One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

After having read some really bad books recently, I decided to pick up a classic. Ken Kesey. The book which inspired so many movies and my favourite play in Cluj-Napoca (sorry Shakespeare).

“But like always when I try to place my thoughts in the past and hide there, the fear close at hand seeps in through the memory.” 

Having re-read it, I noticed loads and loads of racist terms (especially about the three black attendants) and some misogynistic undertones which escaped me on my first read (about 10 years ago). I must say I still like it. It’s a product of its time and if it means it has to be racist, so be it.

“Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.”

50f66698d703f38e4347241ca50dec13“Cuckoo’s Nest” tells the same story as the most popular novels of the last century,” it focuses on the modern paradox of trying to be human in the well-oiled machine of a capitalist democracy, where you must be either a savior or a slave. There is also a third option:

“You can create and live in a new system…not rebelling against or carving into your culture, but creating a vision of your own and working to make that option real.” (Chuck Palahniuk)


McMurphy is the quintessential American, and he can be seen as a metaphor for the spirit of America. He’s the sort of guy that gets a laugh out of people. And for some reason he reminded me of the Irish God of Luck from American Gods Book Review * Neil Gailman


He is the entrepreneur, the self-starter, the untamed rebel who makes his own rules. He is the great equalizer, the leader who kicks down the boundaries, who champions the little guy, who colors outside the lines and who picks the small boys and the fat kids on his team and then wins anyway and wins big.

“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”

one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-81.jpgKesey’s narrator is also an unlikely selection: Chief Bromden, nicknamed Chief Broom because he is made to sweep the halls. A giant of a man, the rational, modern world has emasculated him, made him small and without a voice or strength. Chief is clearly schizophrenic but also lucid, he and the other patients are humans, deserving of respect and sympathy; one of the central points made by Kesey, who is as humanist as Kurt Vonnegut and as fun as a barrel full of monkeys. Chief’s dramatic and dynamic evolution is the barometer of this great work.

aff0aed015e5cac4bfe02cba14c9e87b.jpgThe Chronics and acutes. When McMurphy arrives at the institute, the residents are informally divided between the chronics – those whose condition has demanded their lifelong commitment; and the acutes, those whose insanity may be temporary and remedied.

“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”

Interestingly, many are there voluntarily. McMurphy’s friendship with Chief (an erstwhile chronic) and his championing of the acutes status is a central theme of the book.

one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest_2.jpg“What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it. ”

My favorite line in the novel, when Chief Bromden (the paranoid schizophrenic narrator) says,

“But it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen,”

sets the reader up from the very beginning for a story in which one’s perception of situations more accurately reflects the truth than the outward appearance of things. The story can be a bit confusing to follow at times, given that the narrator is a paranoid schizophrenic and it is often difficult to differentiate between reality and his hallucinations- but at the same time, his hallucinations sometimes more accurately reflect reality than reality itself. I would highly recommend this book to anyone- I have read and taught it many times, and it always provides new insights and revelations.

“Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn’t it?”

Like Upton Sinclair’s muckraking journalistic exposures in The Jungle, Kesey’s novel can also be seen as a bright light shined on the mental health facilities in the 60s.

“He Who Marches Out Of Step Hears Another Drum”

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was written in 1959 and published in 1962 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and deep changes to the way psychology and pschiatry were being apporached in America. The novel is a direct product of Kesey’s time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, but he voluntarily took psychoactive drugs, including LSD, as part of Project MKUltra. In addition to his work with Project MKUltra, Kesey experimented with LSD recreationally. And let me tell you, I wasn’t shocked to learn that this book was written by someone who was high all the time. This book is absolutely fucking nuts. And I fucking love it.


“This world . . . belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must face up to this. No more than right that it should be this way. We must learn to accept it as a law of the natural world. The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf is the strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows his place. He most certainly doesn’t challenge the wolf to combat. Now, would that be wise? Would it?” 

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