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.
First published in 1962, Kesey’s book bridges the transition from the Beatniks of the late 1950s, who used poetry, music, and fashion to express their dissatisfaction with conformist society, to the hippies of the 1960s, whose counterculture rebellion included free love and drug use. Because Cuckoo’s Nest was both timely and provocative, it became an instant hit with critics and with a college generation that was ready to take on the establishment full-tilt. Over the years, the book has enjoyed many reprintings in paperback form. It starting received scholarly attention in the 1970s, particularly after it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie of the same title starring Jack Nicholson, who gave a brilliant performance as the irrepressible McMurphy. Although the novel has sometimes been faulted as sexist and racist, it still endures as an example of the individual’s battle not to succumb to the forces of a dehumanizing, demoralizing society.