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The power of the human mind

Emma Wyeth looks into how the infamous novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest portrays and explains the treatment of mental illness.


One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel that dramatises the conflict between the demand for conformity in society and those who are constricted by this. Ken Kesey tries to galvanise a yearning for individuality, and stresses that treatment of mental illness will only ever be successful when it also embraces a patient’s humanity.

“It’s the Indian’s story – not McMurphy’s or Jack Nicholson’s.” – Ken Kesey

Kesey places his narrator within the confines of a mental hospital, whose clinical and colourless routine is oppressive. Chief Bromden, a tall, half Native-American who pretends to be both deaf and dumb, describes the efforts of the ward’s tyrannical Nurse Ratched to quash the individuality of its occupants.

Kesey tries to strike a balance in his writing; one that allows the reader to wholly trust Bromden’s account, but at the same time articulates Bromden’s own mental fragility. It is manifested beautifully, I think, in Bromden’s use of language: both with regards to Nurse Ratched and the industrial nature of the ward, and in Bromden’s dependence on McMurphy’s rebellion. As McMurphy’s determination wanes, Bromden’s mental clarity begins to unravel and ‘the fog’ of his mind rolls in to trap him.

The Combine is a corporate and industrial mechanism that Kesey aligns with the role of a government. Bromden envisions the workers of the ward to be machines, exposing their ‘wheels and cogs’ when they think no one is looking. The ward is merely a ‘factory of the combine’, that works to wrench the individuality from men, dispose them of their humanity and in this way ‘fix’ them.

“Did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you? No, because you’re so b-big and so tough! Well, I’m not big and tough.” – Billy Bibbit

When McMurphy is introduced to the ward, he brings with him a gust of naturality; a beacon of human nature, with just as many flaws as strengths. Importantly, Bromden’s mental tranquillity depends on McMurphy’s continual fight. As McMurphy runs his hand through the glass screen of the nurses’ station, the ‘ringing’ in Bromden’s head stops.

Perhaps Kesey’s attitude toward mental stability hinges on hope, and the belief in the basic goodness of men as individuals.Through Bromden, Kesey dramatises a yearning for independence and yet a fear of it. McMurphy exhausts himself to try and prove that the patients don’t need to be ‘corrected.’

By smashing the glass of the nurses’ station, McMurphy gives Bromden permission to break free later in the novel. McMurphy guides Bromden to his own liberation and transition into the natural world.

Kesey is looking forward to a time when men are not constricted and corrected for their humanity. Kesey writes a rejection of the cold and systematic conformity in favour of the power of the human mind – even if it is fragile.

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