What makes a man a hu-man? Are the crazy too lost to still be men? Who controls you and how? When was the last time you felt the floor under your feet, or at least thought to feel it? Bunches of questions and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will make you wonder them all.
This book should be on everyone’s reading list. A simple story told with a looping prose, this book is the 20th century’s answer to “what is humanity?” The characters are strong, if cut-out of molds at time, and the defining voice is of one R. P. McMurphy, a troubled protagonist if there ever was one.
Told from the point of view of Cheif Bromden, a mental patient, this is the story of how a mental ward under the control of Nurse Ratched is shaken up by the boisterous appearance of R. P. McMurphy. They laugh, they learn, and things get real. It’s like the Real World, but getting voted out is really fucked up.
What I liked
Telling a story from the view of a mental patient should have been tough, but Kesey pulls it off. The main problem is “Is this guy making all this craziness up?” But, the reader rarely questions the truth of the chief’s words, even when he goes off on craziness. Of course, the craziness often sounds very convincing and fits with the themes...
No man is an island, mapped and charted and told right where it is with smoke monsters and shit. Wait, sorry, that might be something else crazy. The ideas present here, that modern society is taking the wildness from people, that good and evil are floating prospects of control and desire, that mixing creating syzurp in a mental hospital is a bad idea... These are facts everyman should have to examine.
R. P. McMurphy is a classic medieval protagonist thrown into a modern setting. He is Conan the Barbarian, Marv, and Bart Simpson. He is a trickster and a con man not quite devoted to the side of evil. And he is a sacrifice, a lamb for the slaughter for a singular location at a singular time. While the rest of the cast, even the narrator, take their time and blend together until a light is shined on them, when the light hits they cast deep and resounding shadows.
What I didn’t like
The fishing trip
This excursion felt flat and wrong. Possibly my view as someone from another era looking back, but this seems out of control and not very responsible to take a bunch of mental patients on a boat, permission slips or not.
This is not to say I did not like her as a character, I simply felt she was way too flat. As a villain, and a great one, she is given nothing but physical characteristics to make her human, and a woman at that. I would have liked some reason for the things she does, a deep caring or a reason for the need for control, rather than a constant mustache twirling she seems to give.
The narrator device
I know, I said I liked it up there. And I do, sort of. But, not really. What he did with it is awesome and the language is impeccable, but I question why we needed this narrator at all. Yes, I get that the person we are following is a blank slate that awakens as the story goes on, but is that connection needed or does it restrict the story? In some ways, I feel like this story is told from the point of view of a young child telling about his day at school rather than an adult. The teacher is formless, the other students only matter when they do things, no one talks about anything interesting until the cool kid does it... This is almost too simplistic for the device, especially without adult logical reflection. The point of view of a madman becomes meaningless when there is no point of view other than, “Here’s what happened, the machine’s here.”
Who would like this
I do not care. Everyone should read this book, like it or not. Or, at least watch the movie. Do me a favor, get into a discussion about this book. If someone has not seen the movie or read the book, give them a copy or watch it with them. This is the definition of a classic and should be respected as a great feat in storytelling.
Why was it banned?
- Challenged in the Greeley, CO public school district (1971) as a non-required American Culture reading.
- In 1974, five residents of Strongsville, OH, sued the board of education to remove the novel. Labeling it "pornographic," they charged the novel "glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination."
- Removed from public school libraries in Randolph, NY, and Alton, OK (1975).
- Removed from the required reading list in Westport, MA (1977).
- Banned from the St. Anthony, ID Freemont High School classrooms (1978) and the instructor fired. The teacher sued. A decision in the case—Fogarty v. Atchley—was never published.
- Challenged at the Merrimack, NH High School (1982).
- Challenged as part of the curriculum in an Aberdeen, WA High School honors English class (1986) because the book promotes "secular humanism." The school board voted to retain the title.
- Challenged at the Placentia-Yorba Linda, CA Unified School District (2000) after complaints by parents stated that teachers "can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again."