One of the most brilliant and prominent works of the intellectual genius Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the troubling tale of the patients of the Oregon Psychiatric Hospital and the tortures they suffered at the hands of the inhuman staff and governance. Set at a time when gender equality and sexual discrimination were becoming increasingly debated and pondered upon topics, the book takes on a whole new viewpoint on gender discrimination, telling the story of the sufferings faced by victims of a dominant and totalitarian system.
Bittersweet in it’s miserable victories, the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest touches base with concepts such as insanity and it’s influential characters, society’s relentless pursuit over the control of natural impulses of human beings, and the importance of expression of sexuality.
The book begins when Chief Bromden, a half-Indian beast of all of 6 feet and 7 inches, begins to narrate the episodes witnessed by him in his ten years as a patient of the Oregon Psychiatric Hospital. Disillusioned by paranoia and hallucinations, the Chief’s spirit and strength are broken, and he submits himself to the miserable existence of the delusions in his mind.
The Oregon Psychiatric hospital is run and ruled by Nurse Ratched, a bullish ex-military nurse who runs the hospital in a witlessly precise and mechanical manner. Nurse Ratched uses a combination of bullying, humiliation, and embaressment to break the spirit of the patients in the ward and bend them into submission. As a result of playing them one against the other in ‘group therapy’ sessions by asking them to insult each other and expose each other’s weakest points, the patients are disheartened and discouraged, and give into the awesome and all powerful control of Nurse Ratched.
When Randle McMucrphy is transferred there from Pendleton Work Farm, all hell breaks loose in the Oregon ward. McMurphy is a vivacious rebel with a love for gambling, women, and flouting authority. On his admission, when he realizes the cruelty suffered by the patients at the hands of the matriarchal monster Nurse Ratched, he begins to disobey and oppose her on many occasions. McMurphy encourages other patients to rebel against the authority of Nurse Ratched, and exposes her manipulative plot to divide and conquer the patients in her so called care.
He begins to organize small mutinies, beginning with a blatant disregard for Nurse Ratched’s rules, continuing with a fervent fight with her to allow the patients to watch the World Series on the television during chore time, and when his request is denied, he retaliates by sitting and staring at the blank screen, followed by several other newly empowered patients. This sets Nurse Ratched’s temper off and she sends him for electroshock therapy treatments, however, keeping him in the general ward, waiting for the right time to attack him.
When McMurphy begins to realize that his future and fate are in the hands of Nurse Ratched and that she has the power to hold him in the facility as long as she deems fit, he begins to submit to her power and control in the hope of being released one day. When a patient by the name of Cheswick seeks McMurphy’s help in pushing the hospital aides to allow him access to his cigarettes, McMurphy refuses, and Cheswick commits suicide by drowning himself in the pool. At this point, McMurphy realizes that he has become some sort of savior for the rest of the patients, endowed with the responsibility of rehabilitating them. He is tormented and torn between saving them and saving himself.
By now, McMurphy has experienced the traumas of the electroshock treatments that he has been subjected to, and is genuinely frightened by the effects they have on his mind. Nonetheless, he tries to put up a bold facade, and arranges a fishing trip for the patients of the ward. On their trip, the patients catch big fish on their own without McMurphy’s help, giving them a feeling of new found empowerment and restoring their indentities and individuality. He also arranges for a virgin by the name of Billy to lose his virginity with the prostitute from Portland, Candy Starr.
Meanwhile, his rebellions are escalating, and one day he decides to come to the rescue of a prisoner by the name of Sorenson, who was being unnecessarily over medicated by the aides. This time, Chief joins him as well. They get into a fistfight with the aides and are both sent for electroshock therapy to the disturbed ward. In their absence, the men become heroes. Chief Bromden is released back to the regular ward some time before McMurphy, where he tells tales of McMurphy’s courage and raises his standing in the eyes of the other patients even further. When McMurphy returns, he returns a hero, however he has been broken down and stripped of his lustre with the excessive electric shocks he received. Although the other patients can see that he is fading and needs to be rescued, he refuses their requests to escape in commitment to the promise he made to Bill to see him lose his virginity.
McMurphy bribes the night watchman to sneak Candy into the hospital, who arrives bearing gifts in the form of alcohol and drugs. The patients party all night getting heavily intoxicated on liquor and the brutal fumes of the marijuana they are smoking while Bill and Candy have sex. They all fall asleep soon after, and they’re secret party is discovered by the aides and Nurse Ratched the next morning. When Nurse Ratched threatens to tell Billy’s mother of his disgraceful behavior, he panics and slits his throat in her office. At this point, McMurphy loses his patience and attacks Nurse Ratched, tearing open her shirt and exposing her bosom to the rest of the patients, and with it, her sexuality and vulnerability too.
McMurphy is sent to the disturbed ward for a labotomy, after which he returns a vegetable. The book ends when Chief Bromden strangles him with a pillow in a last attempt to save the little dignity he has left, and escapes from the hospital, symbolizing his return to his former self and individuality. His killing of McMurphy stands as his final act of rebellion against Nurse Ratched and the institution, saving him from becoming an abominal display of the power of the Big Nurse and an example to all of her victory over rebellious patients.
The characters is the life blood of the Kesey’s story. Through his delicately crafted minions, Kesey boldly represents and puts forwards his ideas and message on the pressing issues of gender inequality and the perils of an authoritarian system of governence. The book takes on a very interesting perspective on the issue of sexual indiscrimination. For times immemorial, the power and the dominance of men has been the central focus of these issues, however in his novel Kesey turns the tables and the dominance and control is put in the hands of the women.
His contorted stand on the issue is extremely effective as it forces it’s male readers to put themselves in the shoes of the patients suffering the wrath of Nurse Ratched, and in turn forcing them to experience a taste of what women suffer at the hands of dominant, bull-headed men, thus inverting the entire issue and situation of gender bias. From the beginning of the novel, women have been described as the force behind the destruction of the lives of the men in the hospital, starting with Bromden’s mother who was known to control and rule over his father, and all the way down to Nurse Ratched described quite closely to a reincarnation of Satan himself.
The audiobook of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been beautifully described and narrated to give it’s listeners a vivid experience of the shocking and disturbing fates of the patients in Oregan Psychiatric hospital. Through his words, Kesey moves his audiences to look more deeply at the matters touched upon in the book, and his always brilliant play with words and double-meaning, powerful tellings are the reason why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is, and always will be one of the most widely loved classics of it’s times!