One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

by Ken Kesey
   This novel is ken kesey’s first and most commercially successful novel. The immediate success of this work pushed the young author into the countercultural spotlight where he would serve as a bridge between the earlier Beats and the hippies of the 1960s. The novel was inspired by Kesey’s stint as a hospital aide for the Veteran’s Administration in Menlo Park, California. While working there, Kesey was introduced to hallucinogens as a volunteer test subject.
   In this novel, Kesey establishes one of the major themes that he will develop in his later fiction, the conflict between a strong-willed individual and a community that demands conformity to a universal standard. The characters Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Mildred Ratched represent these two opposing forces in Cuckoo’s Nest, as does Hank Stamper and the community of union loggers in sometimes a Great notion. Although some commentators have described McMurphy as irresponsible to a fault, he is perhaps best seen as a trickster figure, something completely antithetical to the values of conformist 1950s America, the setting of the novel. Kesey’s narrator is Chief Bromden, a schizophrenic half Native-American inmate at a Portland, Oregon, mental hospital. He is suspicious of Nurse Ratched, the “Big Nurse,” who is in charge of the Chief’s ward. This somewhat unreliable narrator allows Kesey to create a claustrophobic and paranoid depiction of the hospital’s staff, who represent the conformity-driven society outside the institution with which all of the inmates must fall in line if they are to “fit in.” They are, according to the Chief, the “Combine” of America. Into this situation comes Randle Patrick McMurphy, a prisoner at a local labor camp who has had himself committed to shirk his duties. Mc-Murphy is the classic American hero, larger than life and full of contempt for Big Nurse and the control she represents. He is also a Beat hero, similar to Dean Morarity in jack kerouac’s on tHe road, whose almost excessive exuberance has a positive influence on those around him, even as it destroys him. As the novel progresses, McMurphy and Ratched engage in a series of head-to-head conflicts that eventually make the inmates devoted disciples of McMurphy and threaten to erode the control that Ratched has over them.
   While the inmates such as Chief Bromden start out as observers of McMurphy’s seemingly bizarre behavior, they are soon willing participants in his antics. After a series of adventures including a fishing trip, McMurphy is subjected to electroone shock treatments. This torture session makes him into even more of a Christ figure, suffering for his followers. (McMurphy himself asks if he is to receive a crown of thorns for the session.) Despite the electric shocks to his skull, McMurphy returns to his nonconformist activities. To top the fishing trip, McMurphy organizes a party, complete with alcohol and prostitutes that are smuggled into the ward. The sexual component to this scene is important for the characters in the novel, who seem to be emasculated. Dale Harding is afraid of his own sexuality despite being married to a beautiful woman, and Billy Bibbit is as much under his mother’s control as he is under Nurse Ratched’s. After their exposure to this wilder side of masculinity, Dale hatches a plan for escape, and Billy becomes more assertive.
   This is not to last, though, as Big Nurse steps in. Reasserting her control over the inmates, she belittles Billy into a state resembling his earlier childlike self. This regression pushes Billy to suicide. This precipitates a final confrontation between Ratched and McMurphy, during which he physically attacks her. In this fight McMurphy rips open Big Nurse’s uniform, revealing her previously hidden breasts, symbolically revealing her as a “real” woman rather than a controlling figure. McMurphy is overpowered in the fight by an attendant. His punishment for this violent outburst is severe: a lobotomy. When McMurphy is returned to the ward in a vegetative state, he can no longer serve as an inspiration for the inmates. Following his Christ-figure path, McMurphy must be martyred. Chief Bromden uses his massive physical strength to smother McMurphy with a pillow. The Chief then symbolically breaks out of his self-imposed silence by breaking out of the asylum and running across the hospital’s lawn toward the highway in the distance.
   One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was extremely popular from the time of its publication and was one of the most assigned contemporary American novels in college-level courses during the 1970s. The continued success of the novel is perhaps due to the dichotomy between Ratched and McMurphy, which can be reinterpreted to incorporate successive social concerns. The novel is set in the 1950s when reaction against middle-class suburbanite conformity was a major concern for many of the Beat writers. During the 1960s and early 1970s Ratched could stand for the “establishment” against which the hippies were reacting. In the 1980s and into the 21st century, Ratched can stand for the increasing presence of controlling technology in everyday life. Against all of these symbols for a repressive social structure stands McMurphy, the symbol of old-fashioned American individuality at the core of the Beat and hippie ethos. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted for film in 1975 and directed by Milos Forman. The film, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy was a popular and critical success and earned six Academy Awards. The film is told with McMurphy as the central character, so Kesey’s use of Bromden as a schizophrenic, filtering narrator is all but lost. The book was also adapted as a play on Broadway with Kirk Douglas as McMurphy in 1963. It was later revived by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2001.
■ Leeds, Barry, Ken Kesey, New York: Unger, 1981.
■ Porter, Gilbert M. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
   Donovan Braud

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — may refer to: One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest (novel), a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest (play), a 1963 stage adaptation of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest (film), a 1975 film adaptation of the novel See also One …   Wikipedia

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest] a US novel (1962) by Ken Kesey that became a successful ↑Broadway play (1963) and film (1975). It is about a man with mental problems who tries to resist the harsh discipline of the …   Useful english dictionary

  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest — Filmdaten Deutscher Titel: Einer flog über das Kuckucksnest Originaltitel: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Produktionsland: USA Erscheinungsjahr: 1975 Länge: 133 Minuten Originalsprache: Englisch …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — Vol au dessus d un nid de coucou Vol au dessus d un nid de coucou Titre original One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest Réalisation Milos Forman Acteurs principaux …   Wikipédia en Français

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — Para la obra original en la que se basa esta película, véase One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest (novela). One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest Título Alguien voló sobre el nido del cuco (España) Atrapado sin salida (Argentina) Atrapados sin salida… …   Wikipedia Español

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — Alguién voló sobre el nido del cuco o Atrapado sin salida (según el país) es una película basada en la novela One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest de Ken Kesey. La película, dirigida por Milos Forman cuenta con excelentes interpretaciones de Jack… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — a US novel (1962) by Ken Kesey that became a successful Broadway play (1963) and film (1975). It is about a man with mental problems who tries to resist the harsh discipline of the hospital where he is a patient. The film, which was directed by… …   Universalium

  • One flew over the cuckoo's nest — …   Википедия

  • One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest — novel by Ken Kesey; 1975 film based on Kesey s novel (starring Jack Nicholson) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest —    Voir Vol au dessus d un nid de coucou …   Dictionnaire mondial des Films

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