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Resistance Is Not Futile: It’s How You Stay Sane
When the Asylum Runs You. Reviewing Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
If you were looking for a convincing narrator to navigate readers through the twists and turns of your story, odds are good you’d choose someone other than a deaf-mute paranoid who suffers from hallucinations—unless, of course, the world is just as crazy as an insane asylum, in which case, yeah, that might be a safe bet after all.
Who would know? Randle Patrick McMurphy, a skilled card shark looking for easier digs to pass his prison sentence than the work farm to which he’d been sentenced. At the asylum, patients get a full night’s sleep, wake up to fresh-squeezed orange juice, and—importantly—don’t have any labor harder than washing floors and toilets. That suits him nicely.
But McMurphy’s not the narrator of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. No, that’s Chief Bromden, a gargantuan, six-foot-eight American Indian who has, through the vagaries of life and injustices of men, succumbed to madness—along with pretty much every other patient in the asylum to varying degrees. All but McMurphy.
Christ figures usually surprise us. No one expects the sort of redemptive interventions that disrupt reality and send it spinning different directions. That’s especially true, I’d imagine, for the patients of a mental hospital. And then one day in strolls McMurphy with his deck of cards, the least-Christlike Christ figure in American literature. And Bromden? His unlikely evangelist, naturally.
Their adversary dons a starched white uniform. Nurse Ratched—ratchet, wretched, you get the idea—uses the daily group-therapy sessions to exert her dominance and dehumanize the patients, not by direct means but through subtle manipulation. “She doesn’t accuse,” says Dale Harding, one of the more intuitive and intelligent patients. “She merely needs to insinuate. . . .”
McMurphy thinks he sees right through her game. What’s more he sees the men aren’t as bad off as they let on. They’re crazy, sure, but the system itself is crazy-making. Ratched is driving them all nuts. Just a little self-aware resistance is all it should take to expose the sham.
But when he tries to enlighten his fellow inmates, they resist. “This world . . . belongs to the strong, my friend!” says Harding. “The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. . . . The rabbits learn to accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf as the strong. . . . He most certainly doesn’t challenge the wolf to combat.”
McMurphy objects. He says all the “Big Nurse” can do is ask questions. The men can simply refuse to answer. They object that with her questions, silence is an answer. She always wins. “Why don’t you tell her to up and go to hell?” he asks.
Ah, well, that would get a person labeled disruptive or hostile. Enough of that and a person gets sent up to the Disturbed ward for electro shock therapy. When Kesey was writing, electro shock therapy was still in use in mental hospitals—same with lobotomization, barbaric methods that render patients inert.
A challenge presents itself to McMurphy, ever the gambler. “So if I behave myself and don’t cuss her out . . . or cuss one of the aides out or tear up jack some way around here, she can’t do nothing to me?”
Yes, says Harding. Ratched would be powerless. But he doesn’t think McMurphy can do it. “She always wins, my friend, always. She’s impregnable. . . .”
It’s a bet. If McMurphy can get the best of Ratched in a week’s time without her getting the best of him, the men pay up.
McMurphy jumps right in, working every angle to drive Ratched to the edge of her patience without tripping any wires. He obeys the rules with vindictive compliance while stretching them to the breaking point, undermining her at every turn. He even figures out how to get Nurse Ratched’s pet doctor on his side. She’s never faced a challenger like this, and with one stunt after another, McMurphy triumphs!
McMurphy has won the bet, and the men don’t mind paying up. They are enlivened and start coming out of themselves. The witch is dead!
Right up until McMurphy—and eventually the rest of the men—realize Nurse Ratched holds a trump card. McMurphy thinks he can walk out of the place as soon as his prison sentence is up. But, no. Most of the patients are voluntarily admitted. Not McMurphy. Because he wasn’t free to begin with, he’s involuntarily committed: stuck until the powers that be at the hospital say he’s well enough to leave. And who makes that determination? Nurse Ratched.
McMurphy’s been making mortal enemies with the one person who can let him leave! As soon as McMurphy realizes this, he mellows. No more passive resistance. He complies. “She always wins, my friend, always. She’s impregnable. . . .”
At first, the rest of the patients come up with excuses for his tactical retreat: It’s reverse psychology. He’s letting her think she won. It’s just a calculated sacrifice in the larger game of chess. But Chief Bromden knows. He doesn’t say much but hears everything—including when another involuntarily committed patient explains McMurphy’s predicament to him.
“Me,” Bromden tells the reader, “I know why. . . . He’s finally getting cagey, is all. . . . McMurphy was doing the smart thing. I could see that. He was giving in because it was the smartest thing to do. . . .” Eventually, the other patients catch on, too. Their hero has surrendered. They don’t hold it against him. They understand. The wolf always devours the rabbits.
It’s the final dashed hope for one patient, who swims to the bottom of the pool and drowns himself.
The change is subtle, slow in coming. But after his friend dies McMurphy decides to renew the fight, and this time he doesn’t care what happens. He only knows that Ratched can’t win, even if he has to sacrifice himself completely.
Life in the Machine
McMurphy’s battle presents a metaphor for anyone trapped in an unjust world. Bromden makes this connection clear enough when talking about the Combine—a piece of farming equipment used for harvesting grain by reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing. Apply those verbs to people and you can see Bromden’s parallel. The world chews people up and processes them to serve its ends. Nurse Ratched and her mental ward does that, true enough. But so does the universe outside.
Bromden highlights the point while on a fishing trip McMurphy convinces the doctor to allow several patients to attend—against the Big Nurse’s wishes. As they drive toward the ocean, Bromden takes view of the countryside and reflects:
All up the coast I could see the signs of what the Combine had accomplished . . . things like, for example a train stopping at a station and laying a string of full-grown men in mirrored suits and machined hats, laying them like a hatch of identical insects, half-life things coming pht-pht-pht out of the last car, then hooting its electric whistle and moving on down the spoiled land to deposit another hatch.
Or things like five thousand houses punched out identical by a machine and strung across the hills outside of town, so fresh from the factory they’re still linked together like sausages, a sign saying “NEST IN THE WEST HOMES—NO DWN [sic]. PAYMENT FOR VETS,” a playground down the hill from the houses, behind a checker-wire fence and another sign that read “ST. LUKE’S SCHOOL FOR BOYS”— there were five thousand kids in green corduroy pants and white shirts under green pullover sweaters playing crack-the-whip across an acre of crushed gravel. The line popped and twisted and jerked like a snake, and every crack popped a little kid off the end, sent him rolling up against the fence like a tumbleweed. Every crack. And it was always the same little kid, over and over.
All that five thousand kids lived in those five thousand houses, owned by those guys that got off the train. The houses looked so much alike that, time and time again, the kids went home by mistake to different houses and different families. Nobody ever noticed. They ate and went to bed. The only one they noticed was the little kid at the end of the whip. He’d always be so scuffed and bruised that he'd show up out of place wherever he went.
The kid at the end of the whip—those are the people who can’t make it in the machine. The Combine winnows them out, either into hospitals or other forms of marginalization.
Escaping the Combine
Kesey’s complaint feels of its time. Here in the third decade of the twenty-first century we aren’t all waiting in lines of gray-suited Mass Men. But we’re missing something if we don’t see other forces of conformity pressing us into acceptable configurations. If we look around the social and political landscape, we can spot all those kids at the end of the whip. Maybe we feel like one of those kids some days. Do we let the Combine win? In such a situation, resistance—even if insufficient to prevail—might be the only way to stay sane in the meantime.
In the last stages of McMurphy’s war with Nurse Ratched, the men see this for themselves. One night, before planning an escape, McMurphy and the rest bribe a night guard and throw a party with smuggled women, booze, and enough reckless abandon to rattle the place to the foundation. It’s one final act of defiance that culminates in a realization for Harding, one he shares with McMurphy: “They’re still sick men in a lot of ways. But at least there’s that: they are sick men now. No more rabbits, Mack. Maybe they can be well men someday.”
McMurphy pays the price for his defiance. His escape doesn’t take the shape he plans. But Chief Bromden succeeds in flying the coop after an act of extreme mercy. Through McMurphy’s sacrifice, Bromden secures his freedom, finds his voice, and tells the tale.
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Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the ninth book in my 2023 classic novel goal. If you want to read more about that project, you can find that here and here. So far, I’ve read and reviewed:
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (January)
Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (February)
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (March)
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (April)
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (May)
Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (June)
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (July)
Zora Neale Hurston’s The Eyes Were Watching God (August)
In October, I’ll be reading and reviewing Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.