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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I’m continuing my vein of writing about books I teach, and my latest novel for my current combination class of 11th and 12th graders is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  If you’re a reader, this book is pretty cool.  If you’re a teacher (of older, mature students) this book is THE.COOLEST.BOOK.TO.TEACH!  Psychology was my major in college, and continues to be a hobby of mine, so bringing in relevant psychology articles and discussing the ethics surrounding psychological treatments then-and-now with a novel set in a mental ward made for a really fun teaching and reading experience.  Also, if you’re a movie buff, the film version of this book, starring Jack Nicholson absolutely swept at the Oscars in 1975 and is unquestionably worth watching.

The book is narrated by a patient with schizophrenia, who for the first part of the novel is perceived by those around him to be deaf and mute – making him the perfect fly on the wall narrator, since the other characters will reveal more around him.  Having a schizophrenic narrator is also a really cool choice on the part of of the author – throughout the book the reader is “in the fog” with Chief Bromden, and you must constantly decide what is real, what is illness, and what is a side-effect of treatment for that illness.  Life on the ward is strictly controlled by domineering Nurse Ratched, until Randle P. McMurphy rolls into town.  A criminal with psychopathic tendencies, he refuses to abide by the ward rules and in so doing, shows the other patients to stand up for themselves and get more comfortable with not fitting the mold society places on them.  The book can be heartbreakingly brutal and is a very clear commentary on society and how we treat those people who are just a little bit different (or a lot different) than we are.  Kesey has very clear commentary speaking out against conforming to what the established authority expects, which is indicative of his activities in the 60s, when the book was written.  The plot itself is so-so, but the beauty of narration by an unreliable narrator (who slowly becomes more reliable, the longer McMurphy is on the ward) is worth reading.  Also, if possible, read this book with a book club or other discussion group because there is so much to talk about!  A few of my favorite points of discussion to consider:

  • the role of women in the novel – not that flattering!  Was this also a statement by Kesey?  Is it bad enough to shun the book all together?  Is it a coincidence?  The choice to make the “cruel establishment” character female was definitely an interesting one… and I’m still trying to decide what Kesey’s motivation behind it was.
  • the ethics of psychological treatment – yes, they’re better today.  But discussing the element of choice in receiving a certain procedure is really interesting as well as discussion of effectiveness and if the trade off for certain side effects is worth it.
  • the time period of the novel – free love, acid trips, war protests, etc.  The 60’s were rife with anti-establishment music, art, and literature.  The historical influences on this novel are really cool to explore and discuss.  And hello, the treatment of Native Americans by our government?  Fascinating, though heartbreaking stuff.  Though this is a minor plot thread in the novel, it’s still worth exploring.
  • And I’m sure there are many, many more.  If you do discuss this novel with a book club or other group, please, let me know what big questions you grappled with!

Overall, I recommend this book – with or without a group to discuss it with.  It’s a great look inside mental health facilities of the ’60s, and from a purely artistic standpoint, the writing is really interesting.  My students and I learned that Kesey often wrote while on acid, and I can definitely see some points in the novel where this may be the case.  I give this book 4 stars, but leave with a warning.  There is some brutalization in the novel where no one is the bad guy – everyone is a victim and the world we live in made certain characters do cruel things to those weaker than they are.  It’s worth reading, but you need a strong stomach.  ★★★★

– Becca



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