Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Introducing many readers to the insides of a 1960s insane asylum, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest throws you into a world full of debauchery, mental illness, and the politics of mental wards, all through the eyes of a so-called deaf, mute Indian.

What it’s about

Chief Bromden is a 6’7’’ Indian who pretends to be deaf and dumb. He’s barely noticed by anyone, so he absorbs the many secrets that float around the hospital. His stay turns a lot more eventful when the devil in leather, Randle McMurphy, barges into the hospital, checking himself in to escape working on a farm. He’s not a breath of fresh air to the nurses on his floor. He’s lewd, crude, and was arrested for statutory rape. What a charmer.

From his first group meeting with the acutes (curable inmates) and chronics (“machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired”), he ticks off one member of the ward squad: Nurse Ratched. The woman acts like an angel of mercy, but she’s really a “ball-cutter” who degrades and shames patients who need her help the most. McMurphy makes a bet with the other inmates that he can make Ratched lose her temper within a week of him being around. He fights against her to turn the radio up and watch the World Series outside of the regulated TV hour. He slowly convinces other inmates to join him, and she starts to lose it.

Ratched isn’t one to lose, though. She’s going to dangle McMurphy on a short string. See, he thinks he’s going to get out of the hospital once his time with the work farm runs out. Not the case, according to Ratched. She’s keeping him until she wants to set him free. He eventually figures this out. Instead of acting like a good boy for the nurse, he instead punches out a glass window to snag himself some cigarettes.

The cat-and-mouse game continues on. When Ratched tells everyone that McMurphy is conning them for money and favors, he retaliates by fighting the nurses when trying to defend George. Ratched gives him electroshock therapy; he fights back by inviting the prostitutes to the hospital for boozing and partying. Ratched threatens punishment for the party the night before; McMurphy breaks the glass door and attacks her. Unfortunately, the nurse gets the upper hand as she orders a lobotomy for McMurphy. It turns him into a vegetable and he becomes powerless. The Chief decides that death is McMurphy’s only escape and murders him, metaphorically setting him free from the cuckoo house.

Your favorite part will be…

Somehow, McMurphy convinces the hospital that it would be a good idea for some patients to take a boating trip if his “two aunts” accompany them (FYI: the aunts are really prostitutes). They end up stealing a boat after the captain told them that they couldn’t ride because they didn’t get permission. The Captain threatens to beat McMurphy up when they get back. In a weird twist, the two men, along with the patients, decide to eat fish and get drunk together.

The cause-y angles

Taking a life

There are a few inmates who kill themselves as a result of the horrors that go on in the hospital. Some of the instances:

  • Billy Bibbitt slits his throat after Ratched finds out what he did to Candy and threatens to tell his mother.
  • After discovering that his stay in the ward will be permanent, Charles Cheswick drowns himself in the ward’s pool.
  • Rawler castrates himself and bleeds to death before anybody discovers him.

Mental Illness

  • The vast majority of the inmates are in for some sort of internal issue, ranging from germaphobia to dementia.
  • The nurses often use outdated methods, specifically electroshock therapy and lobotomy, to treat patients who act out of line.
  • One of the inmates, Harding, describes Ratched as Adolf Hitler, a sociopath who has learned to benefit from her insanity.

Sexuality

  • In response to McMurphy telling him about his two “aunts” being prostitutes, the Chief gets a boner.
  • Billy wants to lose his virginity badly. When McMurphy invites the two prostitutes to the hospital, he gets his chance. Billy and Candy retreat to the Seclusion Room to seal the deal.
  • McMurphy carries around a deck of playing cards. Instead of being the normal stack with kings, queens and jacks, they have pictures of sexual positions.
  • An inmate, Dale Harding is ashamed of sexual side. His wife mocks his performance in bed and he represses his homosexuality.