This is one of those exceptional books. It was the first book that I read when I returned to adult re-entry college and for a book that they force you to read when you are at high school, it is actually pretty good. I can't say that it is the only high school book that I liked, but it is at the top of a very short list. I guess the reason we don't like books we are forced to read is because we are also forced to think about them deeply and then write essays demonstrating that we understand the themes that the author is trying to tease out. This is something that many of us don't like doing, though I must also admit that I am an exception (as can be seen from my multitude of Booklikes commentaries).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest explores a microcosm of society. It is set in a mental institution in a ward that is governed by a dictatorial nurse (Nurse Ratchet). The ward is sort of the minimum security ward in the hospital where those who are not really that bad are kept (though there are some serious cases here due to the lack of space elsewhere). The book is said to explore society through this microcosm, but the more I think about it the more I am convinced that this is not the case. I don't think Kesey was intending to mirror society in this way because much of society does not operate like this. What we are looking at here are a group of people who can't handle society so they hide in the institution because it is much easier here than it is outside. Further, it is an incredibly ordered place, and Nurse Ratchet makes sure it stays that way. However, into this ordered world comes a spirit of disorder, Randall P McMurphy, and thus the stage is set for a clash of wills between McMurphy and Ratchet.
Now, before I go any further, it must be noted that the entire book is narrated by an Indian called Chief Broom (namely because he is always sweeping). It is very clear (or at least to me) that the chief is a paranoid schizophrenic. He has his own specific view of the world and seems to believe things are happening that may not actually be happening (such as the corpse being cut up in the middle of the night, the wires that run between the walls, and most of all, the fog). I picked this up right from the beginning when he says 'black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them'. Many people talk about how the book is a criticism of society, and refer to the Combine, that invisible machine that keeps everybody under control, as being the main inference. However, we forget that we see the world, including the combine, through chief Broom's eyes, and he is hardly the most reliable of narrators. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is not a book that necessarily criticises society, but rather a book that criticises us and how we let society control and manipulate our lives. I will say this again because I don't think we can really understand this book without understanding this very important point – the entire book is narrated by Chief Broom and Chief Broom is a paranoid schizophrenic.
If I can sum the entire book into one word and that is that the book is about freedom – or how the main characters free themselves of the shackles of their mind. You could say that McMurphy is the medicine, the cure for these people who themselves believe that they are trapped. When he arrives he is not fooled by what he sees around him. All of the acutes (and even Chief Broom, who is a chronic) are only imprisoned here because they want to be in prison. Even Nurse Ratchet is trapped because she is nothing unless she can be in control – and this is the only place where she is in control. When that is taken away from her she becomes frustrated and then ever more controlling, and even then McMurphy takes that away from her. McMurphy isn't trying to replace Ratchet, he is trying to free the inmates from her power. This is done subtly at first (such as convincing them not to dob on each other by writing things down in the log book, and also by dominating the meetings), and as the inmates become more and more confident in themselves, he gives them even more tastes of freedom (such as the fishing trip and the party). It seems that McMurphy's whole point in life is to come here and free these inmates.
The one thing that I discovered as the best aspect of this book was not only watching how McMurphy's medicine worked on the inmates, but also seeing it work on Chief Broom. Seeing the whole narrative unfolding through his eyes, we also come to understand that he is not a silent observer. At the beginning he is playing deaf and dumb and nobody knows any different - but McMurphy knows, and McMurphy is willing to work with everybody, including a chronic like the chief. It is just, in the end, that while McMurphy succeeded, it was not without casualties. Some of the inmates (even the acutes) were simply too far gone. One kills himself by diving into the pool, and Billy Bibbit is not trapped within himself, he is trapped by his mother. He must please his mother (and this is something that McMurphy never addresses, namely because he is not a psychologist) and when it appears that his mother is going to be horrified by what he did, he flees her clutches by committing suicide. Most of all McMurphy himself doesn't survive, but even though Ratchet tries to get on top of the situation, in the end, despite the lobotomy, McMurphy has still won.