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Introduction

Ken Kesey’s tragicomic novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, takes place in a mental hospital during the late 1950s. The book can be read on two levels; if one looks on the surface, there is the story of how a highly individualistic, near-superman named McMurphy becomes a patient and for a time overturns the senseless and dehumanizing routines of the ward. If one looks deeper, however, there is a commentary on U.S. society, which the Beat generation of the late 1950s viewed as so hopelessly conformist as to stifle individuality and creativity.

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Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey was born in 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. The family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where he attended public school before matriculating and graduating from the University of Oregon. While in college, he pursued drama and athletics. A champion wrestler, he nearly won a place on the U.S. Olympic team. After graduating, he worked for a year, thought about becoming a movie actor and wrote an unpublished novel about college athletics entitled End of Autumn. Kesey married his high-school sweetheart, Faye Haxy, in 1956, and the couple became the parents of three children. In 1958, Kesey began graduate work in creative writing at Stanford University in California, where he studied with several noted writers, including novelist Wallace Stegner. He wrote a second unpublished novel, Zoo, before beginning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the summer of 1960. Around this time, he became a paid volunteer in government-sponsored drug experiments at the Veteran’s Hospital in Menlo Park, California. There he was introduced to psychoactive drugs such as mescaline and LSD, and became a frequent user of them. He was under the influence of these drugs during some of the time he wrote this, his first published novel.

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Plot Summary

A Part 1

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a few remarkable weeks in an Oregon insane asylum and the events that lead to the narrator’s escape. A tall and broad Indian, Chief Bromden’s insanity appears to stem from a paranoid belief in the existence of a machine, “The Combine,” which controls people’s behavior. He feigns deafness and dumbness in order to fight this control. In looking back on his time in the ward, he finds that he must recount the horrible experiences suffered by him and his fellow inmates, and particularly to tell of the conflict between Randle McMurphy and Big Nurse Ratched.

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Characters

A Chief Bromden

Chief Bromden is the schizophrenic narrator of the story, and has been in the mental institution since leaving the Army shortly after World War II; Harding says he’s heard that Chief has received over two hundred shock treatments. The son of an American Indian father and a Caucasian mother, he attributes his shrewdness to his Native American heritage. Chief has a paranoid belief in something he calls the “Combine,” a collaboration of governmental and industrial groups he believes are trying to control people by way of machines. For many years, Chief has isolated himself from the bizarre environment of the Chronic and Acute ward by pretending to be deaf and dumb. This way, he finds out everything he wants to know and yet is able to keep his own counsel and to stay out of trouble.

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Themes

A Individual vs. Society

The main action of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest consists of McMurphy’s struggles against the strict rules of Big Nurse Ratched. Her ward at the hospital is a society in itself, for it has its own laws and punishments, both for the inmates and for the orderlies and nurses who watch over them. McMurphy challenges the rules from the time he arrives, from upsetting the supposedly “democratic” procedure of group therapy to brushing his teeth before the appointed time. By having McMurphy question and ridicule Nurse Ratched’s ludicrous, controlling rules, Kesey portrays the individual’s struggle against a conformist society as a noble, meaningful task. McMurphy’s fight within the small world of the hospital can also be extended to the outside world, which, during the time Kesey was writing the novel, emphasized conformity as a means of upholding law and order. Through the portrayal of one individual’s meaningful fight against a small society, Kesey brought into question the standards of his own society at large.

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Construction

A Point of View

Kesey seems to follow a fairly straightforward course in unfolding the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Except for a few flashbacks and digressions, the story is essentially told from beginning to end. The first-person (“I”) narrator Chief Bromden, however, is a schizophrenic-a person prone to hallucinations and delusions. As a result, the reader is sometimes unsure whether some of the events he describes really happened or not. After all, Chief believes he sees small mechanical items inside the capsules of medicine he receives and believes that a machine is responsible for creating the “fog” that enfolds his perceptions. Having Chief as a narrator also adds to the development of the story, however, for told through his eyes, the story unfolds in part through Chief’s changing emotional and intellectual state. After McMurphy leads the revolt over the World Series, for example, Chief notes that “there’s no more fog any place,” implying that McMurphy is actually helping to bring sanity to the ward.

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Historical Perspective

A The 1950s: Conformity and Change

The late 1950s, the time period in which the book was written and set, saw the end of a decade in which people outside the mainstream were often viewed with suspicion. The United States was engaged in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union, in which relations were tense and hostile even though no open warfare was declared. Americans feared the possibility of a nuclear conflict, and people identified as communist sympathizers-“reds”-were frequently ostracized and even persecuted for their supposed beliefs by government committees such as that headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. But toward the end of the decade, a national rebellion against civil injustice and cultural mediocrity was in the making, and young people in particular began questioning the values and beliefs of those in power. One such group of people was the Beat Generation, who expressed their dissatisfaction with society through art, dress, and nonviolent action. Poetry readings were a common forum beatniks used to communicate their ideas, and Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl” articulated what many people saw as the moral and social problems of the time.

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Questions

Write a short essay or story on what would happen if McMurphy took a job in a large corporation with a formal culture and a hierarchical structure. Be imaginative. Create characters who represent a variety of corporate types (the boss, the flatterer, the slacker, the busybody). Do not change McMurphy’s personality, character, or behavior.

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Compare and Contrast

Early 1960s: In 1962, the Cold War reaches its most fevered pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposes a naval blockade on Cuba after discovering evidence of Soviet missile construction on the island, and the U.S.S.R. goes on special military alert. Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia, the largest country left from the Soviet breakup, has a democratically elected president. The Russian government’s biggest problems are paying their military, funding the government, and dealing with rising organized crime.

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