One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I think a lot of people have seen this movie and because it’s so good in that medium have never bothered to read the source material.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I had done neither which was a complete shame.  I have a couple of good friends who, without any reservations, immediately name this novel as their all-time favorite.  And now I know why.

The story takes place in a mental institution (seemingly only for men) and is narrated by Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf and dumb mute patient of Native American heritage (which the book does a great job of making relevant and the movie almost entirely ignores).  A new patient/inmate has just joined the ward – McMurphy –  and an all-out war begins between the men (mostly McMurphy) and the Big Nurse Ratched.

This novel is so smartly written and so much above my intellect level that I don’t see how I can do this story justice.  Chief Bromden is the perfect narrator because no one holds back in front of him.  Everyone is convinced he’s deaf.  So he listens and really hears the truth behind everyone’s motives.  Kesey brilliantly hides the true nature of Chief’s reliability by showing the inner workings of his mental illness – he’s plagued by some really heinous hallucinations.  But eventually, you come to see that his visions of a mechanical organization running the show and keeping the men down, putting them in a fog (literally and metaphorically) is just how he processes the truth he sees in the totalitarian hospital establishment and society at large.  Chief is the most reliable crazy EVER.

Besides Chief, all of Kesey’s characters really shine and very rarely come off completely insane or as caricatures of mental patients even though it’s quite obvious they are dealing with heavy issues.  They are all so likeable, even when they are repulsive, and you root for them with every turn of the page.  My only beef with having characters that aren’t convincingly sick and a hospital that undermines psychological health is that so many people often write off mental illness as ‘imaginary’, especially during the 50s and 60s.  But Kesey manages to rise above this pitfall because the book is really a depiction and commentary on society at large, not the mental health field.

One of the more controversial and interesting aspects of Cuckoo’s Nest is the gender discussion.  All the male patients are plagued by one thing – a woman in their lives.  Even in the hospital, their number one nemesis is Nurse Ratched – perhaps one of the best female villains of all time.  Lots of readers believe this  story to be extremely anti-feminist, but I don’t agree.  Yes, women are the villains and the men are all seen as castrated lumps under the authority of the all-mighty vagina.  But how many times has this situation been reversed in literature?  How many times have women repressed their sexuality and gone a little bat shit crazy?  Since Shakespeare, at least.  So I read the gender imbalance as a sort of gender balancing device.  I liked that the powerhouses were female and the victims male.  I liked that Kesey explores the ridiculousness of what society deems ‘masculinity’.  I don’t think he’s putting women down; I think he’s forcing the question:  What is gender?

Highly, high recommended read.  Kesey’s writing is gorgeous and filled with some of the best literary quotes I’ve ever had the pleasure to highlight.  Also, extremely readable – almost a page turner.  As for the movie, as great as it is, the book thrashes it to shreds.  I hate how little they use Bromden (his hallucinations are NEVER mentioned)  in the film compared to his huge role in the novel – really my only serious beef.  Jack Nicholson is just a genius (like we didn’t all know that already) and this film really highlights the depth of his acting.  So for those who have somehow missed this story – Go enjoy both mediums, pronto!

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6 thoughts on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

  1. The movie of this book is great but I think the book is fantastic! I was surprised and thrilled to find it narrated by the Chief! You hit the nail on the head when you said he’s the perfect narrator because everyone tells him everything or talks in front of him believing he’s deaf. The movie did a complete disservice to this character. The other characters are brilliant, too and, as you said, so likeable.

    This book made me see mental illness in a very different way. It’s not so black & white You make a great point about the gender issue, too. I’ve never seen this book as anti-women. Kesey just shows that women can be the problematic figures in men;s lives just as much as the reverse.

    Your review is fantastic!

    • Thanks so much! And yes, Bromden was robbed of all his most important character traits in the movie which makes the last scene fall flat.

  2. I was shocked when I read the book after seeing the movie as Chief Bromden came alive for me in a way he never did in the movie. It was like finding a whole other world. I read this in college (Ken Kesey taught writing at my college … can you believe it!? Never got to take a class … grad students only) and I think now I was too young to fully appreciate it. Your review makes me want to read it again as a wiser and more mature reader.

    • Movie Bromden was really stripped of his importance which leaves the last scene of the film empty to me. I think this is a book that makes a great re-read throughout the years!

    • Definitely read the book first – so much better and allows you to really critique the film (as most books do).

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