I usually try to make the titles of my posts as relevant as possible in order that you might be able to place yourself in the shoes of the characters. Today, however, I must leave you somewhere in Oregon and leave the exact location up to your imagination, as Ken Kesey does in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Chief Bromden has been voluntarily kept in the psychiatric ward of a mental institution for many years. The ward is peppered with interesting patients, but when Randle Patrick McMurphy appears before them, the ward changes dramatically. McMurphy has faked insanity in order to escape prison and serve his sentence (for the crime of statutory rape) in the relative comfort of the ward. McMurphy is outraged by how Nurse Ratched runs the ward and controls the patients under her care. He makes it his business to show her and his fellow patients what life is really about.
My synopsis paints McMurphy out as some sort of hero, which is not exactly the case. He is a man with his own problems that need resolving. His influence on his fellow patients, however, is remarkable. In my final essay for Twentieth Century American Literature, I wrote a bit about McMurphy’s heroism (edited substantially to remove spoilers):
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey writes about another unintentional hero, who not only inspires fictional characters, but the reader as well. Randle Patrick McMurphy who is committed to a mental hospital and enters with nothing else in mind but looking out for himself and having a good time. Chief picks up on this during McMurphy’s introductory rounds. “You can’t tell if he’s really this friendly or if he’s got some gambler’s reason for trying to get acquainted with the guys” (Kesey 22). McMurphy, however, undergoes a transformation similar to Malachi’s. The one who essentially effects his transformation is Nurse Ratched or, as Harding describes her, “the bitch, the bitch, the bitch” (Kesey 62).
McMurphy fails to understand why men would voluntarily enter a mental hospital to have their lives controlled down to the last detail by a woman such as Nurse Ratched. He is committed, which, as one patient describes it, “‘…ain’t like being sentenced. ‘You’re sentenced in a jail, and you got a date ahead of you when you know you’re gonna be turned loose’” (Kesey 170). McMurphy asks Harding a pivotal question: “why do you stand for it?” (Kesey 195)
One can see that McMurphy’s question is fair. Why would men stand being treated in such a way if they are not being forced? He begins to see that they are not using him, as he previously believed (Kesey 193), but rather he has become a symbol of the courage and freedom they desperately wish they could possess. He sees their eyes on him, “full of a naked and scared hope” (Kesey 200). He has been transformed into the ward’s hero, without knowing or wanting it to happen. McMurphy may have enjoyed the adoration of the other patients, but he did not understand what motivated their admiration: a hope that he would be their Moses and lead them out of captivity.
After this realization, McMurphy makes it his mission to empower the men in his ward. He knows that the nurse will not let him out, and his outbursts are not only a result of his personal frustration, but also a display of his transformation into a hero, a martyr. He admits that his motives are not always pure, “‘Sure; I was keepin’ what was left over [from the fishing trip]. I don’t think any of the guys ever thought any different’” (Kesey 233). Yet, if he simply wanted their money, he could have gambled for it at cards and not put himself through the trouble of arranging a trip and recruiting men for it. As the men make their way off of the boat, Chief can tell something has changed within them all. “These weren’t the same bunch of weak-knees from a nuthouse” (Kesey 254). McMurphy had successfully given the men the sense of worldly accomplishment and strength they needed. His work for the good of the ward is inspiring to the reader. His brazen attitude of disrespect towards Nurse Ratched is empowering and creates empathy within the reader. One can feel not only the characters changing, but oneself as well as the prison-like nature of the ward begins to disappear.
In addition to the ideas of unintentional heroism and transformation, Kesey uses his characters to challenge what was then the societal norm. Many of the men who voluntarily entered the mental institution are not insane, but simply different. George is a mysophobe, but shows his capability to handle life when he excels at operating a fishing boat. Chief and his flashbacks to the past show how he and his family were mistreated because of their Native American heritage. People ignored them, believed they were stupid, and took advantage of them, pushing Chief’s father to alcoholism. Chief himself is a veteran suffering from PTSD. Instead of being gently eased into society and helped, he is trapped in a ward with a new commander and shock therapy treatments to “ease” his suffering.
Kesey deals with difficult matter in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but he does so excellently. I highly recommend this novel. It does have some graphic and disturbing moments, but is still readable and worth reading.