Review 141: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As all dedicated readers out there know, there is a rule when it comes to books that are made into movies: the book is always better. [1] With a book, you have more time to really savor the story, to think and consider the plot and the characters and the motivations. You can go back and re-read, stop and give the story some thought and, most importantly, let the characters come to life in your own mind. This is key, and part of what makes reading so much fun. The author gives you a basic outline of who each character is, but the details of that character will vary from reader to reader, and I guarantee – my Randle Patrick McMurphy is different from your Randle Patrick McMurphy.

And my Randle Patrick McMurphy is most certainly not Jack Nicholson. I know there’s a lot of love out there for Jack, but let’s face it – Jack Nicholson was the non-comedy equivalent of Jim Carrey in his day. The same way Carrey is the default choice for “Wacky” these days, I’m pretty sure producers back in the 70s and 80s said, “We need someone who can play nuts – get Nicholson!” And he’d come out and give That Nicholson Look which made you think that he was liable to tear your throat out at any second and that’s it. I’m not saying he’s bad at what he does – he plays one note, but he plays it well.

This is a face you can trust.

The problem is that McMurphy isn’t actually nuts. He’s brash, temperamental, insolent, contrary, but not crazy. And, to borrow from the perspective of the narrator, Chief Bromden, I don’t think that Nicholson was big enough to be McMurphy. I’m not sure if I know who would have been.

So after all this about who McMurphy isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.

There is a mental institution up in Oregon, which caters to all kinds of mentally ill patients. They care for them as best they can, keeping a close eye on the men in their care and making sure they stay in a rehabilitative state. Through the use of regular counseling sessions and the occasional narcotic therapy, they are trying to make these men back into functioning members of society, if that is at all possible. Not all of the patients can be helped – some suffer so badly that they will live out their remaining years in the institution. But there are others who have a chance, some self-admitted, even, who are looking to move towards the path to wellness. The hospital, and especially the Head Nurse of the ward, Nurse Ratched, are devoted to their tasks and do whatever they can. This being the middle of the twentieth century, their methods are, by our standards, barbaric at times – the liberal use of electroshock, for example, or even occasionally resorting to lobotomies. But mostly Nurse Ratched uses her own innate ability to cajole, nudge, scare and shame these men into line so that her ward operates as a smoothly-running machine.

No, THIS is a face you can trust...

Until the appearance of McMurphy, a man who is not ill but is rather facing madness to get out of working on a prison farm. As soon as he appears on the ward, he becomes a threat to the Big Nurse’s clockwork kingdom. He has no patience for her rules, and indeed sees her as a challenge – how soon can he get that perfect, porcelain facade to crack and show what’s really underneath? He’s sure he can, and he’s willing to sacrifice his own freedom to do it. In doing so, he shows the other patients on the ward that they don’t have to be afraid – of her or of the world.

The book is a cracking good read, and well worth your time, just as a story of a perfectly ordered world tipped upside-down. As an allegory, of course (and a very clear one, at that) it’s even better. This is a story about order and chaos, about freedom and security. Nurse Ratched has a very well-ordered world over which she exerts perfect control. The men in her ward are taken care of, if not exactly helped, by her and her crew. There is no freedom for them, but no danger either, and for many of the men, that’s a life they can live with, if not enjoy.

McMurphy, then, is chaos. He’s the sand in the gears, the hair that won’t go where you want it to go no matter what kind of salon goop you put in it. He’s the rebel who will break the rules just because they’re rules and who prizes freedom above all else. This isn’t to say that he’s a saint – McMurphy spreads his own brand of freedom mainly by manipulating the other patients. In that way, he’s very much like Nurse Ratched, though I think he’d strangle anyone who said that to his face. But whereas the Big Nurse gets her pleasure from watching men get cut down and made docile, McMurphy gets pleasure from men finding their strength. And if he manages to make some money or have some fun of his own while he’s doing it, then all the better.

Or "freedom"

It’s a novel of freedom, naturally. It’s about people choosing their own destinies (even if the people in this book are mostly men – with the exception of Nurse Ratched, women don’t come off so well in this book.) It’s also about freedom as a society. The Nurse and her minions represent a culture that insists on conformity, that finds comfort in rules, regulations and regularity. Called “The Combine” by the book’s narrator, it would rather cut people down to size, because that’s the only way it can exert control. McMurphy shows us that we are the ones who should be in control of our lives. It’s hard, it requires risk, but the rewards are far, far greater than blind, sheeplike obedience.

The book is narrated to us by one of the more far-gone patients, a half-Native American man named Chief Bromden. He has been in the hospital for many years, and as far as the others are concerned, he’s a deaf-mute. McMurphy catches on that he’s faking pretty quickly, though, and manages to make Bromden feel like the big man he used to be. But as a narrator, it must be remembered that Bromden is unreliable – he occasionally drifts off into hallucinatory visions, and his interpretation of events is filtered through the strange, paranoid reality he’s constructed where the world is run by an Illuminati-esque “Combine” that replaces people with machines. In fact there’s a line in the very first chapter that made me wonder about the whole story: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Two guys playing chess under an oddly-shaped chandelier. What?

So how much of the story is real? We have no idea. The Chief tells us everything he can in the best detail he can, and is an excellent relater of the tale. But knowing that he’s rather biased, we have to wonder if the heroism of McMurphy and the wickedness of Ratched are as bad as they’re made out to be, or if Bromden’s mind has changed them, made them into the avatars of freedom and control that he feels represent the way the world works. We can never know, and if you assume that he is reliable, the story is excellent.

A small confession, though: I feel kind of sorry for Nurse Ratched. I know, I know, it’s like saying, “Yeah, Hitler was bad, but I see where he was coming from.” She is undoubtedly one of the best villains in modern American fiction – frankly, between her and Darth Vader, I think she’d have him sobbing like a little baby within ten minutes (“Mister Skywalker, do you really think that this habit of choking people is beneficial to you? Would it not be more mature to discuss your feelings of disappointment? What would your mother say if she could see you like this?”) But I am a fan of order in general. I know how it feels to have a well-ordered routine get screwed up, and I think it sucks. So, putting myself in her shoes, I can see how she’d view McMurphy as a threat, and try to beat him in the only manner she knew how.

And she does beat him. But she has to cheat to do it, so I can’t really say that she wins.

—————————————
“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
– R. P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
—————————————

[1] The exceptions are Lord of the Rings, where I like the movies better, and Watership Down and The Princess Bride, both of which I hold equal to the books.

Ken Kesey on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Amazon.com

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Filed under fiction, humor, Ken Kesey, made into movies, psychology, therapy

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