One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: McMurphyOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with its meaningful message ofindividualism, was an extremely influential novel during the 1960’s. Inaddition, its author, Ken Kesey, played a significant role in the development ofthe counterculture of the 60’s; this included all people who did not conform tosociety’s standards, experimented in drugs, and just lived their lives in anunconventional manner. Ken Kesey had many significant experiences that enabledhim to create One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As a result of his entrance intothe creative writing program at Stanford University in 1959 (Ken 1), Kesey movedto Perry Lane in Menlo Park. It was there that he and other writers firstexperimented with psychedelic drugs. After living at Perry Lane for a while,Kesey’s friend, Vik Lovell, informed him about experiments at a local V.
A.hospital in which volunteers were paid to take mind-altering drugs (Wolfe 321).Kesey’s experiences at the hospital were his first step towards writing Cuckoo’sNest. Upon testing the effects of the then little-known drug, LSD, “he was ina realm of consciousness he had never dreamed of before and it was not a dreamor delirium but part of his awareness (322).
” This awareness caused him tobelieve that these psychedelic drugs could enable him to see things the way theywere truly meant to be seen.After working as a test subject for the hospital, Kesey was able to get ajob working as a psychiatric aide. This was the next significant factor inwriting the book.
“Sometimes he would go to work high on acid (LSD) (323).” Bydoing so, he was able to understand the pain felt by the patients on the ward.In addition, the job allowed him to examine everything that went on within theconfines of the hospital. From these things, Kesey obtained exceptional insightfor writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To make the novel seem asrealistic as possible, he loosely based the characters on the personalities ofpeople in the ward; also, his use of drugs while writing allowed him to makescenes such as Chief Bromden’s (The Chief is the narrator of the story. He is aNative American who happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic.) dreams much morevivid (Ken 2).
As mentioned in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “certainpassages like Chief Broom Chief Bromden in his schizophrenic fogs it wastrue vision, a little of what you could see if you opened the doors ofperception, friends (Wolfe 328).Ken Kesey’s altered mental state while he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest is what trulymakes it unique. The novel’s message of rebelling against authority was veryinfluential to the counterculture generation of the 1960’s. Kesey and hiswriting became a key factor in a decade filled with drugs and anti-establishmentfeelings.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in a mental hospital in whichthe patients’ individuality is suppressed by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched.When a sane con-man (Randle P. McMurphy) has himself committed to avoid a prisonsentence, the machine-like order that had previously existed on the ward isimmediately challenged.
Initially, McMurphy is a very selfish man whose onlydesire is to cause problems for authority figures, Nurse Ratched in particular,and to make life for himself as easy as possible. Eventually, this all changesas the battle between himself and Nurse Ratched becomes their battle for thesouls of the inmates. McMurphy’s struggle to “free” the other inmates is adifficult one, ultimately resulting in his own destruction; however, through hisdeath, the other patients are able to realize their own sense of self and theyescape the ward. Although McMurphy works to save all the inmates, theschizophrenic, Chief Bromden, is the main target of his attentions. The Chiefis the largest, most powerful man on the ward, but is made to feel weak andinferior by staying there.
Upon realizing his own value at the end of the novel,Chief Bromden participates in the mercy killing of McMurphy which allows for hisown complete liberation, as well as that of the other patients.Entering the mental hospital a sane man, R.P.
McMurphy only looks outfor himself; however, this all changes when he realizes the permanence of hisresidency on the ward if he does not conform. This motivates him to beginworking to save the other inmates on the ward and transfer some of his highspirit into them. His struggle to help them realize their individuality resultsin his own mental decay and he is ultimately destroyed.In order to make himself as comfortable as possible, McMurphy initiallytries to defy authority and gain the inmates’ trust for his own personal gain.He is immediately a threat to the order that Nurse Ratched has created andmaintains. While there is not supposed to be gambling on the ward, one ofMcMurphy’s first goals is to get the other patients to play cards with him formoney. This is expressed when McMurphy says “I came to this establishmenttobring you birds fun an’ entertainment around the gamin’ table (Ken 12).
“Another way that he is able to disrupt the hospital’s order is through his boldlaughter. This is very disturbing because no one ever laughs in the mentalhospital. The inmates are controlled and mechanized; the laughter suggestspersonality, which would break down this order. According to Chief Bromden, hehad not hear a laugh in years (11). McMurphy makes it obvious right away thathe has no intention of letting the hospital’s machine-like order consume hisidentity.
As a result off his rambunctious behavior, the inevitable battle betweenMcMurphy and Nurse Ratched begins. During group therapy meetings, McMurphy doesnot let Nurse Ratched have complete control as she has had in the past and asshe would like to continue. He disrupts the meetings by provoking the otherpatients to excitement when they make comments about their respective problems.It also infuriates Nurse Ratched when McMurphy diverts the attention directed atother patients towards himself. Also, one particular scene displaying thebeginning of the battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy occurs when McMurphywants to watch the World Series. He convinces the inmates to resist NurseRatched by watching a blank TV screen, even when she turns off the World Series(140).
The things that McMurphy does early in the novel to battle Nurse Ratchedare selfish and have the intention of being chaotic.Eventually, this all begins to change as McMurphy begins his struggle tohelp save the other inmates. He begins to conform slightly when he recognizesthe power that Nurse Ratched wields; he learns that he cannot be dismissed fromthe hospital without Nurse Ratched saying he has been cured. However, the otherinmates are not satisfied; they want him to lead a rebellion. McMurphy’srebellious nature goes from that of self-interest to that of devotion to helpingthe other inmates find their freedom and individuality.
By doing so, he alsosees a means of escape for himself. The first display of his new strategy fordefying authority occurs on the fishing trip that the inmates take. This trip,which is organized by McMurphy, helps the inmates realize that they can act forthemselves and returns to them some sense of self-respect. Another example ofMcMurphy’s change from a nuisance to a savior is how he and the Chief resistNurse Ratched in the disturbed ward (a section of the hospital for thosepatients who are considered the most insane or dangerous). Trying to evoke anapology from McMurphy and Chief Bromden for keeping another patient from havingan enema, Nurse Ratched fails and angrily sends the two men to have electro-shock therapy.
Although McMurphy is weakened by this, the Chief takes his firststep towards being cured by telling the other patients of McMurphy’s heroics(277). This is the first time that he has ever talked to anyone other thanMcMurphy. In an obvious response to McMurphy’s devotion to him, the Chiefstarts to realize his true self.
In the end, McMurphy’s struggle leads to his destruction; however, he stillbecomes the inmates’ savior. By finding McMurphy’s weakness, which is hisuncontrollable urge to always trick the other inmates out of their money, NurseRatched is able to defeat him. This is evident when McMurphy tricks the othermen into not believing that the Chief could lift the control panel. As a resultof this unfair bet, McMurphy wins money from the other men, but loses much oftheir faith in him (256-257).
However, McMurphy eventually regains their trustand the inmates join him in the big party on the ward. Because the partyinvolves breaking hospital rules, the inmates are forced into a situation inwhich they will have to defend themselves. This is McMurphy’s final attempt atleading the inmates to their freedom. As a result of all his efforts to helpthem, he has become worn-out, both physically and emotionally. Taking on theresponsibility for the other patients has drained McMurphy of all his vibrancyand individuality; however, it is almost as if his liveliness has beentransferred into the souls of the inmates. Just as in the law of theconservation of energy (energy can neither be created nor destroyed), McMurphy’svitality must be sapped in order to give the other patients life.
In effect,McMurphy has sacrificed his own sanity to make the others sane.The final conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy occurs when McMurphyattacks her and reveals her sexuality by uncovering her large breasts(305).McMurphy is taken away to be given a lobotomy a surgical operation in which alobe of the brain, usually the frontal lobe, is cut out for the treatment ofpsychoses but Nurse Ratched no longer has control over the other patients. Byconcealing her womanly nature, she has been able to have power over the inmates.To them, Nurse Ratched previously symbolized the cold, unfeeling, and mechanizednature of the hospital; by revealing her womanhood, this facade is destroyed andthe men realize her weakness. Now, although she defeats McMurphy physically, hehas actually won the battle because the other patients are able to escape. Inorder to ensure the Nurse’s overall defeat, Chief Bromden proceeds in the mercykilling of McMurphy.
His death finalizes the transference of his spirit intothe other patients; consequently, this allows for the complete liberation of allthe inmates.Using the Chief as the narrator of the novel, as opposed to McMurphy,allows the reader to examine McMurphy’s actions as being heroic, not merebraggadocio. Chief Bromden, through his behind-the-scenes analysis ofeverything that occurs in the ward, is able to portray McMurphy’s saga much moresubtly than if McMurphy had been the narrator. By using the Chief’s point ofview, Kesey enables the reader to see a patient (severely weakened by thehospital’s control over his individuality) eventually cured through thepersistence of another patience to make him realize his true self. BecauseKesey does such an effective job in creating the Chief’s schizophrenic stateearly in the story, the reader is able to see him slowly regain his sense ofidentity and thus one can truly understand the significance of McMurphy’s helpin changing him.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest should definitely be included in a list ofworks of high literary merit. It’s message of fighting for individuality andself-expression is portrayed with immense skill.
Kesey’s willingness toexperiment with the revolutionary style of writing in an altered state ofconsciousness should be highly regarded. This novel is a symbol of the 1960’scounterculture and should be considered a classic of its time. Not only wereits issues important during its own decade, but many are still relevant today.