How long until we learn our lesson about underestimating books? February’s book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, turned out to be, for this writer and many of our group, a delightful surprise. Why did this happen? It’s an important lesson.
Most of us had seen the movie, which was fairly one-dimensional. Also, many of us were not paying attention to contemporary American authors in 1962. So most of us came to the book with low expectations, thinking it would mainly be a protest novel against psychiatric methods of the 60’s, especially electroshock therapy.
On the contrary, Cuckoo’s Nest is a multi-dimensional book, a fact that became clear the more our discussion progressed. As frequently happens, each one of our group brought out new observations about themes, symbols, and character details that turned the book into a new light.
The narrator is Chief Bromden, the tall, half-Native American who is presumed by all to be deaf and mute, but secretly hears what medical staff think they are saying in private. His prose begins a little choppy, either to illustrate his mental illness, poor education, or the possibility that English is not his first language.
As pointed out in the opening essay, emasculation is an important theme in the book. The “Big Nurse,” Miss Ratched, frequently diminishes and controls the men, keeping them fearful and submissive. Her piercing eyes alone are enough to quell most of the inmates.
There are numerous images of reduced manhood. One inmate kills himself in a bathroom by emasculating himself and bleeding to death. The stuttering character Billy Bibbit is a minor character but he lives in fear of his domineering mother; he is safe from her oppression only to have it replaced by Nurse Ratched. When Billy loses his virginity with a smuggled-in prostitute, he momentarily is cured of his stutter for the first and only time in the book. He is liberated and emboldened and transformed, ready to stand up to Nurse Ratched. But she promises to report to his illicit behavior disapproving mother, and he takes his own life shortly after.
Another theme is being without a voice, as seen in Chief Bromden’s muteness (doubly significant for the fact that he is part Native American). The inmates struggle throughout the book to have a say in their own lives, for example, a standoff that blows up between the nurse and the men over watching the baseball game on TV.
The tragic hero of the book is Randal Patrick McMurphy, who starts out as an entertaining big-mouthed rascal, a flagrant counterpoint who’s boldness gives him very much of a voice, and whose masculinity is fully intact. His gleeful, ever-escalating contest with nurse Ratched and his rebellion against the oppressive norms of the ward holds out possibility of victory and deliverance for the men. He is a sort of Christ-figure at the end, bringing transformation in the inmates before getting lobotomized by doctors and euthanized by the Chief.
There are many sublime moments in the book beyond the day-to-day life in the ward, known as “The Combine.” Chief Bromden’s vision of the dog running around in the field at night and the subsequent vision of the dog killed by a car mirroring McMurphy’s fate is stunning. His memories of life on the reservation as a youth, and the whole fishing expedition with McMurphy and 12 friends are favorite breaks from life in the Combine.