Published by Penguin on 1976 (orig. 1962)
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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.