One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"One flew East, One flew West, and one flew..." that's right, Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Ken Kesey's 1960s novel is well thought out, and well written and has all of the aspects of what we love in a great novel, and though I couldn't quite put my finger on it, there is something about the story that makes it read differently to me than some of the other books I've read. It has the antagonist, and the protagonist, and the consistent, well constructed narrative, and the common plot line of trying to overthrow the greater power, but I think the rules Ken Kesey creates for himself in creating a context for these elements is what makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest just a bit of a different novel.
The Setting: The book takes place at an asylum. But not only that, it centers on a very particular ward of the mental hospital. So the characters that we are reading about are all categorized by society as being different, or "crazy", our narrator included. The story is told to us through the eyes of patient Chief Bromden who also works as a janitor, and because everybody assumes that he is dumb and deaf, he passes his time secretly knowing the gossip of the ward. This gives the novel a voyeuristic flavor to it and we are suddenly provided with an all-knowing narrator. However, that being said, because it is a mental institution and our narrator is a patient, can we really trust the narrator on his descriptions? There are certain descriptions of scenes that seem to be told in a warped fashion, through the eyes of Chief Bromden. So that is one contradiction that I found to be interesting.
Another point in regard to the setting is how Kesey plays with the concept of time. In short, he doesn't do much with it. There are certain key factors that tell us that time does pass but there is not really a clear marker as to how much time passed over the course of the entire novel. Time stands still in the asylum that Kesey creates. There is even a scene where Chief Bromden describes that our antagonist, The Big Nurse, can make time stop. Completely. For days on end, if she wished. Time is not a definitive thing in this book because the standard rules and context in which time exists does not apply in The Big Nurse's ward. It is the same daily environment for the patients with the same chain of command and the same mundane activities and scheduled treatments. That is, until the hero of our story comes into play. At this point, there is a sense that things are moving forward because he causes the routine to change so in the conflict of order versus free will, a funny thing happens to the structure of time.
Our characters: Our narrator is a man known as Chief Bromden, our antagonist is the previously mentioned Big Nurse, and our hero is a red-headed gambling man known as Randle McMurphy. The characters were pretty standard. They were well developed and filled their roles well. For the most part, every character both major and minor showed growth throughout the novel thanks to the actions of McMurphy, which I always like to see and I would argue that the character who changes the most is our narrator, the Chief for reasons that I don't want to spoil here in this review. McMurphy is portrayed as being a strong, larger man, and he is very loud. It is in his personality to be boisterous and obnoxious and he loves to gamble. He places and takes bets on everything even past the point where the other patients are all tapped out. Interestingly enough, though, we are never directly told why he has been committed to this asylum. His mental state and what is "wrong" with him is never really explicitly stated, whereas we do get a look into the illnesses of the other patients McMurphy interacts with. It could be his gambling problem, it could be his loud attitude, or a sex-related issue which does get discussed at points, but whatever it is and whatever is discussed, McMurphy is never explicitly labeled as having such and such illness.
The Big Nurse is the evil power in this novel. She controls the ward, she applies the rules and the consequences for not following said rules. The overall plot of the story is about the patients taking down the over arching power (the Nurse) and standing up for themselves, thanks to McMurphy's instigator personality. And her job is to try and keep order while figuring out what to do with McMurphy. The more power she exercises, the more influence McMurphy has over the patients of the ward, until the very end when the Big Nurse makes her final moves at keeping things under her control. I found it to be a very interesting dynamic which added to the uniqueness of the story.
Chief Bromden, I saved for last because I want to talk about him in the context of what this novel does with race. The issue of race is brought up in the novel in a number of ways, and I don't know if that was explicitly done, but it definitely was something that caught my attention. Most prominently, our narrator Chief Bromden is half Native American, and half White and for the majority of the book, he refers to himself as being in the shadows, and being ignored by the people around him. Even the workers at the ward all assumed him to be dumb and deaf and it is for that reason that he takes it upon himself to fulfill that role. The idea that being of mixed race is a lesser thing, or is looked upon negatively, has historically been and is presently an issue that is discussed within the topic of mixed identity, so I found it interesting the way this novel happens to incorporate that. Other than that, the Big Nurse's workers are always referred to as the "black boys" or the "least black boy", both the Nurse and McMurphy are obviously white as per the novel, and the one Japanese character is referred to as a "Jap", so Kesey wasn't being subtle in how he was using race.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was an interesting read and I read it not knowing anything about it so I was definitely pleasantly surprised. I would recommend this book to read, and I think it warrants a re-read of at least a couple of times so I hope that if this review was successful, I didn't spoil too much of anything.
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