One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Book Review
The practice of reconsidering the values and perspectives offered in an important literary work is not uncommon. Many novels have been revisited and criticized for the values that they carry. Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of such works, as it has numerously been accused of sexism, racism, and propaganda of machismo. However, it seems that many critics have missed the important point of the novel, which is the narrator being a mentally ill individual. Once Kesey’s decision to put a character suffering from schizophrenia in the central spot is analyzed, the novel itself reappears as a powerful proclamation of humanistic ideas and empathy toward people with mental issues.
Ken Kesey is considered one of the most influential writers of his generation, being compared to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In his debut 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey depicts a story of a mental health institution where ideas of sanity, individual freedom, and humanity collide with the grim reality of the hospital, filled with authoritarianism, injustice, and brutal humiliation. However, while the novel has been accused of sexism, racism, and glorification of a highly controversial hero, its main legacy, it seems, lies in the unique narration style.
The narrator of the novel is Bromden (also known as “Big Chief”), a tall middle-aged man suffering from schizophrenia. Consequently, the plot of the novel is almost entirely located within the mental health institution where the patients stay. While many view the story line that depicts the fight of Randle McMurphy, the institution’s newcomer, with the despotic authoritarian regime created by Nurse Ratched, the woman in charge of the hospital, as the dominating line of narration, even Ken Kesey later emphasized the major importance of Bromden’s role in the novel (Madden 109). Bromden’s schizophrenic condition makes him occasionally confuse his own perception and emotional experience with the reality, influencing his narrative style, or, as Semino and Swindlehurst call it, a “mind style” of the narration (146). As a result of his psychological condition, Bromden stands as a “partly unreliable narrator,” making the readers decide which part of the story really did happen and which were a part of Bromden’s imagination (151). At the same time, Kesey’s decision to put Bromden as a narrator of the story makes another important contribution: it humanizes people with mental issues, potentially reducing the negative attitudes toward mentally ill individuals.
Because of Kesey’s bold decision to put Bromden in the center of the narration, not McMurphy (a character who is perceived as the main antagonist by most of the readers), the reader has the opportunity to get inside the head of an individual with a mental disorder. While schizophrenia does cause some of the difficulties in Bromden’s narrative consistency and use of language, what any reader can clearly see is the bright, humane inner world of Bromden. Essentially, all he (and the rest of the institution’s members) wanted was to be treated like a human being by the hospital’s administration.
Though McMurphy may be rightfully accused of harboring a sexist, racist, and hyper-masculine agenda by many critics, his main positive quality was that he cared about his fellow institution inmates and treated his community members with dignity, respect, and personal responsibility (Madden 108). Contrastingly, Nurse Ratched and her staff did the opposite, continuously dehumanizing those who had already suffered a great deal of rejection and misunderstanding in their lives. Therefore, Kesey’s choice of narrator reinforces the readers’ empathy toward the individuals with mental issues.
In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it is the “insane” community that is portrayed as struggling for liberty and humane treatment for all, while the “sane” medical staff uses brutal force and its power to bring the patients to their knees. Interestingly, it seems that the story would have been told in a completely different manner had McMurphy been the narrator, let alone Nurse Ratched. Although there are claims that the movie based on the novel had a negative impact regarding viewers’ attitudes toward mental illness, it seems that both Milos Forman (who directed the movie) and the audience ignored the powerful aspect of narrator choice (Domino 179). Bromden’s narration in combination with his mental condition turn many controversial issues of the story upside down, and that move of Kesey was undoubtedly intentional. While Bromden’s narration is far from being perfect, his commitment to the story and basic humanistic principles serve as the fundamental triggers of the story that cause empathy toward individuals suffering from mental issues.
Although Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest leaves a mixed emotional tone at the end, including both tragic and optimistic events, it does surely serve as an inspirational literary piece. Despite the accusations of Kesey’s sexist and racist representations in the novel, the story remains a powerful ode to humanism, individual freedom, and equal treatment for all. Moreover, Kesey’s decision to make Bromden, a patient struggling from schizophrenia, the narrator of the story serves as an instrument that humanizes people suffering from mental illness and reinforces empathy toward this vulnerable social category.
Domino, George. “Impact of the Film, ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ on Attitudes towards Mental Illness.” Psychological Reports, vol 53, no. 1, 1983, pp. 179-182. SAGE Publications, doi:10.2466/pr0.19126.96.36.199. Accessed 27 Sept. 2018.
Madden, Fred. “Sanity and Responsibility: Big Chief As Narrator and Executioner.” Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Harold Bloom, 1st ed., Infobase Publishing, New York, 2007, pp. 107-122, Accessed 27 Sept. 2018.
Semino, Elena, and Kate Swindlehurst. “Metaphor and Mind Style in Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’” Style, vol. 30, no. 1, 1996, pp. 143–166. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42946325
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