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Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

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December 2019

just another day at the office

Hawks Nest, WV

Working on a project at Hawks Nest State Park. Even on cold and rainy day, the view is pretty good.

cuckoo's nest for the social warrior

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I try to wait until I finish a book to see what other readers have to say about it. So when I finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I went to goodreads. Most readers agreed with me. The book is 5 stars.

I also like to go to the 1 and 2 star reviews to see what people didn’t like about it. And there I found one reviewer, who though they admitted that while Ken Kesey’s literary skills were great, his attitude toward women and minorities were despicable.

As I noted yesterday, the novel is set in a mental hospital, more specifically, in one specific ward for men. The antagonist of the novel is none other than the cold-hearted Nurse Ratched. As she controls the men on her ward, she does everything she can to destroy their self-esteem. As the reviewer noted, she is emasculating. Well, I can see that. That’s pretty much Nurse Ratched’s modus operandi.

Then there is the other woman who is a principal figure in the novel, Candy, who is referred to unflinchingly by the novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden, as a whore.

Other women are referred to as being the root cause of patients’ illnesses. There’s Dale Harding’s wife, who is never satisfied with anything he does, and there’s Billy Bibbit’s perpetually disappointed mother, who, in tell-tale character development, is close friends with Nurse Ratched.

So, yeah, there’s quite a few women with less than stellar qualities.

Then there’s McMurphy, the free-spirit, selfish, abusing protagonist. He’s a brute, but is loved by everyone. He treats women like objects and they love him for it.

So the goodreads reviewer takes all of this evidence and declares McMurphy and his creator, Ken Kesey, misogynists. The reviewer is not the first to do so.

I don’t buy it with McMurphy. To me, he’s just selfish. I’m not saying he treats women with respect, but some he likes (Candy) and some he doesn’t (Ratched). Ok, so if you delve deep into his psyche there might be more evidence of his hatred of women, but the book doesn’t do that.

As for Kesey, who the heck knows?

Just because he crafts a novel where the antagonist is an emasculating woman, does that mean he’s a misogynist? Or because McMurphy fools around with loose women? One could argue that because he has created such an animal in McMurphy that he is a misandrist. And then there’s Turkle, the boozing, pot-smoking womanizer orderly who lets Candy in the hospital because he thinks he might get in on the action.

Here’s a question. Could the novel have worked if Nurse Ratched were a man? I think it could have, but part of the dynamic is not just McMurphy against the system, but man against woman. There is a sexual tension that confounds the patients, including McMurphy. She’s a woman, but she’s immune to his charms and they both take the battle to new levels. Nurse Ratched ultimately wins.

And let’s take a look at Candy. Candy is who she is because it’s who she wants to be. She was Candy before McMurphy and will be Candy after McMurphy. Again, we’re given little backstory on her and maybe there is a man in her past that drove her to the choices she has made. But we don’t know.

And what if, in fact, Ken Kesey was a misogynist? After reading the book, my respect for women hasn’t changed. As my respect for nurses and mental institutions hasn’t changed. Nor my respect for orderlies and technicians who administer electric shock therapy which, by the way, is a legitimate medical treatment for certain conditions.

A word about the offensive cultural references. In today’s world, they probably wouldn’t make it through editing. But it’s the 60s and not everybody was woke. Chief Bromden’s perspective and descriptions of the orderlies shows a level of disrespect, but McMurphy lays down lines that are purely racist in any age. Do you put that on Kesey, or is he just giving us characters with flaws? Everybody in the book is flawed, some worse than others.

And there is the moral lesson of the book. It’s easy to say the system is broken, but the system is only as good as the people within it. When the people are flawed, the system is flawed.

It’s McMurphy, it’s Ratched.

It’s me. And until we achieve perfection, it’s all of us.

cuckoo's nest for writers

Want to know how to write a novel? Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

I saw the movie…40 years ago? I just read the book.

There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great book (but not without controversy) and another day we’ll get into what the book’s about.

If you’re a student of the craft of novel writing, you know the rules. And as you try hard to stick the rules, you see so many successful novels that break them. Cuckoo’s Next follows the rules. And is brilliant for it.

Plot Summary:

Randle McMurphy is serving a sentence at a prison work farm and gets himself committed to a mental hospital in hopes of doing his time in a cushier setting.

The Beginning:

McMurphy arrives at the hospital. No backstory. No set-up. No character development. No prologue, just story. In medias res. The way it’s supposed to be.

Point-of View:

The rules say to tell the story from one perspective. Yes, modern sensibilities allow for multiple points-of-view, but that approach is fraught with potential trouble. One point-of-view is the safe choice.

Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the point-of-view of mental patient, Chief Bromden, a Native-American. Everything is told from his perspective. If Chief doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Chief can only surmise character motivations based on what he sees and what others may tell him. The author doesn’t jump around and tell us what the other characters are thinking. It’s all from Chief’s point of view. No omniscient narrator. And because we know what he thinks, we know much more about him than any other character.

The Protagonist:

McMurphy is the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he is the most virtuous character in the book. That’s probably Chief Bromden. McMurphy is the classic anti-hero. He’s not a good guy, but he’s very likable. And as he hustles his fellow patients, he does it in a way that lifts their spirits. Everybody loves him. Everybody but Nurse Ratched.

The Antagonist:

Sometimes the antagonist in a novel isn’t a person, but something keeping the protagonist from reaching his/her goal. McMurphy fighting the system? Well, yes, but the antagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest is not so amorphous. It’s Nurse Ratched. No doubt about it. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever met. She’s not evil in a Bond villain kind of way; she’s just cold and mean and against McMurphy in every way. The lines are drawn. The reader wants McMurphy to win. And Ratched to lose.

The Ending:

I’ve read that in classic literature, there is comedy and tragedy. The comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s prime characteristic is the happy ending. The tragedy is just the opposite.

Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragedy. The happy ending may give you a moment of contentment, but the tragedy stays with you, haunts you, makes you think. What might have been? What if McMurphy had won? What if Nurse Ratched had lost? Could it have made a difference for Billy Bibbit? And what of Chief Bromden? Did he ever make it home?

If you read this 50 year-old novel, you’ll be jarred by some references that are considered offensive today. But is it Kesey or his characters making the references? The characters, of course. They’re flawed. But does that give Kesey license to let them say what they do? We’ll get into that in more detail later. What Kesey does that’s indisputable is craft a story that takes you to the edge of realism at a pace that seems perfect. In the second half of the book, when the story rolls like a boulder down a mountain, he does nothing to get in the way. It’s a great example of plot and character development in perfect sync.

Read and learn, fellow writers.

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