Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Ken Kesey, a creative writing student at Stanford University in 1960, was recruited as a human test subject in psychedelic drug research at the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital, where he also worked as a night aide. These experiences inspired his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was published in 1962 to great acclaim.
The novel is narrated by Chief Bromden, a mental patient. His paranoid visions of the hospital and the world make him an unreliable narrator, yet the narrative’s events ultimately suggest that Bromden sees the world more accurately than anyone else. As the novel opens, he is mute and pretends to be deaf, and the virtual invisibility this grants him allows him to see and hear everything. When he does ultimately speak, the question of his reliability is put to rest; the novel’s protagonist, Randle McMurphy, says of the Chief’s outlook, “I didn’t say it didn’t make sense, Chief, I just said it was talkin’ crazy.”
The story the Chief narrates is that of a battle between redheaded, outspoken, fun-loving, gambling McMurphy, a new patient who has faked mental illness in order to serve out a prison term in the comfortable hospital, and Nurse Ratched, a cold, strict woman likened by the Chief to a frightening, all-powerful machine. McMurphy finds clever ways of subverting Nurse Ratched’s authority and diminishing her power, rallying the other patients to do likewise. Nurse Ratched finds subtle ways of turning the patients against McMurphy in order to bring him down from the pedestal on which the rest of the patients have placed him.
Through this battleground of patient versus nurse, Kesey weaves a much broader tale of individualism versus conformity, man versus woman, and humanism versus self-interest. Thanks to McMurphy, the patients remember what it means to enjoy life, to speak up for themselves, and to speak up for others. They become men rather than the frightened rabbits to which they are compared at the book’s beginning.
At the time One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written, feminism was in full swing in the United States, and some critics have perceived Kesey’s book as a backlash to the movement. Virtually all the antagonists in the book are females who resort to manipulation, mind games, and metaphorical castration of the male characters. The only positive rendering of females comes in the form of the prostitutes McMurphy invites to the hospital.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became a successful play in 1963 and in 1975 was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The film won five Academy Awards. In 2005 the book was listed by Time Magazine as one of the top one hundred best English-language novels since the magazine’s inception.
Kesey became a figurehead of the 1960s counterculture movement, bridging the divide between the Beat generation and the hippie generation. He hosted parties devoted to testing psychedelic drugs, and along with Beat icon Neal Cassady, inspired the cross-country school bus adventure chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kesey’s other novels are Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and Sailor Song (1992). He died in 2001.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Chief Bromden evolves from a passive presence to an active person.
2. Identify the use of laughter and humor as a literary device in the novel.
3. Examine the tension Kesey creates between individualism and conformity.
4. Explain how and why McMurphy becomes the group’s “cowboy.”
5. Cite how sexual politics influences the novel.
6. Describe how mental illness is perceived by the patients and the outside world.
7. Identify the use of irony in the novel.
8. Explain how the spirit of rebellion in the hospital grows and ultimately flourishes.
9. Examine how violence or the threat of violence—against Nurse Ratched, the aides, and the patients—is used in each section.