Kesey’s critical reputation rests on his two early novels, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, both of which depend on contrasting characters and values, with physical and moral strength, personal courage, self-reliance, independence, self-sufficiency, privacy, and nature set in opposition to fear, passivity, timidity, dependence, group effort, committees, unions, and mechanization. Drawing on both serious and popular culture models— Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, and William Shakespeare as well as Marvel comic books, tall tales, street theater, and film—this self-proclaimed parabolist fills his stories with anecdotes of broad significance, often expressed through black humor, hyperbole, powerful imagery, and simultaneous action.
Although Kesey has said that no writer is better than his first book, perhaps no writer is better than a book that comes at a perfect time. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest certainly came at a time in American history when its messages could be uncritically admired by a hugely varied audience. The explosion of the counterculture in the 1960’s, an explosion that Kesey helped detonate through the Merry Pranksters and Tom Wolfe’s descriptions of them in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), was a reaction to the staid propriety of the previous decade.
Young readers especially were ready to be told that the “Combine,” a sinister force as ill-defined as the notorious “Establishment,” was a life-denying malevolence opposed to all the good things in existence, such as youthfulness, freedom, smoking, free access to the World Series, prostitutes, gambling, and all the other indulgences inmate Randle Patrick McMurphy brings to the psychiatric ward. The message, that the carnal and sensuous are good, that self-indulgence can be a virtue, that too much is not enough, may have been a bit horrific in 1962, but five years later, young people were moving to San Francisco by the thousands for the Summer of Love.
The timing of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest could not have been better—as partial cause of a phenomenon it became one of the artistic totems of the period, along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966). Pauline Kael, in her December 1, 1975, review of the film version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in The New Yorker, noted that the novel “preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counterculture,” yet it “contained the prophetic essence of that whole period.”
Kesey’s “radical” message was all the more acceptable for being encapsulated in very traditional and even conservative American symbols. McMurphy is clearly a Westerner, a free spirit at home in any cowboy bar. His league with Chief Bromden creates an unlikely alliance with an Indian against the civilizing influence of Big Nurse as schoolmarm. McMurphy is also a Christ figure, a stock character learning to sacrifice himself for others. On the darker side, the attractive figure of McMurphy is also opposed to both black people and women, calling on easy prejudices against both groups.
In the novel, women, in the main, represent the oppressive forces of Sunday school, the educational system, and the Combine, and they value conformity and socialization, with blacks their tools for oppression. The anti-feminist subtexts of novel have been thoroughly explained by James F. Knapp, who also points out the ironic fact that one of McMurphy’s main weapons against the Combine and Big Nurse is another “Combine” or organization, the community he builds among the patients.
Another traditional element in both Kesey’s novels is the role of nature, particularly in the American Northwest. Kesey associates nature with beauty, freedom, and raw power; it revives and challenges humankind. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden’s childhood memories of his Indian home include the beauty of the Oregon gorge, the splendor and power of the waterfall, and the flight of the wild geese. The inmates’ fishing trip proves therapeutic because of the invigorating fresh air, the salt spray, and the challenge of the fish that fight and struggle against human encroachments.
McMurphy, a natural man, untamed by civilization, wears on his shorts a symbol of that natural power and challenge, the white whale. Like the power of the waterfall that challenges the greedy to harness and tame it, the power of the whale leads people to hunt it to near extinction. To be free, one must accept nature’s challenge, rely on oneself, and discover one’s own inner strength, as does Chief Bromden when he lifts a seemingly impossible weight, smashes through the prison bars, escapes the mental asylum, and takes off across the open field toward the distant mountains of his youth.
In Sometimes a Great Notion, the untamed Western frontiers beckon, testing the limits of human endurance and will. The main character therein, Hank Stamper, is made all the stronger and the more independent when an Oregon river, the Wakanda, floods his home, kills his loved ones, and thwarts his purposes. His deep inner strength comes from meeting its challenges as a logger—wrenching trees from the forest and using the current to further his will as it transports his goods to market. Nature has taught him a fierce individualism, self-reliance, and a wild sort of freedom, but it has also brought him an almost transcendental awareness of the spiritual power of sunset and forests, the mystic union of humanity and nature.
Set in opposition to nature is society—the group, the organization, the corporation, and the union, with their focus on conformity, submission, and uniformity. These have no place in the world of the wildcat logger, the cowboy, or the maverick; they doom the Paul Bunyans, the Lone Rangers, and even Santa Claus. The opposition to nature is summed up in the “Combine,” a giant corporation, like a giant farm machine that collects, orders, and processes all in its path. Its ultimate effect is dehumanization—like the inmates in Bromden’s nightmares who are being repaired at night in a surrealistic and mechanistic hell, where humans are robotized, infused with transistor parts that make their smiles mechanical and their movements stiff.
Kesey’s imagery pits nature against machine, the warm vitality and uniqueness of whales and geese, rivers and forests, against the cold, metallic harshness of the mechanical and robotic. The opposition is a classic one in American literature, the machine against the garden, the mechanical against the organic.
The movement in both works is from fragmentation to wholeness, from weakness to strength and “grit,” from an “unnatural” female dominance to a more “natural” male dominance, with woman’s role confined to nurturer. Males who are pampered and controlled by females grow up less than men, with no true sense of themselves and their power; those more directly taught by a male society prove tough and independent and strong because of the challenges they face and overcome on a daily basis.
The point of view in both novels is experimental. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest it is the confused musings of Chief Bromden, a confirmed schizophrenic, institutionalized for life. As such, it reflects the changing nature of Chief Bromden’s self-confidence and the concomitant shifts in his perception. Bromden tells the reader that the events he describes are the truth, even if they did not happen. He records his memories of a lost way of life, the mental fog that shuts out the real world from a mind confused by electroshock and drugs, the progression of time as it slows down for bad experiences and speeds up for pleasant ones, the comments and dialogue overheard in the ward and in the staff meetings in the past and in the novelistic present.
Supposedly deaf and mute, Bromden observes all with impunity. As his sense of self changes, his style and the quality of his observations subtly shift until, at the end, the speaker is a whole man, sane and ready for action, a man who has come to terms with his nightmares and who has finally met the challenge of his life.
Sometimes a Great Notion, on the other hand, constantly and rapidly shifts perspective and point of view to examine the same situation from different angles and perspectives, thereby providing a rounded multiplicity that lends...
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