Ken Kesey’s brilliant novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest speaks a great deal about society and their definitions of the norm. The men in the asylum deem themselves to be more or less “insane” due to the fact that they are outcasts in the community. However, all this changes when a newcomer arrives: R.P. McMurphy, savior and messiah.
The asylum’s head nurse Ratched rules with an iron fist, keeping the patients oppressed under her administration by fostering tension and distrust amongst themselves. She executes psychological tactics in order to mentally control the men, who continuously believe that they are shameful and of lower status to Nurse Ratched and the rest of society because of their various “issues.” For example, Dale Harding is portrayed as a closeted homosexual, with a face “too pretty” and a weak, curved posture, as if he is curling into himself. He is, however, looked to be the leader of the patients before McMurphy’s arrival despite his rather flimsy portrayal. An intelligent, witty person, Kesey comments here that Harding is very much a man, though Harding’s own belief of this is crushed due to the fact that his homosexuality is not accepted in society.
McMurphy’s arrival brings a light and hope to the rest of the patients. He is just as wild as they are, but instead of being ashamed he accepts, and even celebrates, his differences. This leads to the other members of the ward uniting under him and his spunky spirit, and pushing against Nurse Ratched and her rules. Here, Kesey is trying to make a larger point: that although some degree of conformity is required to make a successful society, conformity is not the same as submission. Society should not force its citizens to submit to a particular set of norms– otherwise, it will remain static and blank, a constantly operating machine with no room to grow. As part of the counterculture of the 60’s, we can see that Kesey is attempting to make a call to action for America to embrace people’s differences and explore new ideas.
The outrageous yet fantastic ending is the final slap to the face. Nurse Ratched is physically beaten up by McMurphy, becoming mute and therefore losing her tyrannic power over the ward; she can no longer control the patients. McMurphy, however, is given a lobotomy and is sentenced to a life of silence as well. Neither Nurse Ratched nor McMurphy wins; the battle against society and outcasts does not result in a victory. The patients finally get the initiative to leave the ward after Ratched’s authority is lost, and are free to be themselves again. Chief Bromden, the narrator, escapes himself after coming to the realization that even in times of oppression and discipline, there is still a possibility for independence (shown by McMurphy declaring war against Nurse Ratched, despite the promise that he would be kept in the institution forever). One by one, McMurphy plucks them from the cuckoo’s nest.
For anyone looking for a good read, I highly suggest ‘Cuckoo’s Nest. It is an amazing book with great depth. Kesey points out that we are all human, not a pristine machine, no matter how much we try to hide it. In the end, we are all insane.