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.
The setting plays a pivotal role in the novel, especially because it rarely changes. By keeping the action in one place-the Chronic/Acute Ward of a mental institution-Kesey is able to create a whole society in miniature. As the novel opens, this society is an ordered holding pen for men who have various degrees of mental illness. When the outsider McMurphy arrives, he brings the monotonous, repetitive qualities of this setting into focus. Only on one occasion does the action take place outside of the hospital, when the men go on the fishing party. With the vivid descriptions of this trip, the pace picks up as the men come alive. This provides further contrast to life on the ward, which is increasingly seen as cruel and dehumanizing. The author further enriches the setting with language that is strong, concrete, direct, and vivid. It brings the reader right into the midst of the action.
The portrayals of the inmates of the institution, for the most part, are real and believable. Some are modeled on patients Kesey observed while doing night supervisory duty on a mental ward. For instance, the behavior of George Sorenson, known as “Rub-a-Dub,” who is so concerned about cleanliness he won’t touch anyone, is an example of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Especially moving is Chief’s slow awakening to a validation of himself as a person, after experiencing years of racial slurs and physical degradation. The novel’s portrayal of female and African American characters, however, is more problematic. Women are either control freaks who emasculate the men around them, such as Nurse Ratched, Vera Harding, and Billy Bibbit’s mother, or objects for sexual gratification, such as the two hookers Candy and Sandy. The “black boys” Chief describes are alternately servile to their boss, Nurse Ratched, and cruel to the patients, showing no emotion but hatred. While Mr. Turkle’s character is more sympathetic, he too is portrayed as fearful of authority and responsibility. While broad stereotypes such as these serve a purpose in creating a satire such as Cuckoo’s Nest, they have still led to accusations of sexism and racism.