Thoughts: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Posted June 12, 2013 by in Book Reviews / 32 Comments

Thoughts: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken KeseyOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Published by Penguin on 1976 (orig. 1962)
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Source: library

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Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, this is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, life-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient, who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome power of The Combine.

(from the back cover)

The Combine is described by Chief Bromden as being the collection of institutions that raise children–and mold adults–to be the people society wants/expects them to be. For example: schools, workplaces, the military, psychiatric hospitals, etc. The Combine can also include, I think, parents, peers, and other non-institutional people. Someone must be in charge, but those people remain elusive (though we can make some pretty good guesses). Chief Bromden long ago recognized The Combine for what it is and decided not to be a part of it. So while the other patients in the psychiatric institution where Bromden resides think that he is deaf and dumb, the truth is that he stopped talking long ago when he realized no one was listening to him anyway. In this way, he is able to just observe The Combine and do his best to stay out of its clutches. People started treating him as though they couldn’t hear him, or as if he weren’t even talking, so he just went along with it. Now, in the hospital, Bromden is privy to lots of information that the others aren’t, because he’s able to eavesdrop on everyone–patients and staff alike–without anyone giving it a second thought. In this way, he makes a well-informed narrator.

The ward of the psychiatric hospital on which the story takes place is run by Nurse Ratched, a.k.a. the Big Nurse. She is an ex-Army nurse, and runs the ward as though it’s part of the military. Everything that goes on there has a time and a place, and it is all kept in strict, routine order. Then along comes Randle Patrick McMurphy, and all hell breaks loose. McMurphy is a loud, free-wheeling, fun-loving guy who’s been labeled as a psychopath by the work farm he just came from and he isn’t about to be torn down by Nurse Ratched and her ball-busting ways.

Which is where my one complaint about the book comes in.

I don’t know how to feel about the Angry, Man-Hating Matriarch stereotype in which Nurse Ratched is cast. I’m kind of tired of it, honestly. “Oh no! Here comes Nurse Ratched! Angriest Matriarch in the West, busting balls and making men feel inadequate! The only way to stop her is to show her how tough we men REALLY are! All we need to do is show her we’re tougher than she is! Take her down, men!”


And Ratched’s character is SO overdone that she’s actually kind of funny. If she was supposed to be scary, Kesey missed the mark.

At the end, McMurphy does the ultimate something (no spoilers) to show her he’s tougher than she is…and I did not approve of what he did, AT ALL. I don’t know. I was rooting for the patients because I wanted to see them feel better about themselves and succeed in beating their fears, but in the final battle between McMurphy and Ratched, I got pretty disgusted.

Aside from that, which I rolled my eyes at and took in stride, I think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is fantastic. Kesey’s writing is gritty, no-bullshit kind of stuff, which goes really well with the subject matter. Chief Bromden is a wonderful narrator, and I could sympathize with all of the characters in one way or another (yes, even Nurse Ratched and her Black boys). McMurphy is obnoxious, there’s no doubt about it, but he does a lot for the other patients on the ward; because of McMurphy they end up (re)learning things about themselves they had long ago forgotten and the majority of them are changed for the better. McMurphy’s actions and ideas aren’t without casualties, though, and that’s part of what makes him such a good character, I think. I didn’t know whether to love him or hate him or something in between. All I could do was take him for who he was and watch it all unfold.

Everyone is caught up in The Combine, really–some people just don’t see how it’s using them to further its goal. We’re all tangled up in it, as a society–we just need to decide what our role is going to be in the scheme of things. That’s kind of what this book is all about. Do you fight The Combine? Do you join it? Do you pretend to join it in order to get through life smoothly, all the while fighting it in your head? Do you let it get you down? Do you let it tell you who to be? What kind of compromises are you willing to make in order to be happy? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a good-versus-evil story, or a fight-the-power story that is quite moving while also being darkly humorous at times.



  • I really hated the movie- it was all wild fun and rebellion and sneaking around the matron to get into hijinks and then BAM! Lobotomy!

    • I just watched the movie last night and wasn’t impressed. The acting was good, it was humorous, but it didn’t capture the feel of the book. Too much was different.

  • I tried re-reading this recently, since I didn’t remember anything about it from high school, and I just couldn’t get through it. I can’t remember if it was something actually turning me off, or just that nothing was grabbing me so far, but I gave it to about page 50 and gave up, with no inclination to see how things turned out.

    • It’s a little slow in the beginning, but it’s worth it (or it was to me–I’m certainly not saying, “You better read it, dammit!”). I ended up reading the majority of it in one day.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    I somehow came by an old, grubby, paperback copy of this. It’s been sitting on my shelf mocking me for what seems like ages. I know the pop culture references to this book and/or movie but I’ve never actually read/watched it. You’ve made me want to get to this sooner rather than later 🙂 Fab review!

    • Thank you, Jen! I can’t believe I hadn’t read it until now, either.

  • I loved this book the first time I read it, although the first time I read it was a few years ago now. Oddly, the Nurse Ratched vs. everyone didn’t bother me much, I suppose because I felt that Ratched was almost meant to be robotic, if that makes sense? I don’t think it’s ever explicitly said, and maybe that’s just something my mind created 😛 but that’s how I felt about her. Then again, like I said, it’s been awhile since I read it. Glad you enjoyed it for the most part, though. I really liked Chief, too.

    • No, you’re right–she was almost robotic. She was working for The Combine and was ex-military, so that’s a good observation. I think that makes me even more annoyed that she was cast like she was. Heh.

  • Here comes the Old Lady in the group playing Devil’s Advocate. And it isn’t because Ken is an Oregonian as I am. The fact I’d like to insert here to take into account the time period when the book was written — 1962. It was a time of upheaval socially as well as individually — us vs. them (the establishment, another race, the military, anyone who had control over something). It was also a time of freewheeling sex and drugs. The latter was one of Ken Kesey’s problems in life. However, I think the character Nurse Ratched was drawn just as society saw a woman working in an institution such as is described in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s the way life, unfortunately, was for those individuals sent there. I look at the writing here and see fact and history. If I were reading it today and was your age, I too would be yawning and rolling my eyes and saying a lot of “Oh, puhleeze!” 🙂

    Great review — just had to give my perspective as the Old Lady in the bunch.

    • Oh, I agree with you completely. I think it was very true to the times. That’s why I was able to roll my eyes and move on, and not let it ruin the book for me. I just took it in stride knowing when the book was published.

      You’re always welcome to give your perspective as the Old Lady in the bunch, although I question the “Old” part. 🙂

    • Crystal Man

      I believe you overreach to the point of being in error when you cite the time period in which the book was written as contributing significantly to its antiauthoritarian themes. To say that it was “a time of upheaval socially as well as individually” is simply not true to the extent you present it as being. The book was a harbinger of many of those things but you make an anachronism of the work, which was written between summer 1960 and spring 1961 and published in 1962.

      When Kesey began writing the book in summer 1960, JFK hadn’t even been elected yet let alone assassinated. There was no Vietnam War to speak of or none as we came to know it. The Beatles hadn’t invaded yet. LSD use was not widespread though it was known in some circles, particularly the CIA. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was a couple of years away. The first combat troops were sent to Vietnam in March 1965 and the first protest was in October 1965. Bob Dylan’s first album, which contained no protest songs, was released in March 1962; his second album, which included “Blowing in the Wind,” came out in May 1963. The Haight-Ashbury hadn’t sprouted let alone flowered in 1960. Dylan didn’t go electric until 1965. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company as well as the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield hadn’t been formed yet. The Port Huron Statement didn’t appear until June 1962. The area in which the most radical activity had taken or was taking place was civil rights (Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, Montgomery bus boycott) although several defining events such as the March on Washington were yet to come.

      From this sampling, it’s pretty clear, I think, that there aren’t the cultural milestones to support your position. Things were still pretty static socially; the deluge was yet to come.

      I also think you, as well as several others here, miss the central point of the book in seeing it just as an account of opposition. Remember, to oppose something is also to be for something and I think it’s the “being for” that should be highlighted. To me that larger purpose as it existed in Kesey’s mind was to depict the liberation and freedom that was to come with an embrace of the psychedelic vision. Chief Broom experiences moments of psychedelic clarity when he comes in out of the fog. In such a reading, Kesey himself is McMurphy sounding the alarm to a hypnotized and conformist nation and offering a path to freedom and self-realization. You have to put this in the context of what people who knew about it thought of LSD’s potential in the early 1960s and that was that it literally could save the world.

      As for the Combine, listen to Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement in 1964:

      “…I ask you to consider—if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something—the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be – have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean – Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!…There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

      Things haven’t gotten any better since then (that uprising was certainly crushed); in fact they’ve gotten worse making Kesey’s book even more important today (as is Catch-22). Sadly we see no heroes on the horizon to lead us.

      Besides his writing is so beautiful; surprisingly, Kesey invariably advised teachers to teach Shakespeare instead of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because he said his book was too easy and Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived.

      This is very short and simplistic. Sorry. Happy to discuss any of it with you.

      • Thank you for your insight. Yes, my thoughts here are relatively short and simplistic, which is the way I chose to write them.

        You’re right–to oppose something is also to be for something, which I feel is implied, not overlooked. The book may be about everything you wrote about here, but at its most basic level, it is a good vs. evil or fight the establishment type of novel.

        I appreciate you adding your thoughts. No need to apologize.

      • (And then, after reading and responding, I realize that you may have only been answering to the comment and not my thoughts in general.)

        • crystal man

          i was responding to sherrey

  • I must confess I have only seem the movie, and that was years ago. I’m not sure if I will ever get around to reading this one, but it is on the 1001 list, so you never know. And speaking of lobotomies, I loved Howard Dully’s memoir, My Lobotomy. (It may be Howard Dulle…)

  • shadeaux

    I was going to point out what others did – that it was not really a cliche character at the time of the writing. It’s also true that there are problems in Nurse Ratched’s psyche that driver her to be the way she is – they aren’t really dealt with at length in the book…and that might have added depth. She was only a supporting character though, in the end.

    I love Ken’s books. I work with another author at Crossroad Press – James Dalessandro – who spent a lot of time with Kesey back in the day. I actually prefer The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe for it’s window-in-time glimpse into what life (in that circle) was all about. I spent my childhood in the 60s and my young adulthood “just missing” most of the psychedelic period… Another friend, Larry McMurtry of Mind Garage, has filled in a lot of the gaps in my time-period-knowledge.

    I found this a thoughtful review, and a good recommendation for the book.

    • Thank you for adding your thoughts. I will be reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test this month or next, too. I have a whole list of Beat books I’ll be reading.

      • Crystal Man

        electric kool aid is a work of new journalism and is to be put on a shelf with in cold blood, armies of the night, fear and loathing in las vegas, kandy colored tangerine flake streamline baby, kingdom and the power, right stuff, honor thy father, hell’s angels, etc. it’s a nonfiction form that adopts novelistic techniques to tell a story.

        if you wanna go beat i’d suggest on the road (scroll), dharma bums, howl, the first third, coney island of the mind, fall of america, visions of cody, happy birthday of death, big sur, etc.

        kesey classified himself as too young to be a beat and too old to be a hippie; i think it helped him avoid some of the problems that came with those labels

        • I’ve read On the Road. If you click on the Beats button at the end of the post, you can see what I’m reading this month and next. It’s for a project started by another blog.

          Thank you for the other suggestions. I know Kesey wasn’t a Beat author, but being friends with Cassady gave me an excuse to read this one instead of passing it over still. Too many books, too little time.

          • Crystal Man

            such was the power of Cassady’s being that he ultimately influenced Kesey to give up writing: “I saw that Cassady did everything a novel does, except he did it better ’cause he was livin’ it and not writin’ about it.” So “instead of publishing words,” Kesey determined to publish “a way of being in the world.” With that, Kesey and the Pranksters were off to explore a wild new psychedelic frontier lifestyle as artistic expression.

            Cassady had a similar effect on other artists and musicians around the same time. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia said, Cassady “was the first person I met who he himself was the art. He was an artist and he was the art also.” As such, he “represented a model to [Garcia] of how far you could take it in the individual way. In the sense that you weren’t going to have a work, you were going to be the work.”

            Kesey and Heller, i regard as being on the cusp of the death of the great American novel in the sense that it was to be overtaken by more immediate and liquid forms of expression. People sought to become living metaphors instead of writers of metaphors. that’s the 60s,

  • Great review! I was rooting for the patients but was bewildered about how Nurse Ratched was portrayed.

  • I struggled with Ratched for a while (and the movie didn’t help – they flattened the heck out of her in the movie – made her entirely one dimensional). In the book, though, there seem to be two ways of looking at her, the way the men see her and the way the narrator, in moments of clarity, sees (or presents) her. She’s got a really tough job, she’s got to keep control, and the narration is unreliable at best (sometimes it is downright trippy). I’m not entirely sure how we’re supposed to perceive her, but I’ve come to dislike her but pity her, rather than downright hate her, the way I did the first couple of times I read it. Yeah, the book’s message is anti-authority, but there’s also a deep fear of emasculation (“white man’s anxiety” – the beginning of the equalizing of women and minorities in traditionally ‘white male’ roles and spaces). Nurse Ratched, being the authority figure and a woman, well, I think a lot of that fear is taken out on her… not that she doesn’t sometiems deserve a bit of what comes her way.

    • In the book, the narrator made it sound like the control she kept was just because she needed that control for her own sake, not necessarily because the job was rough and the men were crazy and needed to be controlled. (Did that make sense? Heh.)

      So yeah, I agree with what you’ve said here–I do understand why she was written that way, but it still made me roll my eyes.

    • the movie has nothing to do with the book. kesey said they took his book and turned it into rocky. he refused to see it. it’s much more than that,

      she robs people of their dignity and their humanity and humiliates and demenas them and you don’t need to do that — ever. she is a soulless extension of a soulless system and is a very dehumanied and dehumanizing person.

      • That is an oversimplification of her character, in my opinion.

  • This is one of those books that’s been on my mind for ages as one I “should” read, but I was wondering if it held up. Sounds like its still worth the read, even if it is a bit annoying.

  • D

    I’ve always wanted to read this, as I am fairly interested in the whole individual vs society theme as well as the science and culture of mental illness. Gotta add to my list! Thanks for sharing!

  • Like Allison, I’ve only seen the film and that was eons ago. I was never very fond of the film because of the subject matter (depressing, at best) and I’ve never really had much interest in reading the book. That being said, it is probably better than the film, as the book usually is.

    Insightful review, as usual, Heather.

  • Hear so much about this book but yours is the first review I ‘m reading. But I’m hesitant about reading it 🙂

  • I’ve only watched the movie and I really liked it. But then I’m a huge Jack Nicholson fan. I’ve been wanting to read the novel ever since, especially since I found out it was the chief who was the narrator.
    Interesting discussion here about nurse Ratched!

  • i’d say the book is about much more than mental health treatment. is it about modern heroes, is it about comic books and tv westerns, is it about spoofing american literature, is it about matriarchy, is it about technology, is it about the closing of the frontier, is it about eisenhower’s military-industrial-(intelligence) complex, or mario savio’s machine that he spoke so eloquently about stopping on the steps of sproul hall at uc-berkeley, is it about the friendship of a white man and a person of color as is common in american lit (think huck and jim, natty bumppo and chingachgook), is it about oedipus and his mom, is it about losing touch with nature, is it about christ and christianity, is it about psychedelics and freedom?

    what say you

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