Ken Kesey Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Choose three images from a Ken Kesey novel and explain what they suggest, what they add to an understanding of character, conflict, or situation.

What is the effect of telling One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest through the confused, schizophrenic musings of the supposedly deaf-and-dumb Native American Chief Bromden, a “chronic” committed to an insane asylum for life?

Select two or more background details about McMurphy (for example, his Red Chinese prison camp experience, the white whales on his shorts) and explain what they reveal about him.

List techniques or strategies used by McMurphy against Big Nurse. Then list tools or strategies used by Big Nurse against McMurphy. What differences do you notice between them? How are these differences significant to Kesey’s message?

The endings of Kesey’s novels often leave readers feeling uncomfortable. Pick a novel and explain whether the ending is hopeful or pessimistic and why you think so. Why does Kesey end his novel the way he does? What effect does he hope to create in his readers?

Although Kesey describes the brothers in Sometimes a Great Notion as opposites, he also sees them as parts of himself. In what ways are Hank and Lee different? Behind those differences, what qualities do they share?

Find an example of black humor, anecdote, tall tale, cinematic technique, or comic book technique in Kesey’s writing. Identify which term applies to the example, how it applies, and what Kesey achieves by using it.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In 1971, Ken Kesey (KEE-zee) was asked by Stewart Brand, the editor of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, to edit The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. Somewhat reluctant, Kesey agreed, but only if Paul Krassner would be the coeditor. Krassner accepted. It took almost two months to write, edit, and lay out the five-hundred-page final issue, which contained the best selections from previous issues as well as some new writings by Kesey. The final issue had a total press run of 100,000 copies and is now out of print.

The Viking Press and Intrepid Trips jointly published Kesey’s Garage Sale (1973), a volume based on an American phenomenon: the rummage, yard, or garage sale. The book is a miscellany of essays, poetry, letters, drawings, interviews, prose fiction, and a film script. Although much of the writing was Kesey’s, “Hot Item Number 4: Miscellaneous Section with Guest Leftovers” contained a letter by Neal Cassady and poems by Allen Ginsberg and Hugh Romney. Kesey’s “Who Flew Over What,” “Over the Border,” and “Tools from My Chest” supply interesting insights into Kesey’s beliefs and personality, and more important, they supplement the biographical details in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), an informative biographical account of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters exploits.

In “Who Flew Over What,” Kesey answers some of the most common questions about One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He admitted...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Writer Tom Wolfe remarked that Ken Kesey was one of the most charismatic men he had ever met, and others have likewise commented upon Kesey’s charisma. In fact, social critics affirmed that there were two important leaders of the 1960’s counterculture revolution: Timothy Leary and his devotees on the East Coast and Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on the West Coast. Leary and his “Learyites” took themselves seriously, advocated passively dropping out of society, and rejected much that was American, especially American gadgetry. In contrast, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were pro-America, were more interested in the spontaneous fun of the twentieth century “neorenaissance,” and took LSD not to become societal dropouts but rather to lead society to new frontiers of social communality.

As a novelist, Kesey achieved both notoriety and distinction as a major voice of his generation, yet some critics argue that his achievement goes further. They point to his complex characters, rollicking humor, and creative manipulation of point of view as Kesey’s enduring contribution to American literature.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kesey, Ken. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: Text and Criticism. Edited by John C. Pratt. New York: Viking, 1973. Contains the text of the novel, related materials, and a selection of early critical responses to the novel, together with a brief bibliography.

Perry, Paul. On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counter Culture. New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 1990.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. In this first full-length study of Kesey, Porter penetrates Kesey’s drug-culture image to reveal his accomplishments as an author in the traditional “American mold of optimism and heroism.” A highly regarded critical study that offers an astute commentary on Kesey’s fiction.

Searles, George J., ed. A Casebook on Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. A collection of critical articles, most originally published in the 1970’s. Also includes a MAD magazine satire of the film and a bibliography.

Sherwood, Terry G. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Comic Strip.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 13, no. 1 (1971): 97-109....

(The entire section is 473 words.)