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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest uses a complex combination of narrative point of view and literary symbolism to create a story which is rich with sociological and political themes. At its heart, the novel is one which deals with the opposition of individualism and conformity — but beneath the obvious conflict lie themes of no-less importance, themes which deal with personal power and disempowerment, racism, sexism, and political oppression. In order to fully understand the full articulation of Kesey’s themes, a bit of probing beneath the surface-text of the novel is often helpful, if not necessary.

Due to Kesey’s innovative use of a “schizophrenic” narrator, a deeply charged and highly personal iconography is developed through the narration of the “Chief,” and a sort of “anti-unreliable” narrator is created through an inversion of the more conventional technique. It is precisely because Kesey’s radically innovative use of the Chief as narrator is the fulcrum upon which the novel’s rather complicated symbolism turns, that the movie version of the novel fails, at least to some degree, to preserve the intricate symbolism and sub-text of the novel.

In this regard, the movie is able to paint the broad theme of the novel: the individual versus conformity with convincing appeal, but the deeper subtleties and shades of theme which elevate the novel to greatness are missing from the movie — and this is because the movie is unable to project the Chief’s “internal monologue” where the deep symbolism of the novel is articulated. The Chief-as-narrator is important to the novel’s symbolism, and the symbolism, in turn, conveys the novel’s themes.

It is the Chief’s “first-person narration — highly subjective and often hallucinatory — that gives Cuckoo’s Nest its metaphoric richness, its peculiar horror, and ultimately its emotional force” (Lupack 66) and it is crucial to remember that Kesey’s themes are intended to be conveyed simultaneously on the emotional and intellectual levels in order to “convince” his audience on both logical and emotional grounds.

In this way, the themes of the novel are both more boldly represented and also, more subtly distinguished from one-another. For example, the Chief’s broom, as described in the novel “symbolizes his impotence, both in American society and in the institution that serves as a microcosm of that society” (Lupack 67) and as such, the symbolism takes on a distinctly sexual connotation in relation, specifically, to Nurse Ratched.

Because the institution, in the novel, is comprehended by the alert reader to be, in fact, the Chief’s rendering of the world, his own inner-myth, so to speak, the full implication of what may regarded as “hallucinatory” or “schizophrenic” states which imbue the Chief’s narrative can be seen as ironic in that they actually reflect a larger degree of truth than “sane” world which serves as a field of neutral projection and dispassion.

The Chief concludes that the fog which he sees consuming himself and the other patients in the ward originates with Nurse Ratched. The fog, of course, symbolizes the drugged state that the patients are in, their passivity and even their ignorance. However, beneath this exterior symbolism a connotation can be drawn out of the fog-symbolism which intimates issues of race and cultural eradication.

This suspicion is confirmed by the symbolism of the “green ooze” that the Chief perceives emanating from the hospital staff and which covers the ward wherever the doctors and nurses go. The racial aspect of theme is also conveyed in the narrative description of Nurse Ratched herself. the symbolism employed in the description (again through the Chief’s narrative voice) is one which is quite clever: she is compared to a doll, whose only flaw is her too-maternally shaped breasts:

Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils-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, and you can see how bitter she is about it. (Kesey, 118)

The implication is that the impersonal, artificial, superficial world of Nurse Ratched is one where natural processes, those things connected with the earth and with nature, are seen as violators and diseases. The green-seepage is the blood of the natural world which seeps from those who are “killing” Mother Nature, and the doll-like stature of Ratched herself signifies that it is Nurse Ratched and those who administrate the ward who are, in fact, insane, in that they are estranged from nature, and so from their own souls.

These latter realizations make it possible for the alert reader to realize that Kesey’s themes are being delivered almost exclusively through the use of satire where expected conventions are reversed. For example, once the reader realizes that the insanity which is reflected in the social microcosm of the ward is one where the inmates are actually sane and the hospital staff insane (in regards to harmony with nature) then one begins to view the Chief as the captive soul of the entire society which the microcosm is meant to reflect.

Once this realization is reached it is possible to see that Kesey’s “deeper” themes are not, in fact, so closely aligned with the idea of individualism against conformity, but of harmony and spiritual enlightenment versus ignorance and the exploitation of nature. Behind the more obvious theme of power and inter-personal conflict there is the “soul” conflict where Kesey is suggesting that modern society is in many ways a process of self-murder and self-sacrifice.

It is very important to keep the deeper themes in mind because, without them, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would, in fact, be a novel in which the theme of the individual versus the collective would factor as the primary theme and, as such, the novel would, obviously, be nothing more than a way of saying: “Be yourself. ” That could almost be construed as a type of propaganda, a “feel good” celebration for rugged American individualism and the spirit of self-discovery against a conservative political backdrop of the “Establishment.

” That is, of course, a quite legitimate theme, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest uses the obvious (almost cliche) theme as a springboard to more compelling themes that can be described as existential or spiritual, depending on your personal point of view. Either way, the movie version of the novel necessarily had to sacrifice almost all of the deeper thematic resonances of the novel — most especially those which were connected tot he intricate symbolism of the novel — due to the fact that, in the movie, the Chief is not the protagonist or narrator.

This means the film forfeits the right to “get in th Chief’s head” which, as mentioned, provided the streambed for the entirety of the novel’s symbolism. Instead, the movie focuses on the more obvious conflict between society and the individual, painting its thematic articulations in very broad and obvious strokes in order to drive home a single, almost one-dimensional theme: that individuality is good.

In this respect, the movie accomplishes a great deal, but in regard to preserving or forwarding the deeper, richer, and much more important symbolically articulated themes of Kesey’s novel, the movie must be considered to have fallen woefully short. Works Cited Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Penguin Classics, 2002. Lupack, Barbara Tepa. Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995.

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