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Booktext, March 07--One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


March 2007

Spotlight: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Author: Ken Kesey

Year: 1962

Length: 250 pages (appx.)

Publisher: Viking Press

One flew east, one flew west...If we have to start somewhere, we might as well start with one of the best. Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is, simply, a masterpiece. It's one of those very rare books that has just as much profound meaning on its surface as it does at its depths. Whether you decide, as a reader, to dig deep or only to read straight through, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest delivers a story that will haunt you for a lifetime.

Cuckoo's Nest is the story of Randle P. McMurphy, a convict who feigns mental illness so that he can spend the rest of his prison sentence in the comparative calmness of a mental-health facility. But what begins as a very selfish gesture becomes significantly more benevolent as he realizes the disrespect with which his fellow patients are being treated. McMurphy takes it upon himself to re-establish the patients as human beings in their own right--an imposing enough goal on its own that is made all but impossible by the cold-hearted matriarch of the ward, Nurse Ratched.

The story itself is a profoundly affecting parable of self-respect and individuality, but this moralistic spin does nothing to dull the impact of the characters themselves...none of whom are made to seem like mechanisms for the didactic purpose of plot. They all have individual personalities are they are all helpless in very distinctive ways. McMurphy's clash with Nurse Ratched never comes across as fable; it's always a very real struggle for the rights of very real human beings, and it isn't possible to read the unfolding drama without investing as much of yourself in the outcome as the other patients do.

In fact, it is through one of the other patients that we view all of the action: McMurphy's roommate, Chief Bromden. Bromden is a hulking Native American who is considered deaf and dumb, though he is neither--he's just been terrified into silence by the world (and ward) around him. He has, owing to his status as one of the most genuinely sick patients on the ward, more riding on McMurphy's success than any of the others...but he also sees most clearly the severe physical and emotional toll that it's taking on their hero.

Throughout the book the struggle for the rights of the men changes hands back and forth from McMurphy to Nurse Ratched, and it becomes a self-righteous challenge for each of them not to back down. Success isn't measured by who's right or wrong, but by who stands tall and who flinches. The unfortunate logic of this situation means that there is no runner-up position; one can triumph only through the destruction of the other. Kesey leads us bravely toward and into the only rational conclusion the book can possibly have, a profound and gut-wrenching tragedy that we've felt brewing all along.

It's exactly the sort of brave ending that most popular writers--perhaps out of a misguided sense of "fairness"--tend to shy away from. Think Golding's infamous copout at the end of Lord of the Flies. There is no last-second rescue in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, no authorial promise that everything works out after all. Kesey is interested in entertaining his audience, but is also, clearly, interested in doing it honestly.

Why Kesey succeeds where lesser authors would fail is because he paints his characters believably. While McMurphy may well be the hero and Nurse Ratched may well be the villain, we are never led to believe that McMurphy is perfect. He is, after all, a criminal (statutory rape being among his many offenses), and he is seen taking advantage of the patients' trust many times throughout the book. Likewise, Nurse Ratched clearly does care for the well-being of her's her unwavering conviction that only she knows best that makes her dangerous, as she will gladly run a patient into the ground following someone else's methods just to prove that they don't work as well as hers.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an important book for anyone interested in either reading or writing; it's one of the few books whose plot is just as rewarding as its theme. It's courageous and it's dangerous, it's hilarious and it's harrowing. It's a parable for modern times that both celebrates and condemns what we've become as social beings.

Oh, I doubt I'll be mentioning theatrical adaptations too often in this column, but it is probably important for me to add that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became probably the most satisfying film of anything adapted directly from an English novel, by far. It's also quite different, which might be why it manages to work just as well in a thoroughly separate medium.

5 Stars

About this entry


I'm afraid I've never read the book. This must obviously change, and soon. However, the movie is incredibly brilliant, and I've always admired that perfectly-symmetrical title.

By Austin Ross
March 05, 2007 @ 11:44 pm

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>the movie is incredibly brilliant

Without question. I was amazed to hear that Kesey was very disappointed in it because of the more significant changes made (for example, the film is not narrated by Chief Bromden, and Jack Nicholson does not play McMurphy as the "tough little Irishman" Kesey wrote him to be), but I personally believe that a straight adaptation would have been no more impressive than the dozens of straight adaptations we get every year. They range from alright to pretty good and within 10 months everyone forgets them.

This film, however, is a rightful masterpiece, just as good as the book, but in a different way. The spirit of the novel was retained, as was the theme, but it was interpreted and handled differently...which is exactly why it works. People don't seem to understand that words on a page don't magically work just as well as direct imitation on a screen. It's a wholy different art form and no direct transition is going to impress anyone.

Once again, though, I doubt I'll be spending much time discussing film versions in this column. Mainly because usually--all together now--they stink.

>that perfectly-symmetrical title

Pretend I don't understand you and explain this.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
March 07, 2007 @ 1:58 am

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>Pretend I don't understand you and explain this.

My mind always unconsciously divides it into two halves - "One Flew Over" and "The Cuckoo's Nest". Each of the halves is four syllables. Plus, it just has a nice ring to it.

By Austin Ross
March 07, 2007 @ 4:37 am

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>it just has a nice ring to it.

So does Austin Reed.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
March 07, 2007 @ 12:58 pm

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Smashing article, couldn't agree more. EXCEPT Not sure if I agree about Bromden being more ill than the rest of the patients, and his own ending gives the book for me a much more optimistic beat to finish on. In a way, things rather DO work out for the best, don't they?

Also, I've read more books where authors strive for a Cuckoos-style ending, but haven't earned the emotional impact and it's come across as hollow and dull, than books where people have avoided such an ending, I think. Which isn't to disagree with you, it probably just reflects on what we've each read, but I think it affirms how masterfully put together Cuckoos is.

Any other Kesey books worth a shot? I'm a bit intimidated by their size and infrequency.

Also, anyone seen the play?

By Michael Lacey
March 09, 2007 @ 6:23 am

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>Not sure if I agree about Bromden being more ill than the rest of the patients

Well, he's more ill than most of the patients, I be honest, I haven't counted them up, and so, numerically speaking, I may actually be wrong. But he's at least the most ill of the main patients. (There are some pretty vivid descriptions of patients that are far, far worse off than he is...but we--for obvious reasons--don't hear much of their personal experience. Whereas Bromden's hallucinations are far more severe than anything Harding or Cheswick or Billy Bibbit have to face. For them it's all intimidation.)

>In a way, things rather DO work out for the best, don't they?

As you mentioned later in your comment, this speaks to how masterfully assembled the book is. Kesey gives you every right to feel the way you do...and also to feel the way I do. The ending is "definite," but the consequences are not. It really depends--I think--on where you place yourself in relation to the characters. If you side with Bromden, you do end on an optimistic beat, as you say. But if you've been following more closely the escalating battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched...well...the ending can't get much more powerful than that.

It's a good point, because the ending is double-edged. However, as you mentioned, Kesey EARNED it, which is what sets it apart from not only the books that didn't bother with a brave conclusion, but also the books that did and left us feeling unsatisfied.

>Any other Kesey books worth a shot?

I started to read Sailor Song last year, but I lost interest. I don't think it was due to the book...I think it was something external that kept me from finishing. I was actually wondering the same thing myself, if anyone's read anything else.

>Also, anyone seen the play?

No, but I think the guy who played Bromden in the somewhat-recent run was the son of the actor who played him in the film. Also he was used to play the Bromden-like character in the Robot Wars episode of Spaced. Nice to see the characters being kept alive. Perhaps at some point they'll be as recognizable as the cast of A Christmas Carol.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
March 09, 2007 @ 12:55 pm

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Hmm, Bromden certainly has vivid mental episodes, but I always felt (or perhaps assumed) that he'd slowly cracked up mostly from being inside the institution, and would be perfectly harmless and well in the outside world. Still, as you say, we're quibbling over minor points in a book that rewards a number of interpretations, so I'll stop now. Let's imagine the book is a woman - I'll bum it, you can go in it's mouth and we'll high five at the same time

By Michael Lacey
March 10, 2007 @ 12:19 am

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>I always felt (or perhaps assumed) that he'd slowly cracked up mostly from being inside the institution, and would be perfectly harmless and well in the outside world.

I personally disagree, but I do think it's left intentionally vague. We have glimpses of Bromden's pre-ward life, and for the most part it's pretty normal, safe stuff. Which means we don't actually bear witness to the "start" of his mental illness. When did it happen? After he was committed? It's unclear.

I think, for the sake of reading the book without that distraction, I assumed it happened pre-ward and he was rightfully committed. You, however, believe it happened as a result of being committed. And I can't think of a single instance to disprove you...

Which points to intentional vagueness. Which, in itself, is another facet of the ending. It has elements of triumph and elements of tragedy. Which is it? It's vague. You reach your own decision. But this schizophrenic nature of major plot-points is actually in keeping with the theme of the book, come to think of

>we're quibbling over minor points in a book that rewards a number of interpretations, so I'll stop now.

Honestly I didn't see it as quibbling, and I'm sorry if I came off that way. I was (and am) genuinely interested in your differing opinion--especially since it's not unfounded at all. If all of these Booktext articles manage to bring up a valid opposing view of something, then they'll have been well worth writing.

>Let's imagine the book is a woman - I'll bum it, you can go in it's mouth and we'll high five at the same time

We are the Siskel and Ebert of books. (You're Ebert.)

By Philip J Reed, VSc
March 10, 2007 @ 1:54 am

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Oh yes, the use of quibbling wasn't meant to sound negative at all. I've loved the book for a looong time, and this article has prompted me to think about it in ways I hadn't before, which is brilliant. More please!

By Michael Lacey
March 10, 2007 @ 9:09 am

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