Sometimes a Great Notion

by Ken Kesey

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

The events of Sometimes a Great Notion revolve around a logging strike which pits the Stamper family against the local union and, thus, against the members of the small coastal community in which the family lives. Through Kesey’s dazzling manipulation of point of view, the characters of the community are portrayed in relationship to Hank Stamper, who is the leader of the clanlike family, and who functions as the traditional hero in classical terms. The strike dramatizes a fundamental clash of values: the fierce individualism inherent in this wildcat logging way of life against the need for cooperation among the various members of the community for their mutual well-being.

As the novel opens, a critical contract for the survival of the family logging business—to supply the sawmill of a national logging corporation with cut timber—has almost expired with only a small portion of the quota cut and with none of the timber delivered. The family needs every available man to work in the woods to meet the contract conditions, and since no one in the local community will work in defiance of the strike action, the family must send for Lee, Hank’s younger half brother. Lee had left the area with his mother when he was a child of twelve and is now a graduate student at Yale University. The novel’s action revolves around the developing relationship between Hank and Lee. Their relationship is complicated by Lee’s knowledge that as a teenager, Hank had a sexual relationship with Myra—Lee’s mother and Hank’s stepmother—which Lee believes contributed to Myra’s suicide. This Oedipal situation is transferred in the present action to Hank’s wife, Viv. She becomes a focus for the tension between the two brothers as Lee, in revenge for Hank’s sexual relationship with Lee’s mother, attempts to seduce Viv and to confront Hank with that knowledge.

As the novel moves toward a climax, Hank is tested in all the areas which constitute his sense of self, and which define the community’s concept of the hero. Physically, he must perform extraordinary feats in the daily logging operation, and he must continue to lead the other members of the family to perform similar feats. Hank’s most demanding tests, however, are emotional: He must not only withstand the great social pressures of the community to conform to the conditions of the strike, but, because of his love for Lee, Hank must also attempt to bring Lee to some awareness of his own worth as a person. Hank must also be a husband to Viv, and above all, he must retain his faith in his own individual values, the most important of which is a sense of his integrity.

At the climax of the novel, Hank’s father loses an arm in a logging accident and lies dying in the hospital; Joe Ben, Hank’s cousin who functions emotionally as a brother to Hank, loses his life in the same accident; and Lee successfully seduces Viv. Viv, who realizes that she loves both brothers, also realizes the full nature of the conflict between them. In reaction to this awareness, and in response to her life circumstances in general, she leaves both of them to make a new life for herself. In this final test, Hank must learn a new lesson: that a certain kind of weakness—the weakness of the meek who “shall inherit the earth”—makes for a certain kind of strength.

With this newfound knowledge, Hank once again engages in action, defining himself by that action, and once again achieves heroic stature. Hank’s actions provide a focus for the novel’s brilliant presentation of the realistic detail of a way of life in the Pacific Northwest—with its emphasis on self-reliance, its world of outdoor work, the mystical presence of nature, its dynamics of family relationships—and the mythical elements which have developed from that way of life.

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