After World War II, the U.S. entered the 1950s with a strong economy. Business boomed, and unemployment was at an all time low. Women returned to the home from the factories to raise a new baby boom generation. America it seemed had rolled into the golden years of happy homes and generations of prosperity to follow. In an age of apparent contentment and stability, Ken Kesey wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with contempt fueled by societal expectations and rigidity in the 1950s.
In the novel, Kesey’s characters display their open disdain for society. Narrated by an unstable patient himself, Chief Bromden describes what a mental patient has to endure to be placed back into normal society:
I’ve heard that theory of the Therapeutic Community enough times to repeat it forwards and backwards – how a guy has to learn to get along in a group before he’ll be able to function in a normal society; how the group can help the guy by showing him where he’s out of place; how society is what decides who’s sane and who isn’t , so you got to measure up. All that stuff (Kesey 48).
Immediately, Kesey has Chief Bromden punctuate, that this idea is a “theory” and the theory seems to have little credit or payoff. Society, referred to as “the group” are the ones who maintain the balance of power. And this group is able to identify whether or not an individual can “measure up” to the high standards of the majority; if this individual cannot, or is too “out of place” he must “learn” to be a part of the group. When Chief Bromden states that the individual must learn, this implies that the person must undergo some sort of change. This is not seen as a good thing by Chief Bromden, who has already specifically looked down upon Therapeutic Community. Kesey inadvertently identifies this as indoctrination to his audience where the individual has to conform to society in order to fit in. And in return for the individual’s sacrifice of his beliefs, he would be given freedom to live amongst the community. Kesey does not put any distinction of ethnicities or cultures in Chief Bromden’s description of society, which subtly implants the idea that the people within society are of singular belief that cannot be swayed regardless of their individual differences.
In the 1950s, community and small towns seemed to be the driving force of America. Most women stayed at home to take care of the kids, and whilst doing this, participated in neighborhood activities as well as coordinated events together. Men earned enough to support their family and worked at local companies; many never traveled more than twenty minutes out of town for their paycheck. Eighty-seven year old Claire Gousie, local resident of Pawtucket, Rhode Island states, “My husband grew up in Pawtucket. I grew up in Central Falls. We married and lived for more than fifty years within five miles of the houses we were born in. We went to the same church and sang songs together on the piano (Gousie, Interview). This sense of community and small-town mindedness were not a good recipe for flexibility; characters such as Chief Bromden in Kesey’s story would have stuck out like a sore thumb in such tight knit communities back in Claire’s day.
Known as the Age of Conformity, the 1950s American society looked down upon different individuals. These individuals included divorced men, women, unstable mental patients, diseased persons, and even children. As Je Czaja writes in an opinionated article from personal experience, “You were supposed to adjust to society as it was, look like you were supposed to look, do what you were supposed to do and not ask questions” (1950s America -The Golden Age of Conformity, 1). This level of conformity was of an extreme and placed individuals with different or out of norm behaviors in tight corners. Everywhere the individual would go, he would be shunned in public and gossiped about in homes. Czaja also points out an ugly reality, “Americans who didn’t fit the mold were given lobotomies to make them better adjusted” (Czaja 1).
In the 1950s age of conformity, Kesey purposefully implements a colorful rebellious character in Cuckoo’s Nest, one whom refuses to conform to society’s expectations. McMurphy swears, rants, and even breaks Nurse Ratched’s office window. This character also exhibits many behaviors society deems unacceptable including, “ ‘street brawls and barroom fights and a series of arrests for Drunkenness, Assault and Battery, Disturbing the Peace, repeated gambling…’ ” (Kesey 44). All of these offenses of which were enough to land McMurphy in a mental hospital, enough for Kesey’s character to have to be “corrected” because he could not conform to society’s definition of proper behavior. A particular scenario demonstrates just how unwilling to conform McMurphy is:
The Big Nurse’s eyes swelled out white as he got close. She hadn’t reckoned on him doing anything. This was supposed to be her final victory over him, supposed to establish her rule once and for all…He stopped in front of her window and he said in his slowest deepest drawl how he figured he could use one of the smokes he bought this mornin’, then ran his hand through the glass (Kesey 172).
Kesey has McMurphy smash his hand “through the glass” and scare “Big Nurse” to display how unwilling he is to put up with made-up rules. Nurse Ratched had implemented a new policy regarding the distribution of cigarettes amongst patients in the mental ward, and in retaliation for a stolen freedom from his fellow patients, McMurphy fights back with the only thing he can: violence. This amount of bloody warfare is enough to uproot the nurses “ruling” over the patients and disrupts her will to indoctrinate them to her own expectations and standards.
Similarly, a few years prior to the publication of the novel, Kesey himself had started to experiment with illegal substances and worked in a mental ward of a hospital. An article written by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for the New York Times states “he took drug experiments at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park that were paying $75 a session to volunteer subjects” (Ken Kesey, Author of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66, 1). These drugs experiments most likely contributed to the hefty scenes of Chief Bromden who experienced drug trips in Cuckoo’s Nest. Not only was Ken Kesey taking drugs at a mental ward, he was also in contact with the mental patients and sympathized with their circumstances. Lehman-Haupt states, “Watching the patients there convinced him that they were locked into a system that was the very opposite of therapeutic, and it provided the raw material for ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ” (Ken Kesey, Author of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66, 1).
Whether it is an age of stability and comfort, or conformity and indoctrination, Ken Kesey was able to write about the frustrations of the mentally ill individual in the 1950s and compile them into a novel. The characters, Chief Bromden and McMurphy touched the hearts of the readers and raised awareness as to the extreme levels of societal expectations and the extreme lengths many would go to, to fit in.
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