Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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What common characteristics and themes do One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Beat Poetry share?

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In addition to the theme of non-conformity, the Beats were daring in their anti-intellectualism and unrefinement, and their humor--much like the character of Randle McMurphy, whom critics find is not unlike his creator, Ken Kesey. McMurphy boasts of his sexual exploits and taunts others for their inadequacies. For example, in Chapter 4, he teases Dr. Spivey by asking him if he has, like him, been "overzealous in your sexual relations."

One Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, known for his combination of humor and darkness, wrote poetry which reflected the state of America in the mid-twentieth century. Perceiving the prudery of American culture, Ferlinghetti scoffs at the absurdity of it. Similarly, Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest satirizes the prudery of Nurse Ratched who tries to hide her large bosom and is the stereotype of the controlling woman who emasculates men. In fact, she turns her prudery into a lethal weapon as she threatens to tell Billy's mother about finding him naked with a woman after McMurphy has bribed Turkle to let female friends into the institution. Unable to face this humiliation before his mother, Billy commits suicide. This scene of partying and then death mirrors the humor and darkness of Ferlinghetti.

The nurse's tongue clucked in her bony throat. "Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy. I'm so ashamed for you."

Billy wasn't awake enough to respond much to her shaming, and the girl was fussing around looking under the mattress for her nylons....

She swung aback to Billy...lwho] rolled over and came to her knees, butt in the air like a cow getting up....

"What worries me, Billy, how your poor mother is going to take this...."

"Nuh! Nuh!....You d-don't n-n-need!"

"Billy Billy Billy....Your mother and I are old friends.

The orginal meaning of the Beat Generation was that of a people beaten down and walked over. Certainly, characters in Kesey's novel express this. 


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There are many similarities between the Beat Generation and this novel. The Beat Generation is the name given to a group of American writers who became famous in the 1950s, a time of great social conformity in American society thanks to the Cold War, where everybody feared a nuclear war with Russia and an atmosphere of suspicion was created of anybody who might be considered to be different or a Communist sympathiser. Into this environment, the Beat Generation injected a powerful dose of non-conformity. The Beat Generation expressed their dissatisfaction with society through their art, dress and nonviolent protest. One of the most famous examples of Beat Poetry is Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," in which the United States is personified as a partner who will not let the reader sleep at night because of a bad cough:

...where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep.

This poem, through depicting the US in such a way draws attention to the way in which the Beat Generation challenged society and those in charge of it and tried to argue for a society based more on freedom and the ability to be different without being molested.

The Beat Generation's non-conformity certainly finds its parallel in this novel. Kesey himself was considered something of a fringe member of the Beat Generation, and in McMurphy's determination not to conform and to fight against the Combine, the power of society that is shown to be so mighty, he perfectly captures the Beat Generation's rebellion. One place in the text where this is shown most clearly is at the end of Part II when McMurphy breaks the glass of Nurse Ratched's office. Note what McMurphy says when he does this:

"I'm sure sorry, ma'am," he said. "Gawd but I am. That window glass was so spick and span I com-pletely forgot it was there."

The pane of glass is symbolic of Nurse Ratched's control over the patients. It is so clean and spotless that it is almost invisible. McMurphy's action in breaking it symbolically breaks that control she has, which definitely captures something of what the Beat Generation tried to achieve.

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