A few years ago, we visited an Insane Asylum on vacation (we’re quirky like that). My daughter commented at the time that it reminded her of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’d never read the book — but now I have.
In case you’ve not read it, the setting is a mental hospital in the 1960s. The action revolves around the men in the asylum, particularly Randall McMurphy, who comes onto the ward and causes havoc in many ways. This book introduces us to “Nurse Ratched,” who we’ve all probably heard of. As you might expect, she is that harsh, unyielding nurse that you hope to never cross paths with. Unfortunately, Nurse Ratched and McMurphy do cross paths, and no, things do not end well.
“You think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” Narrating the tale is “Chief,” an indian (as in Native American) resident of the ward who is gigantic and also deaf and mute. Well — he pretends to be deaf and mute, and all the others treat him as such. But we quickly learn that he can actually hear and speak just fine. McMurphy figures this out as well.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Analysis
I think this would be a great book to read and analyze in a lit class — there are many things that are symbolic, and many issues that would make for great discussion. One example is size. Nurse Ratched is called “Big Nurse,” Chief refers to himself as being small, and characters are frequently described as getting larger or smaller. This all seems to relate to the power various characters have at given times. Speaking of power, who has it? Power in this book is pretty much always possessed by those with authority. The inmates in the ward don’t really have any.
Of course, the main thing this book leads to thoughts on is sanity. What does it mean to be “normal”? Who should decide who is insane, and who should be committed? Many times in the book, inmates seem more sane and normal than some of the professionals taking care of them. While I’m sure real mental hospitals have their share of crazies, I bet some of the people there might not meet my definition of insane. I remember, during our tour of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, hearing our tour guide mention that it was not uncommon for men to drop off their menopausal wives at the asylum.
At the asylum in the book, the men meet daily in “Therapeutic Community”: “A guy has to learn to get along in a group before he’ll be able to function in a normal society; how the group can help the guy by showing him where he’s out of place; how society is what decides who’s sane and who isn’t, so you got to measure up. All that stuff.”
Are introverts more likely to be considered “off base” than extroverts? What about someone who won’t “get along” with others, who causes disturbances — should he be locked up? “You men are in this hospital … because of your proven inability to adjust to society. The doctor and I believe that every minute spent in the company of others, with some exceptions, is therapeutic, while every minute spent brooding alone only increases your separation.” Yikes!
Near the end, Nurse Ratched exclaims to a patient, “I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives — gambling with human lives — as if you thought yourself to be a God!” Of course, the irony is that the nurse is the one who is really playing with lives.
Author Ken Kesey wrote this book after being inspired by his experiences working in a mental hospital.
Lots to think about in this one — good read.
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