One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ~ A Capsule Book Review
by Allen Kopp
The classic American novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, was first published in 1962. It is set entirely (except for one brief scene on a fishing boat toward the end of the novel) in a men’s ward of a state mental hospital. The book owes a large part of its fame to the 1976 Oscar-winning film version starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
The first-person narrative of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told in the voice of one Chief Bromden, a very tall half-Indian-half-white-man, who is a long-time patient (maybe “inmate” is more appropriate) in the ward. He pretends to be “deaf and dumb” but isn’t. He sweeps the floor constantly, allowing him to be in places (closed-door meetings, for example) where he otherwise wouldn’t be allowed. He sees and hears everything. He is the silent observer.
The ward is ruled with an iron fist by one Nurse Ratched, who the men call “Big Nurse.” She is about fifty years old, wears lots of lipstick, has enormous breasts, and is a former army nurse. She is friends with the mother of one of the patients, Billy Bibbit, and, except for that, we know nothing about her life away from the hospital. Is she married? Does she have children? Is she a lesbian? We never know. She remains throughout the novel a rather one-dimensional character.
Over time Nurse Ratched has fine-tuned the ward to her liking. She believes in strict adherence to rules and schedule. The patients are all afraid of her one way or another. She uses fear, intimidation, humiliation—and sometimes electroshock therapy—to keep them in line. She herself is as machine-like and as tightly controlled as her ward. She seems invincible. No one will go against her.
Enter patient Randle Patrick McMurphy, transferred to the mental ward from a state work farm. He is the rowdy nonconformist, the extrovert from the lower classes, the master manipulator. He has been bucking authority his entire life and isn’t intimidated by it. Whether he really belongs in a mental hospital or not is never established. As a work-farm prisoner, he wangles a transfer to the mental hospital because the food is better, the surroundings more comfortable, and the living easier. He has made himself master of his world.
R. P. McMurphy challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority in a way it has never been challenged before. He lets her know that she has met her match in him. He isn’t intimidated by her the way the other men are. He breaks all the rules and leads the other men into doing the same. Finally they have found somebody who speaks for them, who stands up for them. He gives them courage they never realized they had. When he finds that most of them are in the mental hospital voluntarily (they can leave whenever they want to) rather than “committed,” he forces them to look at their lives in a different way: they are masters of their own destiny, most of them, instead of pawns to be manipulated by the “Combine.”
The story doesn’t turn out well for McMurphy, but has Nurse Ratched really won in the end? Hasn’t McMurphy wrought a change that otherwise (if not for him) would not have been possible? It’s the end of the road for him but the beginning of a new and better road for some of the others. In the end he has triumphed over the “Combine” in a way we didn’t expect. He is the classic antihero, the “one against many.”
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp