GAN Quest: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chief Bromden has been on the mental ward for years, one of the Chronics who are never expected to recover. Everyone believes he is deaf and dumb, but his silence is a choice – a result of years of feeling that no one heard him when he spoke. His supposed deafness makes him invisible to the staff, which means that he can listen in to conversations patients aren’t meant to hear. He knows that Nurse Ratched, in charge of the ward, is part of the Combine – the all-powerful authorities who control men through psychiatry, medication and technology. Chief Bromden may be insane – or perhaps he’s too sane. As he puts it himself…

…you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

Into the ward one day comes a new patient, Randle P McMurphy: loud, brash, crude, funny. Maybe he’s insane, or maybe he’s faking it to get away from the work farm he was in for “fighting and fucking too much”. McMurphy is soon the “bull goose loony” in the ward, a gambling man challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, and geeing the Acutes up to rebel. The Acutes are men who are being treated with a view to them one day being able to leave and resume a normal life outside. But then McMurphy discovers that most of the Acutes are there voluntarily and could leave whenever they like, whereas he has been committed, and Nurse Ratched has complete power to decide his fate. Chief Bromden watches, hoping that somehow McMurphy is big enough to beat the Combine…

First published in 1962, the book is of its time in that there’s a lot that reads like racism and misogyny today. But if you can look past this, it also has a good deal to say about the concerns of the time, many of which remain unresolved today – the treatment of mental illness, the tendency of society to suppress individuality, the emasculation felt by some men in a society that no longer values physical strength and aggression as it once did, the closeting of homosexuality, the destruction of Native American lands and traditions by the forces of capitalism (also part of Chief’s Combine). (It struck me as odd, in fact, that Kesey was so sympathetic to Native American culture while being rather blatantly racist about African Americans.)

The writing is wonderfully versatile, ranging from the profanity and sexual crudeness and humour of the men’s language, to profound insights into this small microcosm of the insane world we all live in, to the frightening imagery of the Combine delusions inside Chief’s head, to moments of beauty as Chief begins to appreciate the possibilities of life again under McMurphy’s domineering tutelage. Here describing a young dog he sees from the window of the ward at night…

Galloping from one particularly interesting hole to the next, he became so took with what was coming off – the moon up there, the night, the breeze full of smells so wild makes a young dog drunk – that he had to lie down on his back and roll. He twisted and thrashed around like a fish, back bowed and belly up, and when he got to his feet and shook himself a spray came off him in the moon like silver scales.

Book 53 of 90

The ambiguity over Chief’s sanity means that the reader has to decide whether to interpret things as he does, or to consider whether his bias is making Nurse Ratched seem crueller and McMurphy saner than they might look from a different perspective. In the film, McMurphy is very much the hero, even if a flawed one. In the book, it’s not so clear cut, and I felt Chief Bromden himself was the central character – whether Ratched or McMurphy are in the right becomes somewhat secondary to how Chief’s interpretation of their actions and motives gradually affects his own mental state. I found I was cheering on McMurphy and the patients, but a small voice in my head kept suggesting that maybe Ratched was right that McMurphy’s incitement to rebellion was damaging them as badly as McMurphy felt Ratched and the system were. For Chief, McMurphy takes on an almost Christ-like role: a man willing to sacrifice himself to free others of their sins – in this case, the sin of not fitting in to society’s expectations. I suspect that may have been what Kesey wanted the reader to feel too – he’s certainly critiquing his society ferociously. But by using the setting of a mental hospital and giving us a Chronic for our guide, he leaves open the possibility that everything we are seeing is an insane view of the world. Intentional or not – I couldn’t decide – it makes the book wonderfully thought-provoking.

Ken Kesey

I read this once before long ago when I was enthralled by the film, and found the book disappointingly different. This time round I appreciated those slight differences in emphasis – the actions and events are almost identical, but seeing them through Chief’s eyes rather than directly through our own adds a layer of ambiguity that perhaps the film lacks. A great book and a great film, but perhaps best not read and watched too closely together.

This is my book for the Classics Club Spin #21.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.


The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, there is no doubt that psychiatry was an obsession in American culture at this period, and Kesey uses it effectively to look at many aspects of his contemporary society.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

This one is always tricky. Yes, we’ve had insane narrators since Poe’s time, but this feels different – Chief’s insanity is a response to the world he lives in, and the suggestion that our society is stripping us of the ability to be individuals hence driving us mad feels urgently original.

Must be superbly written.

I felt Kesey maintained Chief’s voice and perspective brilliantly – an intelligent, sensitive man but not well-educated. The sheer variety in tones throughout the book impressed me hugely, as did its feeling of emotional truth. So, achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’m very tempted, I must admit. While at that time all America was not mad (I say nothing about today’s America… 😉 ), here Kesey is suggesting that it is the “American experience” that is at the root of the madness of his characters – its obsessions, its inequality, its drive towards conformity at the expense of individuality and masculinity. But in the end, I don’t think it ranges quite broadly enough to claim this flag. With regret, not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * * * *


44 thoughts on “GAN Quest: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this as much as you did, FictionFan. I really do think it had a lot to say about society. And I’ve often thought it also had a lot to say about non-conformity and ‘square pegs in round holes.’ Kesey’s writing style works well for this, too, as you say. Nice to be reminded of this one. 🙂

    • I always wondered if I’d have liked it more if the film hadn’t been in my head so much, so I was delighted to be able to judge it on its own merits this time round. I also think I’m more aware of American culture now than I was back then, which helped. So pleased to have enjoyed an American classic again – I’ve gone through a bad spate with them recently!

    • It’s very ’60s, but not really outdated, if that makes any sense. The language and all that is of its time, but the themes are still very relevant. Well worth reading! 😀

    • I was surprised at how relevant the themes still are, even if some of the language and attitudes are very ’60s. I loved the film when it came out – I saw it eleven times when it was on at the local cinema… 😂

  2. One of my all time favorite books. Time to dig it out for another read. Thanks for reminding me. I’m glad that it connected and you were able to get by some of the 60s stuff.

    • I usually don’t mind outdated attitudes in older books so long as it’s not too extreme, and here it was just the kind of casual racism and sexism that really everyone used back then. But I loved the writing and the themes are still very relevant. Glad I finally re-read it and got over comparing it to the film! Enjoy your re-read… 😀

  3. Like you, I first read this when I’d not long seen the film and it definitely coloured my reading experience. You’ve shown me a re-read would be a good idea, to get a better understanding of the broader issues Kesey’s addressing. It definitely sounds as if it’s stood the test of time!

    • I definitely found it made a difference that it’s a long time since I last watched the film. Jack was still in my head but not to the same degree, and that made me able to appreciate the book for itself this time. I think you’d enjoy a re-read!

    • Yes, I found it interesting that the film sticks so closely to the actual events and even dialogue, but somehow the whole tone is different. Women and black men really don’t come out well, do they? Haha – sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we have come a little way over the last few decades at least… 😉

  4. I saw the movie but never read the book. It was rather a long time ago, so I’d probably view it through different lenses today. I think you’re spot on in calling it a Great American Novel though not The Great American Novel. That “capturing the entire ‘American experience'” is a tough standard to meet!

    • It is a high bar, but that’s good – it means very few books qualify as The GAN, which is as it should be! 😀 But I was very impressed by the book this time round – last time my love for the film definitely stopped me from appreciating the book properly. I suspect if I’d read the book first, I might not have loved the film so much either.

  5. Like a few of the others, I have seen the film, but have not especially felt compelled to read the book. It doesn’t quite feel in tune with my current reading mood, but I’ll probably get around to it some day, as it is quite a long time since I saw the film, so my judgement of the novel probably won’t really be affected by it.

    • I’m really glad to have enjoyed it so much – I’ve had a bad reaction to a few of the American classics recently! Yes, I definitely found it made a difference not having the film in my head quite so much this time round – though I saw the film so often in my youth I can still quote large parts of the dialogue and kept hearing the actors’ voices when I got to those parts of the book…

  6. I’ve never read this and it’s been decades since I saw the movie, so there wouldn’t be any danger of making comparisons. I think you’ve convinced me to at least put it on the wish list. The 60s stuff wouldn’t bother me. After all, it was written in the 60s! 😉

    • Yes, usually outdated attitudes don’t bother me unless they’re really extreme, but this was just the sort of casual racism and sexism that was pretty much universal back then. I think this is well worth adding to your list – a real American classic, imo. I loved Chief’s voice and the themes are still very relevant… 😀

  7. I read this years ago, shortly after seeing the movie, and recall being surprised at how different a story it was from the movie. Your review makes me want to go back and read it again!

    • I found I was much more able to judge the book on its own merits this time because it’s been a long time since I last watched the film. It’s odd, all the events and even dialogue are almost identical and yet the tone is so different. The shortcoming of films is that they don’t let us see inside the characters heads so easily…

      • And The Chief is a difficult character to portray on film, if I remember correctly. That stood out to me quite a bit that he was kind of sidelined in the movie. The film wasn’t able to portray his thinking in the same way.

        • Yes, especially since he has very little dialogue until late on, and even then I must admit I found him really hard to understand – he sort of mumbled his lines. The film’s focus is much more on McMurphy than the book, I thought.

  8. I think enough time has passed since seeing the film that I would seriously consider reading this some time. Thanks for laying this all out, pros and cons alike! 🙂

    • It is well worth reading – very similar to the film in some ways, but a completely different tone. I think if I had to choose, I’d give it to the film for entertainment, but the book for depth…

  9. I haven’t seen the film (just short clips here & there), but I do have the book on my shelf – so I’m thinking it has to be a choice for this winter. I rarely read books after seeing & enjoying a film, it has to be the other way round as I can still enjoy a good film that is different to a good book, but liking a film too much can really ruin my appreciation of the book (which seems a shame as it’s not the book’s fault if I like the film more 🙂 )

    • I usually prefer to read the book first too, but when I first saw the film of this I didn’t even realise there was a book! And then I read it too soon after loving the film, so that I kinda hated the book for being different. I’m glad I re-read it – I appreciated it a lot more this time round. It’s well worth pushing up your list!

  10. I’ve never watched the entire movie, and I’ve never read the book, but they’ve both always intrigued me (at a distance, I think they may be too difficult for me to experience firsthand). A friend of mine and my husband’s just experienced a complete mental break, and was admitted to hospital for a number of weeks to recover. I don’t think I’ve ever elucidated this opinion of mine before, but I think mental illness is the worst, and scariest kind of illness to experience, mainly due to the stigma surrounding it, and the lack of medical advancements in the area. I imagine a book that takes place so long ago would highlight the fact that as a society, we haven’t come very far in that respect.

    • I agree – mental illness and dementia are two of my greatest fears. I can’t read books about dementia at all – I find them too upsetting, ever since my mother developed the early stages of it. She died before it got too bad but it was still an awful experience seeing her gradually lose what made her her, if you know what I mean. This one might be a tough read for you then – it does show how open to abuse these kinds of institutions can be. I’d like to think things are better now, but I’m afraid I agree with you again – I suspect there are still places like this one even in countries like ours.

    • Thank you! 😀 This is definitely one that I’d suggest reading the book first and then leaving quite a long gap before seeing the movie – they’re very similar in term of what happens but somehow the tone is so different. I think you’ll enjoy them both though!

  11. I’ve been looking forward to this review and it lived up to my hopes! So close to receiving your GAN award!
    I didn’t expect you to say that Nurse Ratched might have been right. My memories of the movie were that her actions were in spite. There is so much going on in Australia at the moment to lessen the stigma of mental illness and it’s working. Someone told me today they were having a vent about something at work and the person they were speaking with suggested to them in perfect seriousness that they call the company mental health line. The person who was venting said they laughed and said they were fine with talking to their workmate and that it was just a vent. Times are changing.

    • I felt the book was much more ambiguous about Nurse Ratched. Chief still saw her as evil and so the reader does too, but then we also know that Chief has delusions, which of course we didn’t see in the film.

      It’s great that things are improving in mental health – I think they are here too although there’s definitely still a stigma. I sometimes think they lump too much in to the definition, though, so that people who are seriously ill are kind of stuck in beside people who’re just going through a rough patch. I remember when my mother died and I went to the doc to get a sickline to let me take a week or two off work, the doc immediately tried to put me on anti-depressants, But I didn’t feel depressed – just ordinarily sad. It’s almost as if they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction, if that makes sense. A ridiculous number of people over here are on anti-depressants now, and they’re so hard to get off once you’re on them.

      • Yes, there is a difference between feeling sad, angry, anxious, frustrated or whatever the case may be due to circumstances and actually being depressed, and that confusing the two is a dangerous business. People can act rashly in the heat of the moment though, which I suppose doctors are aware of. Over-medicating certainly happens in Australia, too. Perhaps in time to come mental health will have more divisions, eg ongoing illness, categories of rough patches, etc.

        The chief was an intriguing character.

        • I think quite often here it’s because other services have long waiting lists, so they bung people on anti-depressants until they can get an appointment with a grief counsellor or whatever it is they actually need. And then the patient gets hooked and ends up on anti-depressants for years. I still can’t decide if the Chief was “insane” or just hiding from the world…

          • I hadn’t thought of an asylum as being someone’s ‘safe place’ but it could well have been for the Chief. I’ve read about criminals preferring to be in jail, which is probably similar,
            Yes, that reason for people being prescribed anti-depressants makes sense, a temporary fix for the patient as the system is broken. Fingers crossed for someone strong enough to take on overhauling the health system.

            • Loads of people who would once have been in asylums seem to end up in our jails these days – not sure it’s an improvement! Maybe one day we’ll get a system that really works…

  12. I picked this up a few years ago, but never read it – my dad has serious mental health issues and has had to be sectioned a couple of times, and I thought it might be too close to home. Your review suggests that it might be sufficiently removed in time from his experiences that I could give it a go, and it certainly sounds like an excellent book, so maybe I will!

    • Ah, yes, I can see how you wouldn’t have wanted to read this while you were facing that in real life. I hope he’s doing better and getting good treatment. This is quite blackly funny about the state of psychiatry back then and it has lots of other themes, so you may find it OK, but it is quite chilling with regards to the mental health issues. If you do decide to read it, I hope it works for you! 🙂

  13. What a wonderful review, and a revelation to those of us who have never read Cuckoo’s Next but only seen the film. If the shift in point of view was a Hollywood deal, it worked. But reading the story from the Chief’s POV would make a lot more sense, really. I can’t wait to see. Your analysis of all the currents and cross-current in the story is spot on.

    Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion I recall as being just superb, so I’ll likely be led back to reading that as well. Cheers.

    • Thanks, Matt! It would have been much harder to show Chief’s perspective in the film, I suppose, but making the (sane, probably 😉 ) viewer see the events unfiltered definitely meant that there was less ambiguity about good and bad. The book could also be read that way, and I felt maybe Kesey intended us to, but somehow knowing about Chief’s delusions left me wondering about his reliability overall.
      Thanks for the recommendation – I was wondering if any of his other books were as good, so I’ll add Sometimes a Great Notion to my list. This is the only one I’ve ever heard of, but of course that’s because of the success of the film…

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