Nurse knows what buttons to push in the end. "'What worries me, Billy,' she said- I could hear the change in her voice- 'is how your mother is going to take this.'" Billy immediately panics. He begs Nurse Ratched not to call his mother, and when the nurse refuses, he starts to blame the fact that he was in bed with a woman on everyone else in the room, saying they made him do it. He is taken away to wait alone in the doctor's office.

All the men sit down in the day room, and they tell McMurphy that they don't blame him at all, they know it wasn't his fault. He just relaxes and looks like he's waiting for something. The doctor yells for the nurse from his office, and she and the aides go running. She comes back alone, and speaks directly to McMurphy. She tells him that Billy cut his throat with some instruments in the doctor's desk.

"'First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you're finally satisfied. Playing with human lives- gambling with human lives- as if you thought yourself to be a God!'"

She goes back into her office. The Chief knows that McMurphy is going to do something, and at first he thinks to try and stop it; but then he realises that he can't stop it, because he and the rest of the men of the ward are forcing McMurphy to do it. They force him to get out of his chair and go over to nurses' station. He rips open the Big Nurse's shirt, revealing those too large breasts, and tries to strangle her.

When the doctors and aides rip him off her, he cries out. The Chief describes it as;

“A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn't care any more about anything but himself and his dying.”

McMurphy’s fate is sealed. When he is returned to the ward, he has had a lobotomy. The mythology of McMurphy lives on. The men on the ward discuss whether this ruined spectacle is really him.

“After a minute of silence, Scanlon turned and spat on the floor. ‘Ah what’s the old bitch tryin’ to put over on us anyhow, for craps sake. That ain’t him.’”

“‘Nothing like him,’ Martini said.”

“‘How stupid she think we are?’”

The chief knows it is McMurphy and he tries to think of what McMurphy would have done.

“I was sure of only one thing: he wouldn’t have left something like that sit there in the day room with his name tacked on it for twenty or thirty years so the Big Nurse could use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system. I was sure of that.”

Nurse Ratched may think that she has won the game, but the Chief’s final actions before he leaves the ward, make it a hollow victory.

The title of the book is a line from a nursery rhyme.

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

Chief Bromden's grandmother sang this song to him when he was young, and they had a game about it.

The inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came while working on the night shift (with Gordon Lish) at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. There, Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs, with which he had volunteered to experiment. Kesey did not believe that these patients were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. Published in 1962, it was an immediate success; in 1963, it was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman; in 1975, Miloš Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman).

Kesey was originally involved in creating the film, but left two weeks into production. He claimed never to have seen the movie because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the film rights. Kesey loathed the fact that, unlike the book, the film was not narrated by the Chief Bromden character, and he disagreed with Jack Nicholson being cast as Randle McMurphy (he wanted Gene Hackman). Despite this, Faye Kesey has stated that Ken was generally supportive of the film and was pleased that it was made.

1 comment:

  1. Writer tend to hate the films made of their books. Stephen King famously hates Kubrick's The Shinning, which also stars Jack. Coincident??

    I haven't read every book ever written either, but I have read quite a few. The whole idea of how madness has been treated makes me want to go back in time and bitch slap a lot of people. That this story took place so recently, relatively speaking, makes it all the more horrifying.

    Great review and great impressions.