One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a book which needs no introduction. Quite simply, it is a modern day classic, a book which people tend to have an awareness of, even if they have not read the book or watched the film. Written in 1962, the book centres upon an Oregon State mental hospital, and the day to day lives and treatments of the inhabitants. The book’s narrator is Chief Bromden, a half-Indian mute. We watch through the eyes of Bromden as the rule and regime of the formidable Nurse Ratched is laid to waste by McMurphy, a larger than life character who blurs the lines between sanity and insanity upon his arrival to the hospital.
I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition (a favourite series of mine), and the first thing I want to draw attention to is the Introduction by Robert Faggen. Faggen is a Professor of Literature, and his eloquence and well thought out ideas make for a very interesting, very insightful read. If you would like to gain a tighter grasp on the context in which the book was produced, or are also interested in literary criticism, than I would recommend this edition. Similarly, this book contains illustrations and a short preface by the author himself, providing a rich addition to an already well established masterpiece of fiction.
The strength of this book lies clearly for me in the brutal, honest portrayal of a snapshot of history where psychological and mental disabilities were treated in a terrifying, uncompassionate manner. Through Bromden we see not only the divide between the patients and the outside world, but also the inner divide within the ward. The patients may reside within the same four walls, yet there still exists a hierarchy, a level on which to judge each patients apparent ‘craziness’ with the next. The patients are split up into Acutes and Chronics, with our narrator describing how one Chronic, after receiving some form of electrotherapy, was ‘just another robot for the Combine and might be better off as a failure’ rather than the shell of a former man he has become.
And that is what is so scary, so unsettling about a book like this. The very idea that the people who are suppose to be helping these patients, who in our world should have both compassion and respect, here view these unfortunate people as part of the machine which needs to be fixed, which needs to be brought under their control, even at the expense of their sanity, or whatever sanity they still held on to. Yet what happens if a particular person will not succumb to the rules that are enforced by this establishment? What happens if they continue to simultaneously uplift their fellow patients whilst running riot around the members of society who exist to restrain and control.
That is the space in which McMurphy resides; a man who willingly gets himself declared insane in order to escape what he perceives as the harsher punishment of life in prison, unknowingly committing himself to a world in which the ‘Shock Shop’ exists – a rather grotesque renaming by the patients for the electro shock therapy which is said to ‘do the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair and the torture rack’ (p. 62). McMurphy refuses to let the figure of Nurse Ratched, and all that she symbolically stands for, defeat his spirit, and the book details the battle of wits and survival between an apparently insane man and a sane (yet highly sadistic) woman. Whilst McMurphy is far from an angel, he gives the men on the ward hope, comedy and happiness, for perhaps the first time in a long while. McMurphy, much like the idea of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, is a paradox – a man who claims he is as sane as those in charge of him, yet ‘crazy’ enough to find it preferable to be held in a mental institution, a man willing to play the part of insane to keep himself out of a prison environment.
With the novel’s subject matter, it would be easy to see this book as a bleak, depressing insight into previous attempts at dealing with mental health. However, this book is studded throughout with moments of comedic genius. Like a rich chocolate brownie, where you must work your way through the somewhat sickly, rich substance until you meet the sweeter chocolate chips dispersed throughout, this book will take you from the pits of human nature, and then to scenes which lighten the heart. One instance which still vividly exists in my mind after finishing this novel is the chapter in which McMurphy rather brilliantly organises an authorised fishing trip for the other men. The trip really did touch my heart as I watched the men released from the shackles of the stereotypes of their health, and finally gain the freedom to exist like any other man. The fishing trip, the ride on the boat with the wind in their hair, is brilliantly symbolic of the freedom that they have obtained, even if only for a short period. Even more comedic was watching the men turn their stigma into a tool to use to gain power, to scare the people who view them as the very gaudy stereotypes of crazy, and to gain power through these judgemental people’s fright.
I have noticed a lot of comments which have picked up on the gender issues within the book, specifically the portrayal of Nurse Ratchet as sexist and misogynistic. Personally I did not find the book troubling regarding this issue, and whilst I could understand why this could be problematic , I think that this is something that you need to be aware of with all books which are a product of their time. Just as the treatment of mental health is vastly different (and much more of an improvement) within this book, so is the way in which gender was viewed. In order to remember how far we as a society have travelled, I think that is it important to remember the things that we have passed in order to exist as we do today.
As most of you can probably guess, this book does not contain a light, fluffy ending on which to reflect with rose tinted spectacles. This book works because of the brilliant balance between dark comedy and despairing horror, and it would be naive to expect the author to abstain from horror in the ending for our gratification. Having said that, I think the ending is a brilliant piece of plot work even if it is not the ending you would have wanted. If there is one thing that this book has left with me, it is the unsettling question of what determines someone as crazy? And who decides that a man is mentally unstable? Who is to judge that those who are deemed as mentally balanced deserve a greater say in the workings of the lives of others? For a book that will keep your brain working, whilst also allowing yourself to become absorbed into the plot, I would definitely recommend this classic read.
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classic