Ken Kesey Kesey, Ken (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2297 words.)

Robert Forrey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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James F. Knapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1565 words.)