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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (read in 2015)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of Big Chief and McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The Big Chief is a long-time resident of the mental institution run by Head Nurse Ratched; McMurphy arrives as a transferee from a work camp who thinks he’s going to have an easier ride in the home. This is true, at least at first. He is a breath of fresh air for the other inmates there, a force of nature, as it were. He chafes and takes liberties and cracks wise and runs card games and generally doesn’t follow the rules. He tries to help free the others from their artificial, psychological fetters. He takes them on a fishing trip. He sneaks ladies and booze into the building late at night. He tries to help poor Billy. Ratched thwarts him every step of the way. The Big Chief narrates, grows and learns. McMurphy sacrifices the last of what he has in a futile act of revenge, though he is aware of what is happening. The Big Chief makes an actual escape. Surprisingly well-written—I didn’t expect such poetic prose from Kesey—and deep. Recommended.


On the subject of poetic prose, here’s our first look at the resident intellectual, Harding.

“Harding is a flat, nervous man with a face that sometimes makes you think you seen him in the movies, like it’s a face too pretty to just be a guy on the street. He’s got wide, thin shoulders and he curves them in around his chest when he’s trying to hide inside himself. He’s got hands so long and white and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap, and sometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him free as two white birds until he noticed them and traps them between his knees; it bothers him that he’s got pretty hands.”
Page 19

How do we know that Harding is an intellectual? Well, just listen to how he talks, all highfalutin’ and such. Here he laments a supposed matriarchy, which while true for him, is a fiction he is capable of maintaining only because of his own personal situation. He is oppressed by his wife, who he is too weak to look at on eye-level and, after voluntarily committing himself, finds himself subject to the rule of Nurse Ratched. This does not a matriarchy make, though. It’s a nicely written speech, but the content is a bit amiss, whether because of Harding’s misconceptions or the author’s, I’m not sure. It smacks of the terror a man has every time women start to exert just a little bit of control, that little bit not even close to commensurate with the proportion of society that they comprise.

"Ah, I believe my friend is catching on, fellow rabbits. Tell me, Mr. McMurphy, how does one go about showing a woman who’s boss, I mean other than laughing at her? How does he show her who’s king of the mountain? A man like you should be able to tell us that. You don’t slap her around, do you? No, then she calls the law. You don’t lose your temper and shout at her; she’ll win by a trying to placate her big ol’ angry boy: ‘Is us wittle man getting fussy? Ahhhhh?’ Have you ever tried to keep up a noble and angry front in the face of such consolation? So you see, my friend, it is somewhat as you stated: man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been the conquerors—”

“Lord, Harding, but you do come on,” McMurphy says.

“—and do you think, for acclaimed pychopathic powers, that you could effectively use your weapon against our champion? Do you think you could use it against Miss Ratched, McMurphy? Ever?”

Page 63–64

The next passage is a nice reminder of what life is like for those for whom life streams along much too quickly to really and truly grasp. While we, possessed as many of us are with more-than-adequate intellect, sometimes feel overwhelmed and tired by the demands of the quotidian, how do you think it feels for poor old Pete and his friends?

“There’s old Pete, face like a searchlight. He’s fifty yards off to my left, but I can see him plain as though there wasn’t any fog at all. Or maybe he’s up right close and real small, I can’t be sure. He tells me once about how tired he is, and just his saying it makes me see his whole life on the railroad, see him working to figure out how to read a watch, breaking a sweat while he tries to get the right button in the right hole of his railroad overalls, doing his absolute damnedest to keep up with a job that comes so easy to the others they can sit back in a chair padded with cardboard and read mystery stories and girlie books. Not that he ever really figured to keep up—he knew from the start he couldn’t do that—but he had to try to keep up, just to keep them in sight. So for forty years he was able to live, if not right in the world of men, at least on the edge of it.”
Page 117–118

And here, Kesey writes of the revolution’s great enemy: the enervation of constant struggle leading to apathy, to caginess, to pacing oneself. The white-hot nova of revolution realizes it’s going to expend itself uselessly on a small corner of the beast and pulls back…back into itself, to reconsider, to bide its time, to be in it for the long haul. It’s quite possibly the right thing to do—after all, why sacrifice the best, most experienced troops in a gesture?—but no war was ever won without sacrifice.

“But me, I know why. I heard him talk to the lifeguard. He’s finally getting cagey, is all. The way Papa finally did when he came to realize that he couldn’t beat that group from town who wanted the government to put in the dam because of the money and the work it would bring, and because it would get rid of the village: Let that tribe of fish Injuns take their sink and their two hundred thousand dollars the government is paying them and go some place else with it! Papa had done the smart thing signing the papers; there wasn’t anything to gain by bucking it. The government would of got it anyhow, sooner or later; this way the tribe would get paid good. It was the smart thing. McMurphy was doing the smart thing. I would see that. He was giving in because it was the smartest thing to do, not because of any of these other reasons the Acutes were making up. He didn’t say so, but I knew and I told myself it was the smart thing to do. i told myself that over and over: It’s safe. Like hiding. it’s the smart thing to do nobody could say and different. I know what he’s doing.”
Page 150

This is a scene from the fishing trip, a tumult of activity told in long, clause-filled sentences that quickly resolve the scene with a remarkably sharp clarity. Again, the chief examines this force of nature that names itself McMurphy, analyzes his ways of dealing with the deadly grasp that society places at their throats. He deals with it by laughing in its face, by deliberately not acknowledging its power, and to hell with the consequences, because nothing could be worse than submission to this soft, cozening domination by something lesser.

“This scramble of action holds for a space, a second there on the sea—the men yammering and struggling and cussing and trying to tend their poles while watching the girl; the bleeding, crashing battle between Scanlon and my fish at everybody’s feet; the lines all tangled and shooting every which way with the doctor’s glasses-on-a-string tangled and dangling from one line ten feet off the back of the boat, fish striking at the flash of the lens, and the girl cussing for all she’s worth and looking now at her bare breasts, one white and one smarting red—and George takes his eye off where he’s going and runs the boat into that log and kills the engine.

“While McMurphy laughs. Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water—laughing at the girl, at the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier and the bicycle rider and the service-station guys and the give thousand houses and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows 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. He knows there’s a painful side; he knows my thumb smarts and his girl field has a bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.”

Page 214

And, finally, McMurphy’s nova comes at last, with his denouement serving as cradle for the Chief’s rebirth.

“I looked at McMurphy out of the corner of my eye, trying not to be obvious about it. He was in his chair in the corner, resting a second before he came out for the next round—in a long line of next rounds. The thing he was fighting, you couldn’t whip it for good. All you could do was keep on whipping it, till you couldn’t come out any more and somebody else had to take your place.”
Page 273

And, after Billy Bibbitt was discovered in the doctor’s office with his throat cut by his own hand, not because of what McMurphy had helped him do—eat, drink, lay with a whore, be merry—but because of the guilt that Ratched had instantly instilled upon him for having partaken.

“She walked straight to McMurphy.

““He cut his throat,” she said. She waited, hoping he would say something. He wouldn’t look up. “He opened the doctor’s desk and found some instruments and cut his throat. The poor miserable, misunderstood boy killed himself. He’s there now, in the doctor’s chair, with his throat cut.”

“She waited again. But he still wouldn’t look up.

““First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives—gambling with human lives—as if you thought yourself to be a God!”

“She turned and walked into the Nurses’ Station and closed the door behind her, leaving a shrill, killing-cold sound ringing in the tubes of light over our heads.

“First I had a quick thought to try to stop him, talk him into taking what he’d already won and let her have the last round, but another, bigger thought wiped the first thought away completely. I suddenly realized with a crystal certainty that neither I nor any of the half-score of us could stop him. […]

“We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.

“We made him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap with one finger like it was a ten-gallon Stetson, slow, mechanical gestures—and when he walked across the floor you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile.

“Only at the last—after he’d smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror forever ruining any other look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light—only at the last, after the officials realized that the three black boys weren’t going to do anything but stand and watch and they would have to beat him off without their help, doctors and supervisors and nurses prying those heavy red fingers out of the white flesh of her throat as if they were her neck bones, jerking him backward off of her with a loud heave of breath, only then did he show any sign that he might be anything other than a sane, willful, dogged man performing a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not.

“He gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out:

“A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn’t care any more about anything but himself and his dying. (Emphasis added.)”


The Big Chief realizes that McMurphy wasn’t a nova of his own at all, but rather a vessel, a lens, through which the remaining power of the other inmates was focused. He knew what he was there for, he regretted the lost years of a possible future that would never come, but knew that he’d had more life than all of the others put together and was willing to sacrifice himself if only they would just. Wake. Up.