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When larger-than-life R.P. McMurphy arrives in a mental asylum in the classic novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the other patients suddenly take an interest in life. One of them describes himself and the others as “rabbits.” But McMurphy is far from a rabbit. He’s willing to stand up to the feared Nurse Ratched and try to improve the lives of the men on her floor. At first overtly, then in more insidious ways, he finds ways to thwart her at every turn. But Nurse Ratched has been in the business a long time and she knows how to deal with free-thinkers like McMurphy.
Ugh. This book. There was so much meat to dig into and at the same time it is not aging well. Not aging well at all. I apologize in advance for the length of this
review essay. I’ve tried to cut it down but I have a lot to say.
Oh my gosh. Can you say stereotypes, racism, and misogyny? Because this book is full of all of it. The attendants on the ward are all Black men–one of them even seems fairly old–but they’re always referred to as “the black boys.” They had different names but they were each occasionally called “Sam,” which I can only assume is short for “Sambo.” They’re stupid, selfish, cruel, and lazy, and the author makes absolutely no attempt to differentiate between them.
And then there were the women. The female characters other than Nurse Ratched had minor roles but the attitude of every man in the book seemed to be that anything that was wrong with a woman could be fixed with a good f**k, whether she wanted it or not. Yup, you read that right. They’re basically advocating rape. Of the seven female characters I recall, all of them except for one are defined in terms of sex (prostitutes, big breasts, unfaithful wife, etc.) The inmates call the one fairly normal woman a “Jap” and she says that unmarried women shouldn’t be allowed to work after the age of 35 because they’re too bitter to be in public. Wow! Really?
I tried to step back and decide if there’s a reason for all this stereotyping. Maybe? I guess stereotypes can allow you to make a point fairly quickly without going into a lot of detail? The narrator of the story is Bromden, AKA “Chief Broom,” the son of a Native American father and a White mother. He’s been on the receiving end of a lot of racism himself. As a child, he had White people stand in front of him and discuss how filthy and disgusting his “hovel” of a home was as if he wasn’t even there. One of the defining events of his life is the day that the government, represented by White men, manipulates his father into selling the tribe’s traditional lands in the name of “progress.” So he knows how damaging all these nasty comments are. Yet he repeats them in his story.
I’ve tried to decide if the men fared much better. If everyone is a stereotype, does that make it okay? I don’t know. But they are kind of stereotypes too. One is a closeted homosexual who is always sitting on his hands so that they don’t flutter around and give him away. The rest are almost interchangeable in that they’re “less than.” There doesn’t seem to be much “wrong” with them. Sure, some are “vegetables” who just take up space and air but the functioning ones are maybe a bit timid or a bit unsure but otherwise they’re just regular men. And yet they find themselves in a mental asylum. And that brings me to:
What I Liked:
How much of what we view as mental illness is actually illness and how much of it is an individual’s failure to fit into the mold that society has cast for him or her? Bromden himself sees the machinery of society around him and he wants no part of it. He refers to society as “The Combine.” Society selects and accepts people who fill their roles well and rejects those who don’t. The Combine has no need for inefficiency or parts that don’t do what they’re built for. The book was originally published in 1962. Here in 2020, we have to say that Kesey has a point. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness when this was written; today we know otherwise so people are free to love as they please. What else have we gotten wrong? I don’t say this to dismiss true mental illness; some people definitely need treatment. But how many people just need a little room or a little grace to be themselves?
And McMurphy. I don’t even know where to start with him. He’s a memorable character for sure. He didn’t want to be incarcerated on a work farm any longer and decided to act insane to get admitted to a mental institution. I couldn’t help but root for him in his disruptive campaign. Yet he’s an antihero at best because he has a statutory rape charge. On the surface, he doesn’t belong in a mental institution. He’s a man’s man, drinking beer, brawling, gambling, and whoring. But Bromden sees flashes of something else underneath the bravado. McMurphy fought in Korea and led a group of soldiers out of an enemy prison. He most likely has PTSD and needs more real help than almost anyone on the unit. Society overlooks the trauma because he hides it so well. But he’s not fitting into his mold either, and we all know The Combine can’t tolerate that.
I wouldn’t recommend reading this just for fun but this would be a great book for conversation. I wish I could discuss it with someone in real life!
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been banned and challenged many times. One challenge reads that it’s “pornographic” and “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.” I can’t disagree, but life is messy and sometimes violent. At least some of our literature has to reflect that. Those very qualities prompt some really good, deep discussions. Look how long I’ve rambled on! This book obviously is not for everyone, and it’s really not for me, but I still defend your right to read it for yourself.
If you’re interested in other classic novels that have been banned but that I enjoyed more, check out my reviews of:
I haven’t watched the new Ratched series on Netflix yet. Have you? She infuriated me so much as a character, I’m not sure I can bring myself to sit through it. I haven’t watched the old movie starring Jack Nicholson either for the exact same reason.
Buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC.
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