This is a Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey (Or: I Just Don't Know How to Feel)

September 15, 2015

Another Classics Club (and R.I.P. X!) pick bites the dust, and I'm feeling all kinds of ambivalent about it.

Ken Kesey's iconic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of a group of male psychiatric patients living in a hospital ward in Oregon. Our narrator, "Chief" Bromden, is an enormous, half-Native American man who thinks of the hospital as "the combine" that is literally trying to rewire him to be better adjusted to his surroundings. His paranoia begins to lift when a new patient, Randle P. McMurphy, arrives on the ward. A swaggering, gambling-prone redhead, McMurphy threatens to upend the oppressive routine of hospital life overseen by the austere head nurse, Mildred Ratched.

On its face, I adored this book, in no small part to Tom Parker's unparalleled narration. We meet and get to know an enormous cast of characters, and Parker manages to imbue nearly all of them with their own voices and quirks beyond what's found in the text. Most of the men's stories are devastating (Billy Bibbit and Pete Bancini's stories alone were enough to cleave my heart in two), and Kesey never lets us forget about the helpless feeling of inhabiting a world we struggle to fit into. McMurphy, in spite of his smooth talk and his eye on his own bottom line, fosters hope and camaraderie among the men. Maybe they can fit in after all, or maybe—just maybe—the world can adjust to them.
“What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin'? Well you're not! You're not! You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets, and that's it. ” - Randle McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The film was also quite good (I mean, Jack Nicholson), but the producers made some changes that distinctly changed the tone (and sometimes the trajectory) of the story. The film does not follow a specific narrator, removing the unreliability of Chief's voice and, with it, the ominous uncertainty of just what is actually going on in the hospital. This shift casts some of the (spoiler-y) events in a different light, and I was grateful to have the book so fresh in my memory so I could draw comparisons. Although I enjoyed the film adaptation, it ultimately couldn't live up to the novel for me.

All that being said, there are some potentially nasty things lurking under the rosy tint of wonderful characters and excellent storytelling. This book is riddled with problematic representations of and attitudes toward women. The ward's hero, McMurphy, is committed in the first place for "statutory rape" (McMurphy, in his late 30s, rapes a 15-year-old girl). The ever-demonized Nurse Ratched is at once discussed as sexless and undesirable (and, therefore, not worth much), but one of the attributes the men keep coming back to are her enormous breasts. These breasts also play an uncomfortably pivotal role in the story's climax. The "system" the men of the ward are fighting appears to be almost entirely made up of women bent on emasculating them, and this makes me more than a bit squirmy.

I think this book has so many excellent points worth discussing (personal freedom; the individual versus society; and stark looks at mental illness, male friendship and male vulnerability), and part of me wants so desperately to believe that the sexism is just additional commentary. Since Kesey never seemed to openly address it (at least not that I noticed—correct me if I'm wrong!), I'm stuck feeling uncertain and more than a little troubled.

Can anyone help me out here?

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