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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ()

The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Books

In the mad rush to jettison Western Culture and replace it with the undifferentiated goulash of multiculturalism, we run the risk of doing serious damage to our ability to communicate ideas to one another.  Our Judeo-Christian heritage provides a series of archetypes, symbols, myths and meanings that we all recognize and understand and which we can refer to in a sort of literary shorthand, without always having to start at ground zero and build up meanings for every concept and reference.  The existence and maintenance of this set of shared societal understandings is also what makes it possible for art that arises from the personal to achieve universality--a phenomenon that is clearly displayed in this, one of our most underrated great books (it is disgraceful that it did not make the Modern Library Top 100).

Ken Kesey's novel is based in part on individuals whom he met while working in a Veterans' Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, CA.  And when he was writing, he worked the graveyard shift in the psychiatric ward and actually underwent real-life shock treatment.  At a surface level then, the book can be read as an indictment of the mental health system and psychiatric practices of the 50's & 60's.  Just beneath this surface it is an attack on conformity and the organizational man and a celebration of individualism.  But we reap its greatest rewards when we peel back another layer of the onion and, intentionally or not, the symbols and themes that Kesey mines reach deep into the archaeology of our entire mythos and the tale returns to the central dilemma of human existence, first presented in the Garden of Eden, should mankind choose security or freedom?

Without being too pedantic, it's pretty easy to decipher the metaphorical elements of the novel:

    The Hospital:
    authoritarian Social Welfare state, which offers inmates a sense of security at the cost of their

    Nurse Ratched:
    ruler of this secure world, significantly she is a maternal figure, since the security impulse is
    fundamentally female

    R.P. McMurphy:
    of course, the initials RPM are a dead giveaway for a character who represents revolution against
    authority--symbolizes the male yearning for freedom and is essentially a messianic figure

    The Inmates:
    the most telling factor is that they are there voluntarily, they are willing participants in their own
    degradation--sexless, spineless, but safe from the big bad world, they have surrendered to the Big
    Nurse and the Combine

    Electro shock therapy:
    the obligatory crucifix scene, as McMurphy says, it's his "crown of thorns"

    Billy Bibbitt:
    He is McMurphy's Judas.  McMurphy heals him (he stops stuttering after McMurphy procures a
    woman for him), but he denounces McMurphy to Nurse Ratched and then commits suicide.

    The Chief:
    McMurphy dies for his sins--after McMurphy is lobotomized, the Chief smothers him (rather than
    see him live on as a broken man) and then breaks out of the Hospital by heaving the enormous
    control panel through a window (i.e., rolls the boulder away from Christ's tomb).  The Chief is
    reborn through McMurphy's intercession.

Obviously Kesey may not have intended that each of these elements be read this way.  In fact, as an icon of the counterculture it as, at least, ironic that they can be read this way.  But the point is that all of these elements have fundamental cultural meanings, regardless of his intentions.  They resonate within our minds because they strike the touchstones of our shared understandings.  The result is that a seemingly simple fable about a con man in an asylum achieves mythic dimensions and partakes of universal truths that are central to our culture and our vision of mankind.

This is a great book and belongs on the shelf with Orwell, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, Clockwork Orange, Darkness at Noon and Cool Hand Luke--the Century's great dystopic fantasies that have best symbolized the human dilemma and come down on the side of Freedom.


Grade: (A+)


Ken Kesey Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Ken Kesey
    -LETTER: “Aw, Partners, It’s Been a Bitch.” A Letter from Ken Kesey After His Brother’s Death: The Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Recounts the Last Days of His Brother’s Life (Shaun Usher, February 10, 2022, LitHub)
-ESSAY: Ken Kesey and the Rush to Deinstitutionalization: Whatever the literary strengths of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the book has done much to harm both the mentally ill and their communities (Stephen Eide, 14 Nov 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: The Logistical Challenges of a Supersize Acid Test: On the Merry Pranksters’ Trips Festival (John Markoff, March 23, 2022, Lit Hub)

Book-related and General Links:
-Key-Z (Official website)
    -OBIT : Ken Kesey, Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' Is Dead at 66 (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, November 11, 2001, NY Times)
    -OBIT : All times a great artist, Ken Kesey is dead at age 66 (JEFF BAKER, 11/11/01, The Oregonian)
    -OBIT : Ken Kesey : The hero of US counterculture and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has died at 66 (Christopher Reed, November 12, 2001, The Guardian)
    -OBIT : Ken Kesey: Merry Prankster, literary hero (Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY)
    -OBIT : Ken Kesey, novelist of `One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' dies at 66 (JEFF BARNARD, Associated Press)
    -TRIBUTE : Ken Kesey (
    -Appreciation: Ken Kesey : Captain Flag of the good ship Furthur didn't just create great
literature, he was great literature -- and a quintessentially American character (Sean Elder, November 16, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Ken Kesey's true legacy is 'Sometimes a Great Notion' (John Marshall, 11/16/01, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -BIO: Ken Kesey
    -ESSAY: Remember This: Write What You Don't Know (Ken Kesey, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: "A 1992 New York Interview with Ken Kesey"   By Lawrence Gerald
    -INTERVIEW: Ken Kesey Interview by Mary Jane Fenex and Matthew Rick
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Selected Bibliography for Ken Kesey
    -LINKS: Sites about Ken Kesey   and the Merry Pranksters
    -STUDY GUIDE:   Novel Study Unit Key  by George Lamont
    -Kingwood College Library One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest By Ken Kesey
    -Discover Channel School: One Flew over the Cuckoo?s Nest
    -ESSAY: American Dominance in Works by Ken Kesey (Lillie Langlois, Brighton High School class of 1998)
    -ESSAY: Tarnished Galahad: The Prose and Pranks of Ken Kesey   by Matthew Rick
    -North American Fiction and Film   Chapter 6: Ken Kesey's  One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
    -Psychedelic 60's: Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters
    -REVIEW: of Last Go Round Merry Go-Round (Scott Rogerson, Weekly Wire)

    -One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest #20 on the AFI Top 100
    -ESSAY: The Messianic Figure in Film: Christology Beyond the Biblical Epic (Matthew McEver, October 1998, The Journal of Religion and Film)