Sometimes a Great Notion Summary
by Ken Kesey

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Sometimes a Great Notion Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sometimes a Great Notion is ambitious but marred. Its title derives from a line in the song “Good Night, Irene”: “Sometimes I get a great notion to jump in the river an’ drown.” The novel chronicles humankind’s relationship with the river—with its beauty and resources, but also with its unpredictability and cruelty as its rising waters sweep away land, homes, and people.

At the beginning of the novel, a critical contract to supply the sawmill of a national logging corporation with cut timber has almost expired, but a union strike keeps the local community from completing the quota and delivering the timber. The Stampers (their motto is Never Give an Inch) defy the union and go ahead with the work. Because of their shortage of manpower, they send for Leland “Lee” Stanford Stamper, Henry Stamper’s younger son and Hank Stamper’s half brother. Lee, a graduate student at Yale University, who has never forgiven his aggressive older brother, Hank, for his sexual liaison with Lee’s mother and for her suicide, returns home to get revenge. A central part of the novel is the competition and conflict between the two brothers. In fact, Kesey told interviewer Gordon Lish that the Stamper brothers sum up two different ways he thinks of himself, the one his homespun, outdoorsman side, the other his more educated, artistic, cynical side. While Hank pushes himself to fill his logging quota and to retain his values and integrity while withstanding community pressure to conform to the union rules on strikes, he must also try to come to terms with Lee and to teach his brother self-worth and the family heritage.

Lee’s resounding self-warning, “WATCH OUT,” makes him suspect even the most innocent of acts. Lee shirks work, claims a cold and fever, and gradually wins the affection of Hank’s beloved wife, Viv, with his poetry and his need for mothering. He taunts Hank with his seduction of her. Lee’s timing is particularly nasty: Cousin Joe Ben, pinned under a fallen log, has just drowned in the rising river. Henry, his arm torn off, lies on his deathbed, and Hank is nearly battered to death by union thugs.

Hank swims the raging river to try to stop his brother’s betrayal, but he arrives too late, succumbs to sickness and defeat, gives up his plan to meet the contract, and submits to taunts and “generosity.” The townspeople are depressed and terrified by their loss of a defiant rebel of heroic stature. Only when the sly and selfish Lee returns to tempt Viv to leave with him and then goads Hank into a fight in front of her does Hank regain his old force and self-integrity. He beats up his brother; ties his father’s severed arm where all the townsmen can see it, its middle finger extended in symbol of defiance; and, aided by his suddenly transformed brother, begins the river trek to market. Viv leaves without a word.

Kesey’s basic argument is that a community needs its heroes and its rebels and that each is stronger because of the existence of the other—the community providing the hero with a challenge, the hero providing the community a model to emulate. Kesey called this novel, Faulknerian in its complexity, his very “best work.”


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,214 words.)