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Submitted Literature

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey


Ken Kesey’s novel is an iconic, classic text on madness and psychiatric institutions in the USA.  Its popularity was vastly increased when it was made into a film in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson.  It has grossly influenced the public’s view of psychiatric inpatient care from its publication in 1962, and continues to do so. The novel is narrated by ‘Chief’ Bromden, an American Indian who is electively mute and thus, as the staff assume, stupid.  In fact, Bromden is insightful and perceives the power abuses around him with an acute eye.  Notions of good and evil are both blurred and maintained within the same novel – through the characters of Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.  McMurphy, feigning elements of psychopathy in order to evade prison duties, both liberates and paradoxically abuses patients in similar power-driven ways as the staff themselves.  Nurse Ratched, on the other hand, rules the ward with a rod of iron, controlling through fear not only the patients but the doctors themselves with a chillingly superficial benevolent manner.  Fortunately, jailors masquerading as nurses are becoming rarer as treatment attitudes towards patients with mental illness grow ever more sympathetic.  With psychosurgery now rare and ECT, whilst still controversial, more refined than in the 1960’s, this element of the text stands as a testimony to the well-intentioned but at times horrific history of psychiatry.  The image of a brain damaged McMurphy being wheeled back on to the ward following a lobotomy – performed not because of acute and enduring mental illness but because of defiance against the psychiatric system and the abusive staff within it – is one that sticks in the mind long after the text is finished.   

Key Themes:

  • Diversity and Ethnicity
  • ECT
  • Institutional Abuses
  • Personality
  • Revealing Reads

Significant Quotes / Pages

13 - “ ‘What happened, you see, was I got in a couple of hassles at the work farm, to tell the pure truth, and the court ruled that I'm a psychopath.  And do you think I'm gonna argue with the court?  Shoo, you can bet your bottom dollar I don't.  If it gets me outta those dammed pea fields be whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf, because I don't care if I never see another weedin’ hoe to my dying day.  Now they tell me a psychopath is a guy who fights too much and fucks too much, but they ain't wholly right, do you think?  I mean, who ever heard tell of a man getting’ too much poozle? Hello, but he, what do they call you?  My name’s McMurphy and I'll bet you two dollars here and now that you can't tell me how many spots are in that pinochle hand you're holding don’t look.' ”


100 – “I thought for a minute there I saw her whipped.  Maybe I did.  But I see now that it don't make any difference.  One by one the patients are sneaking looks at her to see how she's taking the way McMurphy is dominating the meeting, and they see the same thing.  She's too big to be beaten.  She covers one a whole side of the room like a Jap statue.  There's no moving her and no help against her.  She's lost a little battle here today, but it's a minor battle in a big war that she's been winning and she'll go on winning.  We mustn't let McMurphy get our hopes up any difference, lure us into making some kind of dumb play.  She'll go on winning, just like the Combine, because she has all the power of the Combine behind her.  She don't lose on her losses, but she wins on ours. […]

Right now, she's got the fog machine switched on, and it's rolling in so fast I can't see a thing but her face, rolling in thicker and thicker, and I feel as hopeless and dead as I felt happy a minute ago, when she gave that little jerk-even more hopeless than ever before, on account of my know now there is no real help against her or her Combine.

[…] And I'm glad when it gets thick enough you'll lost in it and can let go, and be safe again.”





249 – “There had been times when I wandered around in a daze for as long as two weeks after a shock treatment, living in that foggy, had jumbled blur which is a whole lot like the ragged edge of sleep, that grey zone between light and dark, or between sleeping and waking or living and dying, where you know you're not unconscious any more but don't know yet what day it is or who you are or what’s the use of coming back at all-for two weeks.  If you don't have a reason to wake up you can loaf around in that gray zone for a long, fuzzy time, or if you want to bad enough I found you can calm fighting right out of it.  This time I came fighting out of it in less than a day, less time than ever.”

Reference: Ken, Kesey. 1962. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. London: Penguin, 2005


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Friday 20th March 2009