In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey advocates rebellion against a technological and manipulative society. He supports this rebellion by using a mental hospital to represent this type of a society and by describing its horrors.
To call attention to the horrors of the mental hospital, Kesey describes it and those within it as being machines. The mental hospital is run “like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine”1 and the building has “a dull, padded rumbling . . . a lot like the sound . . . of a big hydroelectric dam. Low, relentless, brute power.”2 In the words of mental patient Chief Bromden, who narrates this story, “The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is.”3 This “Combine,” the name itself suggesting the idea of a machine, is the world “outside” the hospital. It is “the forces of technology and human manipulation”4 and stands for “all that packages human beings into products.”5
Also given qualities of a machine is the Big Nurse, the tyrant who runs the ward in the mental hospital where this story takes place. She is described as having “equipment” and “machinery”6 and runs the ward with “mechanical insect skill.”7 Her name, Ratched, suggests “ratchet,” a toothed gear-wheel in a threshing machine. Since a threshing machine is also known as a combine, the Big Nurse’s name describes excellently how she is a mechanical part working for the Combine. She manipulates the patients into what the Combine wants.8 She is “symbolically . . . human warmth, tenderness, and generosity stifled by cold, sterile, technological efficiency.”9 The Big Nurse, herself, is being used and manipulated by the Combine and is a “watchful robot”10 for it.
Kesey’s use of the hospital being part of a “manipulative monster” and the fact that one such as the Big Nurse runs it gives greater insight into the lives of the mental patients. The mental hospital, being a factory for the Combine, is only intent on finding the quickest and easiest possible cure to society’s “disease” of certain people not adapting to its rules.11 Its main purpose is to turn men into children, to rule over them, to make them, of their own free will, “adjust to a role wherein lies safety . . . .”12 Yes, maybe the mental hospital does “fix up” its patients, but it does so by destroying their individuality, the part that makes them special beings.13 For the “good” of the majority, the patients are forced to live by the rules of the mental hospital or risk not ever being able to see the “outside” world again.14 So, they allow themselves to be manipulated and ruled, to be sent back out into the world “with a welded grin, fitting into some nice little neighborhood . . . .”15
But Kesey does not end in such a depressive state where there is no hope for the mental patients, for they are victorious. Into this turmoil, he sends a savior, an answer, Randle Patrick McMurphy. Because the hospital is so intent on destroying the individuality of its patients, Kesey makes McMurphy a person who can give it back to them, a strong individual.16 Kesey gives McMurphy power, the power to make things what he wants them to be. Chief Bromden, speaking of McMurphy, says, “He sounds big.”17 Even the initials of McMurphy’s name, R. P. M. (Revolutions Per Minute), suggests the energy and motion he possesses. 18
Kesey uses laughter in the story to represent freedom as McMurphy remarks, “You have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”19 When McMurphy teaches the patients to laugh, it is a major victory over the forces of the Big Nurse and the Combine because the patients are starting to rebel against their repression.
After struggling with himself about whether he should look out for himself or for the patients, McMurphy decides to fight the Big Nurse, even if it means sacrificing his own life, so the patients can have total freedom. In the end, McMurphy does sacrifice himself for the patients, but instead of his death being a defeat, it is a victory. By sacrificing his life and his freedom, McMurphy gives the patients theirs. 20
So, not only does Ken Kesey ask one to “resist the manipulative forces of a technological society,”21 but he also describes the values needed to attain such a goal. In the words of Stephen Tanner, these values are: “self-reliance; compassion for the weak, hope, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and harmony with nature.”22 Only with these can one successfully rebel against a technological and manipulative society.
High School Research Paper circa 1985
Adelman, George. Review of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Library Journal 67 (February 1, 1962): 574. In Book Review Digest, 1962. Edited by Dorothy P. Davison. New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 1963.
Forrey, Robert. “Ken Kesey’s Psychopathic Savior: A Rejoinder.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., Book Tower, 1979.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York, New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1972.
Knapp, James F. “Ken Kesey.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Dedria Eryfonski. Detroit, Michigan: bale Research Cu., Book Tower, 1979.
Martin, Terrence. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and the High Cost of Living.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co.,Book Tower, 1979.
Sherwood, Terry G. “‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and the Comic Strip.” Critique 8: 96-109 (January 1971). In Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Edited by John C. Pratt. New York: The Viking Press, p. 305.
Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Pub., 1983.
Tanner, Stephen L. “Ken Kesey.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists since World War II. Edited by Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., Book Tower, 1978.
Waldmeir, Joseph J. “Two Novelists of the Absurd: Holler and Kesey.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 5: 192-204 (March 1964). In Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Edited by John E. Pratt. New York: The Viking Press, p. 415.
1Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (New York, New York.: The Viking Press, Inc., 1972), p. 26.
2Ibid., p. 82.
3Ibid., p. 38.
4Stephen L. Tanner, Ken Kesey (Boston, Mass.: Twayne Pub., 1983), p. 25.
5Terrence Martin, “,’One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’and the High Cost of Living,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Dedria Bryfonski (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., BookTower, 1979), p. 315.
6Tanner, Ken Kesey, p. 26.
7Kesey, p. 26.
8Robert Forrey, “Ken Kesey’s Psychopathic Savior: A Rejoinder,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Dedria Bryfonski (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., Book Tower, 1979), p. 316.
9Stephen L. Tanner, “Ken Kesey,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists Since World War II, ed. Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., Book Tower, 1978), p. 262.
10Kesey, p. 26.
11 Terry G. Sherwood, “‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and the Comic Strip,” in Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’sNest Text and Criticism, ed. John C. Pratt (new York: The Viking Press), p.385.
12Martin, p. 314.
13James F. Knapp, “Ken Kesey,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Dedria Bryfonski (Detroit, Michigan, Gale Research Co., Book Tower, 1979), p. 318.
14George Adelman, Review of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in Book Review Digest, ed. Dorothy P. Davison (New York, H.W. Wilson Co., 1963), p.648.
15Kesey, p. 38.
16Knapp, p. 318.
17Kesey, p. 10.
18Tanner, Ken Kesey, p. 28.
19Kesey, p. 237-38.
20Joseph J. Waldmeir, Two Novelists of the Absurd:Heller and Kesey,” in Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:Text and Criticism, ed. John C. Pratt (New York:.The Viking Press)p. 415.
21Tanner, “Ken Kesey,” p. 261.
22Tanner, Ken Kesey, p. 51.