Top 100 Novel Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1962)

An Infinite Amount to Think About.

Not only is there a dynamite narrative, the themes and competing ideas could fill a lifetime of consideration. 


My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

I’ve had a run of books that forgo traditional story elements, like having a plot, meaningful narration, or development of characters (here’s looking at you “The Sun Also Rises” and “Falconer”). While they get heralded as artistic masterpieces, I find both books lacking teeth since they are not only unenjoyable to read, but they can’t coalesce to say anything due to being stripped of narrative devices.

In comes my savior: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” 

Not only does this book have an immensely intriguing story, showing the power struggle between a Head Nurse and an Asylum patient who are both egomaniacs, it has as many themes as you can consider. Like an infinite ball of string, you are free to pull and unwind from any angle as long as your heart desires.

[story/spoilers.] The book is told from the perspective of an asylum inmate, Chief Bromden. He pretends to be deaf and mute as to gain more autonomy in the mental institution; this allows him to float in between different parts of the asylum and people without anyone noticing him. One day, Randle McMurphey gets admitted after faking his insanity to serve his prison sentence in the hospital.

McMurphey is quite a shock to everyone in the warden; he’s loud, vibrant, and performs true to his miscreant background, immediately starting to test the boundaries of the rules. Nurse Ratched is in control of this section of the ward, and she prefers things to run orderly, on time, and under her control. When McMurphey learns about her personality, he immediately starts to antagonize her by upending the procedures within the facility. He recruits other inmates in his mission, and people Nurse Ratched once brow beat begin to rebel.

Thus, begins the ultimate pissing contest between the immovable object and unstoppable force.

Ken Kesey (1935-2001).

[story analysis.] This dynamic is of biblical proportions. On one side you have Nurse Ratched, in complete control of her domain. She has everyone within the whole facility (psych doctors, fellow nurses and aides) completely kowtowed to her. She did not become in control due to chance — she is a master manipulator. On the other side, you have Randle McMurphey, the trouble maker. He specializes in getting under other people’s skin, and he’s no dummy himself. He is just as calculating as Ratched.

Through the eyes of the Chief, we get to see every attack and counter strike. This novel moves at a quick pace, and the intrigue is simple: we want to find out what the next riposte is going to be. With each increase in the stakes, we anxiously await who is going to land the final blow and come out victorious. This is the engine that runs the novel while Kesey dives into every theme imaginable.


[themes.] What theme isn’t in this book? “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is unable to be reduced to a solitary bullet point. Here are just a few random ones that I considered during reading:

What is Crazy? A commentary on what it means to be mentally-ill, this novel has a wide variety of characters that are demarcated by a single line: who is in and who is out. Nurse Ratched, a psychopath and perverse, is viewed differently because of the position she holds. If she were to act the same way as patient in her own ward, she would be labeled with every DSM code there is. McMurphy is supposed to be the only inmate who is not mentally ill, having faked his insanity. He pushes the boundaries, too, with throwing tantrums and manipulating other patients. Many of the patients have psyches similar to our own, dealing with low self-esteem or self-acceptance and their is neuroticism on the staff. With everyone exhibiting a wide array of “abnormal” behavior, it shows how hard it is to cleanly arrive at an objective normal.

What is Therapeutic? McMurphey, working the system, gets the green light for a day trip to go fishing. Of course Ratched tries to put a stop to it, but she ends up losing this round. There is a transformation that occurs on the boat with the patients. On the trip there, they lack confidence and consider themselves worthless. They remark that they shouldn’t have left the safety of the hospital. Their interactions with the public is one of master and servant. On the way back, however, they have built up confidence and experience. The same folks who ribbed them no longer do — they sensed the change in the patients. It is telling that the most therapeutic benefit (a phrase used in the book often) occurred due to a single day trip which outdid the multitude of institutional programs.

Appearance over Effect: Administration views Ratched’s ward as well ran; no one really cares about if she is fulfilling the true purpose of the institution. They have a daily group therapy session, but she uses this time to destroy the patient’s self-esteem further and to find out their weak spots to use against them later. While seemingly offering “therapeutic benefit,” it is nothing more than scam. This theme becomes even more powerful when paired with the historic backdrop of the state of mental health rehab in the 60s. The big institutions with large staffs and intelligent doctors were false projections for the public to buy into, and people readily did. Sometimes, appearance is more important to society than actual change.

Mental Health = Following Rules: The role of society is one that permeates every page, and there are multiple ways to frame how the book uses it. One way is to consider how society uses rules as a way to dictate if someone is mentally ill or not. Since these people cannot follow the “rules” of society, they most be rehabilitated to do so. This leads to constructing a quasi-democracy within the ward to give people a chance to operate in a mini-version of society. These rules quickly end up being Nurse Ratched’s, as she dictates what is done and how. This makes a powerful statement on outside of the ward: someone’s making the rules out there, too. These rules are powerful, enough to get one institutionalized or ostracized. Have we spent enough time thinking about the significance of these norms and what they are doing to us?

A book cover design by Jason Keenan.

[conclusion.] This book has it all.  Story elements ultimately impact point; you can’t have one without the other. Thankfully, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” gives you both, having an endless amount of poignancy backed by great story.

Other People’s Take: 

  • Cynic on Wings: This book is probably one of my favorite classics of all time.”
  • MI Book Reviews:“This book should have been perfect, but I can’t overlook how it has aged so badly.”
  • Mission Viejo Library: “Overall, this book was very enjoyable, and I will encourage everyone to read it.”






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