One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest book review
Milos Forman’s film of Ken Kesey’s best-selling novel made Jack Nicholson a star. And deservedly so. Who can forget his portrayal of Randle Patrick McMurphy, the subversive troublemaker who wages psychological warfare with the Big Nurse, played by Louise Fletcher? The film, released in 1975, put McMurphy front and centre, allowing “Chief” Bromden, the six-foot seven son of a Chief of the Columbia Indians, a very small supporting role, until the very end.
In the book, however, Bromden has a larger presence: he’s the narrator of the story, and it’s through his eyes that we view the residents and staff of the Oregon psychiatric hospital where he’s been a patient for over a decade. Bromden is what you would call an unreliable narrator; his paranoid delusions shape his world-view, and these include the belief that society is controlled by a powerful organization called the Combine. This group hates anyone who doesn’t fit the accepted pattern of normality and punishes them for it. Bromden’s response to the Combine is to pretend to be deaf and mute. As a result, he’s allowed access to places forbidden to the other patients and is privy to the secrets of both patients and staff.
The residents, all men, are divided into two groups: the Acutes, who can be cured, and the Chronics, who can’t. The Acutes, with Bromden pushing a broom and looking on, take part in daily Group Meetings, run with mechanical precision by a well-endowed former army nurse. (Her breasts are important: we’re meant to understand that Nurse Ratched has an ongoing war with her feminine side, leading McMurphy to identify her as a “ball-cutter”.) During these sessions, the nurse encourages the men to confess their private thoughts and past indiscretions, using shame to keep them in submission. When not conducting meetings, she sits behind the glass of the nurse’s station overlooking the day room, monitoring their every move. On the rare occasions when a patient steps out of line, or asserts himself in some way that threatens her authoritarian regime, she has them taken down to the “Shock Shop” for electroshock treatments or, in extreme cases, a lobotomy.
When the bumptious R. P. McMurphy is admitted to his ward, Chief Bromden sees at once that the new guy is different, “different from anybody been coming on this ward for the past ten years, different from anybody they ever met outside. He’s just as vulnerable, maybe, but the Combine didn’t get him”. McMurphy comes to the ward fresh from the Pendleton Work Farm, where he was serving a six-month sentence for battery and gambling. He has faked mental illness in order to be transferred to the hospital, assuming life here will be easier than in prison. McMurphy is loud, swaggering, and unpredictable, and his presence disturbs Nurse Ratched’s peaceful world from the very beginning. He gets the men involved in gambling for money, enlivens their basketball games, and persuades them to stage a protest in front of the blank TV set when the nurse refuses to let them watch the World Series.
The other men are wary of McMurphy at first. He laughs, loud and often, a sound seldom heard in this place. He freely admits to being a con man and a fighter, teases them about women, goads them to stand up for themselves, and becomes in short order, their de facto leader. He is, after all, the only one “man enough” to stand up to Nurse Ratched. His freewheeling defiance suffers a blow when he learns that, having been committed to the hospital, his release date is up to the nurse. The other men are there voluntarily, a fact he finds completely bewildering:
“Jesus, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are for Christ sake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets.”
Suddenly fearful of the power the nurse has to keep him confined indefinitely, McMurphy makes an attempt to follow the rules. When one of the men, Charles Cheswick, tries to get the others to take a stand against the nurse, he looks to McMurphy, as usual, for support. McMurphy, however, stays silent; shortly afterward Cheswick drowns in the pool, his death a possible suicide.
Cheswick’s death prompts McMurphy to rethink his decision to conform. He organizes a deep-sea fishing trip for ten of the men, accompanied by a female friend of his, Candy Starr, a prostitute from Portland. Billy Bibbit, who stutters and is terribly shy, is attracted to Candy and McMurphy promises to arrange a “date” between them. The chaos that ensues after this trip results in both Bromden and McMurphy being taken to the Disturbed ward and given electroshock treatments.
Once he’s back on the ward with the other Acutes, McMurphy makes plans to fulfill his promise to Billy. He bribes the night aide to sneak Candy and her friend, Sandy, into the hospital, along with a supply of liquor and marijuana. While Candy and Billy enjoy each other privately, the rest of the men party till dawn. The idea is that McMurphy will leave with the women before the day shift arrives and escape to Mexico in Sandy’s car. But when the time comes, he’s too wasted to move. Nurse Ratched arrives, finds the ward in disarray and discovers Billy and Candy half-naked, in each other’s arms. With a new-found confidence born, no doubt, from having had his first sexual encounter, Billy stands up to the nurse, without stuttering. She, in turn, has a response she knows will bring him back into line:
“What worries me, Billy,” she says, “is how your poor mother is going to take this. . . You know how she is when she gets disturbed. . . She always spoke so proudly of you”.
She gets the reaction she hoped for; Billy is reduced to a trembling, stuttering wreck. Frantic, practically hysterical, he blames the girl. And McMurphy. Once he’s completely defeated, she forgives him and leads him to the doctor’s office. Left alone there, Billy cuts his throat. The nurse accuses McMurphy of being responsible for Billy’s death; McMurphy, in a rage, lunges at her and attempts to strangle her. In so doing he rips her shirt, revealing her naked breasts. He’s restrained by the orderlies and taken upstairs to the Disturbed ward, where he’s lobotomized. When he’s brought back to the ward, silent, motionless and in a vegetative state, Chief Bromden performs an act of mercy: he suffocates his friend with a pillow. He then goes to the room that houses an enormous control panel, weighing some 400 pounds. Using all of his strength, he lifts the panel from its base, throws it through a window, and makes his escape.
At the time he wrote this, Kesey was working as a night aide at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital in California. He was also taking part in some highly secretive experiments sponsored by the CIA studying the effects on volunteers of LSD and other psychoactive drugs. It’s pretty safe to say that some of Chief Bromden’s more outrageous hallucinations were inspired by his experiences taking these drugs. According to Tom Wolfe, author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the character of Chief Bromden came to Kesey one night on the ward when he was high on peyote. Wolfe said Kesey would “write like mad under the drugs” and then cut out the “junk” when he came down.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962, was an immediate success with both critics and the public. Almost 60 years later, it holds up in practically every way – the characters are strong, and the story grips you. Only the character of the Big Nurse feels dated. You’d have difficulty these days selling women on the concept of a “ball-cutting” female denying her “femininity” and using her power to emasculate men. Some of us might object.