I have heard it said that Ken Kesey wrote only one good book and that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the one. Since I haven’t read anything else by Kesey, I can only confirm that OFOTCN is a good one. The novel does many things at once. Certainly there is a castigation and revelation of abuses perpetrated on the residents of psychiatric hospitals and by extension the book speaks, more or less explicitly, to the abuses of people in all kinds of institutions—prison, school, marriage, poverty, racism (especially toward Native Americans). In fact, Kesey identifies all of society as an abusive institution, calling it the “Combine,” a system of incentives, controls, and coercion that forces orderly, respectable behavior and labels any acts outside its “civilized” borders—defined as those acts not explicitly condoned by the Combine—criminal or crazy. As I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog, it’s what Edward Abbey called “the whole catastrophe.” The comparison of Kesey and Abbey is apt; they were born only eight years apart (Abbey in 1927, Kesey in 1935); both are concerned with themes of independence and wildness; both are anti-establishment; and both are, to put it perhaps too generously, male-identified.
So in a narrow way, this book is really about freedom of the human spirit, freedom to enjoy life and do as you wish. It’s also the freedom to risk that enjoyment; that is, part of the enjoyment is risk. OFOTCN is about the dilemma of doing what you feel is right versus protecting the small pleasures. The risk of losing things you care about—maybe your own right to be human—because you cannot let injustice and wrong continue. But it’s only about human freedom if women are excluded from that category; women seem to be excluded from the pursuit of this happiness and also from the risk of losing it. Arguably, Kesey is a product of his time (the book was published in 1962), but the women in OFOTCN are either controlling, conniving, passive aggressive bitches or prostitutes. The choice is literally nurse or whore.
The story: enter an all-male psychiatric ward completely dominated by the icy passive aggression of Miss Ratched, a.k.a. the Big Nurse. The men are cowed, beaten down psychologically and taken advantage of physically—“rabbits,” as the narrator, one of the patients, puts it. Add Randle McMurphy: loud-mouthed, brawling, inappropriate, red-headed Irishman, recently from the work farm where he was serving a sentence for fighting and disorderly conduct. (It’s hard not to see Jack Nicholson, who played this role in the classice movie version of the novel, though apparently Kesey wanted Gene Hackman in the role). McMurphy disrupts and gambles. He harasses and cajoles. He sings and dances and organizes outings. He shows the other men on the ward that Ratched can be had—but there is a cost. McMurphy endures electroshock “therapy” and other abuses. He takes it all, but his cocky attitude slips now and then; we see the grim determination, the weight of the duty he feels, the pain of the struggle of standing up to the Ratched and to the whole Combine. The freedom and pleasure he exercises is work. It would be easier, in many ways, just to sit quietly on the side, getting by instead of causing trouble. He maintains the joy of life through sheer determination, a role he is playing in which he will beat the system, an act that he will enjoy, god damn it.
And his act works in many ways. He does make the ward a better place for himself and for his fellow patients. Indeed, his wardmates all grow and change under his influence and, by the end, are no longer the rabbits they once were; they are men—fun-loving, free, independent—in direct contrast to the constraining female influence most strongly represented by Miss Ratched, but also by almost every other woman in the book. The gender divide is underlined by McMurphy’s behavior toward women; he pinches backsides and teases and sexualizes them all—even the icy Ratched, by the end of the book.
For its discussion of freedom and injustice, for its clear, direct prose, for the force of its narrative, for the vivid strength of its characters—I appreciate the book. I only wish Kesey had seen a way to represent the oppressive forces of our society apart from embodying them in women. It’s a great story, marred, I think, by rigid gender roles that force women to be the “civilizing,” responsible influence on “wild,” irresponsible men. Personally, I don’t want the women in my life to be Miss Ratched, but neither do I want to be McMurphy. I think both women and men can love freedom and fight oppression and still be civilized. In fact, I think true freedom comes from being truly civilized. Maybe Kesey, emerging from the repression of the 1950s, needed an over-the-top expression of the freedom he was after. Whatever the reason, the gender politics detract from what is otherwise a great expression of the beauty and the struggle of human life and character.