Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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From the ethics and efficacy of electroshock therapy and prefrontal lobotomy, to the division of the women characters into prostitutes with hearts of gold or "ball-cutters," to Kesey's deep concern over the insidious power of the Combine and the mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest offers a wealth of topics for discussion.

Kesey's depiction of the sedated, stultifyingly monotonous life on the mental ward and graphic portrayals of the effects of various psychotherapies upon patients are highly controversial. Some readers applaud Kesey's bravery in exposing what they believe to be mistreatments of patients, while others defend the need for medical staff in mental hospitals to maintain order and control. Perspectives from those who have undergone treatment for mental disorders, have relatives or friends in psychiatric hospitals, or have worked as employees or volunteers in mental institutions may offer much insight.

Kesey's characterizations have evoked much controversy. One interesting issue is whether Randle Patrick McMurphy's own brand of psychotherapy is more effective than that of the medical staff depicted in the novel. Another issue is whether Kesey effectively renders the point of view of a schizophrenic in choosing Chief Bromden as his narrator. One of the most animated critical debates has concerned Kesey's association of female authority figures with emasculation and his seeming celebration of large breasted, sexually compliant women.

Approaching the novel as a critique of American life in the 1950s and early 1960s, readers might examine the author's concern with the mechanistic, monolithic power of the Combine. Also significant is Kesey's exposure of Native Americans' dispossession of tribal life by a manipulative and insensitive government and of animosity between blacks and whites.

1. What is the significance of the novel's title?

2. Is the mental ward Kesey describes an accurate microcosm of problems in America? Does Kesey suggest that the only "sane" response to the atrocities of the modern world is insanity? Is the label "insane" a means by which the Combine exerts control over nonconformists?

3. Is Kesey's choice of a first person point of view of a Chronic patient a stroke of genius or a source of confusion for many readers? How effective is the author in rendering Chief Bromden's consciousness?

4. Is Nurse Ratched truly evil or is our image of her distorted by the Chief's perspective — a perspective shaped by his belief that his white mother made his Native American father small?

5. What do you think of Kesey's use of drugs to inspire him in writing this novel? Are drugs the new frontier in a quest for transcendence?

6. Is this a deeply spiritual work? What religious allusions do you find?

7. Is McMurphy a psychopath or a savior? What do you think Ken Kesey believes about his protagonist?

8. Do you view Candy and Sandy as vapid bimbos or nurturing, nonprejudiced human beings? Is this novel misogynistic?

9. Who, if anyone, is responsible for Billy Bibbifs death?

10. Is this novel primarily a tragedy or a comedy?

11. Is Kesey's depiction of the Combine an accurate portrayal of an industrial, conformist America?

12. Do you find this book to be a mature defense of American individualism and love of nature or an adolescent, comic book-inspired celebration of irresponsible sex, drinking, and rebellion against those advocating order and self-discipline? In other words, how profound is Ken Kesey's moral vision?

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