VanOrd, Analysis Three — “Cuckoo’s Nest”

Although One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a very well-known book, taught often in high schools and at universities, this was my first time reading it. Overall I enjoyed it. It was interesting reading a book from the perspective of a neurodivergent narrator, Chief Bromden. Even though Chief is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and widely believed by the other characters to be dead and dumb, I do believe him as a narrator. Regardless of the hallucinations, when Chief is mentally present he does a very good job at observing the staff and other patients around him. The way no one suspects anything from Chief is almost like an advantage. Besides the orderlies making him sweep a lot, until McMurphy shows up, Chief does a good job of staying hidden and quiet. He specifies that he prefers this over being noticed. This passive quietness helps chief to kind of be like a fly on the wall and stay as safe as possible in a place that constantly threatens to fry your brain under the guise of treatment. Rather than risk special attention from Ratched and the orderlies, Chief avoids going to the Disturbed Ward, the Shock Shop, and having a lobotomy performed.

Even though Chief talks about fog a lot, I don’t think this undermines him as a reliable narrator. Chief latched onto describing the asylum and his time there often as being engulfed in fog. This turns out to be a fantastic metaphor that helps the reader to understand the setting and the feel that is going throughout the asylum. It brings us closer to understanding the “haze”, as well as the other patients, are in. This addresses the intense regime Ratched has the patients in. She drugs them to keep them in check and governs them with fear for extra “treatment”.

I liked how this book could bring awareness to some of the mistreatment and cruelty that has filled asylums and mental hospitals. Even though this asylum is stated to be better than the “old hospital”, it is clearly still corrupt with the treatment of the patients by the staff. Most of the patients there think this is being of Nurse Ratched’s wickedness but Chief and McMurphy think it’s just the how the corrupt system works. Chief even calls it “the Combine”.

What I didn’t like about the book though is how sexually aware it made the reader of the characters. Of course everyone, including neurodivergent people, have sexual capacities but for patients mentally unsound it somehow felt inappropriate to refer to their sexuality. Almost in comparison to children – like how we wouldn’t find it acceptable to talk about a kid’s sexual potential. Maybe this is my own personal hurdle to overcome with neurodovergence, but this was an odd downside for me in the book. I can recognize this made the characters more “normal” and breaks through the neruodiveregent stereotypes that mentally ill people just aren’t sexual people at all, that they’re too innocent, unaware and incapable, but I still didn’t like it.

Overall, I found Cuckoo’s Nest interesting, captivating, and Chief to be very likable. Through looking up more information on Chief, I found the Sparknotes website particularly interesting. The analysis on Chief there was very similar to the thoughts I had but also mentioned more specifically that Chief experienced a lot of dehumanization and that is likely that made him “insane” while he was in the asylum.

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3 thoughts on “VanOrd, Analysis Three — “Cuckoo’s Nest”

  1. thaxtonl

    This was also my first time reading OWFOCN, as well! Which, feels dishonorable as an English major. However, I agree in the idea that Chief is a truly reliable narrator. By the end, I truly believed his story, and my heart broke for him and McMurphy. It’s interesting in looking at Chief as a “fly on the wall” and McMurphy being the absolute foil of that, someone who makes people talk. Chief did well to avoid going to Disturbed and getting shock treatments, and definitely conforms to Nurse Ratched’s rules to do so. McMurphy on the other hand gets sent up to Disturbed, gets shock treatments, and gets a lobotomy. The person with the most freedom and overall free spirit, like a bird, is killed. Chief on the other hand gets to fly freely, something he has never done in his life.

    I agree with your notions about Chief being a reliable narrator. In class, I wanted to jump in and defend him! But, I think Kesey did a remarkable job in characterizing Chief and allowing for us readers to immediately sympathize and “root” for him. We see him open up on the page and we cheer, we see him retracting into the fog and we feel fear. Hey, that rhymed.
    I feel like this book plays off of the many stereotypes and stigmas that “insane asylums” had in this era (what, the 60s?). A subliminal oppressive environment, the amount of “whiteness” in the story, and the character tropes in OWFOCN make me feel this way. Chief definitely breaks these stereotypes by having this grasp on the inner workings of the larger world, of society, as dubbed “The Combine”.

    I too found it interesting in the amount of “sexual” imagery in the book. To me, it feels like a lot of the book revolves around a man’s sexuality. It revolves around emasculation. It revolves around dehumanizing individuals with mental illness. I feel as though Nurse Ratched specifically played on the men’s sexual capacities (in Harding and his wife, in making Billy feel shame) in order to control them. I guess that controlling someone’s sexual energy is to control them at their very cores. I don’t think Kesey tried to make the mentally ill be “sexually unstable” or what have you, but he could be preying on the stigmas of mental hospitals as being this pure, “clean” place for “treatment”.

    Billy kills himself in the end because he had sex with Candy, and because Nurse Ratched preyed on that insecurity of his. If Billy didn’t have sex with Candy, if McMurphy didn’t “force” Billy to face his sexuality as a “man”, he might’ve lived. It is in the same way that Nurse Ratched tried to get a rise out of Harding for his lack of sexual attraction to his wife: it seemed to get a lot of real estate in the book. I think this is because of, again, Nurse Ratched. She constantly brought it up in everyone’s mind to remind them that she holds all the sexual power, and they don’t. Billy would’ve never met Candy if it weren’t for McMurphy, the man that brings back sexuality into the hospital.

    If you thought Sparknotes was interesting, don’t watch the movie. I loved the book and the movie couldn’t live up to it at all.

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  2. rachel16d

    I also have never read this book or seen the movie! Thankfully I had an idea of what it is about because I like to have some knowledge about a book before I start reading. After reading it, I’m glad I bought the book because I’m definitely going to keep it! I think the best thing I liked about it was Chief as the narrator.

    I’m really happy that Chief was used as the narrator because he has a more neutral opinion on most matters. If Nurse Ratched or McMurphy had been the narrator, then I think there would be more biased opinions towards other characters or mental health institutions in general. Thankfully, Chief told the story in a beautifully descriptive way. I loved his description of Sandy when she breaks into the asylum with Candy: “She was bigger that Candy, and maybe five years older, and had tried to lock her bay colored hair in a stylish bun at the back of her head, but it kept stringing down around her broad milk-fed cheekbones, and she looked like a cowgirl trying to pass herself off as a society lady. Her shoulders and breasts and hips were too wide and her grin too big and open for her to ever be called beautiful, but she was pretty and she was healthy…” To me, it was easy to read this book because Chief’s thoughts are written out just like I would think them in my head. This quote in particular is so descriptive and funny!

    What was hard for me to handle is when Billy connects with Candy and his stutter gets better and basically goes away. I was so happy for him and it was clear that the rest of the patients were too. I guess it is weird that our society thinks that mentally disabled people are so innocent and can’t handle anything sexual. For Billy, I think it helped him! It calmed him and made him feel more comfortable. And of course, Nurse Ratched had to ruin it. I just couldn’t stand that woman. She had to bring up Billy’s mother and get him all insecure again. That’s why I couldn’t handle it, because I’m pretty sure she knew what she was doing, but it didn’t matter. She has to always be in control.

    I’m hoping that institutions now a days do not have nurses like Nurse Ratched. I don’t think there was any of her actions that I agreed with throughout the whole book. Reading this makes me more aware of the heartaches people with disabilities go through, because I have little knowledge about it.

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  3. racheltrisch

    I agree with your post! I knew One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest was a famous piece of literature and that it was widely taught, but like you, I had never read it until this class. I also enjoyed this book. It was an interesting and refreshing take to have a neurodivergent narrator, and I found it an interesting task to go back through the book and search for clues and bits of narration when I was trying to decide whether or not I felt that chief was a reliable narrator.
    As you wrote above, I also I feel that chief is a reliable narrator. However, the two characters that really stuck with me throughout the book were McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. I found it quite interesting in the way the author used these two characters as opposites to make statements about the mental hospitals that were used to institutionalize the characters in this novel.
    Nurse Ratched runs the hospital with the same attitude one would run a factory. Despite the fact that she is in a position where she has people who are in need depending on her, she is much more focused on keeping the hospital running smoothly. To her, the patients are nothing more than cogs in a machine. She also obsesses over keeping the hospital as neat and orderly as possible, and overall maintains a cold and sterile demeanor.
    I found it very interesting to see how she reacted when faced with a character like McMurphy, who is opposite of her in all senses. After he is introduced to the hospital, he seems to be the only one brave enough to call Ratched out on her behaviors that serve only herself. This causes a sort of “domino effect” with the other patients, who also agree with him and begin to fight back against Ratched for the first time. I also found it interesting that the author includes many symbols that seem to indicate McMurphy as a Christ figure in this novel, such as the other men who pledge their allegiance to him and when he sacrifices himself when he attacks Ratched for the benefit of the other patients. For a man who was arrested for raping a 15-year-old girl and does not seem to be a very noble character, it is interesting that he is the one who has these symbols attached to him.
    Overall, I feel that this book would be a valuable addition to future classrooms. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is not only a rich resource for the study of literary devices such as metaphor and symbolism, but also includes a neurodivergent narrator. In addition to this, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest also raises awareness for the mistreatment of those in institutions such as the one in this book.

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