Ken Kesey American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3513

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,...

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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 depth and strength to character and act. What one sees and hears on the surface is supplemented by what is going on in the minds of the Wakanda characters, including Hank’s dog Molly and the ghost of old Jonas, and by a third-person omniscient authorial voice. Only the typography provides partial clues to a confusing shift of voices. There are idyllic pastoral descriptions, local conversations in regional dialect, spoken words and hidden thoughts, yearnings, fears, and surmises. The effect is the exploration of relationships, attitudes, and motives from so many different angles that one realizes that surface revelations in no way capture the depth and hidden currents of events.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

His release from a mental institution dependent on conformity to hospital regulations, Randle Patrick McMurphy chooses to sacrifice himself to inspire rebellion.

The title, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which echoes a children’s song (“One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”), puns cleverly on a variety of themes covered in the book: the sadness of the “cuckoos” confined in insane asylum, the freedom enjoyed by the geese far above the nest, and the sterility of the nest itself. Kesey’s novel can be read at many levels. It is a tall tale about a conflict of wills and a social tract attacking the medieval and inhumane treatment of mental patients and calling for reform. On a broader level, it is a microcosm, with the insane asylum a representative small world reflecting a macrocosmic conflict between the individual and society, freedom and restraint, nature and technology.

Former Marine McMurphy had experienced the horrors of brainwashing in a Red Chinese prison camp, only to be exposed to the same process on home grounds. His battle with Big Nurse and, by extension, the Combine, is against all systems that try to narrow and limit human nature. Big Nurse is precise, efficient, and machine-like (the values of pragmatic technology), while McMurphy is associated with wild geese and other elements of nature.

The story is in the tradition of a tall tale, a Western shoot-’em-up, or a cartoon comic book story, with its characters larger than life and with exaggerated black/white, evil/good relationships. A tough, swaggering convict, Irishman, and logger, McMurphy has himself transferred from jail to a mental asylum because of his wild behavior. He thinks it will be an easy time, with the extra attraction of a chance to con a few inmates out of spending money. He challenges the authority of Big Nurse, the ward superintendent, whose fake smile and feigned concern turns men against one another, preys on their fears, and weakens their nerve. To counter her techniques, McMurphy provides a model of rebellion; he uses laughter, comic exaggeration, and absurdist acts to build up the inmates’ sense of manhood and teach self-reliance. He defies Big Nurse openly, breaks her rules, and wins the admiration of the men, who slowly begin to join in his acts of defiance.

The knowledge that most of the inmates are voluntary admits, whereas he is committed until released by Big Nurse, at first cows McMurphy, but when Big Nurse once more begins to undercut the men, the con man gives way to the hero. McMurphy “blows up big as a house” (a Chief Bromden metaphor for power) and smashes his fist through the glass barrier of Big Nurse’s station to retrieve his confiscated cigarettes. The inmates respond positively to this defiance and ultimately work up the courage to vote for a fishing trip that Big Nurse has done her best to thwart, a trip that gives them a taste of normality and power. McMurphy smuggles the two prostitutes who accompany them on the trip into the ward for a nighttime party that ends tragically when Big Nurse discovers their game, isolates the weakest inmate, Billy Bibbit, and drives him to suicide.

McMurphy responds by ripping Big Nurse’s blouse to expose her large breasts and to undercut her power. In doing so he dooms himself but gives his fellow inmates hope and self-assurance. Big Nurse “crucifies” this Christ figure with electroshock treatments and then a lobotomy that leaves McMurphy a vegetable. As a result, the voluntary inmates leave the asylum to face the real world. In the last scene, Chief Bromden smothers the husk that was McMurphy, lifts the control panel that McMurphy had been unable to move, hurls it through the barred window, and escapes across the fields. His final words, “I been away a long time,” indicate the distance he has come from the reader’s first view of him and the power of McMurphy’s restorative sacrifice.

The 1975 film version of this novel, directed by Milos Forman, won five Academy Awards and appeared on the American Film Institute’s 2000 list of the top one hundred films of all time.

Sometimes a Great Notion

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

Hank Stamper, longtime community rebel and hero, opposes a union strike and, even when undercut by his own flesh and blood, ultimately, through sheer willpower, lives up to his reputation.

Sometimes a Great Notion is ambitious but marred. Its title derives from a line in the song “Good Night, Irene”: “Sometimes I get a great notion to jump in the river an’ drown.” The novel chronicles humankind’s relationship with the river—with its beauty and resources, but also with its unpredictability and cruelty as its rising waters sweep away land, homes, and people.

At the beginning of the novel, a critical contract to supply the sawmill of a national logging corporation with cut timber has almost expired, but a union strike keeps the local community from completing the quota and delivering the timber. The Stampers (their motto is Never Give an Inch) defy the union and go ahead with the work. Because of their shortage of manpower, they send for Leland “Lee” Stanford Stamper, Henry Stamper’s younger son and Hank Stamper’s half brother. Lee, a graduate student at Yale University, who has never forgiven his aggressive older brother, Hank, for his sexual liaison with Lee’s mother and for her suicide, returns home to get revenge. A central part of the novel is the competition and conflict between the two brothers. In fact, Kesey told interviewer Gordon Lish that the Stamper brothers sum up two different ways he thinks of himself, the one his homespun, outdoorsman side, the other his more educated, artistic, cynical side. While Hank pushes himself to fill his logging quota and to retain his values and integrity while withstanding community pressure to conform to the union rules on strikes, he must also try to come to terms with Lee and to teach his brother self-worth and the family heritage.

Lee’s resounding self-warning, “WATCH OUT,” makes him suspect even the most innocent of acts. Lee shirks work, claims a cold and fever, and gradually wins the affection of Hank’s beloved wife, Viv, with his poetry and his need for mothering. He taunts Hank with his seduction of her. Lee’s timing is particularly nasty: Cousin Joe Ben, pinned under a fallen log, has just drowned in the rising river. Henry, his arm torn off, lies on his deathbed, and Hank is nearly battered to death by union thugs.

Hank swims the raging river to try to stop his brother’s betrayal, but he arrives too late, succumbs to sickness and defeat, gives up his plan to meet the contract, and submits to taunts and “generosity.” The townspeople are depressed and terrified by their loss of a defiant rebel of heroic stature. Only when the sly and selfish Lee returns to tempt Viv to leave with him and then goads Hank into a fight in front of her does Hank regain his old force and self-integrity. He beats up his brother; ties his father’s severed arm where all the townsmen can see it, its middle finger extended in symbol of defiance; and, aided by his suddenly transformed brother, begins the river trek to market. Viv leaves without a word.

Kesey’s basic argument is that a community needs its heroes and its rebels and that each is stronger because of the existence of the other—the community providing the hero with a challenge, the hero providing the community a model to emulate. Kesey called this novel, Faulknerian in its complexity, his very “best work.”

The Further Inquiry

First published: 1990

Type of work: Nonfiction screenplay

This retrospective look at the 1960’s counterculture movement turns on a slanted mock trial of Neal Cassady, who bridged the Beat and hippie generations.

Its pages depicting a robin’s-egg-blue sky with fluffy clouds (a spaced out hipster’s dream of open spaces, or merely the view appropriate for a ghost speaking from the heavenly ranks), text highlighted in screenplay format, and pictures from the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 coast-to-coast road trip (California to New York), The Further Inquiry seeks to re-create visually the sensibilities of that bygone era. Michael Ian Kaye provides solarized or psychedelic Day-Glo poster art styles of the 1960’s reflective of visual experiences with the Pranksters’ drug of choice, LSD. A series of shots of legendary rapper Neal Cassady (depicted as Dean Moriarty, the lead in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road) grace the bottom-right corner and, flipped rapidly, provide the illusion of a home movie of him dancing. The book features 150 previously unpublished photographs of the trip and travelers by Ron “Hassler” Bevirt and images from Allen Ginsberg’s collections. The jacket cover blurb promises “a serious meditation on the sixties.” However, reviewer Brook Horvath in Contemporary Fiction found the text “unambitious” and limited, as did George Searles, who asserted in The New Leader that it nonetheless gives readers “a feeling of what life was like outside American mainstream culture at the dawn of the Hippie era.” Its goal may be to elucidate the past, but the perspective is nostalgic, insider to insider.

The title, The Further Inquiry, plays on the front destination sign of the once yellow school bus that the Merry Pranksters repainted in psychedelic colors for their infamous trip—“Furthur” (the back of the bus, in turn, warned, “Caution: Weird Load”). In case modern readers miss Kesey’s reference, the bus appears in its painted glory on the coversheet front, the designation “Furthur” painted bright red. This label affirmed the Pranksters’ goal to push beyond the boundaries of ordinary folk and normal vision, beyond bourgeoisie constraints. Thus, The Further Inquiry reexamines the Pranksters’ cross-country journey, and more particularly the role of Cassady as driver and lead Prankster in the experience, to reconfirm the value of rejecting the status quo.

This examination has been made many times before—for example, in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Thus, Kesey adds a “further” or “additional” investigation. His word “inquiry” describes his method: a courtroom inquiry with prosecution and defense lawyers, bailiff, and witnesses and with the readers as judge and jury, though the verdict is rendered by a “V-meter” with gleaming brass dials “FOR-AGAINST” (it is once again the machine against the garden, the age-old American conflict). The court questions Cassady’s contribution to society (his spirit speaks in his own words from the grave) and pits the authoritarian forces of order, bureaucracy, and repression against freedom from social restraints and the right to be shocking and uninhibitedly different. The players in this mock trial ask whether the efforts of Cassady (a grade-school dropout and aficionado of Marcel Proust) and the Pranksters worked for good or for ill.

The text—supposedly courtroom documents—includes verbatim transcriptions of Cassady monologues and the testimony of various Pranksters, offering insider views of their lifestyle and perspectives and of the Cassady mystique. The prosecutor, Chest, is a cigar-smoking, right-wing stereotype who repeatedly ambushes the mild-mannered but determined female lawyer for the defense, Tooney. The trial is surreal, with descriptions of the nudity, sex, drug highs, zany behavior, and “deliberate disorganization” that were a commonplace part of the experience and with establishment authorities speaking authoritatively of “psychochemillogically-broken zombies” that need “modern consciousness modification techniques.” The prosecution charges Cassady and crew with the downside of drug use: sexual exploitation of teenagers, injured fetuses, mental instability, disloyalty, irresponsibility. The defense witnesses see Cassady as the antidote to “an awful disease” that had infected the “American society—insidiously, steadily . . . unchecked” to the point of “Condition Terminal . . . a hardening of the heart.” A Doctor Knot testifies that the disease, a “mental net,” destroys “spontaneity” and suffocates a nation, as it did in 1964, when “Our country was dying!”—by implication, Cassady and the Pranksters revived it. The final judgment vindicating Cassady and the Pranksters comes as no surprise, though the form that it takes does.

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