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Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

That this is one of the great American novels is without dispute. It may well be a candidate for The Great American Novel, though it doesn’t really cover the main themes that I suggest may be needed to qualify. It has, unusually, had not just a huge success as a novel but has been made into a moderately successful play and a wildly successful film, winning the top four Oscars (best film, best director, best actor and best actress as well as best adapted screenplay). Its appeal is, of course, clear. It tells the story of a man up against the system, against bureaucracy and against tyranny. In short, it is the assertion of the individual spirit against that of authority.

The story is set in a mental health institution. Kesey had worked in such an institution in California as an orderly where he took various drugs (such as LSD) and had the electroconvulsive therapy we will see in this novel. The story is narrated by a Native American, Chief Bromden, a giant of a man but one who is docile and who has pretended to be a deaf mute for years. The hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy who had been convicted of assault but faked insanity, in order to avoid having to go to a work farm. The institution is run by the fierce and tyrannical Nurse Ratched, known a Big Nurse, and her black orderlies. Kesey’s treatment of both has led to the novel being criticised for being sexist and racist and, while this might be a valid criticism, critics have pointed out that we are seeing Chief Bromden’s perspective which is not necessarily Kesey’s.

McMurphy is not one to buckle down under Big Nurse’s authoritarianism. He is not frightened of her threatening demeanour nor of her big breasts (maybe the least sexual pair of breasts in literature). He has three things going for him – boundless energy, a contempt for authority and laughter. Indeed, it is his laughter and humour as much as his rebellious streak that not only works for him but helps the other inmates come out of their shells, whether it is learning to speak (as Chief Bromden does) or learning the joys of sex, as timid Billy Bibbit does. Having fun – whether it is the fishing trip or the all-night party with booze and prostitutes – is as much a hallmark of McMurphy’s modus operandi as his blatant opposition to Big Nurse.

Kesey gives us a rich portrait of the many patients in the ward, all with their own phobias and many of them there voluntarily (unlike McMurphy). Many of them are helped by McMurphy who gives them something to live for and someone to look up to. Whether the novel is an allegory on life as a whole – we are all essentially patients in a mental institution with our own phobias and problems – does not really matter. Kesey has given us a wonderful story of rebellion and laughter and an attempt to affirm life.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Viking