I watched the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest back when I was studying A-Level Psychology, long before I read the book. That’s not the order I like to do things, as I always feel like the film influence’s my experiences of the book, and that was just the case with this story.
Despite the book version of McMurphy – the story’s main character – being a redhead, I could only picture Jack Nicholson throughout my reading journey. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Jack Nicholson plays the role spectacularly, but I imagine I would have viewed the character differently if my first encounter had been through the book.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has long been considered a classic (it’s on almost every “Top 100 Books to Read” list), as the narrative serves as a study of the institutional processes and the human mind as well as a critique of behaviorism and a celebration of humanistic principles (hence why we watched in during Psychology).
The book is set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, and my version includes sketches drawn by Ken Kesey himself, from his previous experiences as a nurse’s aide during the sixties.
As mentioned earlier, the main character of the story is McMurphy (full name Randle Patrick McMurphy) although the story is told through the eyes and thoughts of another character, “Chief” Bromdem – a half-Native American inmate at the psychiatric hospital. All the doctors and the nurses on the ward believe Bromdem to be deaf and mute, but that is not really the case; he started pretending he was deaf and mute a long time ago when people starting acting as if he couldn’t be seen or heard.
At the psychiatric hospital, things have stayed the same for as long as Bromdem can remember. The same daily routine, the same inmates, and the same stern, strict Nurse Rachet who keeps the ward exactly how she likes it through the use of drugs, manipulation and the threat of electric shock therapy.
Until one day when McMurphy joins the ward. Red haired, swaggering, fun-loving trickster McMurphy with his stories and his card tricks who resolves to oppose Nurse Rachet’s rules.
Despite already knowing the story, I was delighted to find out that the film stayed (mostly) true to the book. Of course, there are always some discrepancies, but I wasn’t too upset by any of these minor differences.
The book made me laugh and cry, in a genuine and relatable way. It’s one that I think anyone who enjoys reading should try at some point during their book-discovering journey. Despite being a fictional story, the attitudes and practices described really did happen during the 50’s and 60’s – and are based on the experiences Kesey lived as his time as a nurse’s aid.
It could be argued, that we haven’t really advanced in the way we diagnose and treat mental health today (but I’m not informed enough to debate that here – I would only embarrass myself).
This book will take you through a powerful and emotional story. If you’ve read it, comment below to share your too.
For those who are already familiar with the story – I would like to discuss the topic of McMurphy’s sanity. Do you think he was psychotic? Or did he just think that the ward was an easier ride than hard labor (does that make him psychotic after all?!)?
For me personally, I don’t think McMurphy suffered from a psychotic mental illness. That’s how I interpreted the character. Although I understand that a gambling addiction is considered by some medical professionals as a health issue, I don’t think that McMurphy would have ended up in a psychiatric ward if he hadn’t wanted to be there.
But that’s my opinion, I’m interested in hearing yours?(4 / 5)