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Crazy Talk: One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest Controversy Examined

Updated on August 2, 2017
Elyse Thomas profile image

Elyse has taught middle school for three years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

The Controversy

In the year 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported on a controversy in the local school district over the use of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with parents claiming that the novel was too inappropriate to be used in a curriculum for high schoolers. Similarly, the novel was challenged in Colorado, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Idaho, and several others on the same ground. “It teaches how easy it is to smother somebody,” claimed one Los Angeles mother, "I don't want to put these kinds of images in children's minds. They're going to think that when they get mad at their parents, they can just ax them out." This complaint simply isolates a single event within the novel, and seems to take it a bit out of context, but it was not the only concern given by the parents involved. Other complaints listed off obscenity, prostitution, and drug use as reasons for why the novel should be taken off the book lists (Tran 1). While the concerns listed are certainly relevant and present in the novel in question, it can be argued that they serve a purpose greater than the effects that these parents fear. The major themes in the story, for example, while supported by characters and events that concerned guardians may find distasteful, are overall more wholesome than one would immediately suspect.

The Theme of Individuality

One of the major themes in the lives of high schoolers, and beyond those years as well, is the development of the individual. In high school, most students first learn to drive a car, see an R rated movie, and think seriously about their own futures. Developing into an adult, therefore, is synonymous with being given the freedoms to develop as an individual. Enter Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in a mental ward where, understandably, things are made to run strictly according to schedule. The men on the ward rise at the same time every morning, then are shaved and led to breakfast where they will eat the meal chosen and provided for them, and then continue throughout the day on the same tight, rarely varying schedule. They are given pills to subdue any symptoms of their individual conditions, but as the novel progresses it is hinted that the pills were also used to keep the patients significantly easier to control and direct. While the ward remains orderly and on schedule beneath the tyranny of Nurse Ratched, the men are subdued and drugged beyond any human recognition. The patients are distinguished as either Acute or Chronic, depending on their severity, but within the ward at the very beginning of the novel, they are essentially equal in their actions and humanity. That is to say, neither group is very human or individual at this point. Soon, however, a man by the name of Randall Patrick McMurphy enters the scene and, consequently, so does a bit of individuality. From the moment he walks in the door, the narrator, Chief Bromden, knows that something is different about him. “I don’t hear him slide scared against the wall, and when they tell him about the shower he don’t just submit with a weak little yes, he tells them right back in a loud, brassy voice that he’s already plenty damn clean, thank you (Kesey 10).” By rejecting the shower from the very beginning, McMurphy shows that he is not about to let anyone else think for him, which is something that the ward staff are not accustomed to. His lack of conformity proves to be a bit of an aggravation for them, especially nurse Ratched, but he never gives an inch. He does, in fact, begin a campaign to, essentially, conform as little as possible. In this particular ward, being an individual means defying the rule Nurse Ratched, which is exactly what McMurphy plans to do. “One week, and if I don’t have her to where she don’t know whether to shit or go blind, the bet is yours,” he tells the others (Kesey 66). McMurphy interrupts in meetings, overrules the opinions of the Nurse, puts together a fishing trip with the company of a couple of prostitutes, and overall shows the entire ward that to be an individual is to be strong. In one very important scene, McMurphy has used democracy to try to overrule Nurse Ratched’s decision that the men will not watch the World Series in favor of the usual schedule. McMurphy and the men gather and sit in front of the blank television anyway, as a sign of protest, but this sign of life from the other patients is not the only significant part to be taken away from this scene. Chief Bromden, the narrator, during the weekly meeting has been dozing in and out of consciousness, in and out of the present time. He mentions “the fog,” which comes whenever he is in the comatose state, but when McMurphy begins speaking about the World Series, this fog miraculously begins to recede. “That’s that McMurphy,” thinks Chief, “He’s far away. He’s still trying to pull people out of the fog (Kesey 120).” Therefore, McMurphy acts as a model of individuality that lends a light to those trapped within the conformity, such as those that are patients in Nurse Ratched’s ward. This light of individuality runs through the entire novel as a major theme.

Nature Versus Society

Pitting nature against society is another major theme of this novel. Illustrated mostly through the narrations of Big Chief Bromden, the reader comes to recognize a sort of mechanical motif that is associated with anything to do with the running of the ward. At the very beginning of the story, for one thing, Chief observes the interaction between an angry Nurse Ratched and the two black orderlies who are neglecting their duties in the hall. At this point in the book, everything Chief sees is compared to machinery, but it is none so evident in the way he describes the Nurse’s reaction. “So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load (Kesey 5).” These sorts of descriptions play often throughout Chief’s narration of the novel. There’s the obvious comparison of the ward “running like a well-oiled machine,” and being the cold, sterile, orderly place that it is. The fact that the Chief makes these comparisons, and hallucinates in this way, goes even deeper, however. Whenever Chief goes into his more comatose states he tends to go back to his past, when he worked with a lot of machinery and a lot of mechanical parts. In these flashbacks it is easy to see why he now looks at everything as a machine, as it was a major part of his past. Further on in the novel, however, he goes even further back to his family days, triggered by McMurphy who, as Chief says on page 10, “talks a little the way Papa used to.” Chief’s father was a real Chief who was worked over by the Combine until he ceded his tribes people and land to the government. Chief watched it all happen, and watched his father deteriorate into nothing, and then he was put to work with machines. For Chief, the machines represent everything that had beat him down, beat something that was as natural and human as his tribe. The machine is the government, and the machine was everything that was controlling him in the ward. He said as much to McMurphy on page 189, “The Combine had whipped him. It beats everybody. It’ll beat you too. They can’t have somebody as big as Papa running around unless he’s one of them. You can see that.” In Chief’s mind, he was still being controlled by the machines, creating a stark parallel between the natural state he had come from and the controlled society he was forced to live in now. Like a breath of fresh air, however, McMurphy comes in and the machinery starts to back off a little, McMurphy representing something purely natural. This is shown on page 142, where the machines quiet themselves and the fog clears enough for Chief to cross his room and look outside for the first time. He sees the moon and a dog rooting around in the grass down below, and the reader is made aware that this is, perhaps, the first purely natural scene described in the entire novel. The contrast is shocking. The nature versus society theme is also defined within McMurphy himself. A self-proclaimed sex-addict, McMurphy wasted no time scandalizing Nurse Ratched with his pride in his numerous exploits. This sexual side, however, was something he found stunted before long. Calling the Nurse a “ball-cutter,” another patient, Harding, points out to him just how right he is. He challenges McMurphy to use his sex drive against Nurse Ratched, and watches as his face falls a little. “I can’t get it up over old frozen face in there even if she had the beauty of Marilyn Monroe (Kesey 64).” By taking away his masculinity and his very sexual urges, the nurse and the institutional society she runs takes away his manhood as well as his very nature. The men on this ward are sexless, thoughtless creatures that move like cogs in a machine, like Chief describes. The things Murphy introduces when he comes in, such as his individuality and virility, breathes life into the place, as demonstrated by the awakening of Chief Bromden. The theme of nature versus society runs strong throughout the novel.

The Question of Sanity

The third theme is fairly obvious, given the setting. Being in a mental ward, there are depictions of patients that are obviously there for a reason. The Chronics, for example, with the exception of Chief, are almost all in a semi-vegetative state. The Acutes, however, can function fairly well, and many have ailments that are more psychological than mental. Such problems, however, are made to seem more severe by drugs that the patients complain to be stronger than strictly necessary. In fact, Chief often hides his instead of taking them, because they put him into that comatose fog. Moreover, the patients are examined and questioned to the point that they are willing to question their own sanity, and consider their conditions to be irreversible. McMurphy, who has a fresh perspective on the inner workings of the ward, was horrified by the first “group meeting” the ward had, in which this harmful questioning process was highlighted. This event, starting on page 39, depicts Nurse Ratched going over Mr. Harding’s medical history, and encouraging the others to contribute input on just what it is that is wrong with him. The others tear into him in order to take focus off of themselves, and what results is what McMurphy later calls a “pecking party,” and states that Nurse Ratched is the one who pecked first. It is at this point that Harding admits openly what he has already thought, that Nurse Ratched was trying to do more harm than good by convincing the men of their own debilitations—debilitations that are in no way as severe as they are made out to be. “As near as I can tell you’re not any crazier than the average asshole on the street,” says McMurphy (Kesey 58).” It could be argued, then, that the sanity of the patients is fairly intact. Conversely, Nurse Ratched, whose sanity was supposed to have been completely unquestionable as on overseer of the ward, displayed behavior that was distinctly not sane. Her desperate need for order, for example, extends far beyond that what was needed for the sake of the patients. The fishing trip that McMurphy planned was disorderly to say the least, but the well-being of the participants wasn’t affected negatively, in fact the outcome was rather positive. Therefore, the clinging to the schedule is something motivated by the Nurse herself, and the ruthless tactics she uses to get her own way are fairly evil. At the very end of the novel, for example, the Nurse does to McMurphy exactly what the other patients warned him would happen if he stepped out of line too much. Though his show of violence towards her was directly provoked, it was exactly what she needed to justify sending him for a lobotomy, leaving him a vegetable in the very end. This ruthlessness to get her own way, and the lack of humanity that it would take to steal someone’s mind and consciousness from them, seems to indicate that Nurse Ratched, far from being mentally capable, is, in fact, a psychopath. This irony adds to the recurring theme that sanity is in the eye of the beholder.

In Defense of the Novel

The three themes—individuality, nature and sanity—portrayed through the eyes of Chief Bromden, are mainly centered on the conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The conflict itself could be considered disturbing, just as the events surrounding it could be deemed inappropriate by an overprotective parent. There is a positive portrayal of prostitution within the novel. There’s also much profanity, much violence, a lot of alcohol and drug abuse, and, in the end, even a murder. Moving past those isolated events, however, which most high schoolers would have encountered somewhere in the media already, there are those three themes that could be extracted as very valuable learning tools. Individuality, for example, is something that is essential for maturity and becoming one’s own person. The novel stresses the importance of this, as well as encourages readers to strive to be their own person even in the midst of an oppressor. Looking closer at the oppression, another major theme is nature opposing an oppressive, mechanized society. It promotes nature, and all that is natural, flexible and human, which is important in a world where, more often than not, things are running on a schedule. Readers can take away that it is healthy to live in spite of a routine instead of by it. Finally, the novel challenges the idea that anything different is insane. Moreover, it encourages the reader to take a stand for what they think is right, even if it means challenging authority. Overall, the lessons illustrated by this novel aren’t just valuable in the long run, they are perfect for a high schooler, who is in the stage of development where they are beginning to figure out who they are. The only confusion would probably occur around the resolution of the conflict. McMurphy’s final exploit ends in a suicide and results in his own lobotomy, Nurse Ratched triumphing over him in the end. It should be noted, however, that McMurphy’s legacy does not end there, for Chief Bromden, who never spoke a word until halfway through the novel, escapes the ward and begins to make his way back home. “I been away a long time,” he says at the end (Kesey 281). This could refer to his state of mind, such as his sanity returning, and also a sort of return to nature, by escaping the building of haunting machinery for the wide-open world. The resolution is a sobering one, but it in no way compromises the lessons taught throughout the rest of the book.

In Conclusion

Overall, the message is of freedom. The men in the book, initially, are imprisoned by the ward, Nurse Ratched, and even their own minds. McMurphy’s individuality and strength of mind free them from this state in many different ways, though only Chief Bromden was truly able to escape. Such lessons can have drawbacks, however. As stated earlier by the Los Angeles mother, the novel depicts violence as a means to attain freedom, which is definitely not something that should be taught to a more impressionable student. It can certainly be argued, however, that violence is shown as a means to attain something good pretty much everywhere. It is easy to point fingers at television for this, for it is certainly a big contender in what kids are being taught, but the idea is also delivered in the form of history books and newspapers. Overall, having an issue with the use of violence in the novel is not entirely fair, as it is deemed acceptable in many other places. There are, however, some other more valid weaknesses that the novel contains. For example, the major themes are delivered at the expense of authority figures. All the characters that were in assigned power within the novel, such as Nurse Ratched, the orderlies, the nursing staff and the doctor, were portrayed as either evil and hateful, stupid, or a mixture of the two. With such black-and-white characters, it is easy for the reader to justify the lengths and trouble McMurphy caused, and even the violence seemed justified. This isn’t so, in real life, and while there surely could be some people in authority whose intentions are not the best, this book paints them all with the same brush, making it possible for the reader to come away with the idea that no one in authority is to be trusted. Taking that idea even further, the main authority in the novel was Nurse Ratched, who manipulated even those such as the doctor. She was not the only woman in the novel, but she was the only woman with any real power. As she obviously abused this power, and was cruel in many different ways, the book reflects poorly on women, and especially women in authority, which is definitely not something that needs to be taken away by students, either. While these weaknesses are certainly present, the overall themes are much too valuable and potentially useful to be dragged down by them. Ken Kesey’s classic proves to do more good than harm.

What do you think? Should One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest be read in schools?

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Works Cited

  • Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: Penguin Group, 1962. Print.
  • Tran, Mai. "Parents Ask School District to Ban 'Cuckoo's Nest' ." Los Angeles Times 03 Dec 2000, n. pag. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2000/dec/03/local/me-60611>.

© 2017 Elyse Maupin-Thomas

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