A Look Back – ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ And How The Book Finally Made Sense

Posted on February 20, 2015 in Books

By Sanghamitra Aich:

It’s that time of the year – book fairs, the smell of books both old and new, and a rush of precious memories. One of my remembrances of such times is of painstakingly counting twenty-eight 10 rupee notes to pay for my copy of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, when I was 15. I had already bought my share of three books from the fair that day, and then some more, when I saw Penguin’s anniversary edition of the book. I really wanted it, and surprisingly, my mother agreed to buy it (she usually doesn’t agree that easily, I assure you). She just said “this book makes sense”. That enigmatic answer was lost in my immediate joy. It is only after several reads that I have gone back to what my mother said 5 years ago. This book makes sense. It really does.


Looking back, I give you 4 reasons why One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a must read.

The Great War: McMurphy vs. Ratched

The book begins with McMurphy swaggering into the ward of a mental institution and taking it quite by storm, challenging the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched. But this defiance that forms much of the plot of the novel, turns into an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Nurse Ratched, backed by the full power of authority, against McMurphy, and his indomitable will. Amidst the automatic good and evil, this book makes you understand and acknowledge the grey. Towards the end, though there is no happy resolution of this war, we come to sympathize, at least partially, with both sides. Nurse Ratched’s personality is marked by the events of her past, and her present. In fact, most female characters in the novel are relegated to the extremes that we ascribe to even today – the spinster, the whore, or the angel. McMurphy is quite the hero, a brawling, fun-loving rebel, forced into a marshmallow machine of enforced conformity and emasculation. R. P. McMurphy isn’t so much a character as an untamed figment of the freedom we desire in the face of increasing control of the government on private life. He serves as one of the greatest reasons for reading the novel, one of the greatest proofs of life, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

The Silent Storyteller: Chief Bromden

21st century reading experience has seen great postmodern variation in narratives. Here, Chief Bromden is a reliable and observant narrator. We realize how he adopts the popular muteness to stage an inward rebellion against the world that has too many boxes to lock you in, and too many tags to label you with. There is the madman, and there are the sane. You have to be one or the other. And yet, all of us are guilty of having mad moments, and sane solemnity. All of us are human, and Chief Bromden’s voice shapes a story that celebrates this very humanity.

The Thin Line Between Madness And Righteousness: Socio-Political Commentary

Kesey’s ingenious simplicity conducts the socio-political oppositionist business with an unabashed, cartoon-stroked theatricality. A lot of us are better acquainted with the movie and the Broadway adaptations, than the book. All of the performances won great acclaim – critical and popular. This is of course to the credit of the brilliant casts, but some of the credit lies with Kesey. His language and descriptions yield well to action. Almost all of the action is within the intense confines of its sanitarium, apart from a fishing jaunt that gives a welcome break from ideas of villains and happy ends. The sanitarium is of increasing interest in the light of present-day studies of totalitarian institutions, and how they give rise to new behavioral patterns in both the inmates and the guards. An alert reading betrays that the sanitarium serves as a microcosm of the society; it’s military barracks, prison cell block, schools, households, and every other socio-political structure find a parallel in our world. The book seems more relevant than ever when we accept how the oppressive forces have only gotten more immersive and influential in our lives in the 21st century.

 All of it will make sense

The book is for those who need answers to face the crises created by the modern world, the least being militarized medication, because who can deny the way missiles and medicines have taken over our lives – from therapies, sick certificates, million dollar hospital bills, automatic prescriptions of paracetamols, painkillers to sleeping pills, poisoning us, while burgeoning a million dollar industry. Hegemony, dominance, guns, terrorism, McDonalds, and oil pipelines have overtaken our reality. Everything of consequence is related to medicines, or militarism.

The book is also for those who ask questions, questions of the nature and effectiveness of science, of medicine and treatment, definition of craziness, and if it can be rendered and remedied, and the extreme manifestations of femininity. We are left with the feeling that the one fishing trip did more good than years of being in a closed-in space. But the most startling realization is the arbitrariness of the line between righteousness and madness; if you didn’t know which side the characters are on, Nurse Ratched may come across as crazy, the guards may seem violent and maniacal, and McMurphy will seem like a man of soil and toil.

The book is for all the people who more than just see – who notice.

And The Rhyme– you can never forget

And there is the rhyme…haunting, honest: symptomatic of the very novel it names. You can use it with great effect- when you are scared, when you are intrigued, when you want to scare, when you want to intrigue, or when you remember the book (which will be quite often).

High high in the hills,
High in a pine tree bed.
She’s tracing the wind with that old hand,
counting the clouds with that old chant,
Three geese in a flock
one flew east
one flew west
one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”