I think I first read this in my early 20’s – It was a big orange book with Jack Nicholson’s face on the cover, and I was very wary of getting into it. It took a couple of read-throughs before I “got it”. It was a different type of book than any I’d read up to then, and it scared me, shocked me, amazed me, and made me laugh out loud.
The below review is on the long side – I’ve been reading this for the past three months or so, and wanted to do it justice.
This book was based on Kesey’s experiences, working as an orderly in Menlo Park, California. It relates the story of McMurphy, a man who pretended to be insane to get out of a farm work detail (punishment for a brawl), and who is transferred to an insane asylum run by the dictatorial Nurse Ratched (sounds like “wretched”), easily one of the most evil female villains of all time. What plays out is the battle of wills between the two, but also on a larger scale, the theme is what happens when you break the status quo, fight against the system, and who gets to decide what sanity actually looks like.
Randle McMurphy: The ultimate anti-establishment hero. He likes his beer, his women, his gambling and his fighting, preferably all on the same night, every night. He is larger than life, the alpha male, who has already racked up a dishonourable discharge from the Marines, but who had also led a successful escape from a POW camp in Korea. His is the everyman philosophy.
Chief Bromden: An Indian giant, of immense strength, he pretends to be deaf and dumb, so gets to hear conversations others would not. McMurphy gradually brings him back into the fold, and the Chief emerges as one of the strongest characters. He is the book’s narrator.
Nurse Ratched: Also known as “Big Nurse”, she is authoritarian in her running of the hospital. She is destructive in her use and abuse of power, and in the long run has the upper hand over McMurphy. Her desire to crush and control drives two men to suicide.
Dale Harding: The “Bull Goose Looney”, an intellectual, effeminate man, repressing his homosexual self while being also humiliated by his blatantly promiscuous wife. Initially opposed to McMurphy, he becomes his greatest supporter. Ratched’s abuse of Harding is McMurphy’s first inkling of how she subverts the men in the group. He also tells McMurphy of Ratched’s ultimate veto – because he is an involuntary committal, she can keep him there. Forever.
Billy Bibbit: Billy’s mother and Nurse Ratched are very close, and repressed virginal Billy is manipulated by the Oedipal tactics his mother uses on him. McMurphy orders up Candy for him to lose his virginity, but this ultimately leads to the cataclysmic final events in the novel.
Doctor Spivey: Ratched controls him, as she knows of his morphine addiction. He is essentially a kind man, and responds to the charisma of McMurphy, and begins to rebel in his own way e.g. backing the group when they want to go fishing.
Charles Cheswick: He is McMurphy’s first supporter. However, left isolated by McMurphy when making his own stand against Nurse Ratched, he drowns himself. This makes McMurphy realise this stuff is not just a game anymore.
The book begins with Chief Bromden narrating. He gives us his view of Nurse Ratched, believing she is part of “the Combine” that lives in the hospital walls, and he is scared of her, despite his great size and strength. Everyone ignores him, as they believe he is deaf and dumb.
Randle McMurphy then explodes into the asylum. This wild larger-than-life character immediately assumes leadership of the group. He shows complete disregard for authority. He organises some petty gambling games, and gradually begins to undermine the rigid control of Big Nurse, whom he calls a “ball-cutter”.
When McMurphy finally learns a couple of truths (the other patients voluntarily committed themselves, so can leave at any time unlike him, and because he is involuntary, Ratched can keep him as long as she likes), McMurphy tones down his rebellious behaviour. However, this leads to the death of Cheswick, who took a lead from McMurphy’s original behaviour and now, without support, kills himself.
McMurphy organises a fishing trip, which proceeds in spite of Nurse Ratcheds opposition. Spivey and Candy (a local prostitute) come along, and the trip is a huge success. Back at the ranch, Ratched tries to undermine McMurphy with the group, spreading rumours about his personal agenda. McMurphy defends the sea-captain from an enforced enema, but in the resultant fight McMurphy and Chief are ultimately sent for electro-shock treatment, and return to be feted as heroes to the group.
McMurphy is deeply traumatised by this turn of events, but feels he has to honour his commitment to Billy, to get him a date (and sex) with Candy. He organises Candy and a friend, but also get s the ward stinking drunk, and smashes into the drug cabinet.
The following morning, Ratched discovers Billy in bed with Candy, and threatens to tell his mother. In his terror, Billy betrays everyone, especially McMurphy, then kills himself rather than live with the shame. Ratched blames McMurphy on this, which so provokes him he tries to strangle her, before ripping her shirt off to expose her breasts to the other patients, thus removing the aura of invincibility she had, and lessening her authority.
Many patients, inspired by Murphy and having regained confidence in themselves, now begin to sign themselves out. The remaining few, including the Chief, see Nurse Ratched finally visit her revenge on McMurphy, when his lobotomised body is brought back to the ward.
The Chief cannot bear to see this spirit trapped in that body, so that night he suffocates him. He then escapes, smashing the windows with a sink the way McMurphy had taught him, and hitches a ride all the way to Canada.
What I Liked:
- Characters extremely well drawn, and believable.
- Some scenes were superb, for example when he tells the gas station attendants they were all a bunch of murderers, and the group outstare the other customers. The power of turning a prejudice against someone!
What I Didn’t Like:
- Women are unsympathetic characters – prostitutes (Candy), control freaks (Ratched, Billy’s mother), the shrew (Chief’s mother is blamed for turning his father to drink), McMurphy’s rape victim was a “seductress” so obviously not his fault, or otherwise submissive beings (e.g. the “little Jap nurse”).
- Although it’s written in the ‘60’s, there are strong racist elements (“the brutal black guards” for example), which surprised me in this reading as I did not pick up on it before.
Finishing this book leaves you guessing – is McMurphy right to rail against the system, or given his reaction and attempt to kill Big Nurse, is the system right to have this uncontrolled character put away for the greater good?
Was McMurphy sane – if so, explain the serious behavioural issues (and the rape conviction)? Is he insane – what does that mean for the hero worship he engenders, both in the group and externally to generations of readers?
Nurse Ratched does not come across any better – she still is focused on power and control – but is a little more understandable. I do have issues with the awful depiction of every woman in this book.
Reading it today has left me a little disappointed. The younger me loved the two-fingers-to-the-man attitude, the older me knows the world ain’t that simple, and I have grown up and broader in my world view. The writing is excellent, the pace picks up throughput the book to an explosive finish, but I found the protagonist a little naïve, a bit of a bully, and more mentally unbalanced than I remembered him.
I don’t think I will read this again, because McMurphy is no longer a hero. His willingness to question the system is fine, but the extremes he goes to, to disrupt things is ultimately just to satisfy his own temperament. I don’t think he does care about the group the way he says he does, e.g. not supporting Cheswick, getting Billy laid without thinking through his very real mental problems around this, etc. He does it because he wants to, with disregard for everyone else. This lack of compassion is not something to be proud of.