Most people know One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest from the Jack Nicholson film, which I have not seen. Until recently I didn’t realise there was a book, but I thought it would be a fun read.
The book by Ken Kesey was published in 1962 during a period when the harsh brutality of asylums seemed to be of the past but methods such as Electric Shock Therapy and, even, lobotomy were used to encourage conformity. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is set is an Oregon State Mental Hospital where Nurse Ratched rules with the imposition of a strict routine. Most of the patients are there voluntarily after being convinced they cannot function, or conform, in normal society.
one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
The status quo is shaken up by the arrival of McMurphy who has feigned mental illness to escape a 6 month sentence at a prison work camp. He gambles, laughs, and opposes the rules to the irritation of Nurse Ratched. His arrival is witnessed through our narrator, the seemingly mute half-Indian Chief Bromden.
Being deaf and mute Bromden spend much of the first half of the book as a passive observer making him a slightly frustrating narrator at times. He also struggles to separate fantasy and reality, convinced there is a real fog pumped through the building to confuse the patients and that Nurse Ratched controls time and can hold it frozen for as long as she chooses. That made it a little hard to tell what was going on at times, but maybe that was the point.
I suppose my biggest problem with the book was that it was ‘of it’s time’ in regards racial and sexual politics. The three black aides are referred by as ‘the black boys’ throughout the book.
All of the, blacker than telephones. The blacker the are, she learned from that long dark row that came before them, the more time they are likely to devote to cleaning and scrubbing and keeping the ward in order.
Which doesn’t sit well. And I struggled with certain themes which I found misogynistic. McMurphy was once arrested for statutory rape of a 15yr old, he replies that the girl said she was 17yrs and was, ‘plenty willin’. Which just seems a bit yuck. McMurphy calls Nurse Ratched a ‘ball-breaker’, and the Harding asks him if ‘he could effectively use his weapon’ against her. McMurphy replies,
Why, if you mean do I think I could get a bone up over that old buzzard, no, I don’t believe I could…
I took that as a question of whether McMurphy could subdue Ratched by raping her and he rejected the idea as he didn’t find her sexually attractive. There are numerous references to her large breasts as well.
I think this would be an interesting exploration of the treatment of people that struggle to conform to ‘normal’ society and the stigma they face but I think the 50yrs since it was published has caught up with it imo.