Adam
Adam asked:

I have long thought of this book as one of my favorites, but noticed some heavy racist and misogynistic undertones when I re-read it. Much of this was left out of the film. Does old fashioned sexism sully an otherwise great work of literature?

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Joe Constantine McMurphy isn't a good guy. He is full of faults, full to the brim with them! He's a misogynist, a sex offender, a con man, a gambler, a thug. He isn't our protagonist because he is virtuous in any way. We want him to succeed, to beat Nurse Ratched not because he is good, but because the alternative - a total, crushing conformity and control - would be worse.
Grell You should realise that the "racist" and "misogynistic" bogeymen of contemporary culture is only a very recent phenomenon. This book doesnt encourage either of these "-isms", the suggestion that the mere presence of them is enough to "sully" an otherwise great work of literature just goes to show how pervasive PC thought policing has come. I don't think a publisher would even consider picking up a novel these days which contained these two "-isms" unless they are explicitly condemned. When novels set a few decades ago, historical novels and even sadly non-fiction have to be self-censored anachronisitcally to tow the CP agenda, regardless of truth it a sign we are in Orwell's Doublespeak nightmare.

"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." is sadly a relic of a more enlightend time.
Rage okay, I'm a little late to the party but yeah honestly the book doesn't hold up at all. I realize that Nurse Ratched represents more than just the idea of a matriarchy, but the reality is that the "hero" we're given is almost immediately introduced as a child rapist who dismisses the charge because "she wanted it." his "rebellion" is getting people drunk and pimping out women. there are multiple conversations about how Nurse Ratched just needs to get raped and then she'll be way more tolerable.
why are these men in an institution? because they're not big and strong, because they've been emasculated by their wives or society or whatever. the big payoff is that they've rediscovered their "whambam." that's right, an inspirational Irish rapist can make a gay man straight! or something? I was expecting some amazing work of literature, but this basically reads like pulpy trash. I'm not even going to touch on the racism, but there was almost nothing good about this book.
William P Judging literature by current normative standards is like expecting Shakespeare to employ current analogies.
Leo Walsh Funny thing is, I just re-read it and found some of the racist and sexist slang off-putting.

But then I realized it wasn't all black people that the narrator paints pooly. t was those three "black boys." I found Turkle to be a very sympathetic character. Because he was human -- even put his job in jeopardy loosening the Chief's bed sheet BEFORE McMurphy showed up. Because he was a compassionate human and treated teh Chief like he mattered. And the night attendant seemed like a great guy when McMurphy caught him removing gum from under the Chief's bed.

And it wasn't all women. Instead, it was the control freak Nurse Ratched. On the other hand, the "small Jap" nurse was definitely empathetic. She even winced when dressing Murph and the Chief's wounds. Even Candy, though simple, seemed at once tough and yet tender. A female McMurphy -- white trash, but open to the gaggle of crazies.

There is also the fact that the Chief is the narrator. The terms do seem natural in his voice. I think McMurphy uses the "n" word a single time -- and that was to get a rise from the attendant that was frankly acting sadistically.

Like "Huckleberry Finn," I wouldn't let a character's language get in the way of reading this.
Jones I don't think the work is critical of the racist or misogynistic viewpoints it puts forward, as I've heard some people say on the subject of this book (in real life, I haven't read any responses like that), but it certainly leaves room for these to exist without being taken at face value. I believe Kesey himself held racist and misogynistic views, and that's why his work turned out the way it is, but his book is intentionally like a choose-your-own-adventure for interpretation at every corner. Because the books theme is itself battling conformity and looking closer into what it is you don't see, you can very easily see our main character -- Bromden -- as a case study. Bromden sees through the power play within the psych ward, he learned it first between his rez and the US government, but we also see all the ways he fails to see through the conformist "fog", to put it in his very literal terms. For a lot of the book, our narrator describes how he is incapable of looking at the reality around him because he's swallowed in a blinding fog. So, as readers, most likely reading outside the author's intention, it wouldn't be textually inconsistent to see other forms of fog to blind Bromden and the rest. The black skin of the black boys -- who never even get a name -- are a fog, blinding the white patients (as well as Bromden) to reality. Candy, who is usually called "the whore" or "the girl", and very rarely her actual name, is clothed in a fog, her gender, demeanor, the literal clothes she's wearing, which blinds everyone to the reality of who she is and what they're doing with her. There are also other points where the text could support something more critical -- McMurphy is literally diagnosed a psychopath. The narrator (and author) want this itself to be what is questioned -- they call a man a psychopath just for being a man! -- but we can also read this diagnosis as true, and read Bromden and the other men as manipulated by McMurphy's Strong Man persona. Everything McMurphy convinces them to do is actually in his own benefit, so you could easily interpret it as the men changing their subordination from one dictator -- The Nurse -- to another -- McMurphy. They do this because he presents with strength and masculinity, which all the men interpret as good, and she presents controlling,cold, and conniving, which all the men interpret as feminine evil. Clearly both The Nurse and McMurphy are terrible human beings driven by power and control over vulnerable people. Its not absolutely necessary to read the book with the moral, "the men chose X so what does that say about X?" but instead as a character study, "the men chose X so what does that say about the men?".
Elaine I think so, yes. And I think it's incorrect to say that our ideas of racism and misogyny shouldn't be applied to a work from a previous era because the racism and misogyny of the past did cause harm to women and people of color in the past. The only reason we're more sensitive now to injustice is that white men and rich people are no longer the only ones with a platform.

That being said, I don't think we should quit reading all racist and misogynist works, ignore their historical context, or feel guilty for loving them. They don't lose all value because they are flawed. I think this is a fantastic book about the ways the individual can get crushed by the machine. It's unfortunate that "the machine" is represented by women and people of color who no longer "know their place," and if I were teaching a high school class and wanted to bring up the themes in this book, I'd probably assign something from the Beats or somebody like Audre Lorde. Or both. But once someone has the critical reading and thinking skills to be skeptical and analytical of their own pleasures, I don't see any reason to discount the greatness of a book because it says some things that are awful.
Julie Why is everyone so shocked that a book that took place in the 60's is heavily racist and misogynistic?
Ben There are certain undertones that you may notice if you look for them, but I wouldn't say they ruin the book. And to Ruthless Critic, just because the female characters have problems you assume that the author is sexist? Occasionally certain trends may make themselves apparent, but the book is hardly clogged with such things. Just bear in mind that they are indicative of the time it was written in and how far we have come. And if you insist on fixating on the negative aspects of a multifaceted thing like life then go watch the news.
Chumskin's Diner Yea you're right. Disregard everything meaningful in the book because you figured out the guy you thought you liked isn't the type your old lady would want over for dinner. Im going to use this method to slim down my own reading list. Thanks for the idea.
Garymcauley Only McMurphy speaks in racial tones. Bromden and other characters do not. Let's face it: McMurphy is an Anti-Hero; racist, misogynist, con man. Nurse Ratched actually is painted pretty bright colors: she does charity work, she is the model employee, etc. You'd rather have her as a neighbor than McMurphy.

Kesey goes out of his way to mix up the characters: using an Indian as the speaker and ultimate hero was way out of line in the late 1950's when Cowboys and Indians dominated film and television with the Indians always the bad guy.

He paints McMurphy dark; he is not Gary Cooper riding into town to save the day (McMurphy makes sure he gets a life preserver even if it means someone else does not).

Yes, Nurse Ratched is the villain in the story. But I think a woman works here; if Nurse Ratched is a man ("Dr. Ratched") the dynamics of the story change considerably and not for the better.

So to avoid misogynistic storytelling, we make Ratched a man. But the story is not nearly as interesting.
Amir A. It's true the characterization of blacks throughout the novel is like the Three Stooges with a sadist bent. I found it disconcerting, personally. Misogyny is harder to argue but, in a similar vein, the feminine characters in the book do all have negative traits. On the other hand, McMurphy's Irish ancestry figures in his characterization, and there is a decidedly pro-Native American attitude throughout the story.
César Machuca I think the author just tried to dive us into the age and lifestyle of the characters and show us part of the american culture from the point of view of the lowest classes, which were in fact racist and sexist.
Sarah Fleming I don't think these undertones hurt the piece in any way. Especially those undertones stemming from McMurphy. After reading it, it seems obvious that McMurphy is the hero, he knows right from wrong. I'm not saying that some of his comments may not be offensive to some, but never are they a flat-out dismissal of women as a group or blacks as a group. He is not a flawless being, but most of his remarks that may be considered misogynistic or racist are only directed at the head nurse or the three black boys. Any other remarks are made jokingly, and he, as the strong character he is, couldn't have a serious prejudice towards a single person just based solely on their background. So as to concerning the main protagonist, readers shouldn't feel less willing to follow him along and to trust in him because they believe these remarks are a test to his moral character. They aren't.
And if anything, the overall under-tones contained in the story, don't hurt it, but add to it. While their meanings are not acceptable in today's society, they are important to include because they add authenticity to the story. Leave them out, and you start to wonder if this really is about the sixties, where social tensions over women and blacks were high. Just because Kesey writes them, does not mean he accepts them. Should the best literary works of be truthful or just sound nice?
Allmyowngums It cannot be denied that there are racist overtones in this book, specifically regarding the depiction of the hospital orderlies. Bearing in mind that i am male and therefore probably less aware of the sexist references than I should be, I do think that it is worth bearing in mind that the principal protagonists have all been diagnosed with some sort of mental health issues. However, the whole novel is a complex and ambiguous examination of the nature of reality. Is McMurphy faking his diagnosis or does his unremittingly self centered behaviour at the start of the novel prove that he really is a psychopath ? The central irony of the novel lies in the fact that the more time he spends in the institution the more he realises that his fellow patients are rounded human beings rather than " marks " to be exploited for his own ends, Thus one might argue that the care he receives in the hospital is actually working insofar as he is beginning to see himself as a social animal rather than a self serving entity. The irony ( that word again ) is that the more he overcomes his psychopathic tendencies the more hostile his carers become. In the end, the erstwhile psychopath self destructs in a quasi christ like gesture that brings about the liberation of the narrator and the transformation of the microcosmic world which is the hospital ward. this is probably the most pretentious load of twaddle that any of you will ever read but PLEASE, PLEASE,PLEASE, don"t let it turn you off the novel. The fact that it flawed should not distract from the fact that this novel is a modern classic !!
Siobhan I'm only about 90 pages in and yes it's racist but I think it's the time, the character and the part where he meets the girl in the cotton mill, even though she was black, wasn't racist besides the character is dark himself. I also think we need to except what we used to be so we can learn.
Andrey Davydov The book makes a more complicated point through its sexism and racism. The state regularly elevates the downtrodden - from hate speech laws to foreign oprichniks used by Ivan the Terrible. Bestowing power upon the disadvantaged is the best way to demonstrate your dominance, like granting a title to your horse. Besides, you will be their only source of power, and so they will guard you jealously.

Both sides have redeeming qualities: freedom is good by definition, but Nurse Ratched and her black personnel would be completely powerless in a 'free' world. The grim choice here is between (1) frontier democracy, which would have a large class of almost equal 'white males', based on strength and similarity, and (2) a civilized totalitarian state, which would have a smaller but much more mixed elite based on party loyalty, constantly stomping on 'white males'. To uphold power or liberty, you have to practice them in a highly visible way, usually treading on the status of others who dislike your actions and words. When McMurphy assaults Ratched, he deploys his natural advantage that would earn him liberty in a 'free' world, but Ratched then counters with the state monopoly on violence extended to her through her loyalty. So if you are naturally weak, you actually benefit from the Combine, until it decides to revoke your privileges.

Without this tension, the book would be an unambiguous moralistic tale that oppression is bad, but you can fight it if you try hard, duh.
Mr. Andy Consider the setting. Consider the characters. If one were to go out of their way to unearth misogyny or racism, one might find misogyny or racism just about anywhere. I would advise a person of this particular bent to stay well away from Mark Twain. Or, really, anything ever written.
Peter Anderson Unfortunately, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's shelf life may have expired and that is simply a shame.

Kesey's criticism embraced the notion of what Michel Foucault coined the "invisible forms of discipline" that control society and keep us from being our truest selves, that keep us prisoners to the false constructs in our society. And the people who are the biggest victims of it are non-whites and women.

These invisible forms of discipline show up in two symbols- Chief's "combine" and in the "control panel" that Chief ultimately unloosens and throws the through the window to gain his freedom- brilliance that control becomes the means that destroys itself.

And whose thoughts and ideas created these "invisible forms of discipline" created this conformity and power of the late 1950's and early and 1960's we had to follow or be labelled a misfit that Kesey is so critical of? Ummmm. The white patriarchal power structure that women and people of color are fighting today.

Consider: The hero of the story is a mixed person of color who at the end of the novel has shed the control of the white world calling him crazy. Consider, Chief is going back to check on his buddies in the tribe too see if any are still there after the "government tried to buy their right to be Indians."

Kesey wanted to give Native Americans their story back.

But why hammer on women and African Americans? I would argue he is not doing that.

Consider: That, aside from the Chief, the characters who have been victimized most by "the combine," by the man, by these de-humanizing white patriarchal forms of discipline, are The Big Nurse, and The African American orderlies. All semblance of humanity and who they are as individuals has been crushed and twisted by the white power structure "the combine."

As such, Candy', the whore (which is not used as a pejorative by Chief) and her sexual expression stands as a foil to Big Nurse's sexual repression.

Indeed if a whore is a person who sells their body for money than anyone with a job is a whore, pointing out the false patriarchal construct telling women (and men too) which parts of their bodies they can use to make money.

For me, the most tragic scene is Chief's remembrance of being a young man visiting a cotton mill prior to his high school football team. playing a team in California A young African American woman comes up to talk with him and they flirt and clearly are taken with each other when she digs her hands into his wrist and says:

"do take me, big boy. Outa this here mill, outa this town, outa this life. Take me to some ol' duck blind someplace."

She wants out, but it is clearly impossible for them to run off as white pariarchal society, the combine will simply not let a man who presents as Native American run off and marry an African American woman without repercussions.

McMurphy is quiet clearly a Christ symbol. Ask yourself for whose sins is he paying? The patients or the white patriarchal power structure that made them think there was something wrong with the patients?

In the 1980's Betty Friedan considered the movie Tootsie a landmark film because it showed the indignities and indeed danger that women go through on a day to day basis. But it did so by putting a white man pretending to be a white woman in society. Sometimes when we put the people in power in the place of those being crushed by society it has more resonance for everyone, but most importantly, more resonance and realization for the powerful who need to see how the rest are living under their yoke.



Lisa Great discussion topic! I think you need to read a book like this while keeping in mind the time in which it was written. It drives me crazy to read a historical fiction novel and have characters who are completely liberal and way ahead of their time in their thinking. It's just not realistic. It's not like this book was promoting sexism and racism, it's just describing a time and characters where these issues weren't taken the same way as they are today. It scares me that in today's world, we're not far off from becoming a book burning society because we can't reconcile the past with the present.
Joel Hildebrandt Yes, it really does. Cuckoo's Nest is, in my opinion, a powerful literary work. So much of it is brilliant, from the symbolism to the plot, the dialog and the evocative, psychedelic descriptions. It's also very funny.
I cannot begin to express the impact of those who defend the racism and sexism in this book with terms like "political correctness". I would ask, if you are willing to face a challenge, that you just reverse the roles in the novel. All of the inmates are Black and there are 3 anonymous white guys, domineering and sadistic, whose only role is to abuse the inmates and keep them in line. If you don't mind taking the thought experiment one step further, now imagine that white people have been abused, enslaved, denied justice, murdered by (mostly black) police, denied economic opportunities, etc. for 3-4 centuries. The setup in Cuckoo's Nest is designed to blame those who are already dehumanized for our oppression. It's actually the essence of trumpism. We don't need to question our privilege in society, because stories like this make it clear that it's ok to turn those "black boys" into non-people, all the while appealing to the spirit of rebellion and individualism in those who are presented as people.
Interested people should definitely read this book. It is in many ways a work of genius. And they should read it critically, because to do otherwise is offensive, demeaning and dehumanizing to women and to people of color.
Gregory "Does old fashioned sexism sully an otherwise great work of literature?"

Not at all. We wouldn't have any literature to read if understanding context, character construction, themes, place, author experience/perspectives was abandoned. Frankly, that is an example of the insidiousness of political correctness. Your question was five years ago. Things have become even more Soviet in 2020.
Sarah I don't think so. It's not explicitly for sexism or racism, these are just included because... well, that's life. It's realistic, especially since it's based in the 60s
Jim Butcher I dont think the book is racist one jot. It is a story, with characters, and in this case a narrative voice. Characters from the real world are likely to exhibit all sorts of characteristics, but that in no way makes a book racist of misogynistic or anything else. The alternative is to sanitise the imagination and representation. McMurphy for me represents human spirit in the face of those who would stifle it, and the Chief knows that.
Freddie Sykes - my pronouns are all "they" The opposite. Improves it.
Mary Ratched is now on Netflix.
And the misogyny in this piece is about to be under a microscope.
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