20. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey.
History: The novel was written in 1959 by Kesey, although it wasn't published until 1962. The book was the result of Kesey's time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, he took LSD as part of research. From this, he became sympathetic toward the patients. The book refers constantly to different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods, most often personified in the character of Nurse Ratchet who controls the inhabitants of the novel's mental ward through a combination of rewards and subtle shame.
Plot: Narrated by the half-Indian "Chief", who has pretended to be a deaf-mute for several years, this story focuses on the antics of the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, a happy-go-lucky transferee from a prison work farm to a mental hospital. McMurphy fakes insanity to serve out his sentence in the hospital. The hospital ward is run by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. McMurphy constantly antagonizes Nurse Ratched and upsets the routines. McMurphy presents a discipline problem and a challenge to Nurse Ratched's authority, and the two become engaged in a power struggle. One night, after bribing the night orderly, McMurphy breaks into the pharmacy and smuggles bottles of liquor and two prostitute girlfriends onto the ward. McMurphy persuades one of the women to seduce Billy Bibbit, a timid, boyish patient, with a terrible stutter and little experience with women, so that he can lose his virginity. He and the other patients fall asleep without cleaning up the mess and the staff finds the ward in complete disarray. Nurse Ratched finds Billy and the prostitute in each other's arms, partially dressed, and admonishes him. Billy asserts himself for the first time, answering Nurse Ratched without stuttering. Ratched calmly threatens to tell Billy's mother what she has seen. Billy has an emotional breakdown and, once left alone in the doctor's office, commits suicide by cutting his throat. Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for the loss of Billy's life. Infuriated at what she has done to Billy, McMurphy attacks her and attempts to strangle her to death. He has to be dragged away from her and is removed to the disturbed ward. Nurse Ratched misses a week of work due to her injuries, during which time many of the patients either transfer to other wards or check out of the hospital altogether. When she returns, she cannot speak and is thus deprived of her most potent tool to keep the men in line. More of them leave, and Chief is almost alone on the ward when McMurphy is brought back in. He has received a lobotomy and is now in a vegetative state, silent and motionless. The Chief realizes that if other patients see McMurphy in that condition, Nurse Ratched will have ultimately defeated him, demoralizing the patients who were only beginning to assert themselves as men because of McMurphy's influence. The Chief smothers him with a pillow during the night, so that he can die with dignity rather than lie there as a representation of what happens when one tries to buck the system. Finally the Chief lifts the shower room control panel that McMurphy could not lift earlier, throws it through a window, and escapes the hospital to return to his tribe's lands.
Review: At a surface level, the book can be read as an indictment of the mental health system and psychiatric practices of the 50's & 60's. Just beneath this surface it is an attack on conformity and the organizational man and a celebration of individualism. But we reap its greatest rewards when we peel back another layer of the onion and, intentionally or not, the symbols and themes that Kesey mines reach deep into the archaeology of our entire mythos and the tale returns to the central dilemma of human existence, first presented in the Garden of Eden, should mankind choose security or freedom? First I saw the movie. Had to read the book. I liked the movie much better. At that age, I liked all movies, and usually found the movie version of books more interesting. Now, I usually like the book version better. And now I can’t believe Ken Kesey was capable of writing such a wonderful story, now that I know more about the author and I think he was a ridiculous stoner.
Opening Line: “Psychedelic sixties. God knows that whatever that means it certainly meant more than drugs, though drugs still work as a pretty good handle to that phenomena.’
Closing Line: “I been away a long time”.
Quotes: I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.