Book 43, a book that was written by someone younger than 30, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Insanity is an intriguing prospect. Do insane people know that they are insane? When you really dig into the matter, how do we define insanity, anyway? What is normal? I especially enjoy literature that provides insight into the perspective of a mentally disturbed character. Reading these perspectives often deconstructs our notion of “normal” and “sane” in a way that is quite alarming. We identify with these characters and begin to pull at the tenuous threads of our own sanity.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is written from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a Native American indigent man living within the confines of an insane asylum. The Chief has been on the ward for several years, and he has learned to survive by pretending to be deaf and unable to speak. This tactic has kept him off of the staff’s radar, but has isolated him and furthered the level of his delusions. Despite his isolation, the Chief is privy to many private conversations and interactions within the ward as nobody thinks he can hear or understand what they are saying. This gives him the perfect narrative position to unfold his story.
Interestingly, the Chief appears very “normal.” As a reader, you don’t question the integrity of his point of view despite his being certifiably insane. Even in the moments where the reader glimpses the Chief’s psychosis (delusions of paranoid schizophrenia?), his delusions oddly make sense in a metaphorical way. They are not real, but real; crazy, but not crazy. One of his conversation with another character best illustrates what I mean. While the Chief explains the way he views the world, he asks if what he’s saying is crazy. The other man basically states that what he’s saying is real and valid, but it’s still “crazy talk.” The Chief believes the world is a Combine that exists to take people who fall outside of the definition of “normalcy” and either fix them or break them. He believes at night, there are machines that come out and work on their bodies; the pills he swallows have machines in them to dull his senses and make him “normal.” He views Nurse Ratched as a grotesque machine herself, and feels only he can see these things because he is an outsider and has managed to fool them. At times, he sees the staff releasing a fog to blind the other men and placate them into submission. He believes the others see the fog, but they are too afraid to acknowledge it.
Kesey never specifically acknowledges that these incidents are not really happening; as a reader, you assume they are delusions, but you could interpret them as real and this novel could take on a very interesting science fiction quality. However, even if we assume that the Chief is suffering from a psychological disorder, and none of these things are actually happening, there is a truth to all of the things that he says. There’s a current of Marxist philosophy running through his delusions. Through a Marxist lens, we interpret society as a metaphorical machine that relies on the masses to function a certain way in order to keep producing and reinforcing itself (just like the Chief’s Combine). When people begin to see the cracks in this “machine” and expose its self-serving nature, this endangers the operation (i.e. breaks down societal “norms” that are built upon themselves, but have no real structure or foundation) which could lead to chaos. People like the Chief, who are aware of the falsity of these societal mechanisms are often ridiculed and discounted in order to keep the system going. The ruling class doesn’t want the true nature and cost of capitalism and greed to be discovered by the masses, so they do their best to disenfranchise anyone who seeks to unveil the truth. In this vein, what the Chief says isn’t crazy at all. His mind perhaps doesn’t have the means of expressing what he sees, so it creates a literal interpretation–enter his delusions.
Despite his occasional psychotic breaks, life on the ward is bearable, but somewhat dismal for the Chief and the others occupying the ward. The men living in the ward range from Vegetables (unable to move, speak, or apparently think) to Chronics (like the Chief himself–those who will most likely never leave the institution for various reasons) to the Acutes–those whose insanity is probably curable and will be only staying in the ward for a short time. The ward is run by the notorious Big Nurse, also known as Nurse Ratched. She manages to make men as well as the doctors and support staff “small” through her own special brand of manipulation. She and her “Black boys” rule the ward with an iron fist. Nobody, not even the doctor, challenge her will. Each new Admit, even the most disruptive of the bunch, eventually falls under her unyielding rule. That is, until McMurphy arrives. That is truly where the story begins.
McMurphy is a big, beefy, red headed force of nature who knocks the ward off kilter from the moment he enters the room. Previously a tenant at a prison work detail, McMurphy managed to use his considerable swagger and charm to land himself in the ward–a place he considers a cushy and easy way to finish serving his time. Unafraid of upsetting the system, he delights in challenging the indomitable Nurse Ratched. They go toe-to-toe waging a silent war for power that leads to a shocking and tragic conclusion at the end of the novel. As McMurphy struggles to win control of the ward, he serves as a mechanism of change and resistance against the combine; he illustrates the reality of Nurse Ratched’s authority–that it only exists because they as a group collectively allow it to–and he works tireless to take her down. As he exposes this truth, the other men rise up and begin bucking back against her system, too. Will McMurphy win, or will it be an endless, irreconcilable battle until, as the Chief expounds, a man breaks down and another takes his place? Does the machine of society always win? Is the fight worth undertaking?
Kesey’s novel is beautifully constructed and resonates deeply with readers long after the story ends. Full of exquisite descriptions, profound philosophy, and laugh-out-loud humor, his writing is reminiscent of an adult, much more likable Holden Caulfield. Like Salinger, Kesey unflinchingly sheds light on the gritty reality of human nature. In its time, this novel must have been a controversial piece of literature for myriad reasons, and as such, Kesey’s work has withstood the test of time in the literary world. It remains, to this day, a beloved and well-known novel and one that I highly recommend.