The Thing About Insane Asylums
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is about a lot of things, it’s actually overwhelming. And, Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor made it all the more mind-boggling. Now, I’m not sure if Foster helped me enjoy Kesey’s book more, but I do know that it made me understand things that I never thought I would.
For instance, I never would have guessed that illness could mean anything other than illness. However, according to Foster, it almost always does, and “it should be picturesque… mysterious in origin” and “have strong symbolic… possibilities” (Foster 216-17). I first approached Kesey’s novel as if it were any other novel, only to discover that the narrator isn’t just any narrator. He’s a Paranoid Schizophrenic narrator. Paranoid Schizophrenia, in case you’re lost, is characterized by bizarre behaviors, hallucinations, isolation, problems paying attention, delusions, loose associations, and there’s no official cause, so you can imagine how strange and sometimes unreliable his narration might be. He, Chief Bromden, believes what he is saying, but the reader has to distinguish his delusions from reality. Something I have noticed is that every time Chief hallucinates it is preceded by, or occurs during, a fog. I believe this fog represents his illness as a whole throughout the novel; the more fog there is, the crazier it gets. In the beginning, it was fog this, fog that. As it gets closer to the middle, though, his world goes by with less and less fog, and he becomes saner even. As they are en route to the ocean for the fishing trip, he feels more human and less insane than he had in twenty years, enjoying his beer and absorbing his surroundings carelessly (Kesey 239). This is so important, because he actually realizes and remembers that he is a person, and he is allowed to feel like any other man walking this earth. He gains a sense of identity when he notices himself more than he notices the illness that has defined him for so long. And, all this I got from fog.
Now, I interpreted the fog to signify his illness, but “a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing” (Foster 98), so what else could it mean? It could be a shelter to Chief, something he can “lose [him]self in… the way the other Chronics have” (Kesey 42). In other words, the fog could be his escape from the brutal reality of his life and ultimately an escape from all the evil and hatred projected from Nurse Ratched and her minions. It could be a whole world of things. Speaking of Nurse Ratched’s minions, I personally think they are black for a reason. Chief doesn’t refer to them by their names; he calls them the “black boys”. “All three wear starched snow-white pants and white shirts… and white shoes polished like ice, and the shoes have red rubber soles silent as mice up and down the hall” (Kesey 31). Black is symbolically an evil color while white is usually all things good and pure. These evil men are suited up in white in an attempt to mask their evil. My favorite part is the red on the bottom of their shoes, though, because I can just picture these evil men creeping around on their evil, bloodthirsty soles, surreptitiously sly like devils. That’s just me. That’s what’s good about symbols; it’s all about perception. All this talk about symbols reminds me of the title of the book.
The title is clearly a symbol or metaphor within itself. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Let’s go one step at a time. What is the Cuckoo’s Nest? Well, that’s easy: It’s the psych ward. Who lives there? The patients, needless to say, or the Cuckoo birds. Big Nurse is referred to as a Mother several times throughout the text, so obviously she watches over this nest. Who flies over the cuckoo’s nest? McMurphy does, in all his rebellious glory. “Flight is freedom” (Foster 128). Big Nurse Ratched can’t stand freedom, because freedom is not orderly. She absolutely must have control over everyone and everything. All of the patients know they aren’t allowed to fly from the nest, because it will mess up the order of things. However, sometimes someone will stand up and defend himself; He will try to lift off into freedom. But, anytime someone goes against the flow of things, the Big Nurse has his wings clipped, so to speak, to assure that he never tries to fly again. For example, Pete stood up for himself once, because he was tired of being tired. He was tired of being psychotic. All he needed was someone to talk to; someone to listen to him, but an outburst like his isn’t tolerated (Kesey 54). Luckily his fate wasn’t as horrifying as Ellis’ or Ruckly’s. When they acted out, they were sent to the Electroshock table, which made them vegetables for the rest of their miserable lives (Kesey 16). The only person that has been able to get away with his rebellious acts is McMurphy, the savior to them all.
It would be a sin to not mention all of the religious and Jesus allusions in Kesey’s novel, because it is just so obvious. He has “wounds in the hands” and stitches on his face, he’s “self-sacrificing”, used to be a logger, “ha[s] a confrontation with the devil” (Nurse Ratched), has twelve disciples, he’s “very forgiving”, and “came to redeem” men who didn’t know how to redeem themselves (Foster 119-20). McMurphy actually isn’t aware that he is their savior in the beginning, and he just can’t figure out why no one would stand up for themselves against the Big Nurse. Then all the patients went to the pool. McMurphy goes into the pool as his normal rebellious self, but comes out doubting. (Kesey 170). I see this as a baptism, and baptism means change. He realizes that he was only hurting himself, which in turn makes him straighten up his act. He lets down his disciples long enough and he realizes that he really can’t just sit around and be taken advantage of. He is willing to sacrifice his well-being and his life for these men. When he punches Nurse Ratched’s window, it marks this change. “The glass came apart like water splashing” (Kesey 201), baptizing McMurphy a second time, which signifies the transition back into his rebellious ways once more. And, thank God, because if he never dies for his followers, they’d never escape that Hell they were in.
This is so ironic too, because, at first sight, McMurphy seems like a dirty, sexual, obnoxious man. In reality, he is actually Jesus. As opposed to the Nurse, who is a clean, pristine, orderly woman. And, in reality, she is actually Satan’s mistress. As Foster says, “irony trumps everything” (Foster 235). Nothing else matters as long as irony is present. Interestingly enough, the entire book is just one big irony, and it only took me a hundred and thirteen pages to realize it. Big Nurse Ratched is a psychopath! A psychopath running an insane asylum! Now, that’s irony if I ever did see it. Think about it: “…that terrible cold face, a calm smile stamped out of red plastic; a clean, smooth forehead, not a line in it to show weakness or worry; flat, wide, painted-on green eyes, painted on with an expression that says I can wait…” (Kesey 113). It actually makes the reader cringe, I think. The image of Nurse Ratched being a psychopathic killer is just bone chilling, but not hard to believe.
I could literally go on for days about this book, because it is that fascinating, but that’s called rambling. So, I could only touch upon the things that excited me most. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a book of pure genius, and it is the only book I have ever enjoyed analyzing. Overall, How to Read Literature Like a Professor touched upon every type of analysis anyone would need to read Kesey’s novel like a real professor. And, like I said earlier, it definitely made me understand things I never would have picked up before on my own, like the fact that Nurse Ratched is a psychopath. I still can’t get over it. And, the thing about insane asylums is that it isn’t really insane unless there’s a psycho calling all the shots.