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[32] One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is more than a social commentary: it is an allegory-like hyperbole of the psychopathic obsession of the 1960s. The decade marked a drastic proliferation of books that looked at psychiatry and mental illness but garnered little diagnostic or therapeutic value. Despite the prestige of these publications that usually attuned to academic standard in intellectual circles, none of such literature had the widespread impact of this novel written by Kesey who worked the graveyard shift at a mental hospital in Menlo Park, California. He participated in government-sponsored drug experiments during his employment with this hospital and became sympathetic to the patients and began to seriously question the boundaries that had been created between the sane and the insane.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an unforgettable story of a mental ward in which the despotic Nurse Ratched reigns over the doctor and all the inhabitants. She exercises a somewhat cultic tactics to render her patients completely submissive. In what she embellishes a Therapeutic Community, an outwardly democratic entity run by patients, she imperceptibly manipulates them into grilling each other as if they are criminals. She has over the years has welded an insurmountable power over the ward that even the doctor is rendered frightened, desperate and ineffectual. She has no need to accuse or to enforce obedience because all it takes to maintain that tight grip of power is insinuation, which allows her to force the trembling libido out of everyone without an effort.

The Nurse’s unchallenged tyranny begins to whittle as McMurphy, a 35-year-old Korean veteran who has history of insubordination and street brawls, resolves to oppose her every step of the way and raises the racket in her ward. His defiance is justifiable: he is surprised at how sane everyone is in the ward. Nobody and nothing in life have got much of a hold on this boisterous personality, who knows that there is no better way in the world to aggravate somebody (like the Nurse) who is trying to make it difficult for him than by acting like he is not bothered. McMurphy’s fun-loving arrival at the ward brings about a different shade of opinion among the staff and the patients. The latter come following him as if he is their Savior, for he is utterly different and has not let what he looks like run his life one way or the other.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by a patient in the ward, a Columbia Indian whom everyone thinks deaf, mute, and unintelligible, but who throughout the years of his commitment has overheard all the trickery of staff meetings. He epitomizes the mishap of the erroneous boundary with which the sane separates them from the insane. McMurphy’s arrival and his friendship with the Indian Chief spur him on to recover his own identity and rebuild his self-esteem. The novel examines the notion of madness in the sense of its own and in the sense of the term being patronized by mental institution. The narrator’s seamless observation and eagle-eyed description of the ward illustrate salient flaws of such a mindless system that targets only at reducing patients’ mental capability. Kesey considers whether madness really means the common practice that confines to a mindless system or the attempt to escape from such a system altogether. Like its audacious protagonist, the novel itself is a literary outlaw.

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