One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Magill Book Reviews)
This novel is narrated by Chief Broom, the son of an Indian chief, who pretends to be a deaf mute as a protection against a society which denies him dignity as a human being. Many of his comments on conditions in the hospital ward and in society, while not literally true, are accurate metaphors for the social regimentation against which the novel protests.
action of the novel begins with the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a rambunctious and free-spirited roisterer who has chosen to come to the mental hospital to avoid completing a sentence at a prison farm. He is instantly and deliberately in conflict with Nurse Ratched, “Big Nurse,” whose object is to reduce the patients on her ward to abject conformity. As many of these patients have deliberately chosen to stay in the hospital to avoid the pressures of life outside, she has met with little resistance until McMurphy’s arrival.
Almost immediately McMurphy becomes a focus of hope for the patients who have been emasculated by Big Nurse and by their fears of the outside world. Passage after passage suggests that Kesey envisions McMurphy as a Christ figure who must sacrifice himself to bring life to the other patients.
McMurphy’s efforts to give the other patients a sense of joy in living culminates with a drunken party he arranges on the ward; a featured guest is a prostitute who provides Billy Bibbit, a painfully shy and insecure man aged 30, with his first sexual...
(The entire section is 511 words.)
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One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (The Sixties in America)
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by Chief Bromden, a Native American mental patient who hides himself in a hallucinatory fog of his own making. Chief Bromden, a long-term patient in the psychiatric ward of an Oregon veterans hospital, has survived more than two hundred shock treatments and has learned to act as if he is deaf and dumb in a world that never hears him. In his delusion, he fears world control by the “Combine,” a machinelike entity that will eliminate all individuality just as the icy head nurse, Nurse Ratched, has eliminated all dissent on the ward. Into this scene bursts Randle Patrick McMurphy, a logger, brawler, and con artist who has feigned insanity to escape his sentence on a work farm. He brings a breath of the untamed natural world to the sad inmates through his powerful physical presence and his rowdy humor, and he treats the other patients like human beings and teaches them to laugh again. He gives them the confidence and courage to rebel against the control of the formidable Nurse Ratched. When she retaliates by ordering punitive shock treatments and a lobotomy for McMurphy so that she can maintain her authority, he becomes a symbolic savior to Chief Bromden, who escapes to freedom.
The 1962 novel established Kesey’s literary reputation overnight by calling public attention to the conditions and potential for abuse in the nation’s mental hospitals,...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Mental hospital. Government institution for mental patients somewhere in Oregon, that is the novel’s primary setting. Organized as an efficient machine that eliminates any opportunity for choice or individual decision making, the hospital has staff members to take meticulous care of all the patients’ needs. In the mornings, ward residents are herded into a shaving and tub room where they are forced to shower and prepare for the day’s activities.
The patient ward itself is filled with a system of locks and keys that help the supervisor, Nurse Ratched, manage all of her affairs. She is usually positioned behind a locked glass door, from which she dispenses daily doses of medication that dull each patient’s senses. Ratched easily dominates the inmates, but when Randle McMurphy, a free-spirited outdoorsman, enters the ward, a classic confrontation unfolds as he challenges the neatly ordered world constructed by the nurse.
Day room. Common area in the patient ward in which many activities occur. Amid a scattering of tables and chairs, the men are expected to spend the day listening to a radio or participating in board games. As music blares from speakers throughout the day, the fog machine, an apparatus of fictitious wires, compressors, and vacuums, dulls the men into accepting their mundane daily routine.
McMurphy explodes into this environment and attempts to dismantle both the fog machine and the hospital’s tight-fisted management of everyone’s affairs. He immediately organizes a blackjack game in which he inevitably wins everyone’s cigarettes. During these card games, many of the more intricate and complex issues affiliated with the novel are explored. Through various conversations, it is revealed that few of these men are suffering from any real form of...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragic yet inspirational account of one man’s self-sacrifice in a struggle against hypocrisy and oppression. Set on a ward of a mental hospital in Oregon, the novel depicts characters who could be found in many settings and a conflict between authoritarianism and individualism that is truly universal.
Ken Kesey tells the story through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a longtime patient who is uniquely knowledgeable about hospital routines and procedures and privy to staff secrets. As important as what Chief knows is what he does not know; he can only infer Randle McMurphy’s motives, a process of discovery that gives the novel its focus. A paranoid schizophrenic, Bromden reports his hallucinations faithfully; while they cannot be taken literally, they do make sense. As Chief says, his story is “the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”
The action begins when McMurphy is admitted to Nurse Ratched’s ward for observation. Authorities at the prison farm where he had been a convict are not sure whether he is a psychopath or merely a malingerer. On the ward, McMurphy proves himself to be a master manipulator, hustling his fellow patients in card games and persistently challenging the authority of Nurse Ratched. The patients quickly accept him as a leader and begin to see him as their champion. Nurse Ratched is infuriated by this challenge to her authority, but she bides her time. McMurphy finds out that because he has been officially committed, Nurse Ratched and the hospital staff control his release, and he becomes more prudent and conformist. Nurse Ratched...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Carnes, Bruce. Ken Kesey. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974. A short summary of the author’s two novels with emphasis on imagery.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Edited by John Clark Pratt. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Contains the text of the novel, articles on the author, and literary criticism of the novel.
Leeds, Barry H. Ken Kesey. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. A discussion of the author and his works. Beginning with a brief biography, it continues with summaries and evaluations of each of the author’s published works.
(The entire section is 184 words.)