1001 Books, American Lit, American Mythology, Book Review, Fiction, Ken Kesey, LGBT, Literary Others Event, Literature, Mental Health, The Beats

Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 41


4 – Plot/Story is interesting, believable, and impactful.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a group of men residing in an Oregon (USA) mental hospital during the late-1950s /early-1960s.  It is narrated by a seemingly deaf and dumb inmate called “Chief Bromden,” who is half-white and half-Native American.  His story revolves primarily around the “battle” between a new inmate, Patrick McMurphy, and the ward’s head nurse, Mildred Ratched.  There are also minor struggles between the white inmates and the black staff, who work for (and whose loyalties lie with) Nurse Ratched.  While some of the patients are in the hospital for valid reasons, such as Bromden’s inability to engage with the world (he is perhaps somewhat schizophrenic), others seem to use it as a hiding place of sorts.  Many of the men are the “victims” of overbearing women – be it their wives or their mothers.  They have been institutionalized because they cannot deal with their emasculation.  McMurphy, the Alpha Dog of the group, comes to the hospital having faked insanity to escape a prison term for statutory rape.  His virility and manhood are what inspire the men of the ward to revolt against Ratched’s authority, and to see her as a woman for the first time.

3 – Characters well-developed.

The main characters are Chief Bromden, the narrator; Randle McMurphy, the “hero”; and Nurse Ratched, the “villain.”  Bromden narrates the story through cloudy, drug-fogged eyes.  He is being medicated for the entirety of the novel, though sometimes, it seems, there is less or more medication, and this naturally follows with less or more clear narration. Still, he is rather unreliable on the whole, even admitting as much sometimes (“… it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen”).  Bromden is a bit of an outsider.  He has faked ailments, including his supposed inability to hear or to speak.  He reveals himself inadvertently to McMurphy, and we understand that Bromden has just been using these ailments to remain outside conflict and to “witness” things without having to participate in them.  He is also a bit of a Huckleberry Finn personality- an innocent, wrapped up in a complicated situation.  Huckleberry Finn is often torn between doing what “is right” according to his society’s standards and doing what “feels right” to him.  Ultimately, he does what “feels right” (which turns out to be what is actually right), despite pressure from society, religion, etc.  Bromden is caught in similar predicaments.

McMurphy is a comic book hero if ever there was one – bold, brash, and flawed.  He also, fittingly, has a hero complex.  He believes he needs to save these men from Nurse Ratched because he believes that Nurse Ratched, being “in charge,” must necessarily be in the wrong.  While Ratched is not necessarily the warmest of creatures (far from it), she is also a woman in a precarious situation – she is attempting to maintain balance and calm in a psychiatric ward filled with insane people.  While McMurphy labels her a “ball buster” and leads the men to revolt against her, she tries to maintain control; ultimately, that is what the battle is all about – control.  But does either Nurse Ratched or McMurphy truly want control for the right reasons?  Are the patients’ best-interests their first priority?

Minor characters, such as “The Black Boys,” Billy Bibbit, Dale Harding, and Nurse Pilbow are all present to serve a function, be it to inspire conversation on race or sexuality, religion, homosexuality, femininity, or emasculation.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its prose, particularly as it is closely related to the narrator, Bromden.  As Bromden’s mind clears or fogs, so does the prose become clearer or more convoluted.  It is impossible to know, for sure, whether the things being narrated are really happening (or have ever happened), or if they are just figments of Bromden’s imagination (such as the mechanical devices, alive in the walls).  For the first half of the novel, the story is narrated in the present tense; then, suddenly, there is a shift to the past tense (and future back-and-forth to follow). This creates some ambiguity as to when things happened and, given the end of the novel, one is left wondering whether Bromden might have escaped or, perhaps, imagined himself as having escaped, then relaying the story after the fact (either after his “striking out” – another Huck Finn parallel- or after his psychotic break which lead him to believe that he left, when he really didn’t).  The language itself is simple but, as Kesey points out, sometimes the best writing does not make for the best story.  Part of why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest works so well as a narrative is because it is simple but strange; it is straightforward, but twisted; it is clear, but perhaps entirely unclear.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a haunting look at the polar natures of power and authority, madness and sanity, vitality and emasculation.  Published to critical acclaim, the book is unique in its ability to be both comic and tragic throughout.  Kesey’s background in comic books & graphic novels comes across loud and clear, as there is a clear battle between certain elements of “good” and of “evil.”   Some of these battles are explored in the dichotomies of feminine vs. masculine and civilization vs. the wild.  There is also an interesting exploration of laughter as some kind of superpower – laughter giving strength and courage; laughter healing pain, etc.  Also impossible to ignore is the Christian imagery, with McMurphy a Christ-like figure.  We witness scenes which recall The Last Supper and the Crucifixion, not to mention echoes of the Money Lenders, the Pentecost, and the Betrayal.  There is also the fishing trip (which, one should notice, includes twelve men – twelve being the number of disciples Christ had) where Bibbit is told to be a “fisher of men.”  The phrase is an evangelical one that describes how Christians on a mission to convert others would be viewed.  Another overt reference includes the repetition of the phrase “I wash my hands…”, which McMurphy hears in the Disturbed Ward and which was the phrase used by Pontius Pilate at the crucifixion of Christ.  The major difference, though, is while Christ died so that the sins of his followers could be forgiven, McMurphy’s sacrifice seems to be somewhat different.  Rather than dying for the patients’ sins, he seems to be trying to save them from the abuses of society (and the ward) against them.  He is much more a martyr, attempting to awaken and inspire his people, than a savior hoping to cleanse them.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +

Interest: Masculinity, Mental Health, Displacement, Race in America, Homosexuality, Gender Roles, American Mythology (of the West).

Notable Quotes:

“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

“The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon.”

“He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”

*I include this title as Book 1 for “The Literary Others” event.  The themes of gender roles, masculinity/femininity, and homosexuality are present throughout, and Kesey himself spent a great deal of time with some of the most prominent homosexual writers of the period, including William S. Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg.

1001 Books, American Mythology, Classics, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fiction, Jazz Age, Literature, Modernism, Mythology

Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 37

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Nick Carraway, our “honest” narrator, is a small-town, Midwestern boy who once spent some time in New York with the greatest man he has ever known, Jay Gatsby.  To Nick, Gatsby is the embodiment of the American Dream.  He is rich, powerful, attractive, and elusive.  Gatsby is surrounded by an aura of mystery and illusion, not unlike L. Frank Baum’s Great and Powerful Oz.  And, like the wizard of Oz, Gatsby and all that he stands for turn out to be nothing more than carefully crafted, delicate constructs.  Gatsby is the dream of a man who does not exist, living in a world where he does not belong.  Although Nick, at first, understands that Gatsby is far from being who pretends to be, it does not take long for Nick to give in to the dream and to believe wholeheartedly (or to willingly consent to suspend disbelief) in the ideals that Gatsby represents.  Ultimately, Nick falls in love with Gatsby, or at least with the fantasy world that Gatsby champions; and, a romantic at heart, Nick helps Gatsby to preserve his dream and to pursue his one primary quest: Daisy Buchanan.    

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel.  He is simultaneously the one person who seems to see through Gatsby and to understand the facade, but also the person who most adores Gatsby and who cherishes the dream that this man represents.  Carraway must continually lie to and deceive himself, while attempting to reassure the reader of his honest nature and unbiased intentions.  Gatsby, or James Gatz, is fascinating in that he represents all aspects of the American Dream, from the tireless pursuit of it to the actual embodiment of it, and also, tragically, the loss of it (or realization that it does not really exist).  The other characters, Daisy & Tom Buchanan, Mr. Gatz (Gatsby’s father) Jordan Baker, and others are all interesting and important in their relationship to Gatsby.  We see Daisy as the traditional Jazz Age “flapper” – a woman interested only in beauty and riches; she returns Gatsby’s interest only because he is so materially advantaged.  Tom is the representative of “Old Money” and its condescension to but vehement dislike of the nouveau-riche.  He is racist, sexist and wholly unconcerned for anyone but himself.   Jordan Baker, the artists, and others represent the various unspoken but ever-present notions of sexual exploration, individualism, and self-gratification that are indicative of the period.  

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What typically draws readers to this book, whether or not they come away with the traditional understanding of the novel (a love story, a censure on the American Dream, etc.) is its strikingly beautiful prose.  There are moments of description in this narrative which nearly take one’s breath away, particularly as they often come unexpectedly.  Fitzgerald’s brilliance lies in his ability to undercut his every thought, showing both the positive and negative arguments of a situation within the very same paragraph (or sentence, even).  This is perhaps best demonstrated in the final page of the novel, where the beauty of the dream that is Gatsby is contrasted with the disillusionment of those pursuing the dream.  Fitzgerald explores the power of the American Dream, the heart-pounding, soul-shaking evocation of those early American immigrants who looked upon the new shores with such hope and longing, with such pride and eager determination, only to be crushed by the never-ending struggle to achieve the unattainable; to be trapped in a timeless, ageless, persistent dream that never amounts to anything but the dream.  Fitzgerald’s prose and construction somehow manage to capture all of this, as the actions and events of the story itself do.  It is a wondrous sight to behold and perhaps the primary reason why so many consider this to be the greatest American novel, and certainly Fitzgerald’s magnum opus.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is quite possibly the most widely-read piece of American Literature.  But, while it is read by many, it is understood by few.  For the majority of readers, The Great Gatsby is a love story.  Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are the 1920s American Romeo & Juliet – two star-crossed lovers whose destinies are intertwined and whose fates are tragically sealed from the beginning; however, the love story is a facade.  Does Gatsby love Daisy?  Sure, but only insomuch as he has built up the idea of Daisy in his mind.  Does Daisy love Gatsby?  Not in the least – he was a whim for her when they were young, and he is desirable to her because of his wealth when they are older.   Other readers find the novel to be a depressing critique of the so-called American Dream, one which, perhaps, can never truly be reached.  Similar to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, this story predicts a bleak fate for America.  No matter how hard one works or how much one achieves, the American Dreamer will always want more – satisfaction & contentment can never be achieved.  This, in my opinion, is closer to the true nature and purpose of The Great Gatsby, but not quite all.  This is not a love story, nor is it strictly about one man’s striving for the American Dream.  Instead, it is a story about a restless nation.  It is a story about wealth and the disparity between “Old Money” and “New Money.”  Fitzgerald, through his narrator, Nick Carraway, has created a dreamy, illusory vision of a society of dreamers – shallow, unfilled people who are rising too fast, consuming too much.  Their children are neglected, their relationships disrespected, and their spirits crushed beneath the weight of soulless riches.  This is the story of The Lost Generation and the lies they must tell in order to continue living every day when they are so sad, lonely, and disillusioned.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Modernism, American Mythology, Idealism, Jazz Age, American History, Prohibition, Unreliable Narrators, Anti-Semitism, Racism, Class/Wealth in America.

Notable Quotes:

“What foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

“That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

“He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”