Saturday, August 6, 2011

Canon Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Over the last week or so, I've been reading Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. After watching the movie and reviewing it a few months ago, I found it curious that Kesey despised the movie so much due to the changes made from the novel. Well that, and he didn't make any money off the film. Anyway, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is based off of Kesey's experience working in an insane asylum, and is set, naturally, in an insane asylum in Oregon. The story is narrated by an inmate of the asylum known as Chief Bromden, a 6'7" Native American who is thought to be a deaf mute. Because of his 'condition', the Chief is able to hear nearly everything that goes on in the ward, as since he's thought to be deaf, everybody around him talks as if he's not there. But the Chief's life, and everybody else's at the ward, is changed by the arrival of R.P. McMurphy, a petty criminal and a gambler who seemed to fake his way into commitment at the mental hospital because he was tired of being imprisoned at a work farm.

Before McMurphy's arrival, the ward was under complete control of Nurse Ratched, a battleaxe of a woman who always had a smile on her face, but used passive aggressive techniques and establishing an environment of fear by threatening patients with electric shock therapy and lobotomies if they refuse to follow her strictly set routine. The patients fall in line 'like rabbits', but McMurphy will not submit so easily. At first it seems like McMurphy is only challenging the nurse's authority as a way to kill time and win a bet with the other patients, but over time the problems between the two escalate into an all-out war, as Ratched becomes determined to break McMurphy's hold on the patients and establish complete dominance over the ward once again. The Chief looks at Ratched as the agent of the 'Combine', the force designed to keep men in line and control the world as a whole. As such, Ratched isn't really portrayed as a character but instead as the cold, calculating face of authority, whose one purpose in life isn't to help the patients with the problems but rather mold them into another mechanical part of society, or keep them out of society.

On the other side of the coin is McMurphy, a man that seems to resent authority of all kinds and sees right through Nurse Ratched's facade of therapy for what it really is, complete control over the patients in the ward. McMurphy's will power and sense of humor make him an intriguing character, a rebel who begins to take up a cause as he fights for the freedom of the other patients against Nurse Ratched's oppressive reign. Eventually, he starts to make some ground, as he starts a basketball team and somehow gets a lot of the patients to come on a fishing trip with him (along with the doctor of the ward), allowing the patients to experience something they hadn't in a long time, freedom.

This tale of the rebels vs. the establishment is seen all through the eyes of Bromden, a man that served in WWII but developed extreme anxiety after coming home and seeing his father become a weak alcoholic after the government took away his land. Bromden, to be frank, doesn't see the world the same way as most of us, as he has hallucinations that include seeing a thick fog where nothing is there and one of the patients being opened up by a team of robot workers. In crafting Bromden's hallucinations, Kesey drew back on his experience taking mind-altering drugs as part of a CIA project, and the results are that the reader is taken through the mind of someone that isn't 'all there', so to speak. But there always seems to be some sort of truth in the Chief's visions, as if he sees things more clearly than those around him. Kesey further explores the character of Chief Bromden to various flashbacks, resulting in the reader getting a clearer picture of the Chief's mindset and perspective of the situation he has found himself in.

The movie adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest differs in quite a few ways. For one, Chief Bromden becomes a minor character in the movie, as the movie focuses more on McMurphy vs. Ratched than any other aspect of the story. Also, the orderlies in the movie were seemingly just a group of guys doing their jobs as told, but in the book they are presented as more vicious, even sadistic, in their handling of the patients. Some of the other characters are different in the movie, as Harding had a larger role in the book as it delved more into the problems he had with his wife, whereas in the movie he was just a guy that complained a lot. Also, Tabor was a former patient in the book that became a current patient in the movie, although his role is rather minor in both circumstances. There's more deaths in the book as well, but I won't spoil it too much.

Overall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is quite a tale. Yes, it starts with the basic story of the rebels vs. the establishment, but Kesey is able to make most of the characters three dimensional, each with their own personalities, and even though you know deep down that McMurphy is kind of a louse, you can't help but to root for him in his struggle against Ratched. Overall, I'd give it an 8.6 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts about this book then feel free to leave a comment. Also, if you have ideas for future posts, then send them over to me via e-mail at

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