With specific reference to the novel, how would you argue that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has merits that make it a rewarding novel to read? Ken Kesey’s moving novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” uses a mental hospital as a microcosm of American society to criticise its conformity, the treatment of mentally ill patients and the abuse of power. The novel opens readers’ eyes to a bleak, negative, and previously-unheard of side to mental institutions and society as a whole.
However the essential message of the novel is one of optimism because it offers hope that conformity can be thwarted while abusive power can be defeated through inner strength and belief in oneself. The principal merit of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the skilled way in which Kesey integrates these socially important messages with skilful use of narration, symbolism, characterisation and plot, making it an emotionally and intellectually rewarding novel for the reader. One socially important message explored in the novel is conformity within American society and the loss of every person’s right to individuality.
By using plot, narration, and occasional bleakness of tone, Kesey shows through Bromden that the conformed lives of the mental patients are filled with mind-numbingly boring routine from which there is no escape. This is shown in lines filled with vivid imagery and black humour: “Everybody: breath in … and out … in perfect order; hearts all beating at the rate the OD cards have ordered. Sound of matched cylinders”. (Pg 30) Though this is of course untrue and a result of the narrator Bromden’s paranoia, the lines serve to imply to readers the totalitarian and conformist ways of the mental ward.
This is representative of the conformity within American society and how individuals either have to conform to fit in or be sent to a mental institution to learn how to. Kesey uses Harding’s “pretty hands” that “get loose and glide around in front of him free as two white birds until he notices them and traps them between his knees” (Pg 18) to symbolise his homosexuality that he continually attempts to suppress from society in order to fit in. On a wider level, he shows suppression of individuality within society and implies that people of society should challenge conformity instead of accepting it.
This is shown by use of plot in McMurphy’s attempt to thwart the system and Bromden’s escape from it. This message and the way it is conveyed through Bromden is rewarding as it opens readers’ eyes to the world of conformity that we live in. Since Bromden is the narrator of the story, readers see everything through his eyes, experience his journey and relate very closely to him. Thus the message of conformity has a deeper level of intellectual impact on the reader, and genuine emotion is experienced when Bromden gains physical freedom from conformist society.
Kesey condemns the treatment given to mentally ill patients since it is not used as a means to cure the patients, but rather as a punishment for those who threaten Nurse Ratched’s authority. Treatment is largely influenced by fashion, showed when Harding warns McMurphy, “I’ve heard that the Chief, years ago, received more than two hundred shock treatments when they were really the vogue”. (Pg 66) Criticism of treatment given to mental patients is also conveyed through use of plot by showing the effect of electro-shock treatments on Bromden (Pg 270 – 273) and lobotomy on McMurphy.
Electro-shock treatment disorientated Bromden and McMurphy for days while lobotomy takes all life and vitality from McMurphy, leaving “one of those store dummies”. The newly revealed aspect of treatment for mental patients instils a sense of horror within readers for we realise that no human being should have to undergo these types of treatment that causes harm instead of benefit. We also feel sympathy and awareness, resulting from our new exposure to a negative side of treatment for mental patients.