From the mind of Ken Kesey, the paid experimental subject in a study conducted by the CIA in which he was given mind-altering drugs and asked to report on their effects comes the book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest which revolutionized the field of psychiatry. A book where sanity, feminism, and power are all put to question.
Meet criminal Randle McMurphy who is moved into a corrupt mental institution after serious offenses. McMurphy is a larger-than-life character, a man destined to change the asylum forever, by instigating large charges, such as, asking for the music to be turned down, and trying to get the patients to watch baseball. Upon arrival, McMurphy soon finds out that the institution is corrupt under the control of Nurse Ratched. Whether he’s a psychopath or not, we’ll never know. Regardless, he sure is smart and he sure is likable and he gives the patients the ability to seize back the power that Nurse Ratched has stolen from them with her petty little rules and her many small cruelties. Through McMurphy, the ward has the opportunity to conform to the rules and he has an opportunity to save himself, but he ultimately chooses to fight for the men on the ward.
Meet the main patients of the ward who question the line of what is sane and insane. Dale Harding, Billy Bibbit, Charles Cheswick, and Chief Bromden. Harding is educated but due to him being gay in the 1960s where that was not a common identity in that society which makes him voluntarily join the hospital. Chief Bromden who has Schizophrenia, can fake insanity by pretending to be deaf and mute but does have a hallucinational fog but that seems to be the consequence of the ward’s improper way of being run. Billy is a shy patient and has a bad stutter. He also seems much younger than the other patients. Billy Bibbit is dominated by his mother, one of Nurse Ratched’s close friends. Yes, she does have friends. Billy is voluntarily in the hospital, as he is afraid of the outside world. Cheswick, a man of much talk and little action, drowns in the pool possibly a suicide after McMurphy does not support Cheswick when Cheswick takes a stand against Nurse Ratched. Cheswick’s death is significant in that it awakens McMurphy to the extent of his influence and the mistake of his decision to conform. The question that begs to be answered is are these characters genuinely insane where they have been damaged beyond repair or are they just different than society’s expectations? This puts into question what is the boundary of sanity, and how society can allow people in control to label weak/different as insane just to keep them away.
McMurphy comes to realize that the Nurse controls the patients not only through their assigned chores and daily pills but also through emasculation, so he uses his sexual conquests and challenges other men to be strong. Most of the men are emasculated before even arriving at the Ward. Harding is ashamed of his homosexuality and relationship with his wife and Billy is emasculated by his mother who holds on him to be with a woman which prevents him to become a “man.” McMurphy rips the Nurse’s uniform, revealing her physical attributes to the patients which destroys her mask to make herself non-feminine and reassert masculine dominance. It shows them that she is just a woman, and they are men, who are traditionally the more powerful ones.
In conclusion. The social problem of the individual versus the system is a problem that has always existed and will never be extinguished in the modern world. The government will always wish to have control over people in some form or another, especially those who refuse to conform to society's desired standards. McMurphy demonstrates the struggle of the individual versus the system in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. This Novel has been very influential in our society, as it has helped redefine what it means to be “sane” or “insane,” by demonstrating that sanity is more so scalable than being positive or negative. We see this through the varying states of sanity that are present in the ward’s patients, and Nurse Ratched, who can be described as arguably more insane than the patients at some points of the novel. This novel outputs surprisingly accurate depictions of mental health despite being made at a time when mental health wasn’t properly understood by the general public.