One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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It is interesting to read this book today. A book I have heard about, had a relative idea of its plot, read of the many times it was banned, including an attempt in 2000 at one California high school (one parent was quoted as saying: “It teaches how very easy it is to smother somebody…I don’t want to put these kinds of images in children’s minds. They’re going to think that when they get mad at their parents, they can just ax them out.” (This makes me wonder what kind of TV shows they watch in their household.)

In 2013, it was banned from production by an Alaskan theatre company for a different reason – because it’s racist and misogynistic.

So why did I read this book this year? Partly because of Nurse Ratched, the Netflix TV series. I happened to watch the first episode the other day and thought, ok I better read the original book first! And also, a comment from Jen at Introverted Reader on my blog post about Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings. She mentioned The Combine in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, similar to how the characters in Earthlings talk about The Factory.

Kesey worked as a night aide on a psychiatric ward in the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital and it was his experiences as well as his experience with drug use (he was in an Army-sponsored hallucinogenic drug experiment) resulted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s funny to read of how Menlo Park and Palo Alto used to be places where experiments in LSD and other psychedelic drugs were carried out – not exactly the image that I associate with it at all today.

First off, I’m going to admit that this is not really a review. Just some random thoughts as I was reading this book. It’s incredibly hard to review a book that plenty of people have read – and some, even thoroughly studied. But well, since this is for a reading challenge, some thoughts must be put down, and a blog post to be uploaded. So here it is.

I’ve not seen the movie version yet (but I guess I ought to now that I’ve read the book), but I definitely had Jack Nicholson’s image in my head when reading about McMurphy, the trickster, the rebel, the one who champions the underdog. Yet while he’s meant to be seen as the tragic hero, he’s also the guy who decided to go to the psych ward instead of serving a prison sentence.

I constantly felt uncomfortable reading this. It was controversial for its time but it still makes for an uncomfortable edgy read even today. It’s full of themes such as individuality and power through the constant struggle between Nurse Ratched who’s trying to maintain the status quo and McMurphy who keeps trying to break it. But I kept wondering why it is a woman who is the tyrant, the cold heartless character. The doctor (of course, a man) is on the other hand, easily manipulated by McMurphy. Also, I kept pronouncing her name (in my head, that is) as “wretched”. The other women characters (except for another nurse I think) are prostitutes…

“What she dreams of there in the centre of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor.”

Then there’s Chief Bromden, a large Native American who pretends to be deaf and mute. And how it wasn’t just that he started acting that way, but that people started acting like he was “too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all”. It’s a clever tactic, using this narrator (although reading it today makes me go ‘ugh’ about a white man writing the part of a Native American), as he is always in the hallways sweeping, and since everyone presumes he’s deaf and mute, they talk freely around him. Also, I’m never quite certain if what he’s talking about is a hallucination or real life. With regards to minority characters, I’m frustrated with the use of “boys” when it comes to the Black men who work at the ward. The patients are referred to as “men” though.

I don’t know how to sum up my feelings about this book. I’m glad I read it, for at least now I know more about it. It was an uneasy read not just in terms of what feelings it’s supposed to churn up (down with the man! for one thing) but it was also a book full of stereotyped minorities, as well as women who are either there to be used or to belittle the men of the ward.

5 Comments

    1. In some rare cases, the adaptation might be better than the book. The Magicians TV series is one good example. But not so sure about this one, as from what I’ve read, they removed the POV of the Chief, which seems to take away a key perspective of the book?

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