I decided to write a paper on Ken Keseys’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest for my Literary Theory course, as it is one of my favorite books of all time. Kesey presents the perfect allegory of the Modernist and Postmodernist perspective. There is so much symbolism in this book, that it would take pages upon pages to detail each one. Each character in the book presents a unique struggle within the modern vision.
Modernism is described as “a radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression” (Kuiper). It is characterized by industrialization and the idea of progress. Scientific achievements and technological advancements, war, and the development of the idea of the “consciousness,” as explicated by Freud, led people to question themselves. The Victorian ideals of morality and society were questioned. The time period between the 1890’s and World War I is described as the peak of Modernism in America (Kuiper). Modernists’ views infused every nook and cranny of society, causing a massive change in the perception of art, literature, clothing, politics, and culture. Traditional roles of man and woman began to be questioned. Art, which had been normally viewed as an endeavor towards platonic conceptions of universal ideals of beauty began to take on a new form. Form, lines, and colors began to take importance over the subject depicted. Art, in other words, shifted its focus to the individual self a it relates to the mind and the subconscious (Kuiper).
Postmodernism began during the period following World War I, but did not reach its height until the 1980s, through and after the Cold War. According to English author Malcolm Bradbury, Postmodernism has unclear origins but is mainly correlated with the rise of existentialism following Word War II. The “evils” caused by the Holocaust and Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power had a profound influence on social thought. Increase in anxiety as the Cold War proceeded also became a dominant feature of Postmodernism. Bradbury describes the production of writing during this time as a “distinctive, dissenting voice of postwar alienation (Bradbury 767).” Postmodernism did not just affect literature, it affected every form of human expression from art to media. It was a movement “from the real to the hyperreal” (Okeeffe). The major influence of Derrida’s vision of language and the idea that there is no such thing as an original truth impacted literary criticism. What ensued is the idea that humans can never be objective observers, since they are humans of their own time, so everything that is spoken is essentially a truth for a person only.
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fits the postmodern perspective, but also displays some modernist themes within the story. The whole story, essentially, is a microcosm of the outside world, a world steadily changing from modernist to postmodernist ideals. Postmodernism questions authorial intent. An allegory for this idea can be found using the mental state of a schizophrenic person, since “schizophrenia is basically a breakdown of the relationship between signifiers, linked to the failure of access to the symbolism” (Giulian 62). What better way to display this message than in a mental hospital where the patients are unable to form meaning in any real sense and are prevented from attaining an identity outside of being a patient? Disorganization, removal from historical context, an obsession with identity, and subjective symbols are characteristics displayed throughout the plot. There is also the experience of “alienation of people from one another, of the development of increasingly agonistic identities (Schulte-Sasse 9). This is notable in McMurphy’s charcter.
The main focus of this paper will be on the main characters, Chief Bromden, Nurse Ratched, and Randle McMurphy. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about a Native American named Chief Bromden who describes his personal experience at a mental hospital for 10 years. The Chief pretends to be deaf and mute in order to stay in the mental hospital. There is no reason stated for him choosing to stay, but one can infer that he stays in order to avoid confronting the outside world. In essence, he has become the voice who observes all that is taking place in the hospital and sees this as an important part of his identity. By doing this we get a first person view of a situation, a characteristic of the postmodern idea of the self as the sole authority of truth.
Through his stay at the hospital, he comes to the conclusion that the chief nurse, Ms. Ratched, is essentially a destroyer of men, condescending, and manipulative. Randle McMurphy, is the protagonist of the story, a war veteran who was diagnosed as a psychopath for drinking, fighting, and being extremely promiscuous. He has 3 years left at a prison camp, but is unable to behave well enough to finish his sentence. He, like the rest of the patients, is plagued by disillusionment and alienation through the changing perspectives of morality in the postmodern milieu. Most of the patients are described as war veterans who for some reason cannot cope with day to day activities, and have dysfunctional relationships with friends and family. In essence, the patients are symbols of those who have lost their identity because of their inability to adapt to the changing times.
Ms. Ratched can be said to display the modernist view of achieving a perfect society by the implementation of a set of specific rules and through the insistence upon strict adherence to a code. Chief Bromden’s depiction of the hospital is that it is a representation of the outside world; he says, for instance, “Under her rule the ward inside is almost completely adjusted to surroundings” (Kesey 26). The workers and the patients alike are subjected to her condescending and manipulative nature. Bromden, for instance, describes the workers as black men, because Ms. Ratched sees them as easy to control and because they keep things neat (Kesey 5). These men have become commodities to her. Her vision for a hospital is a place where the “schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t outside, obedient under her beam” (Kesey, 27). She wants to create the perfect hospital by implementing a specific set of rules and codes.
Her description, as a middle aged aloof woman, unmarried, and no children, makes her seem even more unnatural. This may be a reflection of the feminist spirit that male dominance has caused many problems in society. In order to escape the identify of being a women, she resists all attempts at developing a feminine character. She is not motherly, attractive, or emotional. She believes that she can control everyone by application of force. An example of this can be noted when Ms. Ratched does not allow the patients to watch the world-series on television. Her stated reason was that it would disrupt the routine of the hospital and thereby cause chaos to arise. Throughout the story, one gets a sense that she does not want her patients to feel too human or too happy, as she knows this would naturally lead to the questioning of her ideas. She restricts them from gambling or engaging in any sort of activity that she sees as superfluous. Ms. Ratched explains that all changes occur through a democratic vote. McMurphy attempts to incite everyone to vote, but is disappointed to find out that the votes do not truly count as the votes of the chronic patients, who are unable to vote, are counted. McMurphy becomes angry, but eventually gives up the fight with Ms. Ratched for a brief moment. Later in the story, he attempts to rouse Ms. Ratched by pretending to watch a game on the television and getting all of the other patients to participate in his charade (Kesey 137). Ms. Ratched feels usurped and is determined to regain authority by medical intervention by forcing McMurphey to undergo shock-therapy.
Utilitarian ideas, utopian visions, and the reliance on science as the cure to ailments are ideas that fit well within the modernist perspective. Nurse Ratched, throughout the story takes notes on everything that happens in order to assess and gain control of the situation. She, at one point, takes hold of all of the patient’s cigarettes in order to ration them out as she sees fit. She is viewed as staunch, unnatural, and repressed. As the authority figure of the ward, she is described by the patients, especially McMurphy, as manipulative and essentially robotic. She sees routine as an essential aspect of therapy for the patients. Kesey attempts to make her, not into a person, but a personification of the modern idea. From Ms. Ratched’s perspective, she feels that her authority as a women is being questioned and challenged after McMurphy enters the scene. In one part of the story, Harding, a patient who has been there for a long time, tells McMurphy that Ms. Ratched is strict but is not a monster. McMurphey responds by telling Harding that she is pecking “…at your balls” (57) denoting the power struggle between the male characters and the only female authority figure in the story. Towards the end of the book, for instance, in a dispute between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, McMurphy attempts to degrade Ms. Ratched by revealing her breasts to the patients, almost to remind her and the other patients that she is a person and not an idea. This occurs immediately after Billy Bibbit, a young man who defied Ms. Ratched by sleeping with a loose woman, commits suicide in front of her as a response to her oppressive behavior. McMurphy’s action could be viewed as an attempt to reveal the true nature of the situation, but also a desperate attempt to establish male dominance (Kesey 304- 305). McMurphy, in some sense, represents a failed man who becomes anxious. He has no children himself, no wife, and is characterized as dysfunctional.
McMurphy is the rebellious character. He is viewed as the savior of the disillusionment experienced by all of the other patients. He sees no meaning and value in staying in the prison camp or in the hospital. Progress can never be achieved and is unrealistic. So one should rebel and be free to discover ones truth. Avoiding the work prison camps, he cheats his way into what he thinks is an easy way out of his situation. His concept of morality is that it is subjective. He refuses to let the other characters be fooled by the notion that someone has control of their thoughts and choice on truth. In the plot, he invites two young loose women to the hospital, and gets everyone drunk (Kesey 287- 288). As the Christ figure in the tale, he essentially communes them before he decides to escape from the hospital. Although McMurphy plans to escape, he never does. He eventually gives in to Nurse Ratched. One can say that even he could not overcome his own situation. In the end, Nurse Ratched gets the hospital to perform a lobotomy on him so he becomes “a vegetable” (Kesey 308-309).
Another important aspect of Kesey’s work that points to the postmodern vision is the appearance of fog that is used by the hospital throughout the plot as described by Chief Bromden. The use of this fog is to cause confusion among the patients. Bromden believes that the fog is used to disorient the patients in order to hide some deeper secrets, or atrocities, in the hospital. He hears distant machines moving as the fog appears. This is a reference to the pessimistic view of technology. Displacement of time and the sense illustrates a clear postmodernist vision. The fist time the fog is mentioned, Kesey begins the paragraph with “When the fog clears to where I can see” (Kesey 8). The next paragraph begins with the words “This Morning I plain don’t remember” (Kesey 8). Both statements can be viewed as the cause and effect of what happens after one is placed in the hospital, or in a postmodern society with modernist perceptions. The story ends with Chief Bromden escaping the hospital, by breaking a window, and running away. He attempts to go back to all of the places he knew before entering the hospital. In essence, Kesey attempts to direct his readers from the unnatural to the natural. However, Bromden’s vision is clouded with nostalgic illusions of the world, as the world Bromden is returning to no longer exists.
Ken Kessey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is a reflection of the disillusionment that arose toward the end of modernism and the inevitable entrance into the postmodern world. In other words, it is a postmodern vision of the struggles faced by modernists who are unable to conform to the changing times. The three main characters discussed all point to different perspectives within this paradigm, Nurse Ratched as the disillusioned authority figure who believes that her truth will save everyone, Bromden, as the Indian Chief who has been displaced by progress, and McMurphy, who tries to bring clarity to the situation, but is himself overcome by the same force as everyone else.
Bradbury, Malcolm. “What was Postmodernism? The Arts in and after the Cold War.” International Affairs 71.4 (1995): 763-774.
Bruno, Giulian. “ Ramble City: Postmodernism and ‘Blade Runner.’” October 41 (1987): 61-74.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A Novel. New York: Viking, 1962. Print.
Kuiper, Kathleen. “Modernism | Art.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <http://www.britannica.com/art/Modernism-art>.
Okeeffe, Angel. “WEEK 2: Modernism and Postmodernism.” LITR330. American Military University, West Virginia. 17 Jan. 2016.
Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. “Introduction: Modernity and Modernism, Postmodernity and Postmodernism: Framing the Issue.” Cultural Critique 5 (1986-87): 5-22.