Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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What are some short stories that can be compared to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey?

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There are several major components of Ken Kesey’s novel that could be the subject of a comparable short story. Much of the novel is concerned with mental illness and its treatment, so that is one primary subject that a story might have as a central theme. But Kesey is also more generally concerned with social expectations of appropriate behavior, questioning what constitutes a rational response to a flawed society; in that respect, stories about profound alienation would be good comparisons.

“The Murderer” by Ray Bradbury would fit with either topic. In this story, a man who “kills” a machine consults with a psychiatrist. The afflicted man has a deep hatred or fear of technology and compulsively destroys complex machines with simple techniques.

D. Salinger’s stories about Seymour Glass, a man who cannot cope with the world, suggests several comparisons. These are “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters”; the latter is technically a novella.

A humorous story in which the protagonist is deeply alienated from society is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Walter tries to avoid the realities of his humdrum life with a hostile wife by escaping into fantasies of adventure and heroics.

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In creating a comparative analysis of two works, it is important not just to choose a second work at random but to think about what particular aspect of a work is worth comparing to another work. In thinking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, one could choose several different principles of selection. It should be noted, though, that since the work is a novel rather than short story, it would be more logical to compare it to other novels.

Other works by Ken Kesey would be a good choice. The most obvious work of Kesey's with which to compare One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is his other major novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Another possibility would be his short stories collected in Demon Box. In such a comparison, one would look for recurrent themes across an author's oeuvre.

Jack Kerouac was Kesey's friend and a fellow member of the Beat movement. The obvious choice for comparison would be his novel On the Road, but one could also examine some of the shorter works collected in The Unknown Kerouac.

One could also examine other fiction from the same period about institutions and their absurdities such as Heller's Catch-22 or the stories in George Garrett's Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night. Even closer, thematically, would be examining fiction about mental illness such as the work of Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) or I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg.

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The most obvious short story that springs to mind is "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that likewise deals with the key themes of madness and suggests, just as this novel does, that how we treat insanity and those who are insane is linked to the success or failure of the treatment. Just as McMurphy challenges the authorities in the form of Nurse Ratched, so the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" challenges her husband, who is in authority over her, telling her what is best for her, although this challenge is not open. Note the way that Mc Murphy deliberately suggests that the men with him are not actually mad:

Jesus, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are for Christ sake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets!

McMurphy profoundly challenges the dichotomy between sane and insane and asks the larger question of who it is that actually puts those people into these two categories and who draws up the characteristics of these two supposedly opposite states. In the same way, the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" challenges the diagnosis that her husband and her brother--both key patriarchal figures--have made of her health:

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

Both McMurphy and the narrator here however have to eventually bow to the greater authority of those in charge of them, with tragic consequences.

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