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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Submitted by Robert Waxler (profile)

Title and Author: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Genre: Novel
Themes: Identity, freedom vs. established authority, leadership, independence vs. dependence
Class type: Men

I usually use this novel near the end of the seminar sessions, often in the next-to-last week.

The story is interesting and well paced, and because of the ongoing battle between the highly energetic McMurphy and the authoritarian Big Nurse, the book seems to hold everyone's attention. However, the story is told through the consciousness of Chief Bromden, and so, at times, the distinction between what is imagined and what is actually happening becomes puzzling to the reader.

The story opens with Randle Patrick McMurphy, an optimistic counter-culture figure, entering the mental ward controlled by the cynical Nurse Ratched, whose job seems to be to maintain the status quo, the "established order." The Nurse has the power and the control, and her strategies are all designed to get the patients to conform to the bureaucratic apparatus - the dehumanizing schedules that bring comfort to the weary but rob human beings of their independence and their courage. By contrast, McMurphy's strategies are designed to bring everyone together, to make them believe in themselves and their potential.

The Chief observes the struggle between McMurphy and Ratched, and it is as if that struggle is the equivalent of the internal struggle going on inside Bromden himself - a battle between dependence and independence, freedom and authority, security and risk, joy and despair. In the end, McMurphy will die, a crucifixion of sorts, but the Chief will grow to his full height and potential, breaking free from Big Nurse, thanks to McMurphy, as he heads out on the open road.

There are several issues that we explore in our discussion of the story.

The main focus is usually on the meaning and implications of the battle between the rebel figure (McMurphy) and the established order (Big Nurse). Most everyone agrees that McMurphy is heroic, willing to take a chance, a gambler who shows the importance of taking risks and the joy of life itself. We identify with him; we admire his individuality and sense of freedom, his openness and his tolerance. But, on occasion, someone in the group will try to defend Big Nurse, not in the details of her tyranny, but with an argument that suggests McMurphy needs to be given limitations, that we all need some boundaries. We don't like Big Nurse, but perhaps she too is a reminder of something we all have to grapple with, both outside and inside of ourselves.

In a similar context, we often explore the contrast between the way McMurphy leads and the way Big Nurse does. They both would claim they are helping the patients. But are they? McMurphy seems to work on boosting self-esteem, playing to the strengths of others. Big Nurse seems to work on emphasizing weaknesses, making people feel small.

But, at times, some will argue that McMurphy is really selfish, putting others in danger, interested primarily in his own gain. This is Big Nurse's argument, of course, and most of us disagree with it. But Big Nurse would say that she is protecting the patients, keeping them out of harm's way.

Chief Bromden is always part of the conversation. When he thinks about McMurphy, he also thinks about his own father, a Native American who was victimized by the White Established Order. In a sense, he is seeking his father, his roots, just as he is in pursuit of his own deep self. That his mother was white, and that he is known by her name, complicates his journey and raises important questions about his mixed heritage and about identity in general. In terms of the story, it is as if Chief Bromden must return home to the "name of the father" before he can truly know himself. But he must also symbolically kill the father figure (McMurphy) before he can be set free.

If we have time, we will also discuss the fact that the novel was written in the Sixties, that Kesey was an important figure in the counter culture, and that, in many ways, the book itself reflects the hope and vision of that era. Is it a vision worth holding onto today? I might ask.

Finally, we often consider one of the central questions raised by the novel: who is sane and who is insane? How do we determine such things? I might ask. Who makes those definitions real? Is it right to say that those who have the power control the language?

This last question is particularly important in a program engaged in changing lives through literature.

Videos (may take a few moments):

During class, participants in the New Bedford Men's Program discuss the behavior of Nurse Ratched, a character in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (video).

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