One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest arrived on the scene in 1975 to just about as much critical acclaim as a movie can get. The reviewers raved, audiences flocked to theaters, and it was an Oscar juggernaut. Its early success might also account for One Flew's lasting legacy. This movie's still a favorite among film buffs, and is studied and imitated by everyone from college freshmen to modern movie moguls.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has even less to do with birds than To Kill a Mockingbird. So have your students put away the binoculars and guide their attention to our lessons before they drive themselves (and you) crazy.
The course for which Caroline Leach submitted her paper is entitled "States of Mind: Disability, Cognitive Impairment and Exceptionality in Contemporary Culture" and is a final-year course that has run for five years in the School of English at the University of Leeds in the UK. It looks at fiction, films and web material that represent issues of mental health and disability, with a particular concentration on schizophrenia, Tourette's Syndrome and autism. Students study both book and film versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the start of the semester to introduce a singular storyline, but also to pose questions about narrative form, normalcy and the issues inherent in viewing disability through a visual medium.
This essay explores the themes of disability and gender in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The novel's portrayal of mental disability is found to be impressive in its avoidance of stereotypes through the representation of its characters as individuals, rather than merely characterizing symptoms of mental disorders. In exploring the novel's investment in individual characters, however, it becomes clear that within the novel, disability and emasculation are intrinsically linked. This creates something of a patriarchal undercurrent to the text: Nurse Ratched's control is a direct result of her continual emasculation and her de-feminized domination of the all-male patients. In contrast, McMurphy, the infamous anti-hero of the text, is celebrated as a liberator despite having been committed for rape. These portrayals of the main characters seem ultimately representative of a troubling message in the novel: that a matriarchy abolished can be a satisfactory conclusion to the plot, and further, is seen as a cure for the patients' mental illnesses.
Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York, NY: Anchor Publications
Kesey, K. (1963). One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. New York, NY: Signet Publishers.
Paulson, G. (2012). Closing the asylums: Causes and consequences of the deinstitutionalization movement. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing
Payne, C. (2009). Asylum: Inside the closed world of state mental hospitals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press Publishing
But One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest challenges all of that. It makes us look at who makes the rules. Now we want to know: who decides what a pretty picture looks like? Who defines what behavior is "sane" or "insane"? McMurphy helps us realize just how arbitrary "sanity" can be, especially when the poster child of sanity happens to be the one and only Nurse Ratched. So just what does it mean to be "sane" or "normal" and to
That's exactly the sort of questions that are on the mind of in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. With this famous portrait of a mental institute—its rebellious patients and domineering caretakers—counter-culture icon Kesey is doing a whole lot more than just He's asking us to stop and consider how what we call "normal" is forced upon each and every one of us. Stepping out of line, going against the grain, —whatever your metaphor, there is a steep price to pay for that kind of behavior. Just ask the novel's rebellious, doomed protagonist, Randle P. McMurphy.
Step 1: First engage in a discussion of the themes of democracy, law and order, rules, power, authority, and rebellion in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You can do this by checking out these Shmoop resources:
Step 1: Begin by leading a discussion of the themes of democracy, law and order, rules, power, authority, and rebellion in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You can do this by having students read through the Shmoop pages below, answer the questions provided on each, and debate one or more of the "Chew on This" statements at the bottom of each page.
One of the triumphs of Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is its ability to provide an inside view of a mental institution free from the stigma that such a facility almost always invites. The first-person narrative of a patient, Chief Bromden, makes the asylum setting ordinary, and encourages the reader to invest in the personalities of its inhabitants instead of perceiving the characters as mere stereotypes of disability. Kesey's inclusion of Bromden's delusions within the narrative itself, which are at first a disruption to the reader used to linear narratives of the real, become merely another narrative norm for the reader as the novel progresses. Retrospective thought allows the reader to discover that while Bromden's disability makes him different, it is not debilitating for him as a narrator, nor, more importantly, as a man. Such insights into Bromden and the others initiate in the reader a reassessment of potentially unexamined perceptions of mental institutions, their inhabitants, and lead the reader to review the origins of concepts such as disability and normalcy. Yet the text is not without its problems: the most significant of which is the portrayal of gender in relation to disability. The text's depiction of this relation is more problematic: It could be suggested that the link goes some way to undermine the success of the novel's individualistic approach to, and questioning of, disability. This is seen especially through the novel's reinforcement of the long-standing and stereotypical dialogue between disability and emasculation, a connection so engrained in society that it can be described as a "cultural script," which Rosemarie Garland- Thompson describes in "The Politics of Staring" (66). In crude terms, it could be suggested that while the novel breaks down prejudices regarding mental disabilities, it builds upon prejudices regarding gender.