The Modern Library’s January discussion was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, a book I read a few years ago but didn’t quite remember it. I am glad that I got a chance to reread it because I think I actually enjoyed it even more. In fact, my review bumped to 5 stars.
If you are not familiar with this book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is set in a psychiatric hospital ward, run by the infamous Nurse Ratched. She runs a tight ship and makes sure all the patients keep to a strict schedule. That is until the ward gets its newest patient, Randle McMurphy, who swaggers into the ward on his first day and pulls rank among the patients. Immediately, McMurphy defies Ratched’s rules and begins to be seen as a troublemaker by the nurse. It becomes a battle of wills as Ratched tries to keep reign over the ward and McMurphy tries to get the other patients on his side.
I thought that the setting of the book in a psychiatric ward was brilliant because it ultimately made the book a page turner. Not only it’s an unpredictable environment, but you throw McMurphy into the mix, and it’s anyone’s game. I found myself laughing aloud at some parts, because Kesey’s writing makes the reader feel they are right in on the action. I was particularly amused when McMurphy has an overnight party on the ward and those involved get drunk on smuggled alcohol and cough syrup. Hilarious.
Yet, even with its comic relief, Ken Kesey also brings to light some of the harsher truths about psychiatric hospitals and the stigma of society to conform. This book was written in the 60s when psychiatric hospitals were run a little more cruelly and this book provides a bit of reality of what patients went through. Kesey highlights how when people didn’t conform to what society dictated as ‘normal’, they were considered crazy. How to treat that condition differed pending on who was in charge of your care. In the case of Nurse Ratched, if you didn’t follow her rules, you could either being punished with electro-shock treatment or by a lobotomy.
Kesey uses McMurphy as the weapon to reveal these truths, particularly with his power struggle with the nurse. Yet, we don’t see all this through McMurphy’s eyes. Rather Kesey uses another character, Chief Bromden, a Native American patient who has been on the ward for 10 years as the narrator. It actually works with the plot as Bromden provides perspective on how things were pre-McMurphy and the changes that McMurphy causes during his stay.
You get to know everyone on the ward and slowly Kesey reveals why they are truly there. That even though they have been label “crazy” by society, they are anything but. Sure they have their quirks or challenges, but they are still humans who have emotions and needs that should not be ignored, simply because society says. Kesey also reveals what can happen if they don’t get what they need.
There were mixed reactions to the book. No one hated it but some were surprised by the amount of racism and misogyny described, which raised a discussion. There was some debate about Nurse Ratched, who is characterized as being firm and manly, running the ward like the army and how McMurphy goes about undermining that, even at one point revealing her as the female she is. There was some debate about whether McMurphy’s actions were warranted as well as whether Nurse Ratched was truly a villain. Were her punishments against the patients effective? How cruel is too cruel and at what cost?
The ending is particularly shocking but everyone thought it a fitting end to the battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. I won’t say more than that except that the group agreed that this was a book that deserved to be recognized for what it was, at the time that it was written. This is definitely book club worthy as there are many topics to discuss.
Have you read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? What did you think? Let’s discuss!