One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: she’s a ball-cutter.
[warning: contains several spoilers.] / [this is not a coherent review.]
Today I finished re-reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I sat for some time, thinking about what to write exactly. I think part of my love for the book stems from it, like Wuthering Heights, being the kind of story that provokes a lot of thought and indecision.
In any case, here are a number of things that struck me this time around.
I had forgotten how much the Chief’s recollections of his youth used to move me. Reading through the psychosis, you get an excellent sense of what it must have been like for him, and how his home life affected him deeply.
The scenes where Chief Senior defends their way of life to the government agency men trying to buy them off, makes me deeply angry.
“What can you pay for the way a man lives? […] What can you pay for what a man is?”
Further on, the Chief recalls one of the men in the village who now had twenty-thousand dollars and 3 Cadillacs - none of which he could drive. Actually stating an opinion is unnecessary.
As an aside, the Chief’s narration, for me, is one of the selling points of the book versus the novel. In the movie, nobody is very seriously ill. The Chief, however, is frequently hallucinating and holds a number of powerful delusions, all relating to the Combine. And yes, as a narrative tool this complements wonderfully with the actual events - it even supplements our own secret understandings of how society molds and meddles with us all. His delusional ideas about the size of a man and his hallucinations - of machinery in all of us, of abusive hands growing ever-larger - are powerful metaphors, used in an almost-accidental way. It’s “just the way the Chief thinks”, which says quite a lot about the way we condescend to some people.
Secondly, I really love Harding. He really does have some of the best lines. Additionally, the film version is one of the only novel adaptations ever where I’m sorry a line is in the movie, but not in the book.
You can find that particular fabulous speech of Harding’s here, from 0:30 to 0:50.
“I’m not just talking about my wife, I’m talking about my life - I can’t seem to get that through to you! I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody! I’m talking about form! I’m talking about content! I’m talking about interrelationships! I’m talking about God, the Devil, Hell, Heaven! Do you understand?! Finally?!”
Coming back to Book Harding: don’t you just love the very first time we meet him? When he and McMurphy have that excellent exchange: trying to one-up eachother to see who’s the biggest looney? And further on, when, after that first group meeting where he gets torn down, McMurphy confronts him about what the guys did. Then, they talk about Miss Ratched and how she makes rabbits out of them all. At first, Harding tries to shake it off, calls her “Sweet Mother Ratched”. Then he sort of freaks out and stumbles out one of the best parts of the book. He manages to show us just what Nurse Ratched is about, while - at that point - steering clear of overt hostility.
“Ah, look: there she is, our nurse. Her gentle knock on the door. The ribboned basket. The young couple overjoyed to the point of speechlessness. The husband open-mouthed, the wife weeping openly. She appraises their dwelling. Promises to send the money for - scouring powder, yes. She places the basket in the center of the floor. and when our angel leaves - throwing kisses, smiling ethereally - she is so intoxicated with the sweet milk of human kindness that her deed has generated within her large bosom, that she is beside herself with generosity. Be-side herself, do you hear? Pausing a the door, she draws the timid young bride to one side and offers her twenty dollars of her own: ‘Go, you poor unfortunate underfed child, go and buy yourself a decent dress. I realize your husband can’t afford it, but here, take this, and go.’ And the couple is forever indebted to her benevolence.”
Then, still later: “She has a genius for insinuation.”
Such a genius for words.
Another thing that I rather love about the book is the way the deaths are handled. Billy’s death, of course, had a number of consequences, which were all far-reaching and moving. His death, in itself, though, echoed that of Cheswick, earlier in the story. Once there, then no more.
I like the way this is handled because firstly, desastrous things can and do happen instantly and unpredictably in this story. Secondly, especially in Cheswick’s case, there is a nice juxtaposition of the way his death came out of nowhere and is described in a rather dry, concise way, and the far-reaching impact of it, especially on McMurphy. Indeed, there is some question as to whether Cheswick’s death was an accident or a suicide.
“But just as soon as we got to the pool he said he did wish something mighta been done, though, and dove into the water. And got his fingers stuck some way in the grate that’s over the drain at the bottom of the pool, and neither the big life-guard nor McMurphy nor the two black boys could pry him loose…”
It’s literally over in a sentence, and yet it steers the book in a distinct direction. Steers it, indeed, almost inevitably to McMurphy’s fight and defeat, by showing him this huge responsibility that he got in spite of himself. By making it not-okay that he stop fighting and by not allowing him to give up and leave the patients to their own counsel.
My personal best ending line is, once more, a Harding quote. When Miss Ratched returns to her ward and gives Harding a polite, condescending written answer to his questions about McMurphy, he tears up her paper and says: “Lady, you are full of so much bullshit.”
Cue me high-fiving the air.
Here are some random thoughts about Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Feedback always welcome.