One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the critically acclaimed novel by Ken Kesey. This novel centers on a mental institution and the crazy characters in it. Chief Bromden, the narrator, a supposedly mute and deaf half Native American patient, tells the story of what happens when Randle Patrick McMurphy comes to stay. McMurphy was sentenced to stay at the institute because he had “‘repeated outbreaks of passion that suggest the possible diagnosis of psychopath’” (44). Before McMurphy had arrived, the patients did what they were told and never questioned the system. After he arrived, the ward became a very different place. McMurphy fought for the rights of the patients and he ultimately paid for those rights with his life. McMurphy played poker with the men, taught Billy Bibbit how to dance, took the men on a fishing trip, got the Chief to speak and admit he was not deaf or mute, and got the patients a separate day room. He also started riots and made many people, especially Big Nurse or Miss Ratched, upset. Ultimately, McMurphy changed the lives of those men and made a difference in the lives of those who knew him. The main motif of this novel is the terrible treatment of the mental patients. The men are stripped down and hosed off like hardened criminals. They have to take medications that they do not know the purpose of. Big Nurse uses the electric shock treatment as a punishment instead of a treatment. Lobotomies were cruel means to an end; most considered this operation a fate worse than death including Chief Bromden who killed McMurphy after the man, who was once full of life, received one.
Chief Bromden is the main character. It is his lenses that the story is seen through. He has been at the institution for longer than nearly everyone there. He appears to be suffering from PTSD and he enjoys chewing gum. His only responsibility is to sweep. Because the faculty believes he is deaf and mute, he is allowed to sweep in areas where he can overhear sensitive information. He is the eyes and ears of the place, but ironically no one knows it. McMurphy is the Irishman sentenced to a mental hospital. He had previously been working at a farm where he engaged in a wild lifestyle. He was involved in everything from prostitutes to gambling. He makes a ruckus wherever he goes, the institute being no different. Billy Bibbit is a nervous fellow with a stutter who commits suicide at the end of the novel. He was a good friend of McMurphy’s and stood by him until the end. The “Black Boys” are a group of young African-American men who work for the nurses. They do menial labor and enjoy harassing the patients. Nurse Ratched is the antagonist of the novel, the enemy of all the patients. She has a vendetta against McMurphy and ultimately wins the battle between them. She is the one that arranges the torture and allows the “Black Boys” to do their worse. It was people like her that gave mental institutions a bad reputation and the reason why so many died without getting proper care. She is the one that arranged for McMurphy’s lobotomy.
This novel resonates with the historical and critical context in which it was written. This novel was written during a time where mental patients were greatly abused: from the treatment of the staff to their actual prescribed treatments. Many of the practices were inhumane and are outlawed today. The electric shock treatment and the lobotomies were common practice and today they are not used. However, the electric shock treatment is making a comeback, although it is being administered in a humane fashion. This book was first published in 1962, a time of when much turmoil in the United States was beginning. The revolution in the novel mirrors the way people tried to revolutionize in the United States in the sixties. For many, it brought about change for the better. Others were casualties like McMurphy ended up being.
The passage that elicits the strongest emotional response is from one of the last pages in the book. It is chief Bromden’s inner dialogue: “The big, hard body had a tough grip on life. It fought a long time against the having it taken away, flailing and thrashing around so much I finally had to lie full length on top of it and scissor the kicking legs with mine while I mashed the pillow into the face” (309). Chief Bromden killed McMurphy; he smothered him with a pillow. This passage causes the reader to feel queasy and disheartened; the hero is dead. Chief Bromden felt he was doing the right thing. The body in the bed next to him was no longer McMurphy, but a vegetable that resembled the once vibrant man. He could not stand to let his friend, the man that gave him gum and got him to speak, live like a thoughtless robot. He was no longer McMurphy or even just any other man, but now an “it”; he was not even considered human by the chief or by the others that knew him. This ending is devastating. It upsets both the characters in the story and the reader reading the novel. My initial reaction was denial; I could not believe what I had just read. After re-reading the passage several times, I came to the realization that what I was reading was correct; McMurphy did die. Never have I been so disappointed in an ending. I was upset with the chief’s character for killing his friend, even though I can understand why he did it. I believe all lives are sacred and to take one is a grave injustice; although so was what was done to McMurphy. The lobotomy was worse than death, especially in the eyes of the mental patients who feared receiving the procedure. I was outraged with Kesey for writing this ending; why did he allow McMurphy to die such a horrible death? Why would he allow such injustice to happen to the man fighting for the helpless and the injustice of others? Perhaps he did it to teach his readers a lesson: even the mighty will fall. What a sour view on life je must have had.
Unfortunately, that sour view is what the mental patients of Ken Kesey’s time had to look forward to. They were stuck in a ward of fear and shame where no one was going to come rescue them. Look at what happened to the person that tried, and he was only fictional.