Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Yet again, my prejudices have been overturned. I have avoided Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest since high school, after dozens of bland book reports – no doubt more based on the film than the novel – gave me the erroneous impression that it was a celebration of the counter-culture and nothing more, cheered for all of the wrong reasons. In my defence, its author, Ken Kesey, is at least as famous for driving around the country in a fluorescent van with a group of friends, his “Merry Pranksters,” distributing LSD to anyone eager to “expand their minds,” as he is for writing. And yet Cuckoo’s Nest, it seems to me, is a major accomplishment, at once riotously funny and devastatingly sad, loaded with symbolism and ingeniously plotted. In fact, the word that came to mind again and again during my reading was “inspired,” which would make this book a powerful argument for taking psychedelic drugs.

The plot and setting will already be familiar to many, either through the various stage adaptations, or the famous 1975 film version starring Jack Nicholson. Kesey places us in a mental institution in the state of Oregon, some time in the 1950s, where a domineering head nurse, Nurse Ratched, tyrannizes and emasculates the patients of her ward (divided into the supposedly incurable Chronics, the less severely afflicted Acutes, and the brain-damaged Vegetables). Nurse Ratched’s control over the ward is challenged by a newcomer, Randle Patrick McMurphy, a foul-mouthed, tattooed gambler who has conned his way onto the mental ward to escape the hard labour attendant on his prison sentence. The last of the major characters is our narrator, Chief Bromden, a Native American and the longest tenured patient on the ward. Bromden is Kesey’s true coup, the technical invention that opens up the entire narrative, providing him with both a clever perspective on the action as it unfolds and a subtle metaphorical lever with which to work upon his readers. The staff of the ward, and even Bromden’s fellow patients, all believe him to be a deaf-mute, which enables him to pass between the various groups, eavesdropping on their conversations; Kesey’s third-person narrator thus takes on some of the qualities of the third-person omniscient, with one clever caveat: Bromden’s own mental faculties are often called into question, notably by frequent hallucinations, leaving us to make up our own mind about the verity of his reporting. Still, he insists on his own version of events: “[…] you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. 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.”

The “it” that happens is really a battle of wills, or of competing philosophies, with Nurse Ratched and McMurphy representing polar opposites. Where the Nurse is collected and calculating, and subtle in her undermining of the patients and even the staff of the ward, McMurphy is loud and direct, rarely leaving his thoughts unexpressed. The Nurse seeks to impose order on the ward – her own particular vision of order, rigidly hierarchal – whereas McMurphy, ever boisterous, disdains rules and seems constitutionally suspicious of rule-givers. We get some sense of how tyrannical the Nurse’s reign has been upon McMurphy’s arrival, when his booming, unrestrained laugh echoes throughout the ward – “I realize all of a sudden it’s the first laugh I’ve heard in years,” Bromden tells us. This is a place where “nobody ever dares let loose and laugh.” The force suppressing laughter, that most basic of human expressions, is Nurse Ratched, but she does so with supreme cunning. When she is described physically, the figure that emerges is fragile and feminine (much is made of her massive bust, which on so un-nurturing a figure seems incongruous), an unlikely tyrant, and the very opposite of McMurphy, who is described as being broad-shouldered and powerful. But the Nurse has no need of physical strength to exercise her will.

Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants, […] What she dreams of there in the center of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor.

Over many years on the ward, she has driven off all of the strong-willed staff and doctors, until those remaining are thoroughly under her control, tacit supporters of her “treatment” methods.

We get an early glimpse of these methods at a group therapy session, led by Nurse Ratched, which resembles a Maoist struggle session more than any form of legitimate therapy, entailing the forced exposure of a patient’s most intimate fears and sources of shame in front of a group encouraged to judgement. Much, it turns out, is made of the supposed benefits of the Therapeutic Community theory, summarized to us by Bromden: “[…] a guy has to learn to get along in a group before he’ll be able to function in a normal society; how the group can help the guy by showing him where he’s out of place; how society is what decides who’s sane and who isn’t, so you got to measure up.” If, in the abstract, this doesn’t seem terribly frightening, in the context of the group therapy session, it is downright chilling; the reader sees right through these supposed benefits, and discovers not the benefit of the group but the trampling of the individual. Kesey beats us over the head with his larger metaphorical quarry, which is that the ward, far from being some remote and removed place, is really a microcosm of society at large. The head doctor, John Spivey, frequently says so explicitly:

Our intention, he usually ends by saying, is to make this as much like your own democratic, free neighborhoods as possible – a little world Inside that is a made-to-scale prototype of the big world Outside that you will one day be taking your place in again.

Bromden, however, has a different view of things. He has concocted his own metaphor to describe the large, insuperable force that seeks absolute conformity, breaking the wills it cannot bend. He calls this force “the Combine,” and it represents all that is oppressive and demanding and intolerant in society.

This is what I know. 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; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land with a welded grin, fitting into some nice little neighborhood where they’re just now digging trenches along the street to lay pipes for city water. He’s happy with it. He’s adjusted to surroundings finally…

Chief Bromden, being Native, was never going to be admitted to society without wholesale “adjustment.” But McMurphy, as well, is too willful, too carefree, to be given a pass. All of the men of the ward, in fact, in ways large or small, require adjustments; it will even gradually emerge that, of the so-called Acutes, none have been institutionalized against their will – a fact that will astonish Murphy, who sees the ward for what it is.

In many ways, this book is a product of its time. It was written in the 1950s, prior to the sexual revolution, when American society was much less permissive, and the burden of expectation lay heavily on every man and woman. Today, those expectations have been largely erased, but the lesson of Kesey and his characters seems to me no less relevant, for the impulse to conform is ineradicable, and there is always a price to be paid for individualism, whether with blood or with loneliness. All of this, and much more, Kesey set down for us in one great, rollicking, unforgettable novel, worthy of a top spot among mid-century America’s greatest books.