‘Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by the mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy- the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.’
‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ will always be a film that I think of warmly, and yet I never fail to shudder when I remember it. My everlasting memory of it will forever be of watching it one late night with my father. I’d come downstairs way after my bedtime, so late in fact that the only person still awake in the house was my dad, and pretended that I was up because I was thirsty. I proceeded to sip at my drink whilst sitting on the arm of the sofa, before gradually slipping next to my dad and ignoring his half hearted attempts to remind me about how late it was. Much like ‘The Green Mile’, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ was a film I’d watched with my dad when I was young (way before I probably should have watched it) that had a profound effect on me. Both films immediately became some of my favourites but also gave me nightmares for years. Luckily for me, neither book has had such an effect.
What I really loved about reading this novel is the complete shift in perspective to what I’d expected from the film. The book is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden which allows you a unique perspective on the events of the novel. Bromden allows you an initially internal view of the workings of the ward as he does not interact with any of the other characters, but as he begins to fall more and more under McMurphy’s influence and warms to the conman he flourishes in his environment and becomes more of an active part in their shenanigans. This sort of character development on the part of the narrator is especially important to the story and allows the plot to slowly escalate as the Chiefs voice changes.
The great thing about the novel is how much of a commentary it is on social norms and what is it to be deemed outside of those norms, abnormal and therefore not of sound and sane mind. There are very few patients in the novel who I would deem insane. Obviously, a great many of them show clear symptoms of mental illness but whether these illnesses warrant treatments such as electric shock therapy and lobotomies is another thing entirely. Especially with regards to McMurphy, who I feel certain must have appeared sane to all including Nurse Ratched.
I distinctly remember falling in love with Billy when I watched the film, and I have to say his end was just as heartbreaking in the book as it was on screen. That was the moment for me that fully cemented Ratched as one of the greatest villains (or antagonists if you prefer) in literary (and film) history. She managed to drive that boy from euphoria to killing himself in around 5 sentences which was both horrifying and fascinating to watch. Until then you can delude yourself that she’s just a woman doing her job and what she believes to be best but at that moment when she reminds Billy of his mother you immediately recognise that Ratched wants her power back and will secure it by any means necessary.
Basically, I really loved reading this book. I loved the characters, the quirks, the plot, the escapades and I especially loved the in depth view into Kesey’s version of a 50s mental hospital and the way it explores how mental illness is treated. The look into Chief Bromden and his treatment as an Indian and the way other vulnerable characters like George and Billy are treated is brilliantly done and very thought provoking. I loved the novel almost as much as I love the film and to be honest if I was Ken Kesey I’d be delighted such an award winning adaptation cemented my novel’s place in literary history, rather than refusing to even watch it.