Copyright (c) 2012 Morgan D
The setting of this novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, is an asylum in Oregon. Through the narration a study of the mind and institutional system is presented. It was penned in 1959 and later adapted as a play and Academy Award winning movie. Time Magazine ranked it as one of the hundred best English novels from 1923 till 2005.
The narrator is one of the inmates, half-Native American submissive Bromden who brings into focus the activities of a rebel – McMurphy who had pretended to be insane so as to complete his incarceration years for rape in the mental hospital. The ward is ruled by the iron hand of Ratched, a nurse who has very little in-depth knowledge about medicine. McMurphy makes it a point to antagonize Ratched and upset her schedules. This leads to continuous struggle for power between the nurse and the inmates. Even after being administered electric-shock-therapy the behavior of McMurphy is far from toned down.
Things take a violent turn when one night McMurphy uses bribe to sneak in alcohol and two prostitutes into the ward. He persuades a timid patient Bibbit to cozy up to the girls but unfortunately the entire episode was exposed. When Ratched threatens to tell Bibbit’s mother about the escapade, he commits suicide. Enraged McMurphy disrobes the nurse in front of the others and tries to choke her. This causes him to be locked up in the disturbed ward.
After a week Ratched returns to find that many patients had left the hospital while others had been transferred. Injuries had left her without her sharp tongue and thus sans her controlling power over the men. When McMurphy returns, there are only three of the original patients left. After being administered lobotomy he has relapsed into vegetative state – is silent and inactive. Bromden, as an act of mercy smothers him and escapes. The author had worked in a mental asylum as an orderly in California’s Menlo Park. He spoke with the inmates, observed the workings of the facility and himself took psychoactive drugs as part of a project.
The novel repeatedly focuses on the various authorities that use their control over the individuals either covertly or overtly. The narrator Bromden refers to this as “The Combine” (Kesey 431) as he highlights the mechanical way individuals are manipulated and processed. This Combine factor is epitomized in the nurse named Ratched. She rules over the inmates by combining rewards with covert shame. Although she resorts to the conventional methods of harsh discipline her behavior is more sinister than the other administrators’. Her subtle actions do not allow her patients to understand that they are under her control. Bromden has Native American blood flowing in his veins. In Combine he sees the wild Celilo Falls and Columbia River being dammed. His ancestors had hunted here but today it has been replaced by the consumer society of post-war USA.
The mental ward has come under criticism in the novel. The mental asylum has been depicted as an instrument of oppression. Ken Kesey through the novel criticizes the emasculation being done to men by portraying Billy Bibbit’s character. Domineered by both his mother and the nurse he has developed a bad stutter. Except for the prostitutes all the other female characters in the novel are terrifying and threatening figures. All the patients are like putty in the hands of Ratched and her supervisor – another woman. The central theme of the novel seems to be a fear of women.
The mother of Bromden had turned this big strong man into a groveller and alcoholic. She had made herself bigger than either her husband or her son by constantly dominating them. Bibbit’s mother kept on treating him as if he was an infant stifling his sexual urges. Through a brief encounter with the prostitutes he regains his manhood but it was only for a short spell as Ratched threatens to tell everything to his mother. The compelling fear made him commit suicide. In another bizarre incident one of the patients, Rawler, cuts off his testicles. Commenting on this Bromden said that he should have waited – “all the guy had to do was wait” (Kesey 124); he implied that the institution would have in the long run castrated him. The hospital for male patients is run by women. When three sessions of shock treatment fail to calm McMurphy down the nurse opts for “an operation” (Kesey 525). Here the word “operation” has two meanings – castration and lobotomy as both result in removing the freedom, individuality and sexual expression of a man. Mechanical imagery is used by Kesey for representing today’s modern society and biological imagery is used to represent Nature. Through mechanical processes society begins to control individuals and their natural impulses. The hospital stands for society – an unnatural set up. Those running it are like parts of a machine that all connived not only to snuff out life but humanity also.
As the son of a Red Indian chief Bromden represents closeness to Nature whose spirit has been bottled up by mechanical society. The government has cut off his happy hunting rounds where they speared the salmon. The tribes have been banished to become cogs in the wheel of industrial society. McMurphy represents a free independent will that has not died. His intellectuality and sexuality is still alive. Nature keeps sex alive while mechanization castrates it. He struggles to keep his naturalness alive and to inculcate in others this feeling of freedom. The novel shows that sanity means healthy expression of sex and insanity means its repression. The title is from a nursery rhyme that says those who fly east and west are in total opposition – they are combatants in the novel. But one flew over the nest – the mute Bromden who is the witnessing narrator.