Cultural Climate in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2033
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has sold over eight million copies since its publication in 1962. Imagine a first novel so relevant to popular audiences and universities alike that it has spawned an Academy Award-winning film as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of academic articles, essays, and dissertations. Ken Kesey's first novel was certainly a blockbuster in every sense of the word, but what does this mean to readers thirty-five years and more after the fact? Cuckoo's Nest captured the fear and uncertainty of a postwar generation who came of age with the still-new and very real possibility of total nuclear destruction. Dissatisfied with the easy answers and assurances of their parents' generation, people began to explore for themselves new ways of coping with a rapidly changing world. The result was a culture of rebellion in the form of social protest, usually aided and abetted by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Kesey's novel, like many others written between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, is a chronicle of that exploration of new possibilities. In the years since the publication of Cuckoo's Nest, new readers of the novel are not only further away in time from that era, they are also shaped by modern sensibilities about culture (especially music and literature) that were born in the 1960s. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has endured because under these influences and through the passage of time, reading the novel has become a much more complicated task.
Perhaps the biggest of these ongoing influences is Kesey himself. Although his celebrity status has considerably diminished, he was for years as well known as anyone in popular culture. Tom Wolfe, a novelist and frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Esquire magazines, wrote a novel (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) about Kesey and his group of friends, the Merry Pranksters. The group, including authors Larry McMurtry and Ken Babbs, met at Stanford University in 1959, and many volunteered for government experiments with LSD and related pharmaceuticals. Their most famous stunt was a cross-country bus trip made with movie cameras in hand so that the trip could be made into "The Movie." In 1961, Kesey volunteered on the mental ward of a veteran's hospital, whose patients inspired the characters in Cuckoo's Nest.
The novel's narrator is Chief "Broom" Bromden, a man whose madness stems from a long process of isolation from his community of Native Americans in Oregon. This ultimately leads to confinement in the asylum and an attempted withdrawal from all of his surroundings as he feigns deafness and dumbness Similarly, he clings to the drug-induced "fog" that he perceives around him because "you can slip back in it and feel safe." He needs to feel safe from "The Combine," that evil mechanical power whose stronghold is the mental hospital, and whose chief instrument is Big Nurse Ratched.
Bromden' s situation paints a tiny picture of society as many saw it in the 1960s. Individual needs and desires were becoming less individual; government and corporate powers seemed to be either marginalizing these needs or making them conform to arbitrary moral standards about everything from race to sex to drugs and alcohol (Kesey himself was in and out of court and jail for over a year on the basis of a marijuana possession charge). Bromden's reaction is to withdraw from a society that wants control over him. He retains some sense of himself by pretending to be overcome by Nurse Ratched; this allows him to see and hear things that others do not. For example, he is permitted to clean the staff room during meetings because he is assumed to be deaf.
Into this world marches Randle P. McMurphy. A confessed con-man and brawler, he is determined to manipulate the system rather than allow it to manipulate him. While serving a sentence in a work camp, he gains access to the comparatively easy life of the mental hospital by playing at insanity as a fighting madman. Once admitted to Big Nurse's ward, he begins to subvert her systematic control by using it against her: his first big victory about television privileges during the World Series is gained through authorized patient voting, and he turns Doctor Spivey, the ward psychiatrist, to his side on issues like the basketball team and the fishing expedition. In the process, other patients are urged to do the same. Cheswick becomes more argumentative; voluntary inmates like Harding and the innocent Billy Bibbit begin to think about leaving, and Bromden defeats his fear of the system by choosing to speak again, and eventually escapes from the hospital.
Of course, the system is not defeated so easily. Cheswick kills himself out of despair when McMurphy temporarily gives up the fight for fear of being permanently committed; Billy Bibbit kills himself rather than face his mother with the shame of having slept with a prostitute; and McMurphy is lobotomized into a comatose state by Nurse Ratched when he is finally pushed too far and tries to kill her. If the mental ward is a miniature version, a microcosm, of the world as seen by a generation of young people in the 1960s, then these losses are symbolic of a warning. In the fight between the individual and those who would disempower him or her, there will be losses, and a clear winner may not emerge. McMurphy loses his life, certainly, but in the process, Chief Bromden regains his, as do Sefelt, Fredenckson and three other voluntary patients who choose the dangers of freedom over the safety of a controlled environment.
These distinctions make for grey areas in any modern reading of the novel. Big Nurse Ratched and the system with which she controls the hospital are clearly evil, and McMurphy's ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his friends on the ward is clearly good. But do readers still see all of society reflected in Big Nurse's hospital? Do we, like Kesey and like so many novelists of his generation, see the same need to fight or escape from a tyrannical society?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fits into a series of works that set a protagonist in search of freedom against a society determined to restrict that freedom. In 1953, Ralph Ellison published The Invisible Man. In it, Ellison chillingly portrays a black man bouncing off the walls of a white world where he had no voice and no power. Jack Kerouac' s 1957 novel On the Road is a much less gloomy novel that focuses on freedom rather than constraint. Its protagonist is Dean Moriarty, an unstoppable vagabond who pursues women, jazz music, and marijuana on coast-to-coast rides across the country in borrowed cars. Other members of Kerouac's "Beat Generation" included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, whose long poem "Howl" (1956) is just that: a long and bitter complaint that "the best minds of [his] generation" have been destroyed by a brutally cold society. In 1961, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, in which the members of a World War II bomber squadron find themselves in absurd and unfair conflict with their superior officers and the rules and regulations they control. This trend continues in the more obscure works of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow depicts a World War II U.S. Army soldier whose entire life is a sinister experiment by world governments and international corporations.
Like these novels, Cuckoo's Nest raises serious issues about the individual's relationship with an often unfair society. Perhaps because these issues have become less central to contemporary readers, literary critics have over the years chosen very different paths in discussing Kesey's novel. Early interviews with Kesey reveal a standard interpretation of the novel. One, in The Whole Earth Catalog, has the interviewer asking questions like, "Do you think policemen and Richard Nixon and the rich people who run the country can relate to that?" Some years later, Leslie Fiedler and Carol Pearson argued that the novel owes more to ancient myths than social turmoil. Fiedler sees in the novel a pattern that dates back to ancient English verse, in which "the white outcast" (McMurphy) and the "noble Red Man" (Bromden) join forces against "home and mother" (Big Nurse). Pearson finds another myth wherein the buffoon (McMurphy) and the quiet hero (Bromden) defeat an evil king (Big Nurse) who has laid waste to the kingdom in pursuit of ultimate power.
Fiedler and other critics also see the novel as an updated version of the western. McMurphy ("He's got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes") is the cowboy come to a corrupt town to set it right. Still another interpretation, popularized by Joseph Waldmeir, is that Cuckoo's Nest is a "Novel of the Absurd," a novel that presents an unreasonable, impossible world with usually comic results. Another critical catch-phrase is "the Carnivalesque": some critics believe that the novel fits into an ancient tradition of stories whose meaning derives from the pleasures and perils of wild carnivals. These critics usually point to the disorganized fun McMurphy brings to the ward with basketball, gambling, and fishing, despite Big Nurse's efforts to spoil the party. These different critical points of view all bring something to a modern reader's understanding of the novel.
Any interpretation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, however, must address basic story elements like character and narrative voice. As critical views multiply, this task becomes more difficult For example, if this is truly a "Novel of the Absurd" that portrays an impossible, unrealistic world, what can we say about characters like McMurphy and Bromden? If they are not supposed to represent real people with real emotions and motivations, they are flat characters stripped of much of what Kesey has given them. Yes, McMurphy's behavior is sometimes inhuman. It seems doubtful that anyone could remain untouched by the multitude of shock treatments he undergoes, and his emotional reactions are not consistent: he barely notices Cheswick's suicide, while Billy Bibbitt's sends him over the edge. But Kesey does make the effort to round out McMurphy's character: "I'd see him do things . . . like painting a picture at OT with real paints on a blank paper . . . or like writing letters to somebody in a beautiful flowing hand." And once, he even looks "upset and worried."
We must also remember that all these observations are Chief Broom's. Bromden is both a character and the narrator who tells the story, and he is certainly insane. Perhaps the novel only seems absurd because its narrator believes that most everyone around him is built of metal, springs, and cogs. This type of narration makes it difficult to distinguish between the observations of the storyteller, Bromden, and the insights of the novelist, Kesey. For example, when McMurphy moves to kill Nurse Ratched, Bromden sees "slow, mechanical gestures" and hears "iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile." At this point, we either hear Bromden telling us that McMurphy in nothing but boxer shorts is still the cowboy hero, or we hear Kesey telling us that McMurphy has lost and become one with his enemy, as mechanical and metallic as "The Combine" itself.
The greatest challenge presented by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and by any novel of its stature in American literature, is to find the right balance of critical insight and personal opinion. Ken Kesey has gone on to write ten works of fiction and nonfiction, and the criticism and reviews of these books are ongoing. Kesey's second published novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, explores many of the same themes we see in Cuckoo's Nest, as its hero Hank Stamper struggles for freedom and independence within his Oregon home town. If Cuckoo's Nest is the first in Kesey's line of works to explore the theme of individual freedom, then it is the modern reader's enviable task to read it with a sort of double vision: one eye on the social history that inspired Kesey and his generation, and one eye on the contemporary critical views that continue to expand our understanding of it.
Source: Ian Cume, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Currie is a freelance writer based in British Columbia who has taught at Dalhousie University.
Moby Dick vs. Big Nurse. A Feminist Defense of a Misogynist Text: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3031
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey's 1962 novel of life in a hospital for the mentally ill, is a document of the sixties. Its anti-insti-tutionalism, its celebration of boisterous rebellion against a seemingly rational (but actually unnecessarily repressive) establishment spoke to a generation of long-haired beaded and bearded anti-war activists. That the novel records something important to that era is not enough (perhaps) to justify its inclusion in a public school curriculum, we generally seek a universal and timeless quality in the works we teach to students. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest possesses this broader vision, however, and transcends its own timeliness by addressing a social problem that is both ever and omnipresent—that of the relationship between institutional authority and individual and/or subjected group desire for autonomy and self-determination. Kesey's novel raises crucial questions about power and control, about how groups establish and maintain the particular kind of order that they deem necessary to their survival, about ways in which the "controlled" resist that order. This book belongs in the high school curriculum for the following reasons:
a) It "opens" the issue of social control in the truest sense. The novel offers no simple answers to the question of what to do with the "dysfunctional"—with those whose behavior disrupts the social order. While some of the ward's inmates are there for socio-cultural reasons (Chief Bromden, the narrator, most notably), others are "voluntary," that is, self-committed and clearly hiding from a threatening and hostile outside world; still others are Chronics, the radically dysfunctional psychically and physically, in need of total institutional care—though the question is repeatedly raised in the novel of whether the institution itself is not the agent of much of the dysfunction of its wards.
b) It treats a problem that is particularly relevant to teenaged readers, whose chafing under institutional rules and constraints and whose ambivalence toward authority is often acute.
c) It is a readable book, dramatic, immediate, accessible to young readers.
d) It is a work of substantial literary merit that features an interesting narrative situation—Chief Bromden, the towering Indian who has posed as a deaf-mute on the ward for many years, narrates the novel, creating a complex, ironic, and privileged perspective on events and personalities in the hospital, privileged by virtue of his deaf-mute disguise which tricks authority figures into speaking freely in his presence.
e) Finally, it is a work that is seriously problematic in its treatment of gender and race. While this might seem a spurious asset in our age of multicultural and gender-balanced curricular imperatives, I believe that the particular nature of its race and gender problems as a text makes these issues accessible at the high school level in illuminating ways. Far from justifying any censorship in the interests of political correctness, the novel's lapses afford teaching opportunities (to be elaborated later in this chapter).
The novel's structure is that of a contest between Nurse Ratched and Randle McMurphy, the new guy on the block/ward. The contest is waged and staged in the mind of Chief Bromden, whose narrative goes back in time (when prompted to do so by disturbing events on the ward) to recall his father's degradation at the hands of white government agents who coerced him into selling the tribal lands. In shame his father descended into drunken oblivion while the young son lapsed into silence as a means of self-protection and as a reaction to the discovery that he was a voiceless nonentity anyway in the white community. In addition to his silenced persona, the Chief (his ward nickname) has developed the theory of the "Combine," his reification of the ubiquitous social control machine which subdues all autonomous human behavior by means of wires, fogs, implants, recording devices, and robotics; only, he muses, moving targets like McMurphy, those who stay outside of and on the edges of institutions, can evade the Combine, and their evasions are precarious. The notion of the Combine is important, because it connects the abuses of authority within the hospital to the larger society outside; as one patient, Harding, says, (referring to the submissiveness of the ward's population) "we are—the rabbits, one might say, of the rabbit world!" Clearly the inmates/rabbits have been waiting for a savior, for a newcomer with "a very wolfy roar" to model resistance to the form that the Combine takes on the hospital ward, to the "Big Nurse.". . .
Since it achieved popularity in the sixties, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been subject to censorship in the public school system in the United States. All of these charges are, from a surface standpoint, understandable; the novel contains four-letter words in abundance, and McMurphy expresses his sexuality blatantly, constantly, and in a sexist manner. Moreover, the four-letter words and the sexual language are uttered by characters with whom we sympathize and identify, often in reaction to characters with far more propriety and institutional legitimacy whom we, as readers, loathe. The book, thus, seems to advocate or at least sanction profanity and male sexual braggadocio. Further, it seems to encourage and support disruptive, anti-authoritarian behavior. The reader experiences exhilaration when McMurphy puts his fist through the nurses' station window to grab a forbidden pack of cigarettes; we applaud the weekend furlough fishing expedition in which the group from the ward, led by Mac, steals a fishing boat. Disregard for rules, property, and the fights of others on the part of protagonist/heroes may (somewhat understandably) not be what parents and teachers beset with disciplinary problems want their children to celebrate in their reading.
Those who don't find raw language, sexual remarks or mutinous behavior necessarily offensive in reading material for young people may still take issue with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for two other reasons: first, it contains disturbing material that some may find too distressing for young readers. Kesey depicts electro-shock therapy and lobotomy graphically. The patients who die in the text die gruesomely—Cheswick, Mac's first disciple, drowns in the therapeutic swimming pool when his fingers get stuck in the grate at the bottom; Billy Bibbit, the over-aged, underdeveloped stutterer, cuts his own throat when Big Nurse threatens to tell his overpowering mother of his sexual escapade with a prostitute, sneaked onto the ward by McMurphy; the lobotomized Irish hero himself is smothered, flailing in his bed, by the Chief. . . .
This is a difficult moment for a reader. The resistance of McMurphy's body to death is consistent with his character, the euthanasia decision taken by the Chief may be controversial, the homoerotic overtones of the passage are unmistakable. Even though the novel ends on a positive note with the empowering and the escape of the Chief, much of what facilitates his liberation is brutal.
The second "liberal" objection to the novel as a high school text is to its stereotyped treatment of blacks and women. Big Nurse's hatchet men are three black orderlies who are despised and feared by patients, are referred to as boys, coons, and niggers at various moments in the text, and who are presented as being lazy and sneaky. The Chief first presents the trio to us in this way:
They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get mopped up before I can catch them
The black orderlies are "them," the enemy, or, at least, agents of the enemy Big Nurse. They are sneaky, perverted, and sadistic (in the eyes of the inmate/narrator), but they are also powerless, like the patients, in the face of Big Nurse's authority and powerful manipulative skills. She is herself, of course, a stereotyped castrating female of mythic proportions. Chief Bromden alludes to her size and sees her grow larger at times—this from a man who is 6'8" whom Mac calls the biggest Indian he's ever seen. Big Nurse is also known as Mother Ratched by the male patients. The Chief gives us McMurphy assessing her power in these terms:
There's something strange about a place where the men won't let themselves loose and laugh, something strange about the way they all knuckle under to that smiling flour-faced old mother there with the too red lipstick and the too big boobs.
That "something strange" is what Mac, newcomer on the ward, is so incredulous about—the fact that grown men tremble in the formidable woman's presence. She fuels the Chief's imagination in a variety of interesting ways; he, whose white mother tricked his Indian father into selling tribal land, whose father took the white mother's name upon their marriage, believes that a gust of cold follows Big Nurse as she walks through the ward, believes that, as she gets angry, "she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load." Images of cold steel, machinery, wires, porcelain, hard glitter, and whiteness are what he repeatedly associates with her. She is the nexus of all of his fears, and the main reason the Chief grows to love and admire McMurphy is that the latter refuses to fear her.
Authority, then, in the novel is female—a large-breasted mother figure, "a bitch and a buzzard and a ballcutter." Strong women are evil and emasculating. The women viewed positively in the novel are the kind-hearted whores whom Mac introduces to the men and the sympathetic—and very tiny—Japanese nurse who works on the Disturbed ward. Once authority is constituted in this gendered manner—and once the clichéd mother/whore dichotomy is established in the novel—the form that resistance "naturally" takes is that of machismo, of the restoration and re-emergence of phallic power. The intellectual and articulate patient, Harding, explains to McMurphy that "we are victims of a matriarchy here, my friend," and a bit later refers to Big Nurse as being "impregnable." All of the challenges that McMurphy organizes against institutional authority are reassertions of maleness—poker games, fishing trips, watching the World Series on television, smuggling in prostitutes, drinking, locker-room jokes, insistently asking Big Nurse if she wears C or D cups. A teacher or parent may well hesitate to recommend or teach a text in which the center of authority is a large, white mother figure, the subordinate authority figures are black males, and the endorsed protagonists are all subjugated white males (with the exception of Chief Bromden, whose treatment as a Native American figure in the text also partakes of cliché and stereotype, even if he is given the subject position of narrator) who are exuberantly acting out adolescent male fantasies of competition and sexual aggression. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a text which violates a whole spectrum of contemporary versions of "political correctness."
I wish to argue that it is the proliferation of "problems" with the book that combines with its anti-authoritarian appeal to render this novel a profitably teachable text for high school students. Indeed, each of the objections presented above (and there may well be more I've missed)—to the book's language, its sexuality, its anti-institutionalism, its particularly disturbing violence, its racism, sexism, celebration of machismo—can open stimulating, illuminating, and, indeed, vital classroom discussions. . . .
[For instance,] any teacher of this text must address the problems of racial and sexual stereotypes directly. At one point early in the novel Chief chronicles the history of black "boys" who have come and gone as ward workers:
The first one she gets five years after I been on the ward, a twisted sinewy dwarf the color of cold asphalt. His mother was raped in Georgia while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with plow-traces, blood streaming into his shoes The boy watched from a closet, five years old and squinting his eyes to peep out the crack between the door and the jamb, and he never grew an inch after.
The Chief has contempt for this black dwarf as he has for all of the orderlies, but he does supply us with this mitigating narrative, one that calls attention to and makes connection with the experience of people of color in the United States. The Chief also lets us know that Big Nurse treats her black orderlies (wonderful job title in this institutional context) in a degrading, dehumanizing manner; they, in turn, "kick ass below," by mistreating the patients. The fact that their jobs are demeaning, low-level, no doubt poorly paid, dangerous, and unlikely to lead anywhere needs to be brought to light in a discussion of the treatment of race in the novel. When Chief Bromden awakes one night (he is tied to his bed) to discover one of the orderlies scraping his carefully hoarded and rechewed gum from the underside of his bunk, we see all the pathos and degradation of the orderlies' work life, of the Chief's poverty (he is a ward indigent) and of the antagonism that this institution generates in two characters who may have a connection to one another as men of color in white America. Discussions of race and racism in the novel must attend to such narrative moments, to the position of the black orderlies within the institution, and to the class and ethnic background that helps to account for McMurphy's bantering racist remarks.
It is not, alas, so easy to mitigate the castrating female stereotype that Big Nurse embodies nor the way in which institutional power and authority are so aggressively gendered in the novel. Here, it is crucial to bring students to an understanding of the limitations of first person narrative. Big Nurse is far more a creation of the Chief's and other residents' imaginations than she is a representative reality. Deep archetypal male fear of a dominant mother figure finds expression in her narrative treatment. The Chief's own experience of his traitorous white mother is projected onto Big Nurse. Student readers must learn to step back from the narrative perspective to see that the Chief's unreliability—to a degree—lies in his overblown sense of this woman—a distortion in which all of the residents participate. Because so much of the Chief's experience is perceived metaphorically—the wires, gadgets, buttons, fog machine, that he sees Big Nurse manipulating are metaphors for her manipulative skills, institutional power, and pharmaceutical regime—her representation in his narrative can, by extension, be seen as metaphoric; indeed, the way in which she grows larger and then reverts to size for him, regularly, places her in the metaphoric field. Careful readerly attention to those moments in which she expands in the Chief's eyes will help students to see her as an allegorized force rather than a realistic character in the novel. Still, we must eventually confront the distressing artistic choice that Kesey made when he chose to present his conflict in gendered terms. I find myself resisting angrily the unfairness of such a portrait of power, of locating what is vile and repressive in the novel in a female figure that is granted no mitigating story of her own, no redemptive moments, no context that will at least reveal her power to be exceptional, unusual, un-nurse-like. Nonetheless, I would teach this book to high school students. In teaching it, as a feminist teacher, I would engage in the following interventions:
a) I would acknowledge to students—at an advanced rather than an early stage of the discussion, so as not to establish mine as the "original" position on gender in the novel—my resistance to the use to which Big Nurse is put in the text.
b) I would encourage full discussion of gender and power, of male fears of emasculation, or the mother as a site of power, of the way in which Big Nurse's body—her breasts in particular—becomes the target of male anger.
c) I would pair One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with a parallel text that represents institutional power as male; Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale could each engage Kesey's novel in a dialectic that would preclude reductive reader acceptance of Big Nurse as quintessential female power principle.
Finally, the novel opens one way out of the gendered deadlock that it creates, and that is the particular form that male bonding ultimately takes in the narrative; there is identifiable tenderness in this bond that transcends the locker room talk, the poker games, the fishing trip, the "rape" of Big Nurse as projected solution to the ward's problems. The group develops a solidarity, sensitivity, and protectiveness that permits McMurphy to subside for a while as their leader/savior when he begins to realize the price he will pay for assuming that role. When he does pay this price—the lobotomy—for having resumed leadership to avenge the death of Billy Bibbit, the love which prompts Chief to murder him is much like that which moves George to shoot Lenny in Of Mice and Men. After Chief breaks his silence and he and Mac have their first conversation from their neighboring bunks, the Indian experiences a strong urge to touch McMurphy. He fears for his masculinity at first, then realizes that he just wants to touch him because of who he is and what he means to all of the men on the ward. McMurphy's gift to him includes more than the power to speak, more than the restoration of his mammoth strength—it includes the power to love and, thereby, goes some distance toward subverting the machismo that provides so much of the text's momentum.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is rich in teaching possibilities; it stimulates literary, cultural, historical, and psychological questions. It is alas, for many of us, a problematic text. Because the classroom is a space in which teachers and students can and should grapple with difficult problems, this book should be taught.
Source: Laura Quinn, "Moby Dick vs. Big Nurse. A Feminist Defense of a Misogynist Text: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in Censored Books. Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp 398-413.
The Big Nurse as Ratchet: Sexism in Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1545
Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a good novel—a really teachable novel. Students get caught up in it and are eager to talk about the characters and to explore the ramifications of the partial allegory. But despite these positive qualities, Cuckoo's Nest is a sexist novel. Certainly I don't want to discourage anyone from teaching it, but I do urge that colleagues should present the novel in a way that will disclose its concealed sexist bias. In order to get at the invidious aspect of Cuckoo's Nest, let me review the way Kesey structures his microcosm.
The novel offers a compelling presentation of the way society manipulates individuals in order to keep the bureaucracy running smoothly. The mental hospital is "a little world Inside that is a made to scale prototype of the big world Outside," with both worlds being operated by the Combine, Chief Broom's appropriate name for the Establishment. A combine is a group united to pursue commercial or political interests and is also a machine that cuts off and chews up and spits out a product. Kesey has fused both meanings in his image, with the byproduct being us—the members of society.
Boss of that "factor for the Combine" is the Big Nurse, the embodiment of the castrating female. If you're old enough to remember Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers, you have met the Big Nurse before: she is Mom. Wylie described her this way:
She is a middle-aged puffin with an eye like a hawk that has just seen a rabbit twitch far below. She is about twenty-five pounds overweight with sharp heels and a hard backhand which she does not regard as a foul but a womanly defense. In a thousand of her there is not sex appeal enough to budge a hermit ten paces off a rock ledge.
You remember good old Mom. Kesey calls her Miss Ratched and thus acknowledges her role as a tool of the Combine. A ratchet is a mechanism that engages the teeth of a wheel permitting motion in one direction only. Kesey's metaphor is perfect. The ward is littered with casualties of "momism": Billy Bibbit's stuttering began with his first word, M-m-m-m-mama; Ruckley's only utterance throughout the novel is "Ffffuck da wife"; Harding's neurosis stems from inferiority feelings agitated by his wife's "ample bosom"; Chief Broom's self-concept shrank in sympathy with his once-powerful father after, he says, "my mother made him too little to fight any more and he gave up." McMurphy, on the other hand, has escaped the controls of the Combine because he has "no wife wanting new linoleum."
Kesey's eye is accurate in his depiction of this microcosm. The ward hums along on beams of fear and hate. The black boys are clearly serving the Combine in order to wreak vengeance on their white oppressors The best hater of the bunch, "a dwarf the color of cold asphalt," peered from a closet at age five to watch his mother's rape, "while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with plow traces, blood streaming into his shoes." Kesey makes his point melodramatically clear: the blacks are portrayed as villains because society has victimized them. They are merely retaliating.
But why is the Big Nurse so eager to emasculate the men in her charge? Why does she serve as a dedicated tool of the Combine? This is a question Kesey never answers; he apparently never thinks to ask it. He understands and castigates the injustice of prejudice against Indians. Remember how Chief Broom developed his habit of feigning deaf and dumbness: it was his response to people, he says, "that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all." You recall how the Indians are conned out of their homes and their way of life by the sneering, deprecating white people from town. Kesey shows himself sympathetic to oppressed minorities in our society. But what about our oppressed majority?
It never seems to occur to Kesey that possibly the Big Nurse relishes her job as "ball cutter" for precisely the same reason that the black boys take pleasure in their work. But anyone who has read Germain Greer's The Female Eunuch can see in the novel the fulfillment of the biblical injunction: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a castration for a castration. Philip Wylie thirty years ago observed that "the mealy look of men today is the result of momism and so is the pinched and baffled fury in the eyes of womankind." True, perhaps. But Wylie thought the solution to the problem was to force woman back into her proper subservient place where she would become content again—like those happy slaves on the plantation, I suppose. And you remember Kesey's solution: Harding suggests that "man has only one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy." But even our virile hero McMurphy confesses that there's no way he could "get a bone up over that old buzzard." "There you are," says Harding. "She's won."
Women, you notice, keep winning these sexual battles—according to the men who manufacture them. Truth is, nobody wins—certainly not women. Consider how women are portrayed in Kesey's novel. We've already noted examples of the castrating bitch—Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Bibbit, Mrs. Harding, and Mrs. Bromden. Then we have the little nurse who hates the patients because her weak mind has been so warped by the Church that she thinks her birthmark a stain visited upon her because of her association with the depraved inmates. And there is the townswoman with the eyes that "spring up like the numbers in a cash register," who dupes the Indians by negotiating with Mrs. Bromden, rather than dealing with the Chief.
You may ask, are there no good women in Kesey's estimation? Well, yes. There is the nurse on the Disturbed Ward, an angel of mercy by virtue of ethnic origin—the little Japanese nurse. She accepts woman's time-honored role as nurturer of men and agrees with McMurphy that sexual starvation prompts Miss Ratched's perversity. "I sometimes think," she says, "all single nurses should be fired after they reach thirty-five." A sympathetic woman—to men, at least.
And there is also Candy, the whore with a heart of gold, and her friend, Sandy, who is equally charitable with her body. These women ask nothing of the men—not even money for their sexual performances. Kesey fantasizes that they come willingly to this insane asylum to service the inmates for the sheer joy of it. In his euphoric state, Chief Broom marvels:
Drunk and running and laughing and carrying on with women square in the center of the Combine's most powerful stronghold! . . . I had to remind myself that it had truly happened, that we had made it happen. We had just unlocked a window and let it in like you let in the fresh air. Maybe the Combine wasn't so all-powerful.
What came in through the window "like fresh air"? The two prostitutes. Kesey implies that if all women would just behave generously like Candy and Sandy, the Combine might then become vulnerable.
Kesey, I think, is wrong about the way to loosen the stranglehold of the emasculating female and break up the Combine. He is simply visionary to suggest that women should emulate the attitude of the happy hookers. The truth is that women are not likely at this point to give up bossing their men around when this remains their only means of achieving a semblance of importance in society. Yet I agree with Ann Nietzke [who writes in Human Behavior] that
contrary to popular belief, women do not want to castrate men, it's just that we are tired of being eunuchs ourselves. This does not mean that women want penises but that we want the powers, freedoms, and dignities that are automatically granted to the people who happen to have them.
If the Combine could be subverted to the extent of giving up its ratchet—of allowing women genuine equality—then women could stop emasculating men and turn their energies to more self-fulfilling pursuits. Given the opportunity to run that ward in her own right, instead of having to manipulate the rabbity doctor, perhaps Miss Ratched might have run it more humanely. Forcing people into deviousness can hardly be expected to improve their character. And inequality is almost guaranteed to generate malice.
Thus we need to help students see that Nurse Ratched is no more to blame for her malice than the black boys are for theirs. The Big Nurse happens also to be the Big Victim when viewed with an awareness of the social and economic exploitation of women. Kesey didn't have exactly this in mind, I grant, but we can still derive this insight from his novel and correct the damaging impression that the book leaves—that women, through some innate perversity, are the cause of all of society's failings.
Source: Elizabeth McMahan, "The Big Nurse as Ratchet: Sexism in Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest," in CEA Critic, Vol. 37, 1975, reprinted in A Casebook on Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," edited by George J. Searles, University of New Mexico Press, 1992, pp. 145-49.