Here's an experiment for you, Shmoopers. Go grab the following items from your house: one kazoo, one large pot, and one wooden spoon. Got 'em? Good. Now, proceed to the nearest busy street and proceed to play that kazoo and bang on that pot for all your worth. Need a song suggestion? " Ode to Joy" is always good for this kind of thing.
Chances are that, if you do this ( and please, send us the videos if you do ), you'll get some strange looks. Folks will cross the street. You might even hear someone call you "crazy." But think about it for a second. What does crazy really mean? Who decides whom we label "crazy" and whom we allow to freely walk our streets? Isn't someone banging on a pot and playing the kazoo as much a part of the world as the businesswoman who is hurrying off to her next meeting? So why all the hullabaloo, society?
That's exactly the sort of questions that are on the mind of Ken Kesey in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. With this famous portrait of a mental institute—its rebellious patients and domineering caretakers—counter-culture icon Kesey is doing a whole lot more than just spinning a great yarn. He's asking us to stop and consider how what we call "normal" is forced upon each and every one of us. Stepping out of line, going against the grain, swimming upstream—whatever your metaphor, there is a steep price to pay for that kind of behavior. Just ask the novel's rebellious, doomed protagonist, Randle P. McMurphy.
Published in 1962, the novel tells McMurphy's tale, along with the tales of other inmates who suffer under the yoke of the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. The story is based on Kesey's own experience as an orderly in an asylum in Menlo Park, California, but it's also the story of any person who has felt suffocated and confined by our rigid rules of conformity. In 1975, the novel was turned into an Academy Award-winning film, directed by Miloš Forman and starring Jack Nicholson, but don't start there. Dive right into the original novel for a vivid exploration of the thin line between sane and insane, as well as a chilling look at who gets to decide the difference.
Rules are good, right? Rules rule. Without things like stoplights and driving etiquette, we’d be one disaster-prone society. When we’re in kindergarten, we learn how to color inside the lines and paint by the numbers, because we might be told that pretty pictures are those that are neat and tidy. We have terms like “good” and “sane” and “insane” because these words help us keep our lives organized and mess-free. When something comes along that's not what we expect (like a six-year-old painting a picture with a green sky and blue grass), we just might think of it as “incorrect." No need to debate it or get into messy arguments.
But One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest challenges all of that. It makes us look at who makes the rules. Now we want to know: who decides what a pretty picture looks like? Who defines what behavior is "sane" or "insane"? McMurphy helps us realize just how arbitrary "sanity" can be, especially when the poster child of sanity happens to be the one and only Nurse Ratched. So just what does it mean to be "sane" or "normal" and to have all of your ducks in a row?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman in 1975, won five Oscars. The awards included Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson as McMurphy), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched).
A photo of Ken Kesey as a young man.
The Author as an Older Man
Ken Kesey as an old man with his once-famous Magic Bus.
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film.
Ken Kesey died in 2001 at the age of 66. This obituary provides some great information on his life.