He's a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the ward of a mental hospital and takes over. He's a lusty, profane, life-loving fighter who rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Big Nurse. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women; at every turn, he openly defies her rule. The contest starts as sport (with McMurphy taking bets on the outcome) but soon it develops into a grim struggle for the minds and hearts of the men, into an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Big Nurse, backed by the full power of authority ... McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will.
As a former student of psychology myself, I was continually surprised by how real and multi-faceted each of the characters are, both patients and staff. I think a fun game for freshman psych majors would be to diagnose each of them.
Kesey's book is important on a sociological level as well. The Chief's theory that the universal Combine keeps mechanizing people until they all act in a regimented manner is cautionary, and quite relevant to the time period in which his work was written. Kesey himself actively fought against this Combine in his own life along with his band of Merry Pranksters and their antics and acid. It is fitting that his protagonists are rebellious against a stifling microcosm.
What makes a person mentally ill? What is the cure? I'm not sure anyone really knows, but Kesey begins by asking the right questions.
The patients of the Oregonian mental ward exist under the matriarchal rule of Nurse Ratched. This changes when a new patient- Randle Patrick McMurphy, a chain-smoking, gambling rebel, is admitted to the ward. I can honestly say I’ve never read a book where the main protagonist is neither the first person narrative nor the main subject of the narrator. Kesey manages this through detailed descriptions of the man and his lax, yet not lazy, personality. It’s almost as if McMurphy was narrating, he would’ve left all these out. McMurphy himself is an extremely smart character- he’s dynamic, rebellious, and intimidating. His unknown motives and hazy past only add to how memorable his character is.
Having read today’s literature, ancient literature, and everything in between, it gives me great pleasure to read a fairly modern novel that is already considered a classic. It truly deserves this title as well, as it is one of the finest pieces of American work I have read. I enjoyed everything about this book, from the Twain-esque dialects to the frantic dialogue pace increase during an intense passage. Yes, the movie is a wonderful one deserving of its Oscars, but go read the book as well. You’ll have a good picture of what kind of works shaped the modern American literature.
I'm sure you've heard of this novel before, if not from the book itself, then from the movie with Jack Nicholson. I, too, had heard about it, but had no desire to read it. All I really knew was that the story was set in an insane asylum, and that turned me off. Then, a year and a half ago, I went to a writer's conference and one of the books on the required reading list was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Reluctantly, I picked it up and started reading, and then ... wow. This is now one of mt favorite books, probably because my expectations were so low, and then the story was so great.
We begin the novel by entering the strange world of Chief, one of the mentally imbalanced inmates who is at the asylum for keeps. He is an unreliable narrator, due to his crazy episodes, but we soon come to realize that he is much more reliable than the so-called sane workers and doctors who are only wearing masks of civility. One of the themes of the novel is that society, by forcing people to conform to preset notions of conduct, often labels people crazy just because they don't fit the mold. Chief is perhaps not as crazy as he seems, and even more importantly, has been driven to this mental impasse by the society that has isolated him.
The asylum is nominally run by a mousy doctor, but the real figure in charge is Nurse Ratched. On the outside she is a starched, orderly, matron figure, who likes to mother her patients. However, we know that appearances are deceiving from the beginning, because Chief is terrified of her, and as we read, we see why. Under the guise of rehabilitating them, Nurse Ratched forces the men to reveal their deepest fears and pains. She is power hungry, manipulating the patients into a state of dependency and submission. The fact that most of the men are voluntarily checked in, yet lack the will power to leave, attests to her complete control.
Into this mad mix walks Randle McMurphy, a tall, strong, bull-headed man who likes to do things his own way. The novel implies that McMurphy finaggled his way into the asylum, in order to escape prison time. When he sees the oppressive system in his new home, he makes a bet with the men: if he can make Nurse Ratched crack, then he wins; if not, then he'll pay them all. Thus begins a battle of will between two extremely strong characters, and the battle is riveting.
As my synopsis suggests, there are many tragic moments to this story. Yet what Kesey does so well is interlace humor throughout, never letting the tone become overwhelmingly grim. In the end, he leaves a powerful drama with some real laugh out loud moments, all the while building tension to an impressive climax. The ending manages to be at once tragic and liberating.
I won't give away any of the plot twists. You need to experience the story for yourself.
I found this book at the thrift store and bought it to read, and at the exact same moment, Veronica found it at her father's house, and took it home to read. This kind of literary synchronicity cannot be ignored. There must be significance.
Ken Kesey said he was too old to be a hippie and too young to be a beatnik, but he and his gang, the "Merry Pranksters" raised plenty of hell in their day, despite their lack of a popular category. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was his first novel, written mostly in graduate school, which gives everyone a little bit of undeserved hope.
I think the novel is brilliant for two reasons.
First, there is the narrator. The book is told, not by the main character, or by a disinterested narrator, but by a crazy person. So all the descriptions of the ward, Nurse Ratched, the crazies, are filtered through this altered consciousness. Kesey stays just on the correct side of being cute about it. Cuteness would have killed it, but as it was, Bromden's narration perfectly cranked up the feeling of being in another, twisted, horrific world. No external voice could have accomplished this. His point of view, maintained throughout, also helped us see the change in his mental state, happening so slowly that we almost don't notice it, without being told about it. So, at the end, we believe he is fully okay to go out into the world, although we witnessed the extent of his initial lunacy, because we also witnessed his progression back to functionality.
The second reason I loved this book was for its hooks. Instead of an either/or hook (will the world be saved? will the lovers unite?) there was a complicated engine. Because Bromden is pretending to be deaf and dumb, the very first page of the book presents a compelling reason to read on -- will he eventually speak, what will make him speak, and what will he say? The other question, "Will McMurphy defeat Nurse Ratched?" is also complex, beyond a yes-or-no answer, because the battle is being fought on such strange territory.
I read McMurphy as explosive humanity, glorious deviance -- the ability to see through rules and definitions to the agendas behind them. Therefore dangerous to stability and predictability that these rules and definitions provide. I read Ratched as establishment, enforcer, the hand on the lever that runs the gears. She could not suffer McMurphy because he understood her and was not afraid of her. In the book, as in life, she possessed the ultimate weapon, because even though she is an ideological fraud, she has all the physical power.
Veronica read a lot more gender issues into the book, which made a lot of sense as soon as she explained it to me. There was a viscious smart professional and a friendly stupid whore, and really no other women portrayed in the book. McMurphy could be read as the ultimate heroic male -- beyond the manipulation of the stifling woman, but ultimately brought down by her.
I know this is a highly unusual book to kick-start my Halloween readings this year, but the book easily earns its place amongst the spookiest and the creepiest books out there. Nurse Ratched has easily made its mark as one of the most well known (if hated or feared or both) literary characters. I saw and recognised the Cuckoo setting in the "The Real Slim Shady" video, long before I ever read the book (even if I am unsure if Eminem ever formally recognised the inspiration). And then, there was the Jack Nicholson starrer movie version, not to mention countless references in books, TV Series and movies.
At a superficial level, the book is about a tug of war between the infamous Nurse Ratched (also referred to as the Big Nurse) and the incorrigible McMurphy. The anti-authoritarian stand Ken Kesey takes through this book is quite obvious and very, very well done - in sheer literary value and impact, it is just a notch below Orwell's 1984, less Dystopian and more realistic, which probably makes it scarier?
And then you start peeling and keep peeling and you are never sure how deep the rabbit hole goes. From the physically very feminine Nurse Ratched's sheer dominance over everyone else in the Institution - patients, other nurses, ward-boys, doctors, etc. to the imaginary (?) "Combine" the Chief is so afraid of.
There is a very obviously sexist tone to the book I didn't really care much about, but I will put it down to the times in which the book was written and move on, which is probably easier for me to do as a guy.
The ending of the book is no less powerful, quite Kafkaesque in its tragedy if you ask me, but probably absolutely necessary for the message to get across.
Isn't the massive issue with Nurse Rached the fact that she is a woman who has power and has therefore effectively emasculated the men in her control? Look at all of the descriptions of her power. Her actions are explicitly depicted as castrating her patients and making them effectively impotent. In fact, all of the men are in the institution because of the pernicious influence of the females in their lives, from the doctor's big-breasted wife to Billy's overbearing mother. Because obviously emasculation of men is the secret aim of all women unless you slap them bitches down. Yeah, so Rached does have a massive amount of control and yes, she does have an obsession with discipline, but she's being pushed by an asshole and reacting poorly. McMurphy fights back by belittling her as a woman, demonstrating masculine brute strength, using sexual slurs, smuggling in prostitutes, etc, etc. Do I have sympathy for McMurphy's battle against Rached? Heh. Cry me a river.
The real issue is that I'm a woman reading about the oh-so-noble struggle of a psychopathic rapist to wrest power from the control of a woman who has done the unforgivable: sexually dominate and humiliate the men under her control. It is a book about the Ultimate Noble Goal: a man's quest to retain his masculinity--via the domination and humiliation of all the women around him. hover for spoiler Yes, there is a way to read it as the struggle of individuality against the totalitarian inhuman machine, but I have to wonder: if a man had been the nurse, do you think this would have been a classic?
Why does a certain book become a classic? Sometimes being a besteller is the key, sometimes it is awarded prestigious prizes by literary commitees, and sometimes a film adaptation cements its fate. All this is true for "One Flew over a Cuckoo's Nest"; however, the fact that it has contributed a phrase into the common vernacular means it should definitely be required reading.
The story is quite compelling as we follow Chief Bromden's account of what happens in a Midwestern mental institution run by the infamous nurse "Ratched" when a spunky newcomer enters the scene and attempts to challenge authority. The narrator has pretended to be deaf and dumb for many years, and he has been able to act as "a fly on the wall" in various situations. The new guy on the block is McMurphy, a flamboyant, boisterous and randy jailbird with a temper to match his red hair. However, even though McMurphy is the delightful protagonist and provides the most fun for the reader, it is Nurse Rathced who remains the most mmemorable character - not much unlike Big Brother in 1984 (another must-read novel that has provided a whole set of commonly used terminology).
The language is cleverly descriptive - the sound of the starched nurse's uniform is "like a frozen canvas being folded", and the feel of the institution atmosphere is quite haunting. However, I did feel that it often became a bit "wordy" at times in the sense that most everything was spelled out. There is little subtlety, and even the symbolic attempts are a bit heavy-handed. The notion that McMurphy can be seen as a Christ-like figure who rebels against the establishment and ultimately must pay the ultimate price for his followers seems a little bit contrived when the "treatment" table is described as a cross and the electric sparks are likened to a crown of thorns. However, the story as a whole, greatly makes up for the occasional overstatements.
The other aspect I found quite fascinating was the portrayal of race and the accompanying stereotypes. It has an honest narrative feel unlike many modern novels where it is quite rare to have a sympathtic character such as Chief Bromden matter-of-factly use what must be considered racial slurs. I often found the descriptions uncomfortable; however, I appreciate the unpolished presentation. Like other elements in the story, it seems dated, yet true to the historical context.
I recommend the book both as a chilling account of outdated psyciatric "treatment" ideology, as well as for the chilling, yet sharp descriptions of a unforgettable villain...
'I been away a long time'.
Kesey was attacking conformity and exposing authoritarian abuses of the mental health system. The sane character of McMurphy attempts to "raise the consciousness" of the care-givers and create opposition in the patients and is psychically murdered through his lobotamization for becoming a nuisance.
The message of the Native American who carries out McMurphy's grand escape plan is a triumphant endorsement of continued resistance against the oppressive institutions.
I think the political allegory of the book is a bit dated and that the insensitivity and abuses of people in prisons and mental hospitals should be thought of without the mythological enhancements of a tale like this. It makes these things seem more remote when they should be made clearer.
This book is just about perfect. I loved that it’s told from Bromden’s view and that he’s just in the background in most of these scenes that he’s witnessing. Even though Bromden isn’t the main character the plot is around he still very insightful about what he is seeing and his past. It can be hard to understand what he is talking about at first, but it becomes easier. I loved the relationship between McMurphy and Bromden, it’s so simple. McMurphy is obnoxious, but you root for him. He’s doing these guys some good. The Big Nurse is a uptight, but she’s doing her job and trying to make it go smoothly, so you also understand where she is coming from. Seeing these two butt heads and test each other is funny but tense. The ending is crazy, even though I had a feeling what was going to happen, I kept willing it not to happen. But even what I thought wasn’t the full ending. It’s beautiful ending in its way.
This book was astounding. The more it built up, the more I was invested in the lives of the characters. It's funny at times, touching at others, and downright heart-breaking at moments. Of course, throughout the book it's obvious how bad our country's attempts at treating people with mental illness was -- and is.
While the name "Nurse Ratched" has become synonymous almost with evil, I think the truth is more gray than the common knowledge would let on. While the nurse is definitely too harsh at times, at other times she has valid points. And, would we really prefer for our "hero" to be a man who at best is a womanizer and at worst is rapist? Shouldn't order prevail for people who need help rather than chaos? Who is really to blame when things go haywire? And, with an unreliable narrator at the helm, how much can we believe about how good or bad anyone on the ward really is? Like a really good work of literature should, this book leaves these kind of judgments open for interpretation by each individual reader.
My only small quibble is that I wish we knew just a little bit more about Bromden. We certainly do get some backstory regarding him, but he tends to be more of a bystander narrating the tale almost impassively, despite it affecting him as well. At times, we go deep into his psychosis, and we can't quite trust what it is he says is going on. At any rate, he's a fascinating character who is often overshadowed by the more outspoken McMurphy.
For the audiobook aficionado, Tom Parker was absolutely perfect. He had a wide range of distinct voices, complete with various accents, and breathed life into each character.
I am DONE with Kesey, and I am once more disappointed by English classics...
The book was probably better than the film - although I enjoyed the film very much. There were a number of differences, and a lot of the characters were not as they were portrayed in the film.
I don't remember why I didn't finish it the first time, as I sailed through it this time around. I haven't seen the film, and I missed out on the recent London stage production.
I am starting to think that a large percentage of drama is fundamentally about freedom. In this novel the main characters are in a mental institution. Some are sectioned and some are just so worn down by the world and their experiences in it that they voluntarily allow themselves to be treated in this way. The ward is ruled by the all powerful Nurse Ratched, or Big Nurse as the narrator calls her, but this world is turned upside down by the arrival of the charismatic McMurphy.
McMurphy shows the other inmates that they have forgotten how to live, and their safe world of routine, medication, group sessions and therapy is suddenly disrupted. Inevitably the freedom that he offers them brings with it risks and consequences.
The book questions the nature of insanity and what it is to be normal. We never really find out whether Mack is faking his 'condition' or not, and it really doesn't matter.
I found this book funny, moving, sad and thought provoking. Recommended.
"To Vik Lovell who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs."
We have been told throughout childhood and beyond there are no such things as monsters and demons. But ask anyone who has found themselves on the outside of society’s definition of “normal”, and you will find a fearful world where they really do exist, but not always in the guise of evil wishing to do us harm.
To maintain a healthy community of individuals, society demands that we rarely act like one, and only in a manner that still must conform to some type of moral and ethical standard.
Those finding themselves outside those boundaries are often “judged”, or in this case diagnosed, as needing psychiatric help.
Truly, who gets to define sanity? Where does rationality and irrationality begin and end?
Not to long into this read, you will be asking yourself just that.
Are the patients in this story the truly irrational ones?
Kesey wrote of what he knew. He once worked as a night attendant in a psychiatric ward. This experience led to the writing of this book.
Demons do exist. Those we imagine, and those that we struggle against when trying to maintain that sense of normalcy which is expected of us. Some demons come in the form of those who try to help us, telling us that electric shock treatments, drugs, and even lobotomies are the only way to help us be free of what ails us.
But what if it is all a form of control, a way to keep us all in line - - to keep the status quo?
As Nurse Ratched notes: "A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society . . . because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them."
The men in this novel face such a challenge. Emasculated emotionally and psychologically by their experiences with society, they commit themselves to the one place they thought they would be safe, and hopefully cured. This haven eventually becomes their prison. They become so controlled, so institutionalized, they willingly give up their freedom for this sense of safety.
Emasculation is a strong term, and I am not saying this book is misogynist in nature, but men adversely affected by domineering women is a strong theme throughout and helps in understanding what the characters have experienced and their difficulty in standing up for themselves against Nurse Ratched.
Along comes a man to show them that there is a potential for them to do so. Randle Patrick McMurphy, "[a]. . . boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the world of a mental hospital and takes over. A lusty, life-affirming fighter, [he] rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched."
But this defiance does not go unanswered. It is frightening knowing about the truth which lies behind the story Kesey tells. To anyone who has seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. Having never seen the film, this book and its ending was more powerful than I can relate.
The strongest impression I am left with is one I have made note of on my white board. Even when he knows he will fail, McMurphy still tries in order to show the others that one’s will can never be broken — only given away.
This book has been challenged many times due to strong language and discussions of sexuality. However, I cannot find that any of what I read was obscene in any form or fashion.
In fact, I would make this a must read on many, of not all High School curricula.
If like me, you have never seen the movie, I urge you to read the book first. If you have seen it, and never read the novel – please do.
This will be one of those books that will have a permanent place in my personal library. I don’t know if I can give it a higher recommendation than that.
I love that line. I love it because I know the chapter behind it will amuse me without fail, just as so many other iconic moments in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will move, delight or enrage me. I’ve read and reread this book from my early teens to my late thirties, and while there might be layers of meaning in MacMurphy’s subversion of Nurse Ratched’s ward, about the struggle between the inner tyrant and the inner anarchist, man’s simultaneous need for order and for freedom, I think I love it because it’s wonderful, and hilarious, and sad, and it solidly slays me every time I read it.
Chief Bromdon’s narration colours the whole story with imagery that stops just short of myth; prose that finds poetry in madness and tiredness and disconnection from the world. There are a myriad of character illustrations in the ward, from closeted, intellectual Harding to shy, vulnerable Billy. How MacMurphy’s arrival impacts on the entire dynamic and each individual and undermines the enforced institutionalisation that has paralysed each of them in their own way, is one of the most breathtaking works of genius I have ever read, all of it sleekly rolled into the newcomer’s fabulous antics on the ward and the marvellous dialogue between the inmates, the staff, and the ‘twitches from Portland’.
Yes, it’s desperately sexist… it’s set in a male mental ward run by a starched, sexless nurse, the protagonist is a self-confessed sex enthusiast, one of the principal characters is a married, closeted gay man and another has never had a successful relationship. The only two women who have any read-time, apart from the Nurse and Harding’s wife, are prostitutes, or good-time girls. If you sense that the text is sexist, perhaps rather than react negatively, consider that the emasculation of men is, in fact, a theme and rather important in the world of psychiatry (particularly in that era). There’s a quality of racism too; why assume either of these traits in the text is a flaw in author’s outlook, rather than an infusion of atmosphere, illustration, even a simply reality of attitudes in that time and place?
I will read this book again, and again. Every time I pick it up, I will murmur, ‘I been away a long time’, and revel in the Chief’s introduction of Randall Patrick MacMurphy - troublemaker, brawler, drinker, gambler, ladies’ man, authority-bucker - who overcomes his self interest in the process of tackling the inherent wrong he intuits without fully understanding; who, essentially, becomes a martyr to the cause of getting on with living, rather than being paralysed with fear by it, and to overcoming the restraints of the 'system', whatever they may turn out to be.
All the memorable scenes from the movie are here, but there is a deeper context. This is achieved by telling the story through the eyes of the Chief. In the beginning, that story is colored by his brush with insanity. But reality slowly intrudes, just as McMurphy intrudes into the perfect system of the asylum. Through the Chief’s eyes we see the triumph of McMurphy. No, McMurphy doesn’t beat the system. But in his defeat others survive. Maybe this sounds trite, but in Kesey’s hands it is a true exploration and revelation. There is a grittiness to its reality, and the story moves along nicely. It is easy to understand why there was a desire to translate to a movie, and it is just as easy to see why this is such a successful book
I also went back to study how he conveyed Nurse (Ratched?), because she was so indelible, and I also recalled her coming across so quickly. She is there on the first page--page 3 of the book, I believe, or thereabouts. In one page, everything Louise Fletcher conveyed in the film--which was brilliant--was already there. Stunning.
And the book never lets up. It is masterful from the first page to the last.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is an unforgettable story of a mental ward in which the despotic Nurse Ratched reigns over the doctor and all the inhabitants. She exercises a somewhat cultic tactics to render her patients completely submissive. In what she embellishes a Therapeutic Community, an outwardly democratic entity run by patients, she imperceptibly manipulates them into grilling each other as if they are criminals. She has over the years has welded an insurmountable power over the ward that even the doctor is rendered frightened, desperate and ineffectual. She has no need to accuse or to enforce obedience because all it takes to maintain that tight grip of power is insinuation, which allows her to force the trembling libido out of everyone without an effort.
The Nurse's unchallenged tyranny begins to whittle as McMurphy, a 35-year-old Korean veteran who has history of insubordination and street brawls, resolves to oppose her every step of the way and raises the racket in her ward. His defiance is justifiable: he is surprised at how sane everyone is in the ward. Nobody and nothing in life have got much of a hold on this boisterous personality, who knows that there is no better way in the world to aggravate somebody (like the Nurse) who is trying to make it difficult for him than by acting like he is not bothered. McMurphy's fun-loving arrival at the ward brings about a different shade of opinion among the staff and the patients. The latter come following him as if he is their Savior, for he is utterly different and has not let what he looks like run his life one way or the other.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is narrated by a patient in the ward, a Columbia Indian whom everyone thinks deaf, mute, and unintelligible, but who throughout the years of his commitment has overheard all the trickery of staff meetings. He epitomizes the mishap of the erroneous boundary with which the sane separates them from the insane. McMurphy's arrival and his friendship with the Indian Chief spur him on to recover his own identity and rebuild his self-esteem. The novel examines the notion of madness in the sense of its own and in the sense of the term being patronized by mental institution. The narrator's seamless observation and eagle-eyed description of the ward illustrate salient flaws of such a mindless system that targets only at reducing patients' mental capability. Kesey considers whether madness really means the common practice that confines to a mindless system or the attempt to escape from such a system altogether. Like its audacious protagonist, the novel itself is a literary outlaw.
Yes, the protagonists are racist and sexist. They're not meant to be perfect. McMurphy is an anti-hero who uses every weapon at his disposal, and the people oppressing him happen to be a woman and several black men. The abusive aides didn't need to be black, but that aspect only detracts slightly from the story.
I loved the development of the characters over the course of the book.