Crazy As Loons
A book reporton One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
"If somebody'd of come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year-old woman hollering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they'd of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons." This incredibly ironic statement basically sums up the battle of the wills in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Published in 1962, at the beginning of the hippie movement by a man considered "one of the godfathers of the 1960s counter-culture" (Obituary), the novel brings to light a romantic, tragic tale about a hero comparable to Christ. The book was immediately successful, standing, even still, as a momento of the hippie ideals, of fighting the system, and of friendship.
Ken Kesey was born on September 17, 1935 in La Junta, California, and died on November 10, 2001 in Eugene, Oregon (Obituary). His father owned a dairy business, which Kesey's brother now owns (Camozzi). According to The United Kingdom Times (Obituary), he was voted "most likely to succeed," was a champion boxer, wrestler, football player, and a model student in high school. He went to the University of Oregon and married his highschool sweetheart in 1956. He won a scholarship Stanford, where he enrolled in the creative writing program. While still in Stanford, Kesey and a friend volunteered for a government drugs research program and became convinced that LSD had beneficial effects. He also worked as an orderly on a psychiatric ward in a veterans' hospital, where he found the inspiration for the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He moved to California to write Sometimes a Great Nation in 1964, which was a book about the conflict between West Coast individualism and East Coast intellectualism. Kesey founded a group of anarchist hippies called the Merry Pranksters, who advocated widespread use of LSD. They went on tour in a psychedelic-colored renovated school bus called "Further" to distribute the drug. The trip was made famous in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. After the trip, the Pranksters moved to San Francisco and threw huge parties, called Acid Tests, in which there were large tubs of Kool-Aid containing various hallucinogenic drugs. After LSD was made illegal, Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession. Trying to avoid jail, he faked his own suicide and fled to Mexico. In 1968, he returned to the states and served a five-month term in a county jail. Afterwards, he lived out the rest of his life on a farm in Eugene, Oregon and taught a graduate fiction writing course at the local college. He published several collections of essays and letters, several short stories and children's stories, and Sailor Song, his third full-length novel. He also published Twister, a satirical play based off of the Wizard of Oz. Kesey died of cancer shortly after publishing an article about September 11.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is written in the point of view of Chief Bromden, known by the orderlies as Chief Broom, a half-white American Indian who acts like he is deaf and dumb because that is the way he has always been treated. The setting, a mental hospital in Oregon, is dominated by the Big Nurse, Nurse Ratched, a former army nurse who hates her own womanhood, and three black orderlies she hired because of their ability to hate. Two kinds of patients make up the ward - Acutes, younger patients who are "still sick enough to be fixed" and Chronics, who are "not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking around the street. . ." Bromden says that some Into this miserable existence swaggers Randle Patrick McMurphy, a perfectly sane individual who just wants to escape the hard labor of prison.
Informing them that he has come to gamble and bring them amusement, McMurphy introduces himself enthusiastically to everybody on the ward. He quickly discovers that there is something wrong with the situation and dedicates himself to breaking the control the Big Nurse has on the hospital. He does everything he can to throw off the nurse's routine schedule. He strolls around in his underwear, pretends he has nothing on but a towel, cracks jokes even though everyone is too afraid to laugh, and convinces the men that they do not need to ridicule each other just because the Big Nurse tells them that it is for therapy. He is the first to discover that Chief Bromden really is not deaf or dumb. When he wants to watch a ball game on TV, and the nurse refuses by telling him that it will disturb the other patients on the ward by throwing off the schedule (despite nobody else objecting), McMurphy convinces the men to sit in front of the blank TV and act like they are watching the game while ignoring her. He forces her to open up an unused room, so they can play cards away from the music the Big Nurse plays for the Wheelers and Vegetables in the day room.
When he finds out that he is committed and that Nurse Ratched has the power to keep him there forever, McMurphy tries to back down and play it safe. However, he resumes his power struggle when Cheswick, the patient most concerned with their rights and defeating Ratched, drowns after telling McMurphy that he understands why he stopped trying to help the other patients even though he still wishes for something to be done. McMurphy organizes a basketball team for them.
Shortly after, McMurphy arranges a fishing trip for the men. Away from the glaring presence of the Big Nurse and in the presence of a fun-loving prostitute, the patients could be themselves and have fun. After the trip, McMurphy's struggle intensifies as Nurse Ratched begins to loose her patience. As the rest of the ward is testing out their new-found confidence, Chief Bromden observes the change in McMurphy. He seems tired and worried. The other patients plan for McMurphy's escape from the hospital. They sneak in the prostitute and her friend, who Billy Bibbit, an over-babied man attached to his mother, loses his virginity to. Before McMurphy can escape, they all fall asleep and are awoken by Nurse Ratched, who finds Billy Bibbit and threatens to tell his mother what he has done. In desperation, Billy Bibbit commits suicide, and Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy. In his last, daring act of defiance, McMurphy pins her down and rips open her uniform, allowing the rest of the patients to see her breasts and acknowledge that she is human and has weaknesses. He is dragged from the ward and does not return for several weeks.
While he is gone, several of the patients check out because they have found the courage to face society. Eventually, he returns, but will never be the same. He underwent a frontal lobotomy, which completely rearranged his personality. The Chief, unwilling to see this happen to a friend or to let McMurphy stand as a warning to future patients, smothers him to death at night and escapes by throwing a control panel through a window. Even the Chief, who had been in the ward the longest, realizes his own strength.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest possesses different meanings for different readers, but the idea usually remains the same. Frank N. Magill says that the book "...appears to be a modern morality play, where good ultimately triumphs over evil and where McMurphy's chief disciple escapes to spread the gospel" (Magill 203). ". . . Kesey continually focuses on the equal absurdity and pathos of man's inability and unwillingness to listen. . ." R.L. Sassoon says (DISCovering Authors). One critic points out that "Scholars have variously perceived the novel as a biblical parable, a Western romance in the American tradition, and a story about freedom from institutionalized repression" ("Ken Kesey"). The critic's statement hits very close to the truth. The author himself explains that the book describes a reaction against control and that the book began with " . . . the notion of what you have to pay for a lifestyle" (Faggen). Terence Martin says, " . . . One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an intense statement about the high cost of living - which we must be big enough to afford" (Contemporary Literary Criticism 316).
The fact that most of the men in the mental hospital are there voluntarily points out a huge flaw in society's machine-like system, the Combine. Martin enforces this by pointing out what the reader learns through the Chief's flashbacks, that ". . .the Chief, as we know, has become literally deaf and dumb to the world because the world has treated him as if he could not speak and could not hear." Many of the men have little wrong with them - Harding simply has self-esteem issues, Billy Bibbit is over-babied by his mother and too attached to let go, and two of them are epileptics embarrassed by their condition. Even though the Chief was actually committed, Kesey says that "Some have described Bromden as schizophrenic. But his is a philosophical craziness, not a clinical illness" (Faggen). The Big Nurse fuels their emotional distress by pitting them against each other. During group "therapy" sessions, she singles out one of the patients and encourages the others to pick apart his flaws. During one meeting, McMurphy interrupts with a wise-crack about the topic, so Nurse Ratched reads out loud the contents of his record file. With methods like these, she continues to keep the patients under her control. The patients are afraid to laugh; the Chief says that "nobody ever dares let loose and laugh, the whole staff'd be in with notebooks and a lot of questions." After McMurphy's arrival, the patients learn from him. While learning how to laugh again, they begin to feel better about themselves. In this way, the novel enforces the importance of laughter and self-respect, as well as a community of people that support each other and do not tear each other down.
Repeatedly, the themes of manhood and woman-domination come up. Martin mentions the importance of manhood to the patients several times, even going as far as dissecting McMurphy's name to explain the lack of control women have over him and the "manhood" he represents. "His name, with its patronymic, identifies him as the son of Murphy, not of Mrs. Murphy . . ." (314) Martin says. He continues this by saying, "His example . . . evokes the choked off manhood of the men on the ward and a sense of freedom they have forgotten, or not known" (315). He asserts that "Women in the novel . . . are powerful forces of control. They represent a sinister contemporary version of a feminist tradition in American literature that goes back, at least, to Dame Van Winkle . . ." ( 314). "Women have robbed the men in the novel of their masculinity," (316) Robert Forrey says. He tells about Big Nurse Ratched, "the villainess" of the novel. "Her name, Ratched, means a toothed gear wheel in a threshing machine -, i.e., a combine" (316), he explains. He also points out that "almost all the men . . . have been done in, if not actually committed by, women" (316). According to Robert Faggen's interview with the author, Kesey considers evil as "the thing that seems to control. In Cuckoo's Nest, it's the combine" (Faggen). When asked about the Big Nurse, he replied, "She's not the villain. She might be the minion of the villain, but she's really just a big old tough ex-Army nurse who is trying to do the best she can, according to the rules that she has been given. She worked for the villain and believed in the villain, but she ain't the villain" (Faggen).
In any case, readers have no problem defining the antagonists and the protagonists in the book. The antagonists consist of Nurse Ratched and the Combine, society's creation to mold people into what it thinks they should be. McMurphy stands alone as the main protagonist, although some try to give that position to Chief Bromden. Nevertheless, while reading the novel, one supports not just McMurphy but all of the patients, hoping that they will overcome their fears and inhibitions and escape the strangling hold of the Big Nurse.
"It was acclaimed by both professional reviewers and scholarly critics, who called it brilliant, powerful, convincingly alive, glowing, authentic, a mythic confrontation, and a comic doomsday vision," (Magill 1206) Frank N. Magill says of Kesey's novel. During the ten years after its publication, the novel "sold more than a million copies and was made into a stage play and very popular film" (1206). In an interview with Kesey, Faggen points out that Kesey's "novels have been popular in eastern Europe and translated in the former communist-block countries" (Faggen). Kesey explained that because the conflict in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest took place in America and was controlled by the American combine, the novel was "allowed in communist-block countries because the authorities considered them anti-American." R.L. Sassoon considers the novel "a vision of Hell. . . An ironical view of American society. . . intimations of an ideal of fun and self-realization in community" (DISCovering Authors3, "a review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Another critic states, the novel ". . .has been a critical success since its initial publication, and its popularity has grown throughout the years. The book has been particularly popular on college campuses. . ." ("Ken Kesey"). "Some reviewers have objected to the novel's negative portrayals of African Americans and women, but other commentators have asserted that the work's apparent racist and sexist outlook is affected by who the reader identifies as the novel's protagonist . . ." ("Ken Kesey") the same critic says. Pointing out several flaws in the book, David Skinner writes, "It's narrator, Chief Bromden, is a walking cliche" (Skinner). He says it is too stereotypical of the sixties' mentality. "In a loose bundle of hippie suspicions - that power thrives on hatred, that order is the opposite of freedom, that democracy is a mere cover for authoritarian impulse . . ." (Skinner) he says. Critic Robert Forrey argues that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is:
. . .a novel which may be conservative, if not reactionary, politically; sexist, if not psychopathological, psychologically; and very low, if not downright lowbrow, in terms of the level of sensibility it reflects, a sensibility which has been influenced most strongly not by the Bible or a particular literary tradition as much as by comic books, particularly the Captain Marvel variety. (Contemporary Literary Criticism 316)
As I read the novel, I found myself pondering the Chief's odd ideas about what was going on in the ward. Whenever he was upset or worried about something, the ward became smothered in a "fog," which I assume represented his withdrawal into the safety and comfort of his own mind. I could not, however, figure out what caused the fog. At first, I associated it with the red capsules the patients took (the same red capsules Nurse Ratched refused to identify for a curious patient). Later, I found a report that contained some of the effects of shock treatment. Helen Studd, a reporter for The United Kingdom Times says that "as many as 84 percent of patients who receive the treatment suffer permanent memory loss, lose the ability to read, write and concentrate, and suffer drowsiness and confusion" (Studd) Since the Chief had been to the Shock Shop around thirty times, this might account for the fog.
Bromden's analogies, his referral to the Combine, portrayed society's tendency to control very well. My experience with people and the never questioning stance they take on certain subjects, the way the nurse remained unflinching in her support for the Combine, as well as the history of abuse that hovers around mental institutions made the entire situation believable. I ended up contemplating the true line between sanity and insanity and the point after which one needs psychiatric help. When Bromden said, " . . . they'd of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons," I realized just how odd the entire situation was. It seemed that most of the men were there just because they felt that they could not handle the Outside World or because they were continually told there was something wrong with them. Nurse Ratched, who considered herself sane, needed more help than any one of the men on her ward, excluding Martini, who hallucinates and hears voices like one usually associated with the word "crazy." I could not see how the Big Nurse could fit into a well-working Combine, but she represented it. The line between sanity and insanity no longer existed, and both coincided together in the Combine, the very same Combine that was supposed to eradicate or conform anything that did not fit. The Combine allowed people like Nurse Ratched to smother the weaker, although mostly sane, people. It was only after they allowed themselves some insanity - laughter, fun, conversations they did not use against each other - that the patients truly discovered themselves. It is as though society, the Combine, represents the wrong people.
McMurphy, the force fighting the Combine's control, is a Christ figure, and this forcibly points out some of society's worst hypocrisies. He was a con man who faked insanity to get out of jail and hopefully get a free ride in the asylum. His last heroic deed was to rip open the Big Nurse's shirt and expose her large breasts to the ward. Nevertheless, he saved most of the patients by teaching them how to laugh and respect themselves, two of the most important lessons people can learn. He saved the men from the Big Nurse's ideals of conformity, something society is always trying to force upon people. McMurphy lost to the Big Nurse but won for the current patients, although in the end, the Big Nurse remains at the hospital, waiting to conform patients unaware of McMurphy's sacrifice and life lessons. Her stoic indifference, even after completely destroying McMurphy, to the plight of these men, men who did not know how to defend themselves is a chilling reminder of what could happen to anyone who lives by society's choking standards.
The book reminds us that perhaps we are the ones who are insane.
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Faggen, Robert. "Ken Kesey: the Art of Fiction CXXVI." Gale Group Databases. O'Fallon High School, O'Fallon, Il. 26 Feb. 2005
Forrey, Robert. "Ken Kesey's Psychopathic Savior: A Rejoinder." Modern Fiction Studies. 1979: 316-317. Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 11. Gale Research Company. O'Fallon High School, O'Fallon, Il. 23 Feb. 2005.
"Ken Kesey." Contemporary Literary Criticism Gale Group Databases. O'Fallon High School, O'Fallon, Il. 26 Feb. 2005
Martin, Terence. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the High Cost of Living." Modern Fiction Studies. 1979: 314-316. Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 11. Gale Research Company. O'Fallon High School, O'Fallon, Il. 23 Feb. 2005.
Magill, Frank N. Masterplots II American Fiction SeriesVolume 3. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, Inc., 1986.
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Sassoon, R.L. "A Review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." DISCovering Authors3. CD-ROM. Gale Research, 1992.
Skinner, David. "Cuckoo for Kesey." Insight on the News Vol. 18, Issue 25. 15 July 2002: 26. MasterFILE Elite EBSCOhost. O'Fallon High School, O'Fallon, Il. 26 Feb. 2005.
Studd, Helen. "Electric Shock Treatment Still Given to 10,000." The (United Kingdom) Times 14 Oct. 2002: Newspaper Source EBSCOhost. O'Fallon High School, O'Fallon,Il. 26 Feb. 2005. .