Table of Contents
2. A Brief Summary of the Novel
3. A Look at the Characters
3.1. Chief Bromden
3.2. Randle Patrick McMurphy
3.3. Nurse Ratched
4. Themes & Symbolisms
4.1. Sexual Freedom & Emasculating Women
4.2. Christian Symbols
5. From Page to Screen
5.1. Main Differences Between the Film and the Novel
5.2. Factors Contributing to the Movie’s Excellence
6. The Dark Age of Psychiatry
The Swinging Sixties. A decade marked by unpopular1 2 (*) wars, high-profile assassinations, libertarian movements, hallucinogenic drugs and unforgettable music. A decade that saw the conquest of space. And, curiously, a decade where the Swedes decided driving on the right side was the better idea after all. 3
It comes as no great surprise that these turbulent times fuelled the imaginations of several famous authors. One of them was Ken Kesey.
Born in La Junta, Colorado, on September 17th, 1935, his early life belied nothing of the notoriety he should later attain. His upbringing placed great emphasis on Christian values and ethics, and he found himself embracing these guidelines for a time. Perhaps it was his stemming from a religious family that would later spark the Christian imagery found in his most famous novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. He moved to Springfield, Oregon in 1946 where he finished school and attended college to earn a degree in speech and communications in 1957 – not before eloping with Faye Haxby, however, the future mother of his four children. One year later, he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship to enroll in a creative writing program at Stanford University, partly thanks to academic excellence, but also surely influenced by his success as a wrestler – all throughout high school and college, he pursued this hobby and proceeded to set long-standing records in the state of Oregon.
It was during this time at Stanford that Kesey volunteered to take part in a government- sponsored program analyzing the effects of hallucinogens such as LSD or mescaline on the human mind (allegedly, the CIA was trying to find a weapon to use in the Cold War that was capable of exerting mass mind-control 4 ). This experience changed him dramatically, and he continued using LSD, which he viewed as perception-altering as opposed to hallucinogenic, thus enabling him to reach a higher level of consciousness, for a long time after. His fascination for altered consciousness caused him to accept a job at a local mental hospital. It was here that he gained the inspiration for the various characters of his aforementioned, critically acclaimed novel.
Rumor has it that his having hallucinations about a giant Indian sweeping the floors led to the conception of Chief “Broom” Bromden, though this turned out to be only part of the truth 5. This masterpiece, long since considered a modern classic, spawned a Broadway play and one of the only three movies to ever sweep all the main Oscar categories.
Following the success of the book, Kesey founded “The Merry Pranksters”, a group that became infamous for their drug-related exploits, a practice they only stopped after the US government illegalized LSD and arrested Ken. Upon his discharge, he “settled down” with his family in a farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, but every now and then he still got the “itch to do something weird” 6.
Ken Kesey died on November 10th, 2001 after cancer surgery on his liver.
He is, however, still considered an icon of the 1960s counterculture, a movement that opposed governmental oppression, political conservatism and the notion that human beings who do not conform to societal norms are defective 7.
These themes, among others, are prevalent in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, his most renowned work, and I shall make it my task to provide further insight into it and, consequently, its movie adaption.
2. A Brief Summary of the Novel
The story is told through the eyes of a giant Native American named Chief “Broom” 8 Bromden, whom everyone thinks to be deaf and dumb, and takes place in a mental institution. The particular ward he is stationed in is adamantly ruled by the “Big Nurse” 9 Ratched whom the Chief believes to serve the “Combine” 10, a giant machine-like entity that seeks to control society and impose conformity – it is what we would later call “the Establishment”.
In the beginning, a new case arrives at the ward, one Randle Patrick McMurphy, a gambler and trickster who chose the comparable luxury of institutionalization over the drudgery of a work farm by faking insanity. He gets acquainted with the other patients – the stuttering Billy Bibbit who is cowed by his domineering mother, the effeminate Dale Harding, a man who doubts his masculinity in face of his overly sensual wife, the impressionable Charles Cheswick who will follow any strong lead, yet can’t see things through on his own, the Chief and others – and soon after attends the first group therapy session.
He astutely compares it to a “pecking party” 11 only serving to further lower their self-esteem to make them more malleable and more likely to conform. He also points out that it is the Big Nurse that successfully manipulates the patients into tearing into their own. The others defend her vehemently at first, but before long they admit to their hatred and fear of the Nurse who controls the whole ward, including the timid Dr. Spivey and the rest of the staff. McMurphy now begins to assert his leadership position by betting that he could “get her goat” 12 within a week.
Over the next few days he makes her suffer a number of small defeats, but he finally accomplishes his goal of making her lose her composure when he incites a mutiny among the patients: after winning a vote allowing them to watch the World Series, the Nurse declares it invalid over a petty reason; McMurphy and the others proceed to sit down in front of the blank TV screen and refuse to resume their duties.
Randle continues his unruly behavior for a time, but when the weekly trip to the swimming pool comes around, he is shocked to find out that on account of his being a committed patient, Nurse Ratched has the power to decide the date of his release. In the subsequent group meeting, he fails to show his support when Cheswick brings up the issue of rationed cigarettes; soon after, the man drowns after getting stuck in a grate in the pool, presumably a suicidal action.
Following this event, McMurphy is again baffled to hear that most of the patients are on the ward of their own volition. He also learns of the punitive (and supposedly therapeutic) measures the Nurse has at her disposal, namely electro-shock therapy (EST) and lobotomy. He resumes his rebellious behavior on the same afternoon, smashing the Nurses’ Station’s window to retrieve some cigarettes after Ratched announces that some of the men’s privileges would be suspended as a consequence of their earlier insubordination.
McMurphy now starts to gain ground in the battle: with Dr. Spivey’s support, he starts a basketball team and even manages to talk him into agreeing to be their chaperone on a deep-sea fishing trip along with his prostitute “aunt” Candy. One night, after offering Chief Bromden a piece of chewing gum, he discovers him to be neither deaf nor dumb; the Chief opens up and tells the gambler about his life.
Despite the Big Nurse’s efforts to discourage them, the men embark on the aforementioned trip. It invigorates them and does away with some of their meekness. Billy even arranges for a date with Candy at a later point of time.
The Nurse tries to show McMurphy for the egoistic manipulator she believes him to be by posting financial statements that show his monetary gains throughout his time in the ward. As soon as the patients start to believe her, however, he refutes her claim by selflessly attacking the aides to save George, another member of the ward and the captain of the boat during the fishing trip, from a forced enema. The Chief assists Randle, and both are sent to the disturbed ward.
McMurphy refuses to apologize and both he and the Chief receive several treatments of EST. Upon their return to the ward, they find they have attained a somewhat legendary, heroic status. The other patients decide to engineer Mack’s escape on the night of Billy’s date. They bribe the night watchman, and soon after, a full-blown party erupts on the ward. Randle, however, falls asleep and misses his chance to break out.
When the Nurse catches Billy in a compromising position with the prostitute the next morning, she is appalled and threatens to tell his mother. Billy panics and commits suicide by slitting his throat. When Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for the child-like man’s demise, he attempts to strangle her. He is unable to kill her, though, and is shipped to Disturbed once again.
But after losing her voice, the Nurse also loses a great deal of power over the patients, and one by one, they leave the institution.
Weeks later, McMurphy is returned to the ward, comatose after undergoing a lobotomy. The remaining patients refuse to believe it is him, thinking it a trick to dishearten them. Chief Bromden smothers him with a pillow as a final act of mercy and escapes the facility at last.
3. A Look at the Characters
While the overall plot of Kesey’s novel is, without a doubt, quite enjoyable, it could never stand on its own without the superb and believable cast of characters. Particularly when considering the somewhat psychedelic episodes present throughout the story, a result of the narrator’s literally “foggy” state of mind, it strikes me as important to provide a more in-depth analysis of the protagonists than a simple summary could provide.
So as not to go beyond the scope of this assignment, I will focus on the book’s three most important figures: Chief Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy and “Big Nurse” Ratched.
3.1 Chief Bromden
Due to the Chief’s dual role as a narrator13 – even though he proves to be unreliable in that concern as a consequence of his mental condition – and a main character, it is important to distinguish between his outward appearance to his fellow patients and how he perceives himself.
On the outside, Bromden is a veritable giant, towering at six feet and eight inches (approx. 2,03
m) 14, or as McMurphy accurately portrays his view of the Chief: “Criminy, look at you: you stand a head taller’n any man on the ward. There ain’t a man here you couldn’t turn every way but loose, and that’s a fact!” 15. Despite his sheer physical size, his fearfulness shows, according to Harding he’s “a six-foot-eight sweeping machine, scared of its own shadow” 16. He also pretends to be a deaf-mute 17, which enables him to spy on the staff during their meeting, oblivious to him hearing their every word 18.
In his mind, he loses even his size, perceiving himself to be little and weak 19. He is paranoid and delusional, believing the ward to be a “factory for the Combine” 20, “which is a huge organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as she [Nurse Ratched] has the Inside [the ward]” 21. He keeps having hallucinations: After not taking his pills one night, he has a dream about descending into the deepest, hidden reaches of the hospital, a “huge room of endless machines stretching clear out of sight, swarming with sweating, shirtless men […], faces blank and dreamy in firelight thrown from a hundred blast furnaces” 22; one of his fellow Chronics is gutted, only to reveal him not spilling his innards, but “just a shower of rust and ashes, and now and again a piece of wire or glass” 23. Upon awakening, he discovers the same man to have truly died in his sleep 24. His most common delusion, however, manifests itself as a thick, impenetrable fog 25, a representation of his hold on sanity – were he to lose himself completely in it, he would end up like the vegetables, apathetic and basically dead to the world 26.
To understand the reasons for the Chief’s mind being in such a state of disarray, one must first delve into his past: he grew up in a small Native American village earning its livelihood with fishing in the nearby waterfalls 27. His father was a full Chief aptly named “Tee Ah Millatoona [or] The-Pine-That-Stands-Tallest-on-the-Mountain” 28 – yet his mother, a white woman measuring in at an average five feet nine (1,75 m), was supposedly “twice his size […] [,] [b]igger than Papa and me together.” 29. His father was cowed by his wife, a “town woman […] marryin[g] somebody beneath her” 30, even adopting her name, turning his back on his heritage. Events go from bad to worse when the government bullies his father into selling the tribal grounds to allow for the construction of a hydroelectric dam 31 by turning his wife, the town and even his own tribe against him, eventually resulting in him becoming an alcoholic: “He finally just drank, […] shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs don’t know him, and we had to cart him out […] to a place in Portland, to die.” 32
It is around that time that Bromden first makes acquaintance with the Combine in the form of three representatives of the administration surveying his people’s home. When he tries to reprimand them for mocking his clan’s way of life, he is soon forced to realize that “[n]ot a one of the three acts like they heard a thing [he] said […] [,] [seeing the] seams where they’re put together […], the apparatus inside them […] try[ing] to fit the words [he said] in here and there […], and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken” 33.
(*) From now on, every reference in a heading denotes the following part primarily using information from the indicated source(s)
4) Kesey, Ken: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Penguin Books, London, 2005 (the novel). p. xiii
5) Ibid. , p. xiv
8) The novel, p. 3
9) Ibid. , p. 4
10) Ibid. , p. 25
11) Ibid. , p. 51
12) Ibid. , p. 67
14) The novel , p. 62
15) Ibid. , p. 187
16) Ibid. , p. 62
17) Ibid. , p. 23
18) Ibid. , pp. 131-137
19) Ibid. , p. 187
20) Ibid. , p. 36
21) Ibid. , p. 25
22) Ibid. , p. 77
23) Ibid. , p. 79
24) Ibid. , p. 81
25) Ibid. , p. 7
26) Ibid. , p. 119
27) Ibid. , pp. 188-189
28) Ibid. , p. 188
29) Ibid. , p. 188
30) Ibid. , p. 188
31) Ibid. , p. 188
32) Ibid. , p. 189
33) Ibid. , p. 182