One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a convicted criminal who fakes being insane so can serve his sentence for battery and gambling in a mental hospital rather than at a prison work farm, thinking this will be an easier way to spend his time inside until he is released.
Once transferred to the mental hospital he meets his nemesis Nurse Ratched and the games begin.
The book is told from the perspective of another inmate at the hospital, Chief Bromden, a native American, as opposed to the film which tells the story from McMurphy’s point of view.
I like this way the novel is told as it allows McMurphy’s influence on the inmates to be explored without the prejudice of McMurphy’s view of the world being the only lens for the story.
And it also lets us experience Chief Bromden’s weird and wonderful view of the hospital and The Combine, the system it supports. These sections of the novel are some of my favourite pieces in the book.
The Chief’s hallucinations let Kesey explore the way psychology and psychiatry were being approached in America and take shots at the different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods.
McMurphy sets about making a comfortable life in the hospital that also lets him make money off the other inmates via gambling and in doing so, upsets Nurse Ratched and her absolute authority and smooth running of the hospital.
His egging on of the other inmates and various schemes to get them to stand up for themselves means that life gets interesting for everyone, especially Nurse Ratched.
His ideas are upset when he discovers that unlike in prison where his sentence is a set length of time, in the hospital he is there until Nurse Ratched says he is sane and free to go.
This sets him back and shows him in a new light – is he really helping the other inmates to begin to live again or just looking out for himself after all?
After McMurphy smuggles two prostitute girlfriends and plenty of booze into the hospital, things come to a head.
Inmate Billy Bibbit loses his virginity and after being shamed by Ratched kills himself; McMurphy attacks Ratched and he is lobotomised for this action. This turns him into a vegetable and he is eventually killed by Chief Bromley.
Life is never the same for the inmates again. Most discharge themselves, Chief Bromley escapes and Nurse Ratched loses all her power.
The big question at the end is was McMurphy a good man? Was he looking out for himself or the other inmates?
There’s no one answer; he is a flawed individual and no doubt took advantage of others along the way.
His sacrifice at the end shows he wasn’t all bad but paid the ultimate price for standing up against authority and power.
Darren Saffin (Pasco Vale Chapter)