Review: Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

by Miles Raymer


Any novel should be cut a little slack to adjust for the historical context in which it was written. Even knowing this, I failed utterly in my attempt to give Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a fair reading. Try as I might, I couldn’t dispense with my modern viewpoint enough to enjoy Kesey’s classic, so instead spent nearly three hundred pages cursing the author and his insufferable protagonist, Randle McMurphy. To me, this book is little more than an obsolete relic from a sad and ignorant time.

The one upshot of Cuckoo’s Nest is Chief Bromden, the book’s narrator. Tall and powerful, Bromden is the mixed raced son of a Native American man and a white woman. Bromden is committed to an asylum in Oregon, where all the other inhabitants think he is deaf and dumb (he’s not). The story comes to us through Bromden’s internal monologue, with an interesting mixture of reliable detail and questionable suppositions. Bromden is prone to hallucinations, and often feels engulfed by a “fog”: “You could either strain and look at things that appeared in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself” (117).

Bromden introduces us to the other committed men in the asylum, as well as their caregivers: a steely nurse named Ratched and her African American aides. Life in the asylum is generally lousy; Ratched runs the place with an iron fist, playing perverse power games with the ineffectual patients and routinely subjecting them to various “treatments,” which range from mild to torturous.

The routines of this strange world are interrupted by the arrival of McMurphy, a newly-committed and outspoken “psychopath.” Kesey is determined to present McMurphy as his novel’s hero–– “a giant come out of the sky to save us,” as Bromden puts it––but McMurphy’s no hero (224). Nor, I would argue, is he a flawed but lovable antihero. He’s a racist, sexist, impetuous, lecherous gambler high on his own arrogance––just the kind of scumbag that white male writers could get away with lionizing in the 1960s.

McMurphy wastes no time making friends with the asylum’s patients and flouting the staff’s authority. On the whole, he treats the patients better than the caregivers do, but also constantly swindles them out of money. He fairly points out some of Nurse Ratched’s unfair practices, but cannot do so without dehumanizing her and her aides. For some inexplicable reason, McMurphy and the patients constantly bring up the idea that Ratched’s breasts are “too big” for her body. And the mere fact that the aides are black seems justification enough for McMurphy to treat them like garbage. Ratched and her aides are no angels, but they’re not the only parties guilty of shortsightedness and cruelty.

Most insidious are the book’s two climatic moments, which both involve McMurphy attacking the asylum’s staff. In the first, McMurphy defends another patient from an invasive examination by picking a fight with one of the aides. He announces his anger by calling the man a “Goddamned coon” and a “Goddamned motherfucking nigger” (229). The former insult has been dropping from McMurphy’s mouth the entire novel, but the latter makes its first and only appearance in this scene, creating a chilling link between the invocation of America’s most repugnant slur and “white heroism.” The only way to right the wrongs of the asylum, it would seem, is to crush black bodies, and that’s what McMurphy does. Later, when McMurphy finally tries to kill Nurse Ratched, he tears her clothes off first, revealing her body to the ward and humiliating her even as he tries to take her life.

Now, within the tiny universe of this book, I understand how McMurphy could be seen as a hero. Ratched and her minions are indeed unsavory creatures whose sins are repellent by any standard. It’s nice to see someone standing up for the hapless patients. It makes us feel righteous, as I’m sure Kesey felt while writing.

But here’s the problem: the moment you step outside the four walls of this world and into the shitstorm of American history, Cuckcoo’s Nest becomes darkly farcical in ways Kesey clearly did not intend. Here we have a strong, virile white guy with a big mouth, and his “oppressors” are…a disproportionately-endowed white woman and her black assistants? This is ludicrous. I’m not the kind of person who believes it’s impossible for a member of an oppressed class to become an oppressor, but I also don’t believe modern readers should give situations like this a pass just because it was “a different time.”

One might argue that Cuckoo’s Nest is less about sexism and racism and more about power, which has a long history of being abused in mental hospitals. Very well. But why, then, must our antagonists be female and black? Why must McMurphy constantly ridicule their appearance, giving the impression that there is nothing under the skin? The answer, I think, is that there’s no good reason at all why these things have to be the way they are. They reveal Kesey’s privileged myopia, his selective empathy for “disenfranchised” white men that doesn’t apply equally to women living in cultures where they have no real power, or to similarly powerless black men who work in asylums because it might be the best job they’ll ever have.

When we take a closer look, we find that the very qualities that are supposed to make McMurphy appealing––his good ol’ boy quips, his uncompromising demeanor, his readiness to laugh things off––signify the inheritance of centuries of white male supremacy. If we fail to question its legitimacy, we tacitly concur that McMurphy is entitled to this inheritance, which bestows on him the “right” to express himself without restraint, regardless of context. To fall under McMurphy’s spell is to ignore the most shameful trespasses of American history. People may not have thought so in 1962, but I think so now.

Rating: 2/10