What happens when we stop seeing people and start seeing symbols? When humans become avatars for good and evil, what gets lost or ignored? These questions lie unflinchingly at the heart of Ken Kesey's classic novel.
Ken Kesey’s novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" remains one of the most celebrated and talked about works of 20th century American literature since its debut in 1962. Yet while it is seen primarily as a novel satirizing social control by setting it in a mental institution, this is a superficial reading. Literary criticism of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" reveals a much more nuanced work, where Kesey attempts to show how multi-dimensional characters become lost in allegorical tales.
The Ambiguous Gaze: Perspective of a Strange World
The novel’s narrator is Chief Bromden, a schizophrenic man pretending to be a deaf-mute. In his introduction to the newest edition of the novel, Chuck Palahniuk makes note that Kesey did not approve of Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson, as Nicholson’s McMurphy took the role of central character as opposed to Bromden. This seemingly small change in perspective is in fact quite significant. In the novel, the reader’s experience of the hospital is filtered entirely through the eyes of Bromden, which makes the entire narrative ambiguous. Aside from his more obvious breaks from reality (believing the nurses are able to alter the flow of time, machines that pump fog into the ward, seeing Nurse Ratched as a monster hiding behind an enamel mask), he is obsessed with the idea of a struggle between good and evil, characterized by the immaculate white of the Nurse Ratched and her hospital staff (their uniforms and shoes, the walls and floors are all a blinding white) and the irrepressible new patient Randle Patrick McMurphy, whose flaming red hair and fleshy, bruised knuckles stand in chaotic contrast to the ordered, sterile colorlessness of the hospital. Bromden sees these incongruities as part of an allegorical battle between control and subversion, and is egged on by McMurphy himself, who proudly wears his Moby Dick boxers given to him by an old girlfriend, as “she said [he] was a symbol."
Kesey’s entire novel pivots on the idea of the abstraction of domination and rebellion to the level of symbols, and how it affects the real people drawn into it. In her paper “Stories Sacred and Profane: Narrative in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’," Janet Larson states that the world the characters inhabit and one the readers take away is one of “myth and parable." Indeed, these abstractions are prevalent in the hospital, with McMurphy assured upon his arrival that the old forms of torture to “reform" the insane have been replaced by medical advances — most notably electroshock therapy and lobotomization. To Kesey, these are far more sinister: they completely alter the person underneath. Physical abuse causes damage (as seen by the self-inflicted wounds of Billy Bibbit, who has scars on his wrists and cigarette burns on his hands), but the person remains the same. Yet the methods of Bromden’s Combine are more effective than torture chambers. The violence of the hospital is implicit, and it is far more powerful: it changes the core of the person it effects. The violence of old “mad-houses" has been turned into mythical reform. The damage is still there, it is merely hidden.
Personifying Good and Evil
On the opposing side, Christlike imagery fills Bromden’s descriptions of the hospital. The catatonic Ellis is nailed to the wall each morning in order to keep him upright, and patients receiving shock therapy are hooked up in a similar fashion (with accompanying caps that are referred to multiple times as a crown of thorns). While it is easy to see the suffering of the patients as being Christlike, it is important to remember that this is Bromden’s descriptions, and not Kesey’s. Bromden sees the noble sacrifice of the patients against the faceless Combine, but seems not to truly understand the suffering of the individuals underneath.
In his article “The Breasts of Big Nurse: Satire versus Narrative in Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’," Laszlo Géfin criticizes director Milos Forman’s assertion that the Ratched of his film was more humanized than the monster portrayed in the novel. Géfin states instead that the Ratched of the novel is not only the victimizer of the patients in the hospital, but also a victim herself. Yet Bromden’s reductive worldview does not allow for the nurse’s allegorical characteristics to be submerged in a human portrayal, just as McMurphy’s human failings (his racism, misogyny, anger, exhaustion) are ignored so he can fulfill the role of the patients’ savior.
After the sympathetic Billy Bibbit commits suicide at the climax, Kesey pulls back the veil of satire that has informed most of the novel up to this point. The game has stopped being fun, there is no prize left to win or worth winning. The patients (most of whom are in the hospital voluntarily) sign themselves out and return to the world at large. The audience is given one last glimpse at both Ratched and McMurphy, Bromden’s avatars of evil and good. Yet they are no longer the towering, larger-than-life figures that served to inspire and terrify both the patients and the audience. Ratched is bruised and broken, unable to speak or flash her evil smile and capable only of written communication. McMurphy, lobotomized after attacking Ratched, is a waxen doll unable to move. Tellingly, the remaining patients refuse to acknowledge the husk wheeled back into the ward as their leader. Instead, they guffaw that it is a poor simulacrum, a creation designed to fool them into thinking the unsurpassable McMurphy has been brought down.
Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.
Literary criticism of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.
Géfin, Laszlo K. “The Breasts of Big Nurse: Satire versus Narrative in Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’." Modern Language Studies 22.1 (1992): 96-101.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 1962. Reprinted New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Larsen, Janet. “Stories Sacred and Profane: Narrative in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’." Religion and Literature 16.2 (1984): 25-42.