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Kesey, Ken 1935–

Kesey, an American novelist and essayist, is best known for the novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. His narratives generally center around the conflict of a strong individual pitted against a society he finds limiting and dehumanizing. Kesey's counter-culture life style has been chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Both Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest have been adapted for film. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Terence Martin

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When Randle Patrick McMurphy swaggers into the cuckoo's nest, brash, boisterous, with heels ringing off the floor "like horseshoes," he commands the full attention of a world held crazily together in the name of adjustment by weakness, fear, and emasculating authority…. When, six weeks later, he hitches up his Moby Dick shorts for the final assault on the Big Nurse and walks across the floor so that "you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile,"… he dominates a world coming apart at the seams because of strength, courage, and emerging manhood. As Chief Bromden says (repeatedly)—he has made others big.

The early McMurphy has a primitive energy, the natural expression of his individualism. And in the manner of the solitary hero his freedom and expansiveness come from being unencumbered. He has "no wife wanting new linoleum. No relatives pulling at him with watery old eyes. No one to care about, which is what makes him free enough to be a good con man."… The later McMurphy, however, is thoroughly encumbered with the shrunken men on the ward, committed to a desperate struggle for their manhood…. (p. 43)

Women in the novel, one comes to see quickly, are powerful forces of control. They represent a sinister contemporary version of a feminist tradition in American literature that goes back, at least, to Dame Van Winkle and that percolates through the popular fiction of the nineteenth-century in the form of domestic tyranny…. Given the highly charged vision of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, female authority becomes non-domestic, hard, insistently emasculating.

Not all of the women are cast in the mould of the Big Nurse. Harding's wife, for example, is a bitch of the first order, whose visit to the hospital shows us all that Harding must overcome in himself as a prerequisite to overcoming something in her. Her remarks are guaranteed to make Harding fall back on defenses whose very existence she scorns…. If her visit suggests how Harding came to be in the hospital, it spells out even more clearly why he is afraid to leave.

In a different way Billy Bibbit's mother denies him the chance to become a man…. Billy, on a comfortable day, talks about looking for a wife and going to college. His mother tickles his ear with dandelion fluff and tells him he has "scads of time" left for such things. When Billy reminds her that he is thirty-one years old, she replies, "Sweetheart, do I look like the mother of a middle-aged man?" (pp. 44-5)

Chief Bromden, too, knows of female dominance. His Indian father took his white wife's name when they married and suffered a diminishment of self ever after…. The female reduced the male—the white reduced the Indian. The Chief has only to think of his parents to know the legacy of his people.

Only McMurphy stands outside such woman-power. His name, with its patronymic, identifies him as the son of Murphy, not of Mrs. Murphy…. His latter day companions, Candy and Sandy, function both to emphasize his manhood and...

(This entire section contains 2297 words.)

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to measure the progress of the patients toward regaining (or finding) theirs. Drawn from the stock pattern of the fun-loving, "good" whore, Candy and Sandy evoke attitudes of freedom and openness rather than of restraint and confinement. Whereas the Big Nurse would make men little, they would make men big.

Matriarchy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes … to be expressed in various forms of female tyranny…. But its primary force and motive is to make men be little boys, to make them (want to) adjust to a role wherein lies safety…. [For example, when Big Nurse] finds Billy Bibbit with Candy, she shatters his new-found sense of manhood by wondering how Billy's mother will take the news. Billy wilts immediately; stuttering once again, he disavows affection and friendship, and the Big Nurse leads him into the office, "stroking his bowed head and saying 'Poor little boy, poor little boy'."… After which Billy commits suicide, unable to become a man and be jerked back to boyhood all in the space of a few hours.

At Miss Ratched's disposal are the three black orderlies (hired for their hatred), the Shock Shop, and the final measure of lobotomy. With their thermometer, their giant jar of vaseline, and their blood knowledge of rape and injustice, the orderlies make women out of men, just as the Shock Therapy machine turns men docile and lobotomy converts even the most unruly into Fully Adjusted Products. These are weapons of terror, dedicated to the proposition that the best man is a good boy. It is small wonder that the patients on the ward seek the relative safety of boyhood and allow themselves to be ruled by stern or selfish non-mothers who, like cuckoo-birds, have no instinct for building nests of their own. (pp. 45-6)

In such a world McMurphy, the epitome of raw, unvarnished maleness, represents all the Big Nurse needs to control. As the contours of the narrative take form, the bigger-than-life McMurphy and the bigger-than-life Miss Ratched come to be opposed in every way. He is the stud, she the "ball-cutter"; he is the brawler, she the manufacturer of docility; he is the gambler, she the representative of the house—where chance has no meaning.

The opposition between McMurphy and the Big Nurse goes to the very center of the novel, to the perception of Chief Bromden. Whenever the Big Nurse seems in indisputable control, the fog machine churns out its mist, scary, safe, and scary again. When McMurphy wins a skirmish, the fog disappears and the Chief sees clearly. (p. 46)

As part of the Chief's mode of perception, the fog machine is a metaphor for tyranny, fear, and hiding which becomes literalized in his narrative. (p. 47)

Machinery, made by the Combine for the benefit of people who choose to live under the Combine, drove Chief Bromden's people away from nature into a world not their own…. Machinery, associated with authority, with the ward, with Miss Ratched, represents all that brings people into line…. The sound of Ratched is virtually indistinguishable from that of ratchet, with its associations of machinery and distaff. And combine, as Raymond M. Older-man points out, carries with it the idea of "a mechanism, a machine that threshes and levels." The experience in the cotton mill mediates between the Chief's early days with his people and his paranoid existence on the ward; his life, cut into pieces by machinery, has a frightening coherence. (pp. 47-8)

The strategy of literalizing metaphors … lends force and credence to the world the Chief sees and presents to us…. And the Chief, as we know, has become literally deaf and dumb to the world because the world has treated him as if he could not speak and could not hear.

The words big and little likewise take on special meaning because of the Chief's literalizing vision. When McMurphy first shakes hands with Chief Bromden "the fingers were thick and strong closing over my own, and my hand commenced to feel peculiar and went to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it. It rang with blood and power. It blowed up near as big as his, I remember."… And so at the beginning—at a time when the Chief is helpless and little in a chair—we have an anticipation of the end: McMurphy's vital power will flow into Chief Bromden and make him big, at a cost terribly high and terribly necessary. (p. 48)

[McMurphy's] name not only proclaims his paternity but suggests the brawling Irishman of fiction and fact. Moreover, the sounds of McMurphy pervade Kesey's novel…. [The] Chief hears McMurphy before he sees him, and he "sounds big." He comes into the ward laughing—"free and loud"; it is the first laugh the Chief has heard "in years." (pp. 48-9)

McMurphy's laughter and singing, his tall biographical tales, and the authentic ring of his idiom at once dominate the ward and define him to the other patients. His example, of course, evokes the choked off manhood of the men on the ward and a sense of freedom they have forgotten, or not known. (p. 49)

[McMurphy inspires community] laughter …, comic, aware, the signature of a deep experience, the expression of freedom—earned and shared. The fishing expedition, brilliantly handled by Kesey, accentuates the growing sense of community among the patients. (pp. 49-50)

[McMurphy] has much to learn about his new situation beyond the fact of matriarchal authority. He is, at first, what he has always been, the con man, the gambler in search of new territory; and he has managed to get himself committed to avoid the regimen of the work farm. Characteristically, he seizes the opportunity to bet on his ability to outmaneuver the Big Nurse….

McMurphy goes through two other stages in the course of the novel, both the result of increasing awareness. From the lifeguard at the swimming pool he learns the difference between being sentenced and being committed. He realizes for the first time that he will be released only when the Big Nurse approves a release for him. (p. 50)

[Immediately he begins] playing the game, playing it safe—"getting cagey," the way "Papa finally did." At one time the Chief's father used to poke fun at the government men, speaking to them dead-pan like a stage Indian addressing tourists—to the great amusement of his Council. Like McMurphy, Chief Bromden's father learned to play it smart. The other patients on the ward understand about McMurphy; they are not angry or even disappointed. But there is a fearful cost to McMurphy's decision to think of Number One: Cheswick, who has achieved a certain momentum toward manhood, gets caught in the drain the next time they are at the swimming pool and drowns well before McMurphy, the lifeguard, and the orderlies can bring him to the surface.

McMurphy has one staggering fact left to learn. It astonishes him into meditative silence, then catapults him into his final role of savior. He hears from Harding that only a few of the patients on the ward, indeed, in the whole hospital, are committed. The great majority are there voluntarily, because, as Billy Bibbit says sobbingly, they don't have the guts to be Outside….

Direct violations of the Big Nurse's private office, symbolic sexual assaults, are only the beginning. McMurphy, aware now of what committed means, aware, too, that the frightened men on the ward are there voluntarily, and aware, further, that he cannot defeat the Big Nurse and all that is behind her—even as he could not lift the control panel—begins to act for the others rather than for himself.

Before McMurphy arrived, the patients were set against each other in the name of therapy and adjustment…. McMurphy once says … "All I know is this: nobody's very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down."… It is a central insight for the unsophisticated McMurphy—and one of the truest and most generally applicable statements in the novel. (p. 51)

Kesey, in masterful control of the fully activated materials in his novel, takes his madhouse men one last inevitable step, to an achieved sense of community. (pp. 51-2)

The men on the fishing trip and at the party are a far cry from the little boys who spied on each other and tattled in the Big Nurse's log book. No longer do they tear each other down…. The language of the novel virtually insists that we see McMurphy as a kind of Christ figure …: "Do I get a crown of thorns?"…, doling out his life so that others may live. The action of the novel dramatizes the manner in which he makes his sacrifices, amid doubts and rejoicings on the part of his followers…. [McMurphy's legacy is] manhood, friendship suffused with affection, and, finally, love. (p. 52)

The specific make-up of the Combine remains vague, as indeed it must, since the word combine is not simply a synonym for organization, since it is the Chief's protean metaphor for all that mechanizes, threshes, and levels—for all that packages human beings into "products." In this sense, the idea of a Combine contributes powerfully to the dramatic coherence of the novel. (p. 53)

[The Combine is also] recognizably, the world of our suburbs and sub-divisions, standardized, mechanized, virtually anesthetized…. Again the Chief faces a world of threshed out sameness; but he brings to it [after McMurphy's influence] … a sense of possibility which enlarges the dimensions of his spirit. The Combine, of course, continues to adjust things. But things may be increasingly adjusted … because they are increasingly adjustable—which means … that the Combine's power to control may exist in ratio to our willingness to forfeit manhood.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest directs our attention to such a point: we have surrendered a sense of self, which, for Kesey, is involved with a sense of space—and thus possibility…. To lose the sense of space is to be confined … to contribute to the encroaching power of the Combine.

And so Kesey gives us McMurphy, the advocate of our manhood who brings a sense of space, freedom, and largeness onto the ward as something co-existent with his life. (pp. 53-4)

The men on the Big Nurse's ward become stronger once they recognize their inter-dependence…. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an intense statement about the high cost of living—which we must be big enough to afford. (p. 55)

Terence Martin, "'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and the High Cost of Living," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1973 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 43-55.

Robert Forrey

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[There] seems to me to be part of an unfortunate trend among male critics to overpraise [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,] a novel which may be conservative, if not reactionary, politically; sexist, if not psychopathological, psychologically; and very low, if not downright lowbrow, in terms of the level of sensibility it reflects, a sensibility which has been influenced most strongly not by the Bible or a particular literary tradition as much as by comic books, particularly the Captain Marvel variety. (pp. 222-23)

Despite the fact that it became a favorite of the counter culture in the sixties, Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may actually be much more representative of the older, alcoholic, he-man, rather than the newer, drug, hippie culture…. Like Hemingway and Steinbeck before him, Kesey presents as ideals in his first novel the arrogantly masculine ones of drinking, whoring, hunting, and gambling. Kesey is also in the tradition of Hemingway and Steinbeck in depicting his hero as a masculine Christ whom the conspiring world of weak-kneed men and bitchy women try to emasculate. In Hemingway and Steinbeck the Christ analogy is handled with a degree of restraint, but in Kesey it is unabashedly spelled out. Randall Patrick McMurphy's initials are not J. C., as with some of Steinbeck's feisty Christ figures, but he wears a crown of thorns and is crucified for his machismo far more explicitly than even Jim Casy or the fisherman Santiago.

The apparent menace to manhood in One Flew Over is the Combine, a vague and insidious ruling power which conspires against all who oppose it. The major symbol of the Combine is the machine and Kesey draws on two of the meanings of the noun "combine." A "combine" is, in informal usage, a group of people united for some monopolistic purpose; and also, of course, it is a harvesting machine. In choosing the machine as the central metaphor of oppression, Kesey follows a major literary tradition…. Almost always, however, the machine has been viewed as masculine in character. This makes sense because industrial society has been created by men. It is a man's world. But in his novel Kesey identifies the machine with the female. "Big Nurse," the villainess of One Flew Over, is a machine-like, castrating female. Her name, Ratched, means a toothed gear wheel in a threshing machine—i.e., a combine. McMurphy understands that the Big Nurse is not the solicitous mother figure she pretends to be but is "'a ball-cutter,'" "'tough as knife metal.'"…

Almost all the men in Kesey's imaginary mental hospital have been done in, if not actually committed by, women. (pp. 223-24)

Women have robbed the men in the novel of their masculinity so that they are nothing more than an impotent brotherhood. "'There isn't a man here that isn't afraid he is losing or has already lost his whambam,'" Harding says, referring to their impotency…. One Flew Over was written from the point of view that man's problems are caused by woman who refuses to allow him to play the domineering role which nature intended him to play. The premise of the novel is that women ensnare, emasculate, and, in some cases, crucify men. The only good women in the novel are two whores who good-naturedly accept their role as sex objects and a Japanese nurse who is powerless to oppose the domineering bitches who control the men.

The Big Nurse is the biggest bitch. She pretends to be interested only in the welfare of the patients, but her real purposes are rather sinister. She refuses to allow the male patients to do anything which might remind them that they are still men. Not only does she forbid them to drink, whore, and gamble; she also rations their cigarettes and denies them the opportunity to watch the world series on television. All of these activities, as much as we may joke about them, have a sacramental value to males, or at least to red-blooded males, and no one understands their importance better than the randy hero of the novel, Randall Patrick McMurphy. By denying these sacraments of masculinity to the men, the Big Nurse succeeds in keeping them in line (at least until McMurphy arrives on the ward). Even the male doctor, who tends to sympathize with the male patients, is afraid of her because he is a drug addict who lives in fear of losing his job. The woman in charge of hiring and firing at the hospital is a good friend of the Big Nurse. Consequently, all the males on the hospital ward are under the Big Nurse's thumb, except perhaps for the black attendants who enjoy a special status. They work hand in glove with the Big Nurse against the white patients.

Since in the sixties the two major challenges to the rule of white American males came from blacks and women, it may be significant that the Big Nurse's closest allies are three black attendants. Specially picked and trained by her for their tasks, they are as cruel and sinister as those dark-skinned harpooners Ahab enlisted as accomplices to help kill the white whale, symbol of God and the phallus, according to some critics. The white whales on McMurphy's colorful underwear crudely underscore his identification with leviathan. (pp. 224-25)

Only when McMurphy arrives on the ward do the Big Nurse and her black attendants meet any opposition. A swashbuckling male, the Marlboro-smoking McMurphy challenges her because he has not yet been emasculated by women nor sexually intimidated by blacks. A bachelor and an ex-Marine who had fought in Korea, he has a devil with an M-1 rifle tatooed on one of his muscular shoulders and a poker hand tatooed on the other. Defying the tyranny of the Big Nurse as he had once defied his communist captors in a prison camp, McMurphy promotes gambling on the ward, organizes a basketball team among the patients, and undermines the authority of the Big Nurse in every way he can. Adapting Christian symbols and myths to his own novelistic purposes, Kesey characterizes McMurphy as a swaggering savior, a messiah of masculinity, erect and profane, shaking the matriarchal power structure. (p. 226)

Only gradually does McMurphy become aware of the dangers involved in standing up for the other patients, but with a martyr's zeal he refuses to back down or give up his struggle, even after he knows the worst.

As part of his crusade to make the male patients men again, McMurphy plans a fishing trip for them, getting special permission for the excursion from hospital authorities. Of course McMurphy also plans to do some drinking and whoring with two prostitutes he has invited along, thus making it all a quintessentially masculine experience…. The fishing trip itself is a huge success, with anything a real man, as Kesey defines manhood, could want—fishing, drinking, smoking, swearing, and whoring. If these are the important sacraments of the sexist tradition, McMurphy is the sexist savior, for Kesey obviously cast his story in terms of the life of Christ. "'Be a fisher of men,'" someone told McMurphy before he led his twelve patient-disciples to the sea. (pp. 226-27)

[Angrily ripping open the Big Nurse's uniform] is possibly McMurphy's most important act in the novel, for in exposing her breasts, he is also exposing her womanhood which she had been so careful to keep hidden. She cannot expect to dominate the men unless she can make them forget she is a woman, and her large breasts were a constant reminder to them that she was. By exposing her breasts to the patients, McMurphy destroys her authority.

The patients now know that she is just a woman—McMurphy had established that fact—and they begin to stand up for themselves…. Bromden's escape from the clutches of the Big Nurse is meant to carry great symbolic weight, for he represents the primitive male, the "Vanishing American," who was becoming a rare species. Ripping a machine up from the floor of the ward and tossing it out the window, Bromden makes his way to freedom and so, by extension, does the masculine spirit. The castrating Combine and the Big Nurses who run it have not been overthrown, but the eleven patients who escape will presumably keep McMurphy's lusty spirit alive, preaching the message that their oppressors are after all only women. (p. 228)

As Freud emphasized, feelings of paranoia and megalomania often stem from repressed homosexual impulses. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tries to suggest that this kind of psychoanalyzing is nonsense, that the problem is simply that men want to be men but women won't let them. Perhaps this is the case, but the thought persists that no psychologically informed reading of Kesey's novel can ignore the repressed homosexuality that seems to pervade it. Kesey himself was not unaware of this possibility, particularly in the relationship between McMurphy and Bromden which is presumably why the Indian at one point in the novel insists that his strong desire to touch McMurphy is not homosexually motivated. Perhaps Bromden is not latently homosexual. But if he and McMurphy and the other patients are, then what we have in Kesey's novel is yet another group of American males trying desperately to unite into a quasi-religious cult or brotherhood which will enable them to sublimate their homosexuality in violent athletic contests, gambling, or other forms of psychopathological horseplay…. Christ had warned that false prophets would come after him. We might add, so would psychopathic saviors. (pp. 229-30)

Robert Forrey, "Ken Kesey's Psychopathic Savior: A Rejoinder," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1975, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Summer, 1975, pp. 222-230.

James F. Knapp

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Literary critics have always found ways to contradict each other…. Consider two statements concerning Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: according to Terrence Martin, "The men on the Big Nurse's ward become stronger once they recognize their interdependence…." [see excerpt above], but W. D. Sherman says that "The kind of affirmation which arises from Kesey's novels is an anarchic 'yes' to life, which, despite its joyousness, leaves a man prey to unbearable isolation." Both observations ring true, and yet surely Kesey cannot be affirming a vital individualism, whose price is personal isolation, at the same time that he offers a vision of the necessity of inter-dependence and mutual brotherhood. (p. 398)

So we could attempt to decide whether Kesey's writing preach independence or inter-dependence, just as, presumably, he struggled to reconcile those two poles in his own mind…. [The counter-culture to which Kesey belonged felt that if] traditional images socialize traditionally, then new images might be found which would have the power to shape minds in new directions. Social change could be brought about through the simple, non-violent agency of "creative mythology": initiate a cultural revolution, and the rest will follow. (pp. 399-400)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest … depends heavily on the sort of critique of society which was being made throughout the serious media during the nineteen-fifties. America has become a lonely crowd of organization men, offering its alluence only to those who are willing to pay the price of strict conformity. (p. 400)

By choosing a mental hospital for his setting, Kesey was able to picture society's pressure to adjust at its most coldly, and explicitly, coercive. Identifying social evil with institutional constraints which hinder individuality, he proceeded to set a microcosmic revolution in motion by introducing a powerfully individual character. Randle McMurphy succeeds in destroying the order of the ward, and in liberating some of its patients, not through any kind of direct attack on the system, but simply by refusing to speak the language which sustains it. His most telling weapons are jokes, games, obscenity, make-believe, verbal disrespect. The patients have seen physical violence before, and been left unchanged by it. But when McMurphy violates that language which had marked out, invisibly, the social space of the ward, they begin to be freed of its power, begin to see that other patterns of relationship, other values might be possible. McMurphy's singing in the shower is disturbing and exciting precisely because it challenges that web of indirect, symbolic control through which the voluntarily committed patients have been made to choose their own oppression. Like a bawdy William Blake, McMurphy is a cultural revolutionary whose function it is to smash the "mind-forg'd manacles" of his time. (pp. 400-01)

In his second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, Kesey had defined a similar set of oppositions. Setting a hero whose unpredictable independence passes all bounds of reason against a loggers' union whose members are plodding fools at best, Kesey affirms his opposition to institutional conformity—among workers no less than owners. His hero, Hank Stamper, sets out to undermine the strikers' position by supplying their mill with logs almost single-handedly, because he will not bow to group pressure—justified or not. In a gesture which becomes the central image for his defiance, he runs his father's severed arm up a flagpole, all its fingers but the middle one tied down. That act, which, paradoxically, destroys the dignity and authority of the union leader in the eyes of his men, is essentially an audacious, macabre prank. The point I would stress, however, is that in each of these cases, we are asked to identify with characters who set themselves in opposition to a world of stultifying, institutional conformity—whether Combine and hospital, or company suburb, or manipulative union. It was institutions such as these which came to be grouped together, during the sixties, under the label Establishment. From this point of view, Kesey is a decidedly "anti-Establishment" figure whose works, in life as well as in art, encouraged social change. (p. 402)

At this point, we might frame an argument something like this: though the counter-culture offered a fearsome appearance of change, it was in fact powerless, because a society cannot be changed simply by the symbolic magic of altering its myths. That is to say, cultural revolution is bunk. (p. 403)

Kesey himself was adept at drawing on the most traditional of images…. When he created a hero to break up the order of Big Nurse's ward, he made him in the mold of a thousand dime novels…. Nor is Hank Stamper, muscles rippling like steel cables, any exception to Kesey's image of the proper Western hero.

As Kesey conceived it, these frontier heroes must engage in acts which reveal their gritty, solitary fortitude. (pp. 404-05)

By adopting traditional metaphors such as these, Kesey invests his new experiments with the authority of a national history full of exploring. He can be traditional and revolutionary at the same time. In embracing the image of the pioneer, however, he invokes a body of tradition which has helped to sustain a deep continuity within the American experience. (p. 405)

For Kesey, nature was an alien presence that must be transformed by the arts of civilization before it could serve a human purpose. His aim was not to build the mines and mills and cities of the earlier dreamers, but his starting point, like theirs, was the assumption that nature must be mastered by human technology. One consequence of such an attitude has been the enormous physical transformation of the continent, but the full implications of the myth must be understood. When a part of the world was marked as alien territory, that label sanctioned the mastery of everything beyond the frontier—including the people. (pp. 406-07)

In Cuckoo's Nest, for instance, the service station attendant only exists to be badgered into submission, the charter boat captain to be outwitted, the psychiatrist to be used, Big Nurse to be defeated by any means possible. Nor are we allowed to feel any real sympathy for the self-pitying, blustering, diarrhetic, athlete's-foot-ridden union men of Sometimes A Great Notion. Against such backgrounds, the Kesey hero (himself or his fictions) stands out all the more clearly as dynamic entrepreneur…. Kesey's work actually conveys the most traditional of messages: it is the right and the destiny of strong individuals to shape the world to their wills….

But this essay began with the paradox that Kesey has been seen to affirm both independence and interdependence, and I am not quite ready to resolve that contradiction on the side of unqualified individualism…. There is a clear concern in each of these books for the problems of forging some kind of community in the face of a cold, alienating world…. [We] must set off into the heathen darkness, and build our holy city with ax and gun—or strobe light. But that is only part of the myth. Salvation cannot in fact be complete until Christ, as Second Adam, makes his sacrifice and offers a new pattern for human life. (pp. 408-09)

In Cuckoo's Nest [Kesey] creates a character who quite simply learns to be Christ. As McMurphy begins to feel a bond of sympathy for his fellow patients he comes to their aid at increasing cost to himself. Publicly failing to lift a heavy control panel he seems to say: I am mortal like you, but I am not afraid to commit myself. Smashing Big Nurse's window, he cuts himself badly, but restores the spirit of the ward. And when he forgoes his self-interested good behavior to defend another man, and so faces the punishment of shock treatment, he consciously identifies himself with Christ: "They put the graphite salve on his temples. 'What is it?' he says. 'Conductant,' the technician says. 'Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?'"… Ultimately, McMurphy sacrifices his mind and then his life so that his brothers may be reborn out of the living death in which he had found them. (p. 410)

Setting himself against the cold impersonality of modern society, Kesey would create a new community based on self-sacrifice and mutual dependency. And yet his community would include only the elect, and, set in opposition to a world of outsiders he regards as unenlightened or downright evil, it would offer no vision of the larger, inclusive society. There was a kind of siege mentality about much of the counter-culture, and perhaps that had something to do with Kesey's attraction to this beleaguered warrior-Christ. But whatever the cause, he seems to embrace aggressive individualism one moment and self-sacrificing brotherhood the next, and the contradiction cannot be resolved because it is rooted in the only words he knew. Society's myths are always open to the movement of history…. But to consciously master so complex a process, to understand all the social messages being transmitted by any body of tradition, and to try to bend them to your own ambition—is to fly awfully close to the sun. Ken Kesey was a cultural revolutionary, all right, but the beast he sought to control had a mind subtler, and more willful, than he ever guessed. (pp. 411-12)

James F. Knapp, "Tangled in the Language of the Past: Ken Kesey and Cultural Revolution," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1978, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Summer, 1978, pp. 398-412.


Kesey, Ken (Vol. 1)


Kesey, Ken (Vol. 184)