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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Battle Without Rules

Jack Nicholson

American writer Ken Kesey entered the history of literature as an author of one work. "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" became a cult book for the generation of the 60's. The novel, translated into many languages, is rightly considered a classic of world literature today. It belongs to the number of books-manifestos, which are destined first to be a sign of the era, and then a mirror that focuses in itself the main features of its aesthetics and life-sense. Published in 1962, the debut work of then unknown twenty-seven-year-old prose writer became the bible of young American rebels of the 60's who called themselves "hippies" and rebelled against social and moral values of their parents.

In 1959, Kesey went to work as an assistant psychiatrist in the veteran hospital "Menlo Park", where he voluntarily participated in experiments to study effects of LSD, mescaline and other psychedelics on human’s organism. There are other data indicating that he participated in experiments conducted as part of a research program on drug use in psychiatric practice as a voluntary (and paid) subject. The program was soon closed by the government, but Kesey stayed in the psychiatric hospital for another six months as paramedic and night watchman.

It was there where the idea of the novel under consideration came to the writer. He often spent time talking to patients, sometimes being influenced by hallucinogens. He did not believe that these patients were abnormal, rather society rejected them, because they did not fit into generally accepted ideas about how a person should behave. So, the hospital becomes for him a way to suppress dissent. Nurse and other service personnel become aggressors, forcing people to obey them.

The novel had immediate success; in 1963, it was reworked by Dale Wasserman; in 1975, Milos Forman shot the eponymous film, which received 5 Oscar awards as well as 28 other awards and 11 nominations.

About the Book

The headline of the book, as well as its epigraph, is the last two lines of the children's playground rhyme: "... one flew east, one flew west. One flew over the cuckoo's nest".

First of all, let us figure out why the author used an oxymoron "cuckoo's nest" in the title.

Firstly, the cuckoo's nest is a fictitious phenomenon. This is a paradox. It turns out that psychiatric hospitals are something that should not be. But, contrary to the laws of nature and human logic, they exist.

Secondly, in American jargon "cuckoo's nest" – this is a madhouse. And a flight to meet freedom is like a flight over the cuckoo's nest.

Thus, we understand that the author uses the metaphor in the title of the work.

Another interpretation is possible. A cuckoo's nest is a nest without chicks. A bird abandons them to the mercy of fate – they must survive by themselves. Paradoxically, it quite resembles a typical American principle: "create yourself". So America is an empty cuckoo's nest, and its own children turn out to be homeless stepchildren, infinitely wandering along the roads. In this respect, this book is exactly in the context of American prose of the late 60's – early 70's. But at the same time, it is also perceived as a universal parable, which narrates the attitude of an individual to the problem of freedom, whether it is only your own or socially significant.

Merits of the book cannot be explained by any properties of the author's creative individuality – none of the subsequent works in which Kesey unsuccessfully imitated himself, even approximately did not correspond to the artistic level of the first novel of the unprofessional writer. As if the very barely coming era, alarming, conflicting, contradictory, chose this unremarkable young man as the spokesman for her spirit. (Kesey, always prone to shocking, asserted that the whole novel was "dictated" to him when he was in a drug trance).

The action takes place in the psychiatric ward of one of the hospitals of the Midwest, and characters of the book are patients of the "psychiatric hospital". It turns out, however, that they are not crazy at all. Simply these people cannot adjust to life in society for various reasons. One of them (Billy Bibbitt) is a stutterer and painfully shy, the other (Harding) suffers from a feeling of inferiority because of the betrayal of his wife, etc. All of them are "rabbits" and cannot take care of themselves, and this world is "created for wolves", as it was explained by the "chief psycho" Harding to newcomer McMurphy. They voluntarily came to the madhouse. Moreover, they do not pretend to be crazy, but, strange people, they do not correspond to a healthy American way of life to such an extent that society readily disposes of them.

With a more careful reading, this acute and unexpected situation turns the new side, revealing general, allegorical narrative plan. The psychiatric clinic described in the novel is very modern, with soft chairs, with television, radio, with polite staff and self-management – this is a small model of consumer society, America in general. It is no coincidence that the composition of patients and staff is ethnically and socially significant. Here we can see the Indian, and the Americans of Swedish, Irish, Scottish descent, blacks-nurses and one of the nurses is Japanese.

There are both old men, and young people among patients, people with a university degree and generally without education. All of them enjoy the same rights: they are well fed, driven for walks and kept clean. Many of them are aware that their "free choice" is only an illusion of freedom, that their "self-government" is a fiction, that their life is a semblance of life. But this is a payment for comfort and no worries. Excessive payment, as it turns out in the course of the action, because there is a spiritual murder here daily and hourly. All non-standard, but living people gathered in the clinic are subjected to monstrous pressure, constant psychological treatment, the purpose of which is supposedly adaptation to conditions of social being, but in practice – standardization and leveling of an individual.

To level a person, you must first humiliate, trample him or her, and everything is subordinated to it in the department – iron routine, always rumbling radio, vigilant supervision of patients and the group "therapeutic" discussions of the intimate aspects of the life of each patient. Finally, there is a threat of using radical means of "knocking some sense into someone’s head" – electroshock and lobotomy. They apply only to those who do not want to be leveled and continue to stand out of the system, such as the protagonist of the novel, McMurphy. All this is enough to keep people in a "rabbit" condition. They become standard and easy to manage. That is what it is, America in the sixties, the author claims, look, Americans!

Salinger showed first symptoms of the disease. Kesey delivered the final diagnosis and made a number of prescriptions. These "prescriptions" are related to the image of McMurphy, a strong and reckless guy with a loud voice, red hair and a broken nose, a womanizer and a joker. He is sent to the clinic for compulsory treatment. He is non-standard, but in a different way than the rest of patients in the department. He is distinguished by complete emancipation, boundless optimism and self-confidence. He basically does not want to obey the standard and does not want to put up with the fact that other people are being humiliated and poisoned in front of his eyes, and he starts fighting for the human right to be a person, not a robot.

The basis of the novel plot is vicissitudes of McMurphy's struggle with Miss Ratched, the all-powerful senior nurse of the department, the embodiment of the system. The outcome of the struggle is tragic: seeing that it will not be possible to defeat McMurphy, he is sent to lobotomy. Physical death of the hero is perceived as getting rid of miserable fate of an exhibit-warning for others: that is what will happen to the one who starts a riot.


The book is written in tragic tones. Incredibly funny in places and creepy in nature, it does not leave a feeling of despair. McMurphy still managed to defend his comrades as living people, to prove to them that protest is possible. One by one, "voluntary" patients leave the clinic. The structure of the novel is open. It ends with the audacious escape of the most faithful of the followers of McMurphy, the "compulsory old-timer" of the department half-blood Indian Bromden, on whose behalf the narrative is conducted. The main plot is somewhat complicated by lyrical digressions – Bromden's passages-memories of his Indian childhood and past life as well as passages-dreams and hallucinations; they, however, are very organic and do not prevent the novel from being read "on one breath".

However, relative simplicity of the novel is deceptive. This is a postmodern text, and it is literally full of evangelical, transcendentalist, Freudian motifs and literary associations, which, with rare exceptions, do not surface anywhere, but give multidimensionality to the book. Thus, McMurphy, who knew about his fate and accepted mortal torment for other people, is clearly associated with the Son of God Jesus Christ (the gospel plan of subtext is palpable in a number of scenes of the book).

However, Freudian background of the novel is especially clear. So, McMurphy intuitively correctly understands sources of psychological sadism of the 50-year-old maiden Miss Ratched – this is compensation for the suppressed sexual instinct. True, the hero did not read either Freud or Jung, but the author is perfectly familiar with them. And, for example, the incomparable, exceptionally lively and funny fishing scene during the boat trip, organized by McMurphy for the sick, has implicit symbolic meaning. While the hero is staying with the girl Candy, his girlfriend "from the will", the rest of the patients enthusiastically fish. A fish is a common Freudian symbol of love. The scene of fishing is important in the evangelical plan of narration. A fish is also an important Christian symbol. As you know, the image of a fish, not a cross, marked temples of the first Christians.

Heroes of Kesey are "heroes-grotesques". They are grotesque even externally: the two-meter-long giant Bromden, who has pretended to be deaf for many years, the thirty-year-old Billy Bibbitt, looking like a lop-eared boy, Harding, with his too handsome face and nervous hands he is shy of.

Return to Roots

This book was organically integrated into the movement for "joining roots", which was widely spread in the 1960s, along with other numerous movements of this turbulent decade. So, criticism denoted surge of general American interest in everything "Indian", caused by the desire to support Native Americans in the struggle for their civil rights. In literature, this movement manifested itself in increased attention to the "Indian theme": to the ancient mythopoetic creativity of primordial Americans and to the modern folklore of their reservations, to their inner peace.

Here, this topic appeared in an unusual and acute perspective, the image of the Native American was particularly impressive. This book, as a sort of concentrating mirror, not only reflected and sharpened the problem of Native Americans, but also showed it as the focus of all pressing problems of America that entered the second half of the 20th century. This problem manifests itself in all its modern complexity in the literal sense: the story is conducted on behalf of the half-breed Indian "chief" Bromden, a contused veteran of World War II, an old patient of the psychiatric ward. The chief – the hero-narrator and interpreter of all events – appears here as a bright and complex personality.

The author deeply and subtly examines "Indian" features of his mental make-up. Along with heavy ethnic and military experience, the memory of his ancestors lives in Bromden, he acts as a bearer of the folklore tradition of Native Americans, their mythopoetic thinking, their flexible and wise perception of the world. As it turns out, the blood of chiefs really flows in Bromden. His father was a purebred Colombian Indian. Although the hero is half-blood, but, brought up in environment of primordial Americans, he himself feels like them. And his point of view is the Indian's point of view.

Mythopoetic thinking of Native Americans admits existence of an additional, spiritual dimension, existence of other worlds along with the objective and material world. Boundaries of the latter seem to permeate this thinking, which opens the possibility of traveling to "other worlds".

Such travels, in fact, are the memoirs of Bromden about his childhood and youth, which he experienced as a reality. The chief resorts to them when it becomes unbearable for him to endure hospital workdays. The episode of Bromden's "journey" into the picture hanging in the department is surprisingly accurately illustrated by this presentation of Indian mythopoetics.

Dreams of Bromden – this is also reality, this is a terrible "other world", where he unwillingly goes. It is not by chance that the nightmare with bodies suspended on hooks and partitioned Blastic occurs on the night when Blastic dies. The spiritual world (sleep, recollection, the true essence of people) is the same reality for him as the real world, because he is an Indian. He was also locked in the psychiatric hospital and treated, precisely because he does not separate reality from his "hallucinations". It turns out that he is treated because he is an Indian, he is being treated for millennial spiritual culture of his ancient nation, wishing to fit him into the standard of modern American civilization.

Certainly, Bromden's soul harmony is broken, no wonder he is afraid of his own shadow and feels small. Surprisingly, however, this is not true. On the contrary, it is surprising that in the sterile hospital hell, after 200 sessions of electroshock, he kept his poetic Indian worldview, his living soul.

Having created the living, authentic and vivid image of the Chief Bromden, making a reader to get used to his complex inner world, Kesey thus as if released the Indian to freedom from the captivity of literary tradition and philistine stereotypes – into a living, not a book, life.


Like numerous loud events connected with the name of Ken Kesey, his first book made a lot of noise in the literary life of America. Ken Kesey was recognized as a talented writer, and the novel became one of the main works for hippies.

This is a rough and devastatingly honest depiction of the boundaries between sanity and insanity. If someone wants to feel the pulse of our time, let him or her read Kesey and if everything goes well and the order of things does not change, it will be read in the next century. Indeed, even nowadays, the book continues to live and does not lose its crazy popularity.

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