All of my first impressions about this book were wrong. At first I figured Ken Kesey was just trying to be edgy by writing about psych ward patients. I expected to be told that order was inherently evil and that I should fight the system— in short, I expected a 1960’s soap box masquerading as a novel. Instead, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ frankly blew my mind.
Reading this book is like watching a chess game being played. Nurse Ratched uses fear to keep her patients under control, and McMurphy breaks all the rules and refuses to be intimidated. You’re supposed to side with him, and to hate Nurse Ratched— and you do, until six pages before the end of the book. That’s when the author tosses a rock at the chessboard, and you realize the game was being played on a pane of glass. Billy, another patient, is inspired by McMurphy and joins in his rebellion, but when Nurse Ratched catches him, Billy kills himself rather than face her punishment. In spite of having long since chosen McMurphy as the good guy, you’re suddenly forced to question whether he isn’t just as responsible for Billy’s suicide as the Nurse.
From that point on, everything falls apart. McMurphy is lobotomized and rendered a vegetable, and one of the other patients kills him out of mercy. After McMurphy’s death, most of the other patients discharge themselves or run away from the ward, and Nurse Ratched’s psychological tyranny dissolves. The whole book is a battle of wills, and I expected a victor. That was what surprised me most: No one wins.
‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ isn’t a long book, but there’s a lot in it. It’s not the nice, neat good versus evil story it initially seems to be. Ken Kesey questions everything from absolutes to the definition of sanity and lets you come up with the answers on your own.