Explore the idea of ‘normal’ and how Ken Kesey critiques mainstream society in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Table of Contents

‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ by Ken Kesey presents an exploration of themes including individuality and rebellion against conformity. Such themes are linked to the historical background of this novel, as it was written between the ’50s and the ’60s; a world of change which was introduced by the Hippy Movement amongst the younger generation of citizens in the United States, which then expanded all over the globe. Hippies were flaunting in the United States and the consumption of Marijuana, LSD increased exceedingly by the Hippies. Within this time period, people from different countries started to move to California in order to join the Hippy Movement.During this period of time, events such as “Woodstock” and “The Summer of Love” which were concerts and festivals which created increasing amounts of magnetism, influenced many hippies into mainstream media. The author of this novel, Ken Kesey was an advocate for LSD and became a volunteer to test the effects of new substances at the Local Veterans Administration hospital. Subsequently, he became interested in studying alternative methods of perception and accepted a job in a mental institution. He enriched his experience by extensively talking to his patients, expanding his knowledge about their thoughts, and the side effects of these drugs. The conversations Kesey held with his patients soon became his major source of inspiration to write ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ after volunteering in the CIA LSD experiment. The novel, published in 1962 was an immediate success, such so that an adapted version of Kesey’s novel came out in 1975 and won five Oscars. This story is set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon. Narrated by Chief Bromden, a half- Indian patient who has been hospitalized in the psychiatric ward for more ten years, longer than any other patient in the ward. The reader lives the narration through his eyes, and at first, thinks of him as being a reliable narrator, as he hasn’t spoken a word since he first entered the mental institution and his colleagues think of him as being ‘deaf and dumb. Everybody thinks so’ although this couldn’t be farther away from the truth, as he tells the reader, ‘I’m cagey enough to fool them that much. If my being half Indian ever helped me in any way in this dirty life, it helped me being cagey, helped me all these years.’ The novel expresses Bromden’s view of the world which is dominated by his fear of ‘The Combine’ as he calls it, a conglomeration which controls society and makes sure that people stick to their rules and conforms to ‘the norm’ excluding and torturing physically and mentally those who do not form part of it. Kesey presents the story with the patients in the mental institution and it’s oppressive, authoritarian supervisors: ‘the black boys’. Nurse Ratched’s apprentices, ‘black boys in white suits before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them’. This introduction to the first chapter is done by expressing the madness of the hospital, instantly impacting the reader, giving the complete opposite image that would be expected. This creates an unpleasant atmosphere and creates tension, making the reader question how the patients would behave if the employees are having sexual intercourse, which is complete unprofessional behaviour. Due to their white clothing and their intention to be unseen, there is an image created in the reader’s head where the employees metaphorically represent ghosts, suggesting the idea of them haunting their patients. The contrast between the white clothing from the uniform of the members of staff contrasted with the dark colour of their skin creates racist connotations, as they use the term ‘black’ accompanied with the adjective in the plural form, ‘boys’ which in essence, is emphasizing the colour of their skin, and calling these adult workers boys, degrading them. By Kesey’s deliberate choice of naming them ‘black boys’ the reader associates this to the history of African-Americans, which at the time were often seen as uneducated, and typically seen as violent and abusive in the household. ‘The boys’ are often objectified throughout the novel, they are characterized as mechanical instruments, ‘the two big black boys clamped his arms from behind’ , or as a dog, ‘ [They] crawl to her weeping’ these two quotations act as a juxtaposition that describes these group of characters, through which the reader interprets that the employees in the mental institution of Oregon metaphorically are nothing more than tools from ‘The Combine’ which help the system work fluently, although, by opening the book with the ‘sex acts’ Kesey is deliberately reminding the reader that they are also human, corresponding with Sigmund Freud’s belief of the id’s seeking of pleasure and satisfaction, as a natural response from the unconscious mind, as primal energy. On the other hand, the reader could interpret the opening paragraph as racist, interpreting that like the ‘objects’ that they are, Kesey could be suggesting that the ‘black boys’ behave as the psychiatric patients and are part of the same group. Ken Kesey taking the reader through a journey which makes the reader question what normal is, and what is not.After a group therapy session, McMurphy is shocked about how the ward works. He soon realises how Mrs Ratched’s is manipulating her patients into being submissive and cowardly by bringing up the patients’ problems and changing their perspective on them, making them feel insecure. On McMurphy’s first session, Harding’s relationship with his wife is brought up; this discussion was brought up on Friday. After the gathering, McMurphy expresses his opinion on what he witnessed, calling his colleagues ‘chickens’ to what Harding answers, ‘Mr. McMurphy… my friend… I’m not a chicken, I’m a rabbit. The doctor is a rabbit…Oh, don’t misunderstand me, we’re not in here because we are rabbits—we’d be rabbits wherever we were’ Through this dialogue Kesey is expressing this metaphor which, yet again is stimulating a response in the reader and categorising people into groups. By doing so, Kesey is introducing the idea that all of us are equal, we hide behind a fake facade imposed by the ones above us, such as the government, making them feel superior and more powerful than what they really are; wolves and the rest are ‘rabbits’ powerless and submissive. In ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ Mrs Ratched is the controlling predator and the rest, including the employees, are the ‘rabbits’. The reader gets to know that the ‘Big Nurse’ hides behind ‘ the change in her voice’ and appearance, and once McMurphy ‘attacks her and tries to kill her’. The Big Nurse ends up with a ‘heavy bandage around her throat. And a new white uniform…it could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman.’ It could be said that all the power Mrs Ratched had, has been taken away from her; she was hiding behind a glass window that has been shattered by McMurphy. Moreover, when McMurphy assaults the Big Nurse, an unknown side of the dominant ‘wolf’ is exposed, ‘the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light’ her vulnerability is uncovered, turning into a ‘rabbit’. Kesey’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched as a woman who possesses such a threat to masculinity would be a reason to be a reason to feel proud of, by creating a strong, fiercel, independent woman who does not get influenced by any man, except a feminist could argue that the traits that have been instilled in this character have been extremely negative. Feminists would assert that she has been created as a villain, and has adopted traits of the current stereotypical powerful woman (single, tough, conniving). Additionally, a feminist would argue that unlike the male characters in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ the female characters have no background, they simply act as flat characters, subsequently taking away their importance and acting as mere tools that serve to tell the story. Additionally, a feminist would point out that the female characters in the novel are present for sex-related purposes only; for instance, in the group therapy where Nurse Ratched and the patients discuss Harding’s wife. She is characterized as Harding’s ‘young wife’ and that she was ‘extremely well endowed in the bosom and that this made him uneasy because she drew stares from men on the street’ Alike Nurse Ratched, Vera is portrayed as a strong woman instead of weak, submissive character, and it must be noted that her physique is similar to the Big Nurse, although it is seen that Mrs Harding expresses her femininity and her seduction powers with ease, “she blows the black boy a kiss, then turns to Harding, slinging her lips forward. “Hello, Dale.” by Kesey’s deliberate choice of behaviour in this character he is inviting the reader to appreciate how what would be considered as ‘normal people’ can be crazier than the men in the mental institution, by the use of short sentences in dialogue, Kesey creates colloquialism but at the same time shows the character’s lack of feelings towards her husband, making her seem cold-hearted.