Review: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When a novel becomes a “classic”–when it is digested by critics and English teachers and study guide authors into bite-size morsels that can be slurped with a spoon–it undergoes a peculiar type of transformation. For one, it ceases to resemble a novel. Even the messiest, most obstreperous books are reduced to a litany of bullet points, or a single bullet point. Moby Dick: Obsession devours. Crime and Punishment: Guilt corrupts. White Noise: Technology numbs. It can be disorienting to actually read the damn thing, and find out the epitaph is no more descriptive than a chapter title, and a misleading one at that.

It’s even worse when the novel is adapted into a film, especially a good film, as is the case with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since Milos Forman’s adaptation, the line about the novel has been that it is an anti-authoritarian fable, a nonconformists’ bible and a metaphor of repressive America. This view is accurate–Kesey is certainly interested in conformity and its discontents–but incomplete. What Kesey has to say is larger, and far more subversive.

Kesey is not even the first author to write about lunatics who appear saner than those who seek to lock them up. The trope dates as far back as Don Quixote, continues through Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published a year before Kesey’s novel. The nature of the oppression is different in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, however: the inmates in Kesey’s mental ward with one or two exceptions, have asked to be locked away.

Guilt,” says Harding, one of the patients, when asked to explain his decision. “Shame. Fear. Self-belittlement. I discovered at an early age that I was—shall we be kind and say different? I indulged in certain practices that our society regards as shameful. And I got sick. It wasn’t the practices, I don’t think, it was the feeling that the great, deadly, pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me—and the great voice of millions chanting, ‘Shame. Shame. Shame.'”

This is a novel about oppression, but it is also about man’s desire—which at times can become a need, even a compulsion—to take orders. Harding’s explanation horrifies Kesey’s hero, Randle Patrick McMurphy, a charismatic huckster whose arrival at the beginning of the novel disrupts the quiet, domineering rule of Nurse Ratched, the ward’s authoritarian overlord. McMurphy tells his fellow patients that, in order to avoid a hard labour prison sentence, he has convinced authorities that he’s a psychopath. “If it gets me outta those damned pea fields I’ll be whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf…” McMurphy, despite his swagger, is looking for safety too.

But what kind of safety do Kesey’s inmates find? The novel is narrated by the half-white, half-Indian Chief “Broom” Bromden, who has been committed since World War II—nearly two decades. He pretends to be deaf and dumb, but he sees, and tells the reader, everything. He even sees things that are not there. Machines, in particular. Gears grind, huge brass tubes disappear upward in the dark, and the wall clocks speed up and slow down according to Nurse Ratched’s whim. The nurse and her staff are robots, their power extending “in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine.” Sometimes the Chief even pictures the wall sliding up to reveal “a huge room of endless machines stretching clear out of sight, swarming with sweating, shirtless men running up and down catwalks, faces blank and dreamy in firelight thrown from a hundred blast furnaces.” And at night he imagines that the nurse’s minions operate a machine that chokes the room with dense fog.

There’s an unsubtle lesson here about the mechanized nature of modern American society, man turned into a cog in an intricate machine—the “metaphor of repressive America” in bold type. But Kesey makes a subtler point here as well, one that becomes more insistent as the novel progresses. The devices that Chief Bromden perceives in the walls aren’t just any old machines. They’re war machines.

The fog machine, for instance, is connected to Chief Bromden’s earliest memories as a soldier. “Whenever intelligence figured there might be a bombing attack, or if the generals had something secret they wanted to pull,” he says, “they fogged the field.” Elsewhere the fog resembles mustard gas, the kind used on the battlefields in southern Italy where the Chief was stationed. He believes that the psychiatric pills given to the patients are in fact microchips “like the ones I helped the Radar Corps work with in the Army,” and imagines Nurse Ratched firing a shotgun loaded with thorazine and librium.

The Chief is not the only patient who lives in a fog of war. Old Colonel Matterson thinks he’s still in World War I. Billy Bibbit suffered a breakdown in ROTC training when he couldn’t answer the drill officer’s command without stuttering. McMurphy, who received a dishonorable discharge in the Korean War for insubordination, likens group therapy to his time in “a Red Chinese prison camp”; when he is being hauled in for shock therapy, he says sarcastically that he regrets having “but one life to give for his country.” Even Nurse Ratched, we are told in passing, received her training as an Army nurse.

Kesey suggests that war is not only a cause of the patients’ trauma, but a result of it. The mechanization of society leads, inevitably, to a militant society. This is what happens in the ward, after all, where the patients wage an insurgency against Nurse Ratched and her staff. “She’s lost a battle here today,” says the Chief after one early skirmish, “but it’s a minor battle in a big war that she’s been winning and that she’ll go on winning.”

When Kesey wrote the novel, the Korean War was still fresh in recent memory, and World War II not far behind it. Kennedy was ordering the invasion of the Bay of Pigs. The first American special forces were being shipped to Vietnam. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may have served as the nonconformists’ bible during the sixties, but the connection Kesey draws between conformity and the capacity to wage war remains provocative today.

New readers to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will be surprised by how much the novel has to offer. It is a far deeper and more clever work than you might prejudge, to be enjoyed by those who delight in the anti-authoritarian, anti-bureaucratic, and just-who-is-really-insane themes of novels such as Nineteen Eighty Four, Animal Farm and Catch-22, or those that warn of primal chaos when order is lost like Lord of the Flies.

P.S. I would like to thank Mr S.C. Davis for his invaluable contribution toward helping me write this post. I couldn’t have done it without you, G. 🙂



Those are the three tenets of George Orwell’s uber-dystopian world of Oceania, one of three super-states in the future where there is perpetual war, which is a mash-up of the UK, the Americas and Australia. 1984 is Orwell’s disturbing image of a post-World War II scenario where he thought democratic values wouldn’t survive. Instead, we have the Party led by this man called Big Brother (if you thought the show was annoying, wait till you get a load of this) and there are “telescreens”, which are just TVs spouting government propaganda and spying on your actions 24/7. The world is divided into Party members (Inner and Outer) and the “proles”, which, if any of you have ever heard of Marx, is pretty self-explanatory [Harry Potter fans, think Deathly Hallows and Magic is Might]. Except for the fact that these uneducated proles are 85% of the population and they are effectively controlled by the Party by no concrete regulations since there are no laws in this world. The only wrong you can do is “Thoughtcrime” (holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the Party), which can only be committed by Party members. If caught, all traces of you ever having existed will be destroyed and you will be vaporized or turned into an “unperson”. Frightening yet cool.

Our hero, for lack of a better word, is Winston Smith, a morose, paranoid, frail 39-year old who is an editor in the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth), where he falsifies historical records to keep up with the ever-changing party line and deleting the existence of people who have been vaporized, secretly hoping for an invitation to the Brotherhood, the hush-hush anti-government organisation led by Emmanuel Goldstein. Just like Joseph Stalin used to airbrush his “fallen comrades” from photographs and remove their names from books and newspapers. Constantly being forced to rewrite it, Winston is fascinated by the past and makes clumsy attempts to know what truly happened, either by talking to really old drunks in prole bars or going to antique shops and buying journals and coral paperweights. Total badass.

He falls in love with Julia, a young, hot member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. Yes, these existed, because in this world one of the Party’s aims is to take the joy out of sex. Children are born through “artsem” and as soon as they grow up they join this terrible organisation called the Spies where they get to listen in on doors and report suspicious activities of adults they don’t like. Try making your kid eat veggies now, Mom. Anyway, Winston and Julia have the oddest flirtation ever. He dreams of raping and killing her and she falls passionately in love with him by stalking him. Total fairy tale romance. They have sex in hidden meadows and bombed churches before, finally, getting a room. And real bread and jam. And coffee with real sugar. And Winston gets invited to join the Brotherhood with his own copy of the manifesto and all.

Wait a minute. I thought they were living in a super-surveillance state which is perpetually at war. Yes, they still are. Except Winston’s apparently been having the biggest lucky streak of his life and never thinks to question it. Then he gets caught. Shocker. Which is when the real fun begins in the Ministry of Love (aka Miniluv, LOL). Starvation. Beatings. Torture. Betrayal. And, RATS.


The book is rife with symbolism from wartime Britain and Russia-bashing. For instance, Oceania changing allies when it suited them (Russia and Nazi Germany); Goldstein being a facsimile of Leon Trotsky, animal transformations and all and Big Brother as Stalin. The Thought Police could be the NKVD. Even the lovely contractions are derived from Mother Russia (Dialectical Materialism=DiaMat). The slogan “Our, new happy life” a copy of “Life has become better”. Personally, I think of NaMo’s “Achhe din aa gaye”

Jokes aside, I think 1984 is one of the most well-written and chilling books I have ever read. Orwell, a democratic socialist at heart, has brilliantly demonstrated the perils of authoritarianism. Written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it shows a chilling view of the future as a place where the language has been pared to so great an extent that it only serves the purpose of officialdom and people have been reduced to being tools of the Party. The “proles” are nothing more than the silent masses subjugated to the elite. Your thoughts, your home, your family, your leisure time are all subject to constant surveillance and you like it. It shows how the freedoms we take for granted and the past we derive them from are so fragile and can be snatched away so easily by those in power.

I would recommend this book to everyone who loves a good read. It is a searing political and social commentary as well as a thriller. Read for the masterful way Orwell has used the English language. Read because it is as relevant today as it was 65 years ago. (I’m talking about you, NSA) The book may be a bit dry but Winston humanizes the more abstract themes in a relatable manner. It is a very worthwhile read with rich and layered meanings. It even has cool dialogues like “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” and “Until they become conscious they will never rebel and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious”.

So if you’ve somehow managed to avoid this book in your school years, do yourself a favour and read it today. If you’ve read it and hated it, give it another try. Don’t believe me? Read Isaac Asimov’s review of 1984 at the New Yorker here