One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Review

Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Author: Ken Kesey
Year: 1962
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.

I couldn’t find a better, more apt, description of Randle Patrick McMurphy, the newest inmate at the Mental health Facility.

Randle is a loud mouthed ‘unsophisticated’ man who was on his way to prison for ‘statutory rape’, but being Randle, he beats it by faking a mental issue so he can serve his term in the asylum rather than the prison. After all, how difficult can an asylum be?

He’s just about to find out!

Chief Bromden is our spokesperson for the facility, which is a little ironic because he’s supposedly a deaf-mute. He’s pretty docile for a large Native American who swears that Big Nurse Ratched is a part of the Combine; a large machinery that hums and churns behind walls and above ceilings and below floors and regulates the environment as well as human behaviour. It’s Bromden’s Big Brother.

 “If you don’t watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.”

We meet Randle and the other mates through Bromden, who’s the narrative force of the novel and who observes the entire ward through quiet eyes and a melancholic history as a foothold into his past. He’s probably the only one, apart from Randle, of course, who sees what the doctors and ‘caretakers’ are doing to them. But, being a schizophrenic his views are dunked in heavy metaphors instead of the straight-as-an-arrow dissections of Randle.

Bromden sees the asylum as part of the Combine and the patients as broken spares that don’t fit the Combine anymore, so they’re sent to the correctional facility for fixing. He sees the doctors and caretakers scheming behind walls to make sure that the broken parts don’t get out to ruin the perfect arc of the Combine in running the world. Bromden has accepted this and is quiet. He’s so quiet that he is largely ignored. Being a deaf-mute he is not a threat to secrets of the doctors who don’t really hide their verbal vomits when he’s around.

When Randle enters the facility, he gives hope to not only Bromden but to every inmate who never dared cross Nurse Ratched. Randle’s entry in the asylum is marked by his brash behaviour and uncanny ability to get under the skins of people. He undermines the authority of Ratched and veers of the trajectory of ‘acceptable behaviour’ with his every move. He trash talks the nurses and shoots off colour jokes that slowly pull the inmates out of submission. They begin demanding things. Small things like cigarettes and more TV Time, but Big Nurse has other plans.

One of the most impressive parts of the book is a small incident that actually turns things around. A big heavy machine is kept in ‘the tub room’ and Randle starts betting that he can lift it and move it. Despite everyone telling him to the contrary he proceeds to sweat his pants off. After trying a lot he gives up, but not before slipping a “But at least I tried” line. This turns things around, although not immediately, or with pomp and splendour.

It doesn’t matter whether Randle does these to merely piss off Ratched or to actually help the inmates, and it doesn’t matter. The effect is desirable. 

Ratched’s weekly Therapeutic Community meetings where most of the off-trajectory actions take place. This is the time when inmates are urged, in the name of helping, to backstab their friends and co-inmates. Big Nurse Ratched insists that it’ll help the doctors give better medication and treatment and that the sooner they are fixed they can go Outside. Randle calls this the Pecking Party comparing it to chickens who peck each other to death if they see a little blood on another chicken. 

It is during one of these meetings that Randle asks permission to see the World Series and is denied. As a side note, the moment when he defies the Nurse later regarding this is one of the best scenes in the movie. Randle goes ahead and stares at the blank screens and pretends to be the commentator and eventually the entire ward plays along and enjoys the World Series by looking at the blank television and listening to his rousing commentary.

“The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is a story of how man is put under submission by using fear and a gradient of ‘management’ by the powers that are. Nurse Ratched is the villain of the Asylum and is, in my very honest opinion, one of the most despicable villains ever. The story though not real is based on the experiences of Ken Kesey when he worked as an orderly in a mental facility in California.

Ken Kesey puts up a convincing argument about the simple question regarding rules and regulations, about rights and wrong and acceptable and unacceptable. Why is colouring between the lines the ONLY way to colour? Why is toeing a line, especially when there is no harm done, catapulted through so high a pedestal that it cannot be changed? And what line are we always talking about??? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a narrative of how society deems it reprehensible when their sensibilities are not caressed and accepted as a universal truth.

Randle is the messiah who helps as much as he can without seeking much in return. There is a time when Randle too slows down His smile fades and he begins to turn mellow. He realises that Ratched holds the strings of his release. But somehow the attraction of doing something for his friends in the ward makes him get back into his old skin. 

Randle represents the lone wolf in the jungle who takes upon himself to fight the fight for the ones who were so deep into submission that they believed absolutely that they were wrong and Ratched was right.


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