One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey Book Review

I knew how the story of this book was supposed to play out before, not because I’d seen the movie (which I haven’t) but because my ex-boyfriend starred as Cheswick in a play of the story at the Oshawa Little Theatre four years ago. It was a decent production. Everyone performed great, especially the ones who played the two leads. I forget who was McMurphy, but Ratched’s actress was one Barbara Clifford. I just wish they tried their hands at more stunts and tried some more effective choking work.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in the early sixties and is from the point of view of an Indian-American named Chief who hides the fact he is not deaf and mute. He lives in a mental asylum, as well as a bunch of geezers who were deemed at one point or another unfit to be in society. Maybe they were a little frenetic or broke the law or bit their neighbours at one point or another, but you would not know that from how restrained and lifeless they are under the supervision of the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched. She has an outdated hairstyle, suggesting she’s a little stuck in her way of seeing things and has a gentle way of saying “Your voice doesn’t matter, I know best, go do this, bye” day in and day out. That is until Randle McMurphy is brought in. He has a fairly long criminal record and managed to con his way out of a work farm to here, a place he says he could easily escape from but is staying for now primarily because there are some perks like some scrumptious breakfasts even with orange juice. And when he realizes he has a competitor in the Big Nurse for abiding by the rules and traditions of the institution, he decides it’s time to do a little bit of sabotage. I mean, who knows? Maybe he could turn the place into his own little party with room service and late-night parties.

Now, boy, I was not enjoying myself in the beginning. After the first 70 pages, I actually thought I was going to give this zero stars and a rare DNF. This is a book with a very weak start, especially before it has a chance to focus on McMurphy. In fact, for most of the first half of this book, every time McMurphy is not a part of a scene, it’s like the disco ball just shuts off. But eventually the book seems to realize how much this story belongs to McMurphy and the Nurse’s battle for dominance, and it does noticeably get better. In the end, going from a 0-star score in the first act to being over a 2-star score by the end is an impressive feat on its own. In the end, I cannot quite recommend this book to the general public, but it has some quirks I’d almost call undeniable.

Apart from the very muddled beginning, which is the time in a book usually most important to grip audiences, and an absence of great book themes separate from McMurphy, what else is there I want to critique? Well, there is some very noticeably outdated material in the form of referring only to Ratched’s workers as the black boys. Especially when there are times where the lightest black boy, as Chief puts it, is the most lenient towards the patients. And how at the end when Nurse Ratched is more…exposed at the end as a woman, and the patients use that as something to make them feel she’s not as superior as they once thought? Ratched is such an effective antagonist that anything that makes her less powerful in our eyes can make one perky, but that’s not the only example of the protagonists flat-out looking down at women. I get, however, that the 60s was a time where ways of thinking were more accepted, so if you do not mind this sort of storytelling, you’ll probably enjoy reading this book more than I did.

Another flaw I have to mention is a strange dismissal of Cheswick’s character (when my ex played him, his death scene didn’t happen because they couldn’t do the pool scene at the theatre.) Cheswick is an outgoing and lovable character, and a death scene that happens is not only sudden, but is written indifferently to the plot, and even worse, to the characters. Cheswick is practically forgotten about by his former friends, and if I decided to nod off during that scene and missed that little detail of his death, I would’ve been scratching my head the rest of the book.

So I guess you can kind of see by now where the negativity comes from. But this book is a classic, and I can honestly say I see why it became a multimillion bestseller. And that brings us back to McMurphy and Ratched. McMurphy is a character as likable as he is thought provoking, to the other mental patients and to us. He’s someone who parents should not want around their kids, but when he realizes the institution’s regulations are depriving the other patients of their humanity and making them too scared to be anything but compliant, he goes out of his way to teach the others about expressing themselves and rediscovering the fun in life. We do sometimes get the impression that, as Nurse Ratched says, yes, some of these activities could be harmful for those too sensitive or mentally daft, but very early on we get the impression that the Big Nurse has only her interests at heart with every excuse she can find to shut an activity down even when it could be legitimately therapeutic. McMurphy does gain some advantages of his own when he wins fights, but there’s always some little twist coming his way from her plotting.

I knew going in I would despise Nurse Ratched. Barbara Clifford gave a great performance at the Oshawa theatre. And as someone who currently works at a child care centre, I can say that if she was willing to be open-minded about more lenient ways of taking care of her patients and just had more empathy and fairness, she would’ve been an exemplary nurse in my eyes. This is because I can understand rules for making sure kids at the place I work stay safe and don’t get bullied and understand boundaries. But I was a kid once too, and kids have less privileges than adults, as well as their own pains and worries when they go through school. It’s amazing how often adults forget that. Rules are important, but it’s also important to make exceptions or changes if the rules don’t let kids, or people in mental institutions, explore the world around them and gain the skills needed to have the confidence to be their own individuals. I was on McMurphy’s side the entire time of the book. And the play. And I’m sure it will be the same as in the movie.

So, yeah, that had very little to do with the book, didn’t it? Let’s just say Kesey manages to write Cuckoo’s Nest with a ferocity and a sometimes effective pinch of humor that brings anti-strict-establishment viewpoints forward without really feeling like you’re being preached at. He manages to bring us on board with a gentle logic about being allowed to have fun and fighting back when facing pain.

In the end, this is one of those times where a grade is not really as important as the discussion. Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest was quite the read, going from horrible to not bad by the end, with amazing clashes between opposing ideologies mixed with eye-rollingly outdated dynamics of looking down at women and people of color. And now that I’ve finished the book, it’s now time to watch the movie with my mom. She’s wanted to see it for a while. I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion with her. See ya!

If you like this, I’d try To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, in my opinion a masterful 4/4 book that also has outdated ways of addressing people of color but teaches how those ways of nicknaming and stereotyping are despicable, toxic, and dishonest, preaching messages of love effective enough to be the revolution it was.

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