One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I welcome all of you to our presentation. We read the novel "One flew over the cuckoo’s nest" by Ken Kesey. During this lesson we won’t only talk about the book but also about the film.


First, I'd like to say a few words about the author: Ken Kesey was born in Colorado in 1935. He studied at the University of Oregon, where he graduated in 1957. He volunteered for drug experiments carried out by the government and worked in the psychiatric ward of a veterans' hospital for a while. It was the experience of this period that he used for this book. Towards the end of the sixties he founded a group called The Merry Pranksters. This group experimented with drugs, travelled the country, filmed the country and its people and generally criticized the narrow - mindedness of the American system. Accused and later convicted of possessing marijuana, Kesey took refuge for a time in Mexico which caused the group to split up. The way he was described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool - Aid Acid Test (1968) made Kesey into a cult - hero of the sixties together with groups like Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. I'm sure yall have already heard of the famous singer of the doors, Jim Morrison. So far Kesey has only produced two other books, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and Kesey's Garage Sale (1973). He now lives on a farm in Oregon.

(Pic: This is Ken Kesey on a tractor working on his farm. By the way, it is the most recent photography we could find of him. Also, I want to mention our sources. We found almost all of our material on the Internet.)


The book starts off with the folk rhyme: "To Vik Lovell who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs .... one flew east, one flew west, One flew over the cuckoo's nest.

When I first read this title it didn't really help me to find out about the content or the theme of the novel. But later on, I figured there is a strong symbolic meaning to it.
The title "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" refers to the time that MacMurphy spends in the hospital (the cuckoo's nest). Moreover, Miss Ratched, the big nurse is like a cuckoo, that does not really take care of her young (in the book represented by the patients), she just wants them to adjust to her system and set of her regulations. Most of the patients are in this ward of their own free will: they want to be treated because they can't cope with the outside world.
Damian is now going to tell you a short summary of the plot.

Point of view.

The story is entirely told in the first - person point of view, in the perspective of Chief "Broom" Bromden, a Red Indian who pretends he cannot speak or hear. He has been on that ward longer than any other patients and his story about MacMurphy is interspersed with reminiscences of his own youth and earlier happenings on the ward. This perspective is very convincing and believable because we know the feelings of a participating person and at the same time get some background information.


The story takes place somewhere in the USA. Except for the sailing trip, everything happens on the grounds of a hospital for mentally ill people. The methods of treatment of the patients and other hints show that the action takes place in the sixties.


Ken Kesey generally uses a rich vocabulary. Whereas the nurse is quoted in proper English, the direct speech of some of the patients is in slang which provides a vivid atmosphere. A good example is one of the passages MacMurphy playing cards: He says here"...hey - ya hey - ya, okay, next, goddammit, you hit or you sit ... comin at ya ...!" (p.67)
In Chief Broom's inner monologues, Kesey uses the literary technique stream of consciousness. This style of writing attempts to imitate the natural flow of a character's thoughts, feelings and memories. It enables the writer to go deeply into a character's psychology.
And about the different characters in the book, Andreas Scherrer's gonna tell you more about.


And now we are coming to one of the most important parts when reading a book, the interpretation. Why did Ken Kesey write this book, what did he want to achieve and what do we think about it? I understood this book as a severe criticism of society's attitude towards mentally ill persons and the way they were treated. Randle P. McMurphy is a totally healthy person at the time he enters the hospital. And in fact, the doctor's diagnosis of McMurphy's mental health state is quit clear. He one says in a meeting: "I don't see any evidence of mental illness at all. And I think that McMurphy has been trying to put us on all this time." But Ms Ratched, the nurse, wants to keep him on the ward. It seems like she carries out a fight against him and wants to make sure she's the winner. And she finally wins. After McMurphy underwent several EST (Electro Shock Treatments) and an operation, lobotomy, he becomes a vegetable. Chief Bromden realizes that such a live is not worth living any more, hugs his friend and then frees him from the bondage of his existence in an act of mercy killing. It is evident that the system of the hospital failed in this case, and it provokes that many others were treated unfair. From today's view, we must admit there were many mistakes made in psychiatry because knowledge, in particular many important medicines were missing at this time. These people must be treated as full human beings!

Ken Kesey also criticizes the industrial society. On page 186 he describes a group of business men for example as: "a string of full - grown men in mirrored suits and machined hats, like a hatch (Brut) of identical insects, half - life things." Kesey carries out this criticism through the eyes of Chief Broom, a half - blood Columbia Indian. This perspective makes it understandable and touching, because to him, the industrialization meant an existential threat.

Another point often criticized in Kesey's Cuckoo's nest is a sexist rejection and suppression of woman. The presentation of the Big Nurse is very sexist. It says: "Everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what would of otherwise been a perfect work." McMurphy characterizes the Big Nurse as a "bitch", a "buzzard" and a "ball - cutter".
A further highly sexist suggestion is that the only good woman in the novel are the good - hearted whores.


We'd now like to show you a short excerpt from the film. The scene we're gonna watch together is the one that shocked us the most. Word - for - word shocked, because it is the one where Mc Murphy gets his Electro Shock Therapy.
It starts off right in the middle of a afternoon meeting. The patients are discussing the restriction of the cigarettes.


We're now getting to the third part of the presentation, the discussion. But before we start to talk about the three questions on the Information sheet, I'd like to talk about another subject. Lobotomy. This is the brain surgery the big nurse uses in the end to completely defeat McMurphy. In medical terms, it means the "destruction or removal of the prefrontal lobes of the cortex of the brain." In other words, the frontal lobe is the seat of your autonomy, the part of the brain that makes you you. Patients who have had lobotomy tend to act like monkey see, monkey do. If one takes his comb out of his pocket and combs his hair, the patient does the same thing. They lost all their personality. Lobotomy was mainly used on extremely psychotic patients because there were no tranquilizers to put them calm. It was easy to just turn them into vegetables. The needs of the hospital staff seemed to come before the needs of the patients. Today there are major tranquilizers and other medicines. But many of them have nasty side - effects.

Lately it came up, that between 1944 and 1963, there were 4500 people in Sweden who underwent a controversial brain surgery. Some of them were taken from a regular hospital and did not agree with the operation!!!
Now, what do you think of the method of lobotomy? Do you think it was justified back in those days?
I will now introduce the main characters of the story to you.
First, there is Chief "Broom" Bromden, a very strong Red Indian, born in Canada. He pretends he cannot speak or hear. This is how he can get to know quite a lot about what is going on in the ward without being disturbed. He feels compassion and respect for McMurphy, because he tries to fight the system. McMurphy's behaviour gradually makes him less afraid of the system.

Randolph Patrick McMurphy is a red - haired, smooth - talking convict, who caused a lot of trouble when he was at Pendleton Work Farm. He had several fights there. He feigns hearing strange sounds in order to escape the hard labour in that prison. In the ward he immediately becomes the symbol of personal freedom for his fellow patients, who very gradually start taking initiatives. His behaviour annoys the Big Nurse so much that she takes drastic measures to keep him under control.

Miss Mildred Ratched (The big nurse), a middle - aged woman, runs the ward that McMurphy is admitted to. She first and foremost wants the place to run smoothly. Any deviations from the set rules are not permitted by her and she will do anything to keep the rules as they are. She is the person who decides when a committed patient can leave the ward. She even has influence on the doctors which are responsible for the patients on her ward. In keeping the order she is helped by three black aides.

Of course there are some other Patients on the ward. They are subdivided into two main categories: the Acutes and the Chronics. The Acutes are "less ill" then the Chronics. The Chronic category is again subdivided into three groups: the Walkers (these are those who still can walk, for example Chief Broomden), the Wheelers (those in a wheelchair) and the Vegetables (paralytic patients).
The chronic patients, except for the Chief, do not play an important role in the plot. But some of the acutes do. These are mainly Dale Harding, the most intellectual of all of them, he even has graduated at a high - school, Billy Bibbit, a nice stammering man, who is dominated by his mother and Charlie Cheswick, the patient who takes first side with McMurphy.

The head doctor at the institution is named Dr. Spivey. He has been chosen as Doctor on the ward by Miss Ratched because he is the one who doesn’t say anything against her. But when McMurphy is brought to the ward the doctor begins to cooperate a little bit with the patients.

Last but not least there are the three black boys on the ward. They are the aides and do exactly what the Big Nurse tells them. In some scenes they act as bodyguards too.
As we have chosen a book of which the film is more known than the book itself, we watched the film as well. The moving picture "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" came out in 1975. It is directed by Czech Milos Forman. The film swept the Oscars, the first film to take all the major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor [Jack Nicholson's first] and Best Actress) since 1934.
The film's screenplay (by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman) was restructured and adapted from Ken Kesey's 1962 popular novel of the same name so that it would appeal to contemporary audiences. The novel was originally dramatized on Broadway in 1963 with actor Kirk Douglas starring in the lead role. Many years after its short theatrical run, Douglas' son, actor/producer Michael Douglas co - produced the film with Saul Zaentz and it was released by United Artists.
After we had seen the film we were in a disappointed mood. Maybe we had too great expectations for the movie because everyone told us that is a great one, maybe we weren’t satisfied by the film because we had read the book first. As you all know, if a film is made from a book, it's always much shorter and less precise, but in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the film is rather illogical.
Let me give you some examples:
    The first thing I noticed watching the film is that the scenes are not in the same order as in the book. In the film there is a funny scene where McMurphy tries to explain to the Chief how to play basketball. In the book that is never mentioned. In the book it takes McMurphy a long time to get the right to make a sort of a casino in the tub room. That is a room next to the day - room where the patients are during the whole day. He even needs and gets the help from the hospital's doctor Mr. Spivey. In the film you hear the first time from this gambling room when the Big Nurse tells Mc that the room is closed for gambling now. Then in my opinion an important thing missing in the film is that Doc Spivey isn’t present at the daily group meetings. In the book he assists the meetings and helps in several cases Mc to get his ideas through. The last difference I want to mention is the most evident one: In the book Mc organizes a fishing trip for the inmates. He is only able to do so with the help of the Doctor who also joins the group. The fact that he collects money for the excursion helps the Big Nurse later to make the other patients think bad about Mc. On the boat during the fishing the patients come closer to each other and, more important, closer to the Doctor. They even discover that one of the patients got the navy cross. That’s more or less the scene in the book whereas in the film Mc just hijacks the bus of the ward and takes the patients to the seaside. There he takes a boat and lies to the owner something that they were a group of doctors on a trip.
So finally I came to the conclusion that the main point I didn’t like in the film is the role of the doctor compared to his role in the book, and that the reviews of Chief on his childhood aren’t shown in the film. There I think the film lost something.
I really enjoyed reading this book. The story is for one time something different. No lovestory, no senseless killing, no boring horror, no police officers, just a solid story playing in a place where from the society called nuts but in reality interesting people live together.
But don’t underestimate this piece of literature! It’s like a coco - nut. Inside it’s good, but to get there you have to work. The english used in the book is quite challenging especially because Ken Kesey often uses colloquial expressions. Then the book has "only" about 250 pages but as you can see one page contains a lot of words. I had to read a couple of hours longer than I thought to finish this nevertheless good book.

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