One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Kesey)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 
Ken Kesey, 1962
Penguin Group USA
312 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780141181226

An international bestseller and the basis for a hugely successful film, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of the defining works of the 1960s.

A mordant, wickedly subversive parable set in a mental ward, the novel chronicles the head-on collision between its hell-raising, life-affirming hero Randle Patrick McMurphy and the totalitarian rule of Big Nurse. McMurphy swaggers into the mental ward like a blast of fresh air and turns the place upside down, starting a gambling operation, smuggling in wine and women, and egging on the other patients to join him in open rebellion. But McMurphy's revolution against Big Nurse and everything she stands for quickly turns from sport to a fierce power struggle with shattering results. (From the publisher.)

Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the seminal novel of the 1960s that has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. Here is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome powers that keep them all imprisoned. (Also from the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—September 17, 1935 
Where—La Junta, Colorado, USA
 Death—November 10, 2001
Where—Pleasant Hill, Oregon
Education—B.A., University of Oregon; studied at Stanford  

Ken Kesey was an American author, best known for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and as a counter-cultural figure who considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. "I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie," Kesey said in a 1999 interview with Robert K. Elder.

Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado to dairy farmers Frederick A. Kesey and Geneva Smith. In 1946, the family moved to Springfield, Oregon. A champion wrestler in both high school and college, he graduated from Springfield High School in 1953.

In 1956, while attending college at the University of Oregon in neighboring Eugene, Kesey eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Norma "Faye" Haxby, whom he had met in seventh grade. They had three children, Jed, Zane, and Shannon; Kesey had another child, Sunshine, in 1966 with fellow Merry Prankster Carolyn Adams.

Kesey attended the University of Oregon's School of Journalism, where he received a degree in speech and communication in 1957, where he was also a brother of Beta Theta Pi. He was awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in 1958 to enroll in the creative writing program at Stanford University, which he did the following year. While at Stanford, he studied under Wallace Stegner and began the manuscript that would become One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Psychoactive drugs
At Stanford in 1959, Kesey volunteered to take part in a CIA-financed study named Project MKULTRA at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. The project studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, AMT, and DMT on people. Kesey wrote many detailed accounts of his experiences with these drugs, both during the Project MKULTRA study and in the years of private experimentation that followed. It was this role as a medical guinea pig, as well as his stint working at a state veterans' hospital, that inspired him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962.

The success of this book, as well as the sale of his residence at Stanford, allowed him to move to La Honda, California, in the mountains south of San Francisco. He frequently entertained friends and many others with parties he called "Acid Tests" involving music (The Warlocks, later known as the Grateful Dead), black lights, fluorescent paint, strobes and other "psychedelic" effects, and, of course, LSD. These parties were noted in some of Allen Ginsberg's poems and are also described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S. Thompson and Freewheelin Frank, Secretary of the Hell's Angels by Frank Reynolds.

Cuckoo's Nest
In 1959, Kesey wrote Zoo, a novel about the beatniks living in the North Beach community of San Francisco, but it was never published. In 1960, he wrote End of Autumn, about a young man who leaves his working class family after he gets a scholarship to an Ivy League school, also unpublished.

The inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came while working on the night shift (with Gordon Lish) at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. There, Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs with which he had volunteered to experiment. Kesey did not believe that these patients were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave.

Published in 1962, Cuckoo's Nest was an immediate success; in 1963, it was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman; in 1975, Milos Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman).

Kesey was originally involved in creating the film, but left two weeks into production. He claimed never to have seen the movie because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the film rights. Kesey loathed the fact that, unlike the book, the film was not narrated by the Chief Bromden character, and he disagreed with Jack Nicholson being cast as Randle McMurphy (he wanted Gene Hackman). Despite this, Faye Kesey has stated that Ken was generally supportive of the film and pleased that it was made.

Merry Pranksters
When the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964 required his presence in New York, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the "Merry Pranksters" took a cross-country trip in a school bus nicknamed "Furthur." The trip, described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and later in Kesey's own screenplay "The Further Inquiry") was the group's attempt to create art out of everyday life. In New York, Cassady introduced Kesey to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who then turned them on to Timothy Leary. Sometimes a Great Notion was made into a 1971 film starring and directed by Paul Newman; it was nominated for two Academy Awards, and in 1972 was the first film shown by the new television network HBO, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Legal trouble
Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1965. In an attempt to mislead police, he faked suicide by having friends leave his truck on a cliffside road near Eureka, along with an elaborate suicide note, written by the pranksters. Kesey fled to Mexico in the back of a friend's car. When he returned to the United States eight months later, Kesey was arrested and sent to the San Mateo County jail in Redwood City, California, for five months. On his release, he moved back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote many articles, books (mostly collections of his articles), and short stories during that time.

In 1994 he toured with members of the Merry Pranksters performing a musical play he wrote about the millennium called Twister: A Ritual Reality. Many old and new friends and family showed up to support the Pranksters on this tour that took them from Seattle's Bumbershoot, all along the West Coast including a sold out two-night run at The Fillmore in San Francisco to Boulder, Colorado, where they coaxed (or pranked) the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg into performing with them. Kesey, always a friend to musicians since his days of the Acid Test, enlisted the band Jambay, one of the original bands of the jam band genre, to be his "pit orchestra." Jambay played an acoustic set before each Twister performance and an electric set after each show.

Final years
Kesey mainly kept to his home life in Pleasant Hill, preferring to make artistic contributions on the Internet, or holding ritualistic revivals in the spirit of the Acid Test.

In 1984, Kesey's son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed on the way to a wrestling tournament when the team's bald-tired van crashed. This deeply affected Kesey, who later said Jed was a victim of conservative, anti-government policy that starved the team of proper funding. There is a memorial dedicated to Jed on the top of Mount Pisgah, which is near the Keseys' home in Pleasant Hill. At a Grateful Dead Halloween concert just days after promoter Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash, Kesey appeared on stage in a tuxedo and delivered a eulogy while the Grateful Dead was playing the song Dark Star, and he mentioned that Graham had paid for Jed's mountain-top memorial.

His last major work was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine calling for peace in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In 1997, health problems began to take their toll on Kesey, starting with a stroke that year. Then soon after his stroke he was diagnosed with diabetes. On October 25, 2001 Kesey had surgery on his liver to remove a tumor. He never recovered from the operation and died of complications on November 10, 2001, aged 66. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
(Older works have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

The world of this brilliant first novel is Inside—inside a mental hospital and inside the blocked minds of its inmates. Sordid sights and sounds abound, but novelist Kesey has not descended to mere shock treatment or isolation-ward documentary. His book is a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil, despite its macabre setting.

Kesey's new introduction to this anniversary edition could very well be the last thing he worked on before shuffling off this mortal coil in 2001. Additionally, 25 sketches he drew while working at a mental institution in the 1950s, the inspiration for the novel, are littered throughout. Critics are divided on the meaning of the book: Is it a tale of good vs. evil, sanity over insanity, or humankind trying to overcome repression amid chaos? Whichever, it is a great read.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:

1. In what way is Kensey's novel representative of the 1960s? (If you are too young to have experienced the '60s, you might want to do a little research into the era.) The book, issued in 1962, is nearly 50 years old. Are the thematic concerns of Cuckoo's Nest still relevant today, do they speak to the 21st century...or are they outdated?

2. Cuckoo's Nest centers around a classic plot device—the introduction of disorder into an ordered environment. How does Randlel McMurphy destabilize the psychiatric ward? First, discuss how "order" is maintained...who enforces it...and what form "order" takes. Then talk about what happens when McMurphy enters the story.

3. Was Chief Bromden mentally insane when he was committed to the hospital 10 years ago? How does he appear when we first meet him? What is the cause of his hallucinatory fog—his medications or his paranoia or...?

4. Trace the change in Bromden that occurs over the course of the novel. What does he come to understand about himself? Why he has he presented himself as "deaf and dumb"? Why does he believe he has lost his once prodigious strength? What effect does McMurphy have on him?

5. At one point, Bromden pleas with the reader to believe him. He says, "But it's the truth even if it didn't happen." What does he mean—how can something be true if it's not based in reality?

6. Is McMurphy crazy? Under what circumstances does he enter the hospital ward? If this is a parable...or allegory, what does McMurphy represent symbolically? Can he be seen as a Christ figure, one who sacrifices himself for the good of others? Yes...or no.

7. What is Dr. Spivey's theory of the Therapeutic Community—and how does McMurphy challenge it? What does he mean when he compares the process to a flock of chickens?

8. As a follow-up to Question 4, what does Nurse Ratched represent? What's funny, by the way, about her name? Talk about her ability to disguise her true "hideous self, which she shows readily to Bromden and the aides, from the patients. Bromden sees her as a combine...and nicknames her "Big Nurse." What are the implications of those words?

9. How does Ratched maintain power over her patients?

10. How does Ratched eventually gain control over McMurphy? Why does he gradually submit to her—and why does the newly subdued McMurphy confuse the other patients? What has he become to them?

11. Talk about the fishing trip that McMurphy arranges for the inmates. What does McMurphy teach the other patients about being on the outside? What's the symbolic significance of the fishing expedition?

12. Why doesn't McMurphy escape from the ward the night that Billy has his "date" with Candy?

13. Ultimately, Ratched looses her hold over the ward. Why?

14. What is this novel about? What dichotomy is being suggested by Ratched and the hospital vs. the patients? Good vs. evil? Power & authority vs. freedom. Repression vs. expression? Women vs. men? The machine vs. nature? War vs. humanity?

15. Why does Bromden narrate rather than McMurphy?

16. Ultimately, how does Ken Kensey challenge societal notions of sanity and insanity? Who is sick, according to Kensey?

17. Who is the book's hero?

18. What is the title's significance"

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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