McMurphy might be one of the greatest literary characters ever. But he doesn’t make this novel for me. Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, might be one of the great tragi-villians ever. But she doesn’t make this novel for me. Instead, the narrator, a Columbia Indian, thought to be deaf and dumb, is one who makes this novel for me. Published in 1963, Ken Kesey’s brilliant observation of an American mental asylum is a microscopic examination of American life. There is the over arching reach of Big Nurse, an autocratic head nurse, where assimilation is mandatory for self-survival. When faced with more time in jail, McMurphy, a self-confessed gambling fool, opts for admission and assessment and finds himself in the ward run by Nurse Ratched.
This guy is redheaded with long red sideburns and a tangle of curls out from under his cap, needing cut a long time, and he’s broad as Papa was tall broad across the jaw and shoulders and chest, a broad devilish grin, and he’s hard in a different kind of way from Papa, kind of the way a baseball is hard under the scuffed leather.
In the ward he finds society reproduced. There are those who are the Acutes, drugged, passive. Then there are the Chronics, vegetables, in wheel chairs, medicated. Big Chief, the narrator, crosses between the groups. Sometimes he is coupled with the Acutes and sometimes Chronics. His observations are in moment, stream of consciousness, interchanged with reflection childhood moments that are idealic, yet regretful. Out of all of the characters, he has lost the most. His traditions, his land and self-determination.
But I know it isn’t the stink that keep them away from the Chronic side so much as they don’t like to be reminded that here’s what could happen to them someday.
The novel is at once, serious and full of some of the darkest humour. The question remains for each character, are they in the ward for their own protection? Are they really that crazy? In the way the dialogue between the characters is reproduce is the beauty of the written word. The ability of Big Chief to see and hear things that others ignore in their arrogance, in the heart of the novel.
‘…everyone must follow the rules.’…’Ya know, ma’am’, he says, ‘ya know- that is the ex-act thing somebody always tells me about the rules…’ He grins. They both smile back and forth at each other, sizing each other up. ‘…just when the figure I’m about to do the dead opposite.’
McMurphy is what, from 1963, is about to come across America. He fights and f*cks, he has served his country (his role in an escape from a Chinese prisoner of war camp during the Korean War is barely mentioned, but is parallel to his role in the ward), he is an all American. The scene of his rallying support to watch the World Series speaks to the humanistic in me; the recount of Chief, when all the ‘patients’ sit and watch the blank tv is one of the best I’ve read.
If somebody’d come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year-old woman holering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they’d of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons.
But is McMurphy just a self-serving fool? Is he just in the ward to control, much like Big Nurse? Is he just a more convincing version of her and just may be is he just as dangerous? McMurphy does learn, through the philosopher Harding, of the patients who are self-admitted and those who are committed. Many of the men McMurphy considers mad are self-admitted, seeking some percentage of normality. Yet, he, the self-appointed rebel leader has been committed. That means he is at the mercy of Big Nurse and what Chief considers the ‘Combine’, the dictatorship controlling every moment of the ward. Should he give in, be like the rest, give up his rebellion against the Big Nurse? Read this novel.
‘What the hell for?’
‘Why, the patient’s good, of course. Everything done here is for the patient’s good. You may sometimes get the impression, having lived only on our ward, that the hospital is a vast efficient mechanism that would function quite well if the patient were not imposed on it, but that’s not true.’