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Book #17: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

I’ve never been in prison or an insane asylum. But, for some reason, I’ve always had a strange interest in both.

Whenever I flip by a documentary about either, or whenever I hear about a great movie about either, I have to stop and watch. Shawshank Redemption, Shutter Island, these types of movies fascinate me.

So to say that I was excited to read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an understatement. The novel, written by Ken Kesey, is set in an insane asylum in Oregon and focuses on a power struggle between a “patient” and the head nurse.

This patient, Randle McMurphy, is actually faking insanity so he could be relocated from a prison work farm to the asylum. When McMurphy shows up at the asylum, he takes over.

McMurphy, as played by Jack Nicholson, in the film.

McMurphy is one of the strongest protagonists in any of the first 17 books. Everyone and everything in the book orbits around him. He really carries this book.

Much to the dismay of the head nurse, McMurphy  starts up card games at the asylum, puts together a basketball team, gets the World Series on the television, and takes many of the guys on a deep sea fishing excursion, with women.

While McMurphy is over-the-top and brash, the head nurse is subtle and extremely manipulative. If a patient doesn’t take their pills, raises a ruckus during a meeting, or crosses the nurses and her three aides in any way, things can get ugly. She’ll send the patient to electroshock therapy, and, in some cases, even lobotomy. You don’t mess with the head nurse.

But that’s what makes McMurphy such a heroic character. And that’s exactly what he is to the patients in the asylum. He’s their freedom fighter, their revolutionary. He bucks the system and shows the other guys that they don’t have to settle.

In one particular scene, McMurphy challenges the men to lift a massive control panel. It’s a classic alpha male move. McMurphy knows he can’t lift it, but he goes for it anyway.

“Are you birds telling me I can’t lift that dinky little gizmo?”

“My friend, I don’t recall anything about psychopaths being able to move mountains in addition to their noteworthy assets.”

McMurphy hops off the table and goes to peeling off his green jacket; the tattoos sticking half out of his T-shirt jump around the muscles on his arms….

“Okay, stand outa the way. Sometimes when I go to exertin’ myself I use up all the air nearby and grown men faint from suffocation. Stand back. There’s liable to be crackin’ cement and flying steel. Get the women and kids someplace safe. Stand back…”

For just a second, when we hear the cement grind at our feet, we think, by golly, he might do it.

Then his breath explodes out of him, and he falls back limp against the the wall. There’s blood on the levers where he tore his hands. He pants for a minute against the wall with his eyes shut. There’s no sound but his scraping breath; nobody’s saying a thing….

He stops at the door and looks back at everybody standing around. “But I tried, though,” he says. “I sure as hell did that much now, didn’t I?”

That’s the way McMurphy rolls. He’s not scared to try anything, showing these men who have lived in between walls for years, that’s it’s okay to take risks, to take a chance.

But One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden, also known as Chief Broom for his sweeping abilities, a massive Indian who is thought to be deaf and mute, but is secretly neither.

He details the inner workings of the asylum, labeling them “The Combine”—which refers to the mechanical way the head nurse and the powers that be manipulate and control the patients.

The Chief is a sympathetic character and becomes a heroic character in his own right. He’s really the main example of a person that McMurphy helps transform during his stay at the asylum.

As I mentioned in a post last week, it’s hard to know who to trust in this book. For me, the question of the unreliable narrator comes up a lot. Can you trust an insane asylum patient to be a trustworthy narrator? Maybe you can. Maybe you can’t. That’s just something that I had in the back of my mind while reading this book.

Ken Kesey really makes you feel the humanity of each of these characters. Even “the chronics”—the patients who have essentially been labeled as hopeless and incapable of being rehabilitated—are sympathetic characters. As a reader, I really felt for each of these guys and the sadness of their situation—totally submissive and under the control of the head nurse.

Kesey’s writing won’t blow you away, but he’s a master of symbolism. There’s a lot going on under the surface in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. During one scene in particular, a scene in which Chief Bromden is apparently dreaming, I felt like I was being transported into a scene in A Clockwork Orange.

But it’s all, presumably, representative of something larger. Everything is definitely not as it seems in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The fog. The nurse’s breasts. The control panel. All of it has a greater meaning.

In the end, this is an uplifting book–it really is. But not in the way you would expect. It’s not a happy-go-lucky ending that will make you smile as if everything ends up perfect in the world of McMurphy, Chief Bromden and the rest of the crew.

It’s a novel about the ability we all have to be oppressed, to allow ourselves to be controlled by someone or something. And, ultimately, it’s up to us to fight through that oppression to become free.

Ken Kesey manages to make some of the most forgotten about humans on the planet–patients in an insane asylum–represent our ability to persevere and overcome. And he simultaneously makes you happy, sad, and surprised with the novel’s ending.

Another great book by another great author.

Other Stuff

Opening Line: “They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them. ”

The Meaning: The phrase “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” comes from an old nursery rhyme that Chief Bromden’s grandmother sang to him as a child:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

The phrase, “to fly over a cuckoo’s nest” means to cross the line, to go too far. In this case, it’s representative of McMurphy, but that’s all I’ll tell you. Don’t want to ruin the plot.

Highlights: Randle McMurphy. Absolutely an amazing character. Powerful. As I mentioned in the review, he carried this novel. McMurphy is to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest what Holden Caulifield is to The Catcher in the Rye, except for the fact that he’s not a whiny teenager

Lowlights: I really can’t give you my lowlight for this book without spoiling the plot. Read it, and you’ll know what I mean.

Memorable Line: If you read the review, you’ve already read it: “Sometimes when I go to exertin’ myself I use up all the air nearby and grown men faint from suffocation.” -Randle McMurphy

Final Thoughts: Before reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I was much more familiar with the movie than the novel. Having now read the book, I’m definitely impressed with Kesey’s ability to use symbolism and put together a powerful story with an unforgettable protagonist. This book is a worth a read.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. B Day #

    I agree with your assesment. Speaking of the unreliable narrator…Chief has a line near the beginning where he says something along the lines of “it may not have happened exactly like this, but this is the truth, whether it happened or not”. It’s one of those great lines that lets you look at the book in a whole new light – how much of it “happened”? Maybe it was all in his mind, maybe not. It doesn’t really affect the reading of the rest of the book, but it’s fun to think about and adds another level of depth to the book.


    May 25, 2011
    • Forgot about that line. That’s a really good one. Good point.


      May 25, 2011
  2. Mary #

    I, too, was only familiar with the movie. I loved the movie, but I was blown away by the book! I loved how Kesey took an ‘undesirable’ and not only made him a hero, but also taught the reader about what it means to be human.


    May 25, 2011
    • My thoughts as well. Loved that aspect of this book.


      May 25, 2011
  3. Lovely review.

    I read this book while I was in the Army and there were many times during my tenure there I felt like I was in prison or in an insane asylum.

    I loved this book. One of my favorites of all time and I find myself talking about it quite a bit over beers, in class, and with other writers.

    Thanks to your thoughtful review, I’ve decided to read it again.


    May 25, 2011
    • Thanks Clint. Enjoy your second read-through!


      May 26, 2011
  4. Amanda #

    There is a post at today that is a letter from Ken Kesey in response to a review of the play version of One Flew… Great stuff!


    May 25, 2011
  5. Gemma Sidney #

    I have to read this book! Thanks for not giving away too much of the plot in your review. You got through this one a lot quicker than Infinite Jest… must feel good to be reading something new!


    May 25, 2011
    • It certainly does. Going to go through some shorter books for a little bit.


      May 26, 2011
  6. I knew you’d love this. You nailed it on the head with the uplifting aspect. That’s exactly it. We choose our oppressions and we can choose our liberties. Infinite Jest has arrived at my library *dum, dum, dum*


    May 25, 2011
  7. I’d be too scared to want to go to a lunatic asylum, but I also always thought what it would be like to be in prison. I tended to have romantic views, of having much time and a lot of books to read, with nobody disturbing.
    Maybe that’s true in some countries, but then I had the bad luck of being imprisoned in Iran ( which was far less of a pleasure than I had thought. But maybe after a few years I’ll try the experience again in a country with more rule of law.


    May 26, 2011
  8. I loved this book, but the ending (to me) was a lowlight. I definitely wanted something better for McMurphy


    May 27, 2011
  9. “Ken Kesey really makes you feel the humanity of each of these characters. Even “the chronics”—the patients who have essentially been labeled as hopeless and incapable of being rehabilitated—are sympathetic characters.”
    I think this is what I loved the most about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. While the nurse and McMurphy are remarkably larger-than-life characters skillfully portrayed, I loved the humanity of the supporting “cast.” Somewhere, sometime, someone loved these people. They are all someone’s son, father, brother or husband. Any one of those guys could have an poignant backstory that would be worth reading as well. That society has forgotten them and labeled them “hopeless” is infinitely sad, and Kesey has restored them to the human race in the reader’s mind.


    May 28, 2011
  10. Luke #

    Great on paper, better on film…has it’s place on the shelf between Shawshank and Shutter Island.


    October 11, 2011
  11. I absolutely LOVED this book!!!! and the movie was sooo good. Jack Nicholson did a phenomenal job…he was perfect for the role. One of my favorite books for sure 🙂


    October 19, 2011
  12. I adored this book! I read it long before I ever saw the movie, so I was able to appreciate all you speak of in your review. Randle McMurphy was a stellar character, as deep & complex a character as I have ever met. Chief grabbed my heart instantly, and I wanted so badly for him to leave & be free. I hated what happened to both of them, but sad as it was, it was entirely in keeping with the trajectory of the novel, and that is part of what makes it great.


    April 10, 2012
  13. Reblogged this on Books are Alibis.


    June 1, 2012
  14. Now go read “Sometimes a Great Notion”


    May 8, 2013
  15. yes


    August 15, 2014
  16. Hi there i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anyplace, when i read this paragraph i
    thought i could also create comment due to this good article.


    September 18, 2014

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