(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...

(The entire section is 552 words.)


(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 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...

(The entire section is 662 words.)