The first thing I noticed when I started reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the depiction of the mental institution. So often I read about or see on television places that were so negative, so evil, and so destructive to people, but this novel seems to detract from that. This place they are in doesn’t seem entirely detrimental. The Kesey draws in the focus to the people that are there rather than describing in laborious detail what the place really is. The actual place takes a back seat and the piece is more character driven, which I appreciate. I think society has this picture painted of mental hospitals that is dark and scary, which is true for many instances, but then that begs the question of which places don’t fit the stereotype and what places really did work as intended.
I think that in this way the story becomes much more about Chief and the people in this facility. There is this extreme focus on character’s personality and interactions rather than surroundings. There is this sense of community and each character becomes their own person, rather than a set of symptoms. I think in this was Kesey has tapped into an area that other pieces of literature had yet to tap into and that is the individuality of individuals who are neurodivergent. With that in mind, I wanted to look into what else was happening when this piece came out and the influence it had.
The first piece of information I came across when google searching for the novel’s influence in the decade it came out was its effect on ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). The novel was published in 1962 and the following decade was followed by a “tarnishing” of ECT and its downfall. I am always amazed by media and its ability to sway the general public’s opinion. It reminded me of when Jaws came out and people avoided water for a long, long time. Same concept here — once people are given a negative view of something that it scary within itself, you get a rejection of the idea altogether. Apparently, the novel created a change in the way the entire psychiatry field was viewed. It even brought on an increase in research and development of medication for those with mental illness/disability in place of the shock therapy that was now deemed cruel and unacceptable.
The other idea that I was getting at was about character and I was not disappointed to discover that once again, it all comes back to WWII (as we have discussed many times in class). Kesey used his novel as a way to show the hypocrisy of the “American Dream” America’s view of individuality at the time. America was all about individuality if it was “appropriate”. People with any sort of neurodivergence who went farther than “mildly eccentric” were shoved aside, shocked, and stuck in mental institutions. Kesey attempted to highlight this and bring to life the views, voices, and lives of those people whose individuality was shamed rather than welcomed.