Monday, April 1, 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This story is set primarily in the psychiatric ward of a mental institution and focusses on its inhabitants, during the late 1950s. In this classic 1962 novel, Ken Kesey's inhabitants lives are lived in what is described in the book as a constant "fog." The inhabitants of the ward are beaten by the orderlies who are supposed to look after them, and they live in constant fear of the authoritarian head nurse, Nurse Ratched. 

Then, one morning, the hero, Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, gambling, brawling, fun-loving and smooth-talking rebel swaggers into the world of the mental hospital as the new inmate and takes over. A prisoner from a local work farm he is admitted to the hospital. Many of the staff believe he is feigning mental illness to avoid a stint of hard labour.

The book is narrated by a supposedly deaf-mute half Red Indian patient by the name of Chief Bromden who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them all imprisoned.

A lusty, life-affirming fighter, McMurphy rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and resolves to oppose her. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women, and openly defies the rules at every turn. McMurphy begins to lead a rebellion against the rules and strictures of the institution. He wins small victories that slowly erode the powerful hold that Nurse Ratched has on the ward's inmates. When the nurse attempts to punish him by not allowing the ward to watch a baseball game, McMurphy and his fellow prisoners whoop and holler at the TV as though a game was on. He then manages to convince one of the doctors on the ward that a fishing trip would be therapeutic for the patients, and the coddled men of the institution overcome their fears of the outdoors and leave the safety of the ward.
But this defiance, which starts as a sport, soon develops into a grim struggle, an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Nurse Ratched, backed by the full power of authority, and McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story's shocking climax.

One night, McMurphy goes too far and has a party in the middle of the night, inviting two hookers to join them. Ratched finds out and is so cruel to one of the more fragile inmates, Billy, that he commits suicide. In one desperate attempt to be free of the nurse's hold, McMurphy attacks her and is punished by having a lobotomy performed on him. McMurphy is finally neutralised by authority, but in the final pages of the book Bromden takes on his mantle. Bromden throws a water faucet through one of the ward's windows and escapes.

Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey's has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of a controlling nurse in a mental institute and a patient rebellion against her. The novel is based on the experiences author Ken Kesey had while working as an orderly in a mental institution in Menlo Park, California. In order to better understand the experiences of people in a mental institute, Kesey actually subjected himself to electroshock therapy (a form of treatment for the mentally ill, also called electroconvulsive therapy) and took many of their prescription drugs. After Kesey published the novel, it was made into a Broadway play and later a film starring Jack Nicholson.

This was the first book our book club read for 2013 and for the following book club night we watched the film by the same name starring Jack Nicholson. I had been surprised that I actually enjoyed reading the book. Having seen live in a mental ward of the 21st century I felt I was cheering them on. I was therefore really looking forward to the film and to see how the different characters were portrayed. I was disappointed not so much in the characters but in that so much of the book being missed out or changed. As with a few movies of books I have now seen that I have read I realise that each must be viewed in their own form of media and not compared. However I do feel in this case the film was missing some good plot points portrayed in the book.

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