Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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What stands out about Kesey's writing style in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

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The most oft-cited aspect of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is Ken Kesey's inspired choice of a secondary character, Chief Bromden, to be narrator. Since Chief has fooled everyone into believing he is deaf and dumb, it frees him to be a fly-on-the-wall observer, and his first-person, present-tense perspective drives the narrative. The chief narrates in a style that came to be called "steam of consciousness" which characterized many novels of the late 1960s and '70s.

Another outstanding aspect of Kesey's writing in this novel is his masterful blend of narration and dialog. In one passage, Chief relates a disagreement between protagonist McMurphy and other hospital patients:

The guys don’t agree with McMurphy. They say they know what the trouble with things is, then get in an argument about that. They argue till McMurphy interrupts them.

“Hell’s bells, listen at you,” McMurphy says. “All I hear is gripe, gripe, gripe. About the nurse or the staff or the hospital. Scanlon wants to bomb the whole outfit. Sefelt blames the drugs. Frederickson blames his family trouble. Well, you’re all just passing the buck.”

Kesey uses narration like a camera scanning the room, then dialog to focus the camera tight on a certain scene. McMurphy talks in a casual, authentic style, and most impressively, Kesey keeps Chief Bromden from becoming an Indian caricature.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden, who does not speak. He narrates the events that unfold in the ward. What's notable about Chief is that he is more astute than he lets on. He says, for example, "If my being half Indian ever helped me in any way in this dirty life, it helped me being cagey" (3). Chief is a reliable observer in some ways, and it is through his perspective that the reader gets to know McMurphy and the other men, as well as the nurses and doctors, in the ward.

On the other hand, Chief is clearly paranoid. He describes a kind of fog and "black machinery" that descends over the ward and refers to the workings of the ward as the "Combine." It's difficult at times for the reader to know what is literally happening and what is only the Chief's perception of what is happening, as he is (rightfully) paranoid and subjected to drugs and other treatments. Therefore, the story is at times told in a way that can be interpreted as metaphorically true (such as in the depiction of the fog) and at times in a way that is literally true.

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One key aspect of the style of Kesey in this novel is his choice of narrator. Bromden is a particularly interesting choice of narrator for this novel, which is based so much around the theme of mental health and the definition of in/sanity, because, as it becomes very quickly evident, the reader is very unsure about the extent to which Bromden is entirely reliable due to his mental state. For example, he says that there is a fog machine that is used to cover the ward in fog and that even the pills have tiny machines in them. Note the following description of Nurse Ratched at the beginning of the novel as she gets angry with the orderlies:

So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and 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.

Bromden himself admits that he is placed on a very high level of medication, and the reader quickly begins to see that his state of mental health is responsible for the somewhat bizarre events that he narrates. However, Kesey uses this unreliable narrator to chart the impact of McMurphy on the patients as a whole. This is of course most notable after the World Series stand off when Bromden notes "there's no more fog any place," identifying that McMurphy is helping the patients to see more clearly.

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