One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with its meaningful message of individualism, was an extremely influential novel during the 1960’s. In addition, its author, Ken Kesey, played a significant role in the development of the counterculture of the 60’s; this included all people who did not conform to society’s standards, experimented in drugs, and just lived their lives in an unconventional manner. Ken Kesey had many significant experiences that enabled him to create One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As a result of his entrance into the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1959 (Ken 1), Kesey moved to Perry Lane in Menlo Park. It was there that he and other writers first experimented with psychedelic drugs. After living at Perry Lane for a while, Kesey’s friend, Vik Lovell, informed him about experiments at a local V.A. hospital in which volunteers were paid to take mind-altering drugs (Wolfe 321). Kesey’s experiences at the hospital were his first step towards writing Cuckoo’s Nest. Upon testing the effects of the then little-known drug, LSD, “…he was in a realm of consciousness he had never dreamed of before and it was not a dream or delirium but part of his awareness (322).” This awareness caused him to believe that these psychedelic drugs could enable him to see things the way they were truly meant to be seen.
After working as a test subject for the hospital, Kesey was able to get a job working as a psychiatric aide. This was the next significant factor in writing the book. “Sometimes he would go to work high on acid (LSD) (323).” By doing so, he was able to understand the pain felt by the patients on the ward. In addition, the job allowed him to examine everything that went on within the confines of the hospital. From these things, Kesey obtained exceptional insight for writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To make the novel seem as realistic as possible, he loosely based the characters on the personalities of people in the ward; also, his use of drugs while writing allowed him to make scenes such as Chief Bromden’s (The Chief is the narrator of the story. He is a Native American who happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic.) dreams much more vivid (Ken 2). As mentioned in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “…certain passages 3/4 like Chief Broom [Chief Bromden] in his schizophrenic fogs 3/4 [it] was true vision, a little of what you could see if you opened the doors of perception, friends (Wolfe 328).
Ken Kesey’s altered mental state while he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest is what truly makes it unique. The novel’s message of rebelling against authority was very influential to the counterculture generation of the 1960’s. Kesey and his writing became a key factor in a decade filled with drugs and anti-establishment feelings.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in a mental hospital in which the patients’ individuality is suppressed by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched. When a sane con-man (Randle P. McMurphy) has himself committed to avoid a prison sentence, the machine-like order that had previously existed on the ward is immediately challenged. Initially, McMurphy is a very selfish man whose only desire is to cause problems for authority figures, Nurse Ratched in particular, and to make life for himself as easy as possible. Eventually, this all changes as the battle between himself and Nurse Ratched becomes their battle for the souls of the inmates. McMurphy’s struggle to “free” the other inmates is a difficult one, ultimately resulting in his own destruction; however, through his death, the other patients are able to realize their own sense of self and they escape the ward. Although McMurphy works to save all the inmates, the schizophrenic, Chief Bromden, is the main target of his attentions. The Chief is the largest, most powerful man on the ward, but is made to feel weak and inferior by staying there. Upon realizing his own value at the end of the novel, Chief Bromden participates in the mercy killing of McMurphy which allows for his own complete liberation, as well as that of the other patients.
Entering the mental hospital a sane man, R.P. McMurphy only looks out for himself; however, this all changes when he realizes the permanence of his residency on the ward if he does not conform. This motivates him to begin working to save the other inmates on the ward and transfer some of his high spirit into them. His struggle to help them realize their individuality results in his own mental decay and he is ultimately destroyed.
In order to make himself as comfortable as possible, McMurphy initially tries to defy authority and gain the inmates’ trust for his own personal gain. He is immediately a threat to the order that Nurse Ratched has created and maintains. While there is not supposed to be gambling on the ward, one of McMurphy’s first goals is to get the other patients to play cards with him for money. This is expressed when McMurphy says “…I came to this establishment…to bring you birds fun an’ entertainment around the gamin’ table (Ken 12).” Another way that he is able to disrupt the hospital’s order is through his bold laughter. This is very disturbing because no one ever laughs in the mental hospital. The inmates are controlled and mechanized; the laughter suggests personality, which would break down this order. According to Chief Bromden, he had not hear a laugh in years (11). McMurphy makes it obvious right away that he has no intention of letting the hospital’s machine-like order consume his identity.
As a result off his rambunctious behavior, the inevitable battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched begins. During group therapy meetings, McMurphy does not let Nurse Ratched have complete control as she has had in the past and as she would like to continue. He disrupts the meetings by provoking the other patients to excitement when they make comments about their respective problems. It also infuriates Nurse Ratched when McMurphy diverts the attention directed at other patients towards himself. Also, one particular scene displaying the beginning of the battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy occurs when McMurphy wants to watch the World Series. He convinces the inmates to resist Nurse Ratched by watching a blank TV screen, even when she turns off the World Series (140). The things that McMurphy does early in the novel to battle Nurse Ratched are selfish and have the intention of being chaotic.
Eventually, this all begins to change as McMurphy begins his struggle to help save the other inmates. He begins to conform slightly when he recognizes the power that Nurse Ratched wields; he learns that he cannot be dismissed from the hospital without Nurse Ratched saying he has been cured. However, the other inmates are not satisfied; they want him to lead a rebellion. McMurphy’s rebellious nature goes from that of self-interest to that of devotion to helping the other inmates find their freedom and individuality. By doing so, he also sees a means of escape for himself. The first display of his new strategy for defying authority occurs on the fishing trip that the inmates take. This trip, which is organized by McMurphy, helps the inmates realize that they can act for themselves and returns to them some sense of self-respect. Another example of McMurphy’s change from a nuisance to a savior is how he and the Chief resist Nurse Ratched in the disturbed ward (a section of the hospital for those patients who are considered the most insane or dangerous). Trying to evoke an apology from McMurphy and Chief Bromden for keeping another patient from having an enema, Nurse Ratched fails and angrily sends the two men to have electro-shock therapy. Although McMurphy is weakened by this, the Chief takes his first step towards being cured by telling the other patients of McMurphy’s heroics (277). This is the first time that he has ever talked to anyone other than McMurphy. In an obvious response to McMurphy’s devotion to him, the Chief starts to realize his true self.
In the end, McMurphy’s struggle leads to his destruction; however, he still becomes the inmates’ savior. By finding McMurphy’s weakness, which is his uncontrollable urge to always trick the other inmates out of their money, Nurse Ratched is able to defeat him. This is evident when McMurphy tricks the other men into not believing that the Chief could lift the control panel. As a result of this unfair bet, McMurphy wins money from the other men, but loses much of their faith in him (256-257). However, McMurphy eventually regains their trust and the inmates join him in the big party on the ward. Because the party involves breaking hospital rules, the inmates are forced into a situation in which they will have to defend themselves. This is McMurphy’s final attempt at leading the inmates to their freedom. As a result of all his efforts to help them, he has become worn-out, both physically and emotionally. Taking on the responsibility for the other patients has drained McMurphy of all his vibrancy and individuality; however, it is almost as if his liveliness has been transferred into the souls of the inmates. Just as in the law of the conservation of energy (energy can neither be created nor destroyed), McMurphy’s vitality must be sapped in order to give the other patients life. In effect, McMurphy has sacrificed his own sanity to make the others sane.
The final conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy occurs when McMurphy attacks her and reveals her sexuality by uncovering her large breasts(305). McMurphy is taken away to be given a lobotomy 3/4 a surgical operation in which a lobe of the brain, usually the frontal lobe, is cut out for the treatment of psychoses 3/4 but Nurse Ratched no longer has control over the other patients. By concealing her womanly nature, she has been able to have power over the inmates. To them, Nurse Ratched previously symbolized the cold, unfeeling, and mechanized nature of the hospital; by revealing her womanhood, this facade is destroyed and the men realize her weakness. Now, although she defeats McMurphy physically, he has actually won the battle because the other patients are able to escape. In order to ensure the Nurse’s overall defeat, Chief Bromden proceeds in the mercy killing of McMurphy. His death finalizes the transference of his spirit into the other patients; consequently, this allows for the complete liberation of all the inmates.
Using the Chief as the narrator of the novel, as opposed to McMurphy, allows the reader to examine McMurphy’s actions as being heroic, not mere braggadocio. Chief Bromden, through his behind-the-scenes analysis of everything that occurs in the ward, is able to portray McMurphy’s saga much more subtly than if McMurphy had been the narrator. By using the Chief’s point of view, Kesey enables the reader to see a patient (severely weakened by the hospital’s control over his individuality) eventually cured through the persistence of another patience to make him realize his true self. Because Kesey does such an effective job in creating the Chief’s schizophrenic state early in the story, the reader is able to see him slowly regain his sense of identity and thus one can truly understand the significance of McMurphy’s help in changing him.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest should definitely be included in a list of works of high literary merit. It’s message of fighting for individuality and self-expression is portrayed with immense skill. Kesey’s willingness to experiment with the revolutionary style of writing in an altered state of consciousness should be highly regarded. This novel is a symbol of the 1960’s counterculture and should be considered a classic of its time. Not only were its issues important during its own decade, but many are still relevant today.