One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Ken Kesey


I have no amusing stories today.  My sinuses feel as if they will explode out of my head at any moment.

Last week, I randomly picked up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which I had picked out from the library.  Because a force of nature (also known as Hurricane Five Year Old) absconded with my Top Ten book, I had to check with Dave to make sure it was in Top Ten.  A secret though;  I would have been reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest even if it hadn’t been in there.  I picked up the book on Saturday.  I was hooked.

I’m not sure what about this book drew me in right from the beginning.  Unlike some other “classic” works of literature, you didn’t have to tease the story out of the layers of language and author’s quirks (Les Miserables anyone?). 

The setting for this story is a mental ward.  Judging from cultural references within the book, I’d place the time frame in the very late 40s to mid 50s.  (1940s-1950s).  The narrator is an old Native American, named Bromden.  Bromden has spent years pretending to be deaf and dumb, it began as an assumption on someone’s part and he didn’t correct them…partly because he wants to see and hear everything happening.

I think one of the paragraphs in the first chapter is part of what hooks you so easily to this story.  It’s first person narration with Bromden speaking.

“(A bluetick hound bays out there in the fog, running scared and lost because he can’t see.  No tracks on the ground but the ones he’s making, and he sniffs in every direction with his cold red-rubber nose and picks up no scent but his own fear, fear burning down into him like steam.)  It’s gonna burn me just that way, finally telling about all this, about the hospital and her, and the guys–and about McMurphy.  I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; 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.”

I think that paragraph sets up the tension of the rest of the book so well.

The story centers around a new patient, named McMurphy, a loud, brash, gambling man.  He comes into the ward, either having acted crazy or was crazy to get out of working on a prison farm.  Nurse Ratchet, the head nurse, has created an atmosphere of complete order and submission on the part of the patients.  She does this with cultivation of fear.  Bromden makes a perfect narrator, as he has been there for years and can graph for us in detail how she went about doing it.  Of course, McMurphy and Nurse Ratchet clash.  That’s one of the points of the whole story.  They begin a battle.  Wits, fear, submission, lack of submission all play a part in this battle.  And the tension mounts as you wait to see who will be the winner.

Another theme of the book is how much of our behavior is rooted in what others expect from us.  If they expect us to be deaf and dumb, are we?  If we are told we are insane, are we going to act insane?  If we are expected to save someone, will we? 

It’s also an interesting contrast between the treatment used at that time in mental hospitals (electroshock therapy, medication and lobotomies) and the “treatment” McMurphy brings into the ward.

I really, really want you to read this, so I am not going to say anymore, as I risk ruining the ending if I do.

Go.  Read it.  Go.  Now.


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