Taking over the asylum
(Warning: Contains spoilers and cod-literary criticism…)
Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ begins with the arrival on a subdued, orderly mental ward of Randle McMurphy, freshly discharged from the Pendleton Farm for Correction. Immediately the reader is pitched into a battle of wills between the fiery and irrepressible newcomer and Miss Ratched, who rules the roost through subtle and insidious bullying and who, challenged for almost the first time, knows she must do everything she can to retain her authority over the ward and the inmates. The ebb and flow of power between the two adversaries is the novel’s sustaining drama.
Miss Ratched wastes no time in reminding McMurphy of the rules and astutely analyses him as a “‘manipulator’” – and, sure enough, he soon proves himself as adept as his opponent at influencing and cajoling the malleable minds around him. His influence, though, is benevolent; having duelled with Harding over who’s the ward’s “‘bull goose loony’”, he coaxes him into admitting the truth about their fear of Miss Ratched and her tactics, and then sets about encouraging and teaching them how to slowly regain the dignity of which they have been systematically stripped.
When McMurphy first arrives on the ward, he is dismayed to find the environment joyless and constrictive: “The air is pressed in by the walls, too tight for laughing. There’s something strange about a place where the men won’t let themselves loose and laugh”. By contrast, he is immediately identified with laughter: “Even when he isn’t laughing, that laughing sound hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing – it’s in his eyes, in the way he smiles an swaggers, in the way he talks”. In this sense, the novel reads like a fictional embodiment of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, according to which laughter is an inherently subversive force often targeted at authority figures which helps to unsettle the status quo. In many ways his greatest achievement is organising the rowdy boat trip which culminates in a collective and unselfconscious laughter that becomes elemental, ringing “out on the water in ever-widening circles, further and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave”.
But, as some critics have pointed out, the carnivalesque inversion of the status quo is only ever temporary, and McMurphy, leading by example, has to take whatever punishment comes his way. Even when subjected to electroshock therapy, he has to maintain a mocking bullishness for appearance sake: “‘When I get out of here the first woman that takes on ol’ Red McMurphy the ten-thousand-watt psychopath, she’s gonna light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars! No, I ain’t scared of their little battery-charger’”. But there’s a discernible note of disingenuousness, of protesting-too-much, in his defiance, and the struggle gradually takes its toll.
Despite having never seen the film, the banner on cover of my copy declaring “Now a magnificent film by Milos Forman” and the picture of Jack Nicholson meant I simply couldn’t read McMurphy’s lines without hearing Nicholson delivering them. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the lack of red hair, I’d almost have thought the part of was written for him. “’Doctor’ – he stands up to his full height, wrinkles his forehead, and holds out both arms, open and honest to all the wide world – ‘do I look like a sane man?’” Honestly, could anyone else have played him?
McMurphy may be the novel’s most dominant personality, counterbalanced by Miss Ratched, but we actually experience events through the eyes of a third character, half American Indian Chief Bromden, whom both the institution authorities and the other inmates have incorrectly assumed to be deaf and dumb. Of course, this makes him the perfect observer, a neat fictional device that enables Kesey to have him be privy to private conversations in the Nurse’s Station which he can absorb and report.
Bromden is far from being a conventional omniscient “external” narrator, though; not only is what he describes filtered through his own subjectivity (Miss Ratched is to him “Big Nurse”, for instance), but it soon becomes evident that that subjectivity is rather disturbed (this is a mental institution, after all). He suffers from vivid nightmares and a terror of sinking into “the fog” which billows from vents in the walls, and is constantly paranoid about the operations of what he calls “the Combine”, the shadowy figures who control the ward and the world outside.
But there is method in the madness and what appear initially as the unreliable, hallucinatory and paranoid aspects of Bromden’s account gradually emerge as a warped version of the truth. The (metaphorical) fog represents the braindead, undignified stupor to which Miss Ratched has reduced them all, while the novel as a whole endorses rather than undercuts Bromden’s conviction that “the ward is a factory for the Combine”, a place where society’s misfits are sent to learn conformity even if (like McMurphy and Harding) they don’t genuinely suffer from mental illness.
From an artistic point of view, the biggest difficulty with choosing a first person narrator like Chief Bromden is to ensure that the novel keeps realistic pace with the character’s mode of feeling, if not necessarily mode of speaking. In this, Kesey proves himself masterful, alchemically creating prose which is often lyrical and arrestingly evocative using the base metal of simple unaffected language. Here’s Bromden’s memory of his encounter with a girl at a cotton mill when a young man: “Her fingernails peeled down my hands and as soon as she broke contact with me her face switched out of focus again, became soft and runny like melting chocolate behind that blowing fog of cotton”. Bromden may suffer from hallucinations, but his vivid visualisations of the scenes before him lends the novel much of its power; when an aide is summoned by Miss Ratched, for instance, he observes: “Frost forms in his hair and eyebrows. He leans farther forward, but his steps are getting slower; he’ll never make it”. In other words, as a narrator Bromden doesn’t so much limit what Kesey can do, but actually gives him licence to be more creative.
Perhaps the most affective (and traumatic) passages to read are those during which Bromden is subjected to electroshock therapy; the prose fractures, sentences are jolted out of sequence and coherence is temporarily lost. Kesey was writing from personal experience, having not only worked as an orderly in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital (essentially a mental institution) but also voluntarily underwent electroshock therapy and drug treatment. The novel gives the lie to the pronouncements of “that fool Public Relation man who’s always clapping his wet hands together and saying how overjoyed he is that mental institutions have eliminated all the old-fashioned cruelty: ‘What a CHEERY atmosphere, don’t you agree?’”; this, Kesey says, is how a so-called civilised society deals with those who can’t (or refuse to) conform to its behavioural norms. It’s not hard to see how or why the anti-authoritarian Beats took their cue from him.
However, tempting though it is to laud ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ as an ultimately uplifting tale concerned with nothing less the liberation of the human spirit, unfortunately that’s only part of the story. Leaving aside the casual racism inherent in Bromden’s attitude to the “black boys”, an attitude which the novel’s hero McMurphy echoes, the truth is that Kesey is only actually concerned with the liberation of the male human spirit.
The system – Bromden’s “Combine” – which oppresses the inmates and against which, with McMurphy’s encouragement, they kick is characterised not as usual as the Man but as the Woman. The ward is somewhere where men are sent to get “fixed”. The sexual connotations of the word are hardly accidental, given that Miss Ratched is labelled a “ball-cutter” by McMurphy, and that when Rawler cuts off his own genitals and bleeds to death, Bromden wonders: “What makes people so impatient is what I can’t figure; all the guy had to do was wait”. Women damage and emasculate men, the novel seems to say, while Miss Ratched and the other female nurses are themselves restrictively desexualised by their position and uniform, as illustrated by the contrasting appearance of the prostitute Candy: “all any of us could think of was that she was a girl, a female who wasn’t dressed head to foot like she’d been dipped in frost”. Even she, the novel’s one real positive image of femininity, its one female free spirit, is little more than a sexual object to stir the dormant libidos of the men, and the means by which (in crass teen movie fashion) Billy can lose his virginity and thereby overcome his stutter.
To describe McMurphy as being “like a bull in a china shop” when he first arrives on the ward is particularly apt; not only does he upset the established patterns and routines, but he is an aggressively male character, repeatedly asserting his own virility and sexuality. It is no coincidence that when he finally assaults Miss Ratched, he tears the front of her uniform, exposing and resexualising her. After the attack, “Some of the men grinned at the front of [her new uniform]; in spite of its being smaller and tighter and more starched than her old uniforms, it could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman”. Her power over the inmates is no more, and the superbly written ending is undoubtedly incredibly powerful – but the heroism and rightness of McMurphy’s struggle and his final violent act is (in spite of Kesey’s apparent authorial endorsement) certainly more questionable than it perhaps first appears.