Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

When One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1962, it was well received by the critics and swiftly gained popularity among college-age readers. Critic Malcolm Cowley, one of Kesey's teachers at Stanford, commented in a letter to Kesey that the book (which he read in rough draft) contained "some of the most brilliant scenes I have ever read" and "passion like I've not seen in young writers before." R. A. Jelliffe, writing in the Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, praised the novel for its brilliant mixture of realism and myth, noting "this is an allegory with a difference." Time magazine praised Kesey for both his power and humor, describing the book as "a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil, despite the macabre setting." While some initial reviews faulted the novel as rambling, the majority agreed with New York Times Book Review contributor Martin Levin that Cuckoo's Nest was "a work of genuine literary merit."

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It wasn't long after the novel appeared, however, that criticism arose over its negative portrayal of female characters. Julian Moynahan, for instance, argued in a 1964 New York Review of Books article that Cuckoo's Nest was "a very beautiful and inventive book violated by a fifth-rate idea which made Woman, in alliance with modern technology, the destroyer of masculinity and sensuous enjoyment." Similarly, Marcia L. Falk criticized the popular acceptance of the work and its Broadway adaptation in a 1971 letter to the New York Times. She noted that people "never even noticed, or cared to question, the psychic disease out of which the book's vision was born." Other critics have defended the work by noting, for instance, that the negative female stereotypes are there to support the novel's satire or that these negative characters are not truly representatives of women, but rather representatives of evil. Either way, the novel has inspired many articles analyzing how it portrays gender conflict and defines masculinity and humanity in general. As Richard D. Maxwell wrote in Twenty-Seven to One: "It is apparent that Kesey is not putting the entire blame [on women for men's loss of power]. . . . It is the male who is allowing the female and the corporation to chip away at his masculinity."

Another debated aspect of the novel has been its portrayal of racial groups, specifically the black orderlies who work on the ward. Chief expresses hatred for these men, who are little more than stupid and cruel stereotypes, and he and McMurphy often express their anger with racial slurs. Several critics have pointed out, however, that these men are seen through the mind of the Chief, who himself has been the victim of prejudice as well as the "Combine" that dehumanizes people of all races. In this fashion Chief's racial observations create an ironic commentary on the nature of racism, as Janet R. Sutherland remarked in English Journal: "Just as the reader has to look beyond the typically racist language of the inmate to find in the book as a whole a document of witness against the dehumanizing, sick effects of racism in our society, so Bromden has to look beyond the perception of the world which limits his concept of self."

A large number of articles have examined how the novel defines the role of the hero in a society which stifles individuality, and who exactly is the hero of the novel. While some observers have argued that McMurphy, who through his example and sacrifice shows the men how to escape, is the hero, many others suggest that it is Chief Bromden who is ultimately the hero of the work. While McMurphy leads his "disciple" Bromden to a new understanding, Barry H. Leeds noted in Connecticut Review, "it is not until the very end of the novel . . . that it becomes clear that Bromden has surpassed his teacher in the capacity to survive in American society." Ronald Wallace likewise argued in his The Last Laugh that Bromden rejects the "extreme" of total freedom and chaos that McMurphy represents and "has recreated himself in his own best image: strong, independent, sensitive, sympathetic, and loving, with a comic perspective on his human limitations." In the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Thomas H. Fick placed Bromden's triumph as the hero in the tradition of the mythology of the American West, where a Native American guides a white man to greater understanding. Kesey has turned this myth on its side, noted Fick, creating "the first [instance], surely, that the Indian partner in such a pair has outlived his White brother." The result, concluded the critic, is "a powerful novel which effectively translates into contemporary terms the enduring American concern with a freedom found only in—or in between—irreconcilable oppositions."

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