Andrew's Reviews > One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
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's review
Sep 20, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: one-book-per-week-08-09, collection
Read in September, 2008

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” is about the defiant and aggressive Randle McMurphy, who arrives in an insane asylum run by the strict and inflexible “Big Nurse”. At first, it seems that he faked being insane so that he could get out of a prison work camp. His personality and his will are so at odds with the culture of the ward that he gets into an ever increasing power struggle with Big Nurse, while at the same time inspiring the other patients in a way that they have not felt in years. Despite being an unkempt, loudmouth brawler who defies authority any chance he gets, Randle is compassionate towards his peers and wants the other patients to see how Big Nurse and the system that she represents are hurting them more than helping.

One of the main themes of the book is about the nature of insanity and sanity (I'm going to use these outdated words, because that's what's used in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”). Despite years of research and well developed diagnostic criteria, insanity is impossibly difficult to operationally define perfectly. Go ahead, try to do it. Do you define it based on how uncommon something is? Based on threat to self or others? Based on the subjective distress of the patient? Any of these definitions have serious limitations. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” we see dozens of characters in an insane asylum, and I found myself wondering which of them I would actually consider to be insane. Randle surely isn't but this becomes more and more questionable as time passes. Big Nurse frequently reminds the patients at most of them are there because they have trouble adjusting to the outside world. How many of them are non-conformists who march to the beat of a different drummer than the rest of society? The fact that many of them are at the asylum voluntarily makes this an even more interesting question; they don't fit into society but have enough desire to do so that they are willing to submit to severe restrictions on their freedom with the hope that they will adjust someday. (Interestingly, when he learns this, it makes Randle questions the sanity of the other patients for the first time). On the other hand, the ward staff, especially Big Nurse, are so sadistic that the reader will question whether the inmates are running the asylum. Notably, author Kesey includes one scene which takes place on another ward in which we are told that the authoritarian rule of Big Nurse is not common, which effectively steers “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” away from being a polemic against the psychiatric industry general.

The narrator of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” is on the most interesting and complex characters of the book. The story is told from the perspective of a selectively mute Native American, called by the patients and staff Chief Bromden, who is assumed to be deaf or so unintelligent that he is ignored by everyone but Randle. If you have ever seen the classic “Simpsons” episode with Micheal Jackson, you might remember the scene where Homer is introduced to the Chief and is told: “he's never said a word”. When Homer says “Hi Chief”, he responds “Hi Homer. Well, it's about time someone reached out!” That scene is hardly satire. Chief Bromden is intelligent and deliberately uses to his advantage the fact that he is ignored by almost everyone. This allows his to observe everything that happens on the ward, even much of what occurs in private behind closed doors. When Randle treats him like he does every other patient, Bromden eventually decides to start talking again. The scene where he slowly gets his voice back is one of the high points of the book. Bromden is paranoid and delusional, but I found myself wondering what was more insane, Bromden or the society that he was rejected by.

The characters and conflicts of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” are interesting and compelling. Since the battle between Randle and Big Nurse escalates throughout the story, I found the first few chapters of the book slow and a bit hard to get into. Once I got about a quarter of the way through the book, though, I couldn't put it down. This is especially true in the last fifty or sixty pages, when Randle and the staff are each using their strongest attacks against one another. Having seen the movie years ago I knew how the book would end, but this did nothing to dull the impact of the final scene. It may not be a happy ending, but it is satisfying and beautiful in its own way. There is no resolution of the questions raised about the nature of sanity and insanity, something that readers are left to figure out for themselves. It is gratifying to read this book today, forty-five years after it was written, when so much has now changed in our treatment of mental illness. But the big questions remain, and if you've ever pondered about the meaning of psychopathology and abnormal psychology, then “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” should be required reading for you.
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message 1: by K (new) - rated it 5 stars

K Great review. I'm trying this book for the third time (I couldn't get into it when I tried it two separate times many years ago, and abandoned it prematurely) and am glad that I chose to persist this time. The points you made really resonate with me.


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