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The Question of the Crazy Narrator

Interesting thing about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: the narrator is crazy, as in he lives in an asylum. Perhaps that would qualify?

Not only that, but Chief Broom is labeled as a “chronic,” which means he’ll be there the rest of his life, unlike the “acutes” who still have hope for rehabilitation. So he’s on the wrong side of the “crazy spectrum.”

This poses a problem. To this point in the book, the narrator seems actually calm, balanced, and quite sane. But, all along, I’m thinking–remember, this guy has lived in an asylum for decades…can you really believe what he says?

Chief Broom, as portrayed in the movie.

That’s an interesting part of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest–trying to determine whether or not you can actually believe the narrator.

During one scene, Chief Broom manages to skip the nightly drug–which puts patients in a deep sleep. While he lies in bed, the floor beneath him drops underground, like some type of massive elevator, and he and the other dozens of patients are sent, asleep in their PJs, through some type of underground assembly line to be poked and prodded by some sort of human robots?

It’s all very weird. Which, of course, makes me ask–is this guy just hallucinating? But who knows. I think Ken Kesey does a fabulous job of making the reader unsure of reality–in the same boat with the asylum patients.

Have you ever had trouble believing a book’s narrator?

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. 2blu2btru #

    Yes, I have. I believe one was a chronic liar who kept making things up. Another classic is the narrator that’s keeping secrets. Good examples of this that I’ve read are Richard in A Secret History (or The Secret History, never remember), the narrator (can’t remember her name) in the Thirteenth Tale, and another one. I can’t think of the exact name of the book, but I believe it’s by Walter Mosley and is something like The Man in My Basement. Interesting book.

    As for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I think it’s pretty easy to take his descriptions of staff for the most part as correct. Having worked with mentally disabled/challenged people, I find they usually are very astute at their characterizations of people. They almost always lie about their own behavior though, for better or worse.

    Like

    May 17, 2011
  2. Your post reminds me on the Rosenhan experiment. Not sure if you’re familiar with it or not, but the gist is that a bunch of perfectly sane people got themselves institutionalized by claiming that they were hearing things. After that little white lie they just acted like themselves; in spite of that, patients were the only ones to realize that the folks were actually sane. The staff found all sorts of little reasons as to why the subject participants were mentally ill, mostly because of the context with which they were interacting with the subjects.

    Anyway, it’s good reading in conjunction with Cuckoo’s Nest. I wonder if the book inspired Rosenhan to start the experiment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenhan_experiment

    Like

    May 17, 2011
    • Interesting. Does sound similar. Thanks for the link.

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      May 17, 2011
  3. Christina #

    In C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, the narrator is one of the jealous sisters of Psyche. The story is told from entirely her perspective (an account of her life written by her), and she blames all of her misfortunes and unhappiness on the gods.

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    May 17, 2011
  4. theveryhungrybookworm #

    It certainly gets into the idea of, if we beleive something enough, does that make it real?

    Have you seen Shutter Island? If you haven’t, I strongly recommend you check it out. Taking place in an insane asylum, you begin to think about how much a part perspective plays in our construction of reality.

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    May 17, 2011
    • Funny you should mention Shutter Island. I mention it in a post later in the week. Crazy movie.

      Like

      May 17, 2011
  5. Patti #

    I’ve gotten so that I remain open to suspicion with any first-person narrator – you just don’t know about their perspective, as theveryhungrybookworm points out and you don’t know what they’re hiding (like the fact that they are the murderer in the mystery story they are telling). Of course, I say I’m suspicious, but I generally get surprised along with everyone else when a big reveal happens and my whole concept of the story is turned upside down.

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    May 17, 2011
  6. B Day #

    I loved Chief’s unreliable narration. That was the main difference from the movie and I think it makes the book that much better.

    Other unreliable narrators: I personally think Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has this element, and it also comes up briefly in a Jasper Fforde novel (one of my favorites).

    Like

    May 17, 2011
  7. Can you imagine a world where this was your reality? Mental illness is a scary place.

    Like

    May 17, 2011
  8. Turn of the Screw by Henry James is the classic unreliable narrator book! Decades were spent by literary critics (who had nothing better to do, I guess) debating whether the narrator was hysterical or sane – because that decision changes the entire meaning of the book. James does an excellent job of keeping the reader guessing, too. It’s short, so if you haven’t read it you really should!

    A contemporary book along the same lines, and decently well written, is Shutter Island. Yes, I know it was made into a movie with Leonardo di Caprio, but you should REALLY read the book, which was written by Denis LeHane. I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I’ve heard its rather significantly different from the book.

    But please, if you’ve never read Turn of the Screw, please, please read it!

    Like

    May 18, 2011
    • Great reference to Shutter Island! Coming up in a post later this week.

      Also, really want to read Turn of the Screw. Maybe it will be book #102!

      Like

      May 18, 2011

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