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Thursday, October 2, 2008

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

(5/5 stars)

I haven't seen more than a few minutes of the famous 1975 film version of this novel. But even for me, it's hard reading this now without imagining Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy. Though Nicholson looks nothing like the redheaded Irishman described in Kesey's novel.

McMurphy is a convict who tired of the work farm in Oregon and thought he'd kick back for the next four months in the insane asylum. He never counted on the asylum being run by a petty dictator like Nurse Ratched. Nor did Nurse Ratched ever imagine she'd run across someone she couldn't bend to her will.

The conflict between these two is recounted by "Chief" Bromden, a half-Indian, half-white man committed to the asylum. He pretends to be deaf and dumb so he doesn't have to communicate with anyone. At nights he thrashes about on his bed, imagining that the machines of The Combine are performing experiments on the patients. Though nearly seven feet tall, the Chief's image of himself is almost dwarf-like.

The other patients like the intellectual Harding and stuttering Billy Bibbit similarly see themselves as small, Harding likening them to rabbits, under Ratched's rule. When McMurphy appears on the scene, he immediately energizes the patients with his raucous behavior. After a successful rebellion over the airing of the World Series on television, the patients gain hope and self-confidence. But like any dictator, Nurse Ratched isn't about to go down without a fight. Over the next few months, she works at breaking McMurphy's hold on the patients until the final confrontation.

The Cliff Notes I read after finishing the book likened McMurphy to Christ. I'm not sure I'd go that far because I can't recall Christ slugging it out with any Roman guards on his way to the cross. There is certainly nothing meek and mild about McMurphy. Yet in his own way he is the way and the hope for the other patients, including Chief Bromden.

What I'd liken this to more so than the New Testament is Orwell's famous "1984." Nurse Ratched is a Big Brother figure in controlling the hearts and minds of her subjects, though in less obvious ways. The three black orderlies at her command aren't as efficient as the Thought Police, but they do their part to maintain order, at least until McMurphy's arrival.

More to the point, the conflict between freedom and tyranny is at the heart of both novels. Both show us how precious freedom is in an oppressive environment and the lengths the tyrants will go to maintain their hold on power. McMurphy's struggle with Ratched isn't as covert as Winston's against Big Brother, but they are both psychologically intense. And for McMurphy at least, his opposition has about as happy as an outcome, though Kesey allows hope for some of the other characters.

This is the kind of book people call a "page turner." I kept chugging along through the novel with nearly the same dread and hope as the patients, wanting a good outcome but fearing that McMurphy was bound to meet a bad end. For me, that kind of emotional involvement is the hallmark of a great novel. You'd have to be crazy to miss out on this one. (Thank you, I'll be here all week...)

That is all.

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