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Ken Kesey photo courtesy of Robert AltmanPhotography
"Photo courtesy of 
Robert Altman 1999."

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey  1935 -

First published:   1962 
Time of plot:      1950s 
Locale:  A mental hospital near Portland, Oregon. 
Keywords: Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, character, 'any theme with author's name', asylum, electric shock therapy, lobotomy,  counterculture and hippies. LSD. black humor, satire.
Suggested Reading Before You Begin:  Literature and Its Times, Vol 4, 288-294.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Biography Criticisms Characters Journal Articles
Internet Sites Plot
Themes
History Cultural History
Popular Music



BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Ken Kesey, born in 1935, was raised on farms in Colorado and Oregon.  At the University of Oregon, he participated in wrestling and theater.  It wasn't until 1959 that his life underwent a dramatic change, when he volunteered to be a subject in experiments with hallucinogenic drugs.  Near the end of the experiments, he began working the night shift in a mental ward.  He began to feel that the patients weren't really crazy after all, just more individualized than society was willing to accept.  Parts of the novel were written while he was under the influence of LSD and peyote.

Kesey's specialty at the time was green Kool-Aid laced with LSD.  In 1964, promoting Sometimes a Great Notion, he and his friends, dubbed the Merry Pranksters, drove from San Francisco to New York in a psychedelic painted bus (paid for with the proceeds of Cuckoo's Nest.)   His bus, Further, was immortalized in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and On the Bus.  Kesey  hid 6 months (with his bus) in Mexico to avoid imprisonment for possession of marijuana, then gave himself up to authorities, and was jailed for 5 months.  His writing changed from fiction to autobiographical prose, although in more recent years he has returned to fiction with Sailor Song and Last Go Round.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may have had more influence on society than society had on Kesey.  The book was widely read by college students just as the baby boomers began to challenge authority. It is considered a masterpiece.  Kesey resides in Oregon where he has been active in the PTA :-). 


BOOKS with BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

 

REF PS 153.M56I34 
Vol 2
Identities and Issues in Literature One page summary of the author's life and literary significance.
REF PN 883.C64  Contemporary Novelists Overview of the author's works and writing style.
PS3561 .E667Z88 Ken Kesey Criticism and interpretation of Kesey's works, includes biographical information.
REF PN 41.D5 
Vol 76
Dictionary of Literary Biography DLB is a multi-volume work which provides detailed biographical sketches of the authors' literary writings as well as general critical commentary. It is a most useful collection.
HV 5825.W56 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Author:  Tom Wolfe.  The story of a drug-induced bus trip taken by Kesey and others.  Trip financed by the proceeds of Cuckoo's Nest.  Story includes Kesey's  discussion of his writing the book.
REF CT 100.C8 1976 Current Biography Summary of the Kesey's life.

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PLOT SUMMARY


A grim satire set among the patients and workers in a mental institution tells the story (narrated by an inmate) of an energetic con man who seeks institutionalization as a means of escaping the rigors of a prison work farm.  Before long, in order to reduce the sexual and emotional impotence of the men at the institution, he began to challenge the dictatorial Nurse Ratched, irrevocably altering the destiny of those in the ward.

The story is made up of series of skirmishes between McMurphy and Big Nurse.  McMurphy became a hero, changing the life of the inmates, but paid with a lobotomy which turned him into a vegetable.  Bromden, the narrator, performed the final act by smothering McMurphy with a pillow and running away to freedom.
 

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CHARACTERS

R. P. McMurphy
A con man who becomes a modern-day rebel and hero cast in the mode of the cowboy hero of the American Western.  Charming and manipulating, he is a forceful character living a generation too late.  He challenges authority.  Using a strong sense of humor and comic exaggeration, he instigates the changes at the sanitarium and teaches the inmates to be sane.  In the end, Nurse Ratched teaches him the ultimate lesson on authority.
Billy Bibbit
A thirty-one year old man, still psychologically an adolescent, is still under the control of his mother.  McMurphy finds a way to bring out his manhood.  Later is driven to suicide by Nurse Ratched.
Chief Bromden
Schizophrenic, and as narrator, holds a key position.  He is a tall and strong Native American who feigns muteness and deafness to protect himself from pain.  McMurphy rescues him from his silence.  He, in turn, rescues McMurphy from life as a vegetable.
Nurse Ratched
Big Nurse, described as 'enormous, capable of swelling up bigger and bigger to monstrous proportions.  She is the ward superintendent, the ultimate authority demanding obedience and perfect order from everyone
Dale Harding
The best educated of the men on the ward, Dale Harding is president of the Patients' Council when McMurphy is admitted to the hospital. He serves a useful purpose, both for McMurphy and for us: while the Chief with his hallucinations may give us an unusual insight into the hospital, Harding gives us the sorts of rational explanations we're used to hearing. It's Harding who tells McMurphy how Nurse Ratched is able to maintain her power, how electroshock therapy works, what a lobotomy does to people. It's Harding who gives the new patients and the reader the understanding of the matriarchy Nurse Ratched directs. His change and cure is complete, thanks to McMurphy.

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THEMES to CONSIDER

 

  • Physical and moral courage
  • Self-reliance
  • Independence
  • What is insanity? 
  • Group effort - The Combine
  • Morality  - good over evil
  • Biblical allegory
  • Challenging symbols of conformity 
  • Therapeutic role of nature 
  • Importance of sexuality
  • Anti-feminism  - superiority of males
  • Human freedom  vs control
  • Humor and satire, the power of laughter
  • Modern version of Western
  • Cartoon imagery
  • Symbolism of names

BOOKS Containing CRITICISMS

REF PN 771.G27 
Vol 1,3,6,22,46,*64
Contemporary Literary Criticism CLC contains excerpts from critical essays in books and journals.  Use these volumes to 1) select a topic or theme,  2) find the full article or essay in the library, and 3) locate other articles and books from the 'Further Reading' section.
REF PN 523.W67 
Vol 3
World Contemporary Literature Similar to CLC, this book has excellent information for background reading.
REF PS 221.T834 
Vol 4
Twentieth Century American Literature (See CLC)  Use 20th Century Am Lit for  criticism of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
REF PR 888.P53R43 A Reader's Guide to the Twentieth Century Novel Evaluates the novel's place in its time.
REF PS 21.M34 
Vol 3
Magill's Survey of American Literature One page summary of the plot - with themes and criticism.

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HISTORICAL EVENTS AT THE TIME THE NOVEL WAS WRITTEN

The novel's secondary characters were based on real-life individuals whom Kesey met while working at the Veterans' Administration Hospital.  As research for the novel, he worked the graveyard shift in the psychiatric ward and actually subjected himself to a real-life shock treatment.  The setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest takes place at the end of the 1950s, when many of the nation's younger generation began to challenge conformity.  Nurse Ratched personified the power and control exhibited by large government and businesses. The Beat Culture  began at this time and continued with other countercultures and finally to the hippies of the 1960s.

Young Americans began to question those in power.  They formed a subgroup in American society that historians termed the counterculture.  This band of political protesters gave rise to the hippies, a collection of mostly young people dedicated to peace, love and the search for beauty of life.  Kesey was one of those hooked on a new mind-altering drug known as LSD.  LSD was considered both a blessing (medical treatment for mental disorders) and a curse (unpleasant reactions and addiction) for American society.   LSD served as a unifying vehicle that would later define the entire counterculture of the 1960s.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was hailed as a major literary success.  Watch the 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
 

BOOKS to EXPLAIN THE TIMES

We suggest you use the keywords in the box above to find other books of interest to you.
 

REF PN50.I574 
Vol 4
Literature and Its Times Highly recommended for background information.  Intended to settle the reader in the time in which the novel takes place.  Includes synopsis, social history, treatment, plot, and reviews.
REF BF 31.E52 Encyclopedia of Psychology Use for descriptions of schizophrenia and other mental disorders.
REF E 169.1.A471872 
Vol 7
America in the 20th Century Background information on the counter culture.
REF HV5804.E53 Encyclopedia of Drugs and Alcohol Thorough explanations of drugs and their effects on the body.
HN 80.S4P48 Haight Asbury:  A History A step beyond - about the author and the times.
HV5825 .J65 Hep-cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams : A History of America's Romance with Illegal Drugs Mentioned in bibliographies, this books will give a background for early LSD and other drug use in America
HV5822.L9S74 Storming Heaven : LSD and the American Dream Listed in bibliographies as an excellent book on its subject.

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FINDING JOURNAL ARTICLES

Remember, library loan is available from other NHMCCD colleges and outside the system. Allow time for
this free service. Forms for requesting articles from NHMCCD colleges are available at the reference desk. Try the following databases on campus or from home. A current library card is required for login  Get Card

MLA Bibliography
This is the most authoritative database for literature research. MLA  is not a full-text database but many of the journals will be available in the NHMCCD libraries.   Full text of the articles are located on microfiche film. You will need to come to the library to use the microfiche reader/printer.
Periodical Abstracts
This huge database (1900+titles, many full-text) is not exclusively a literary database but a number of
literary journals are indexed and some are available full text. Limit your results to peer reviewed to find material that is scholarly and 'up to snuff' for a college paper.
Academic Search Premier
Another multi-subject database which can be searched for scholarly material by limiting to scholarly journals. 
Literature Resource Center
This database includes article from literary journals as well as biographies, bibliographies and critical analysis of literature and authors. Includes Contemporary Authors, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Literature Resource Center, Scribner writers series, Twayne's Authors Series. (GaleGroup).

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INTERNET SITES

Kesey Bibliography
A bib of both books and journal articles.  Could be helpful.  Ask the librarian to help you get the books and articles.  If we don't have them, they can be order via Interlibrary Loan.  Allow 3-4 days.
 The Ken Kesey Website
Today's Ken Kesey.  Information about his books and life, what he is doing today and yesterday.  From Key-Z Productions.  Just fun to see.  Not much for a paper.
Kesey Pages
Links to Kesey information on the web, including the Pranksters and maps for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
 Reviews of Kesey's Books
The reviews here are short, rated, and by reader's of Kesey's books.  They are not considered literary criticism.  You can buy a book online from this site.
 The Hippie Counter Culture Movement
Essay written by one of the offspring of the Age of Aquarius commune.  See what life was like.
 Ken Kesey
This page has very good links for Kesey and his times.
 Intrepid Trips
Interesting - ???

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