Book of da Week: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Keny Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Today it’s time for the critically acclaimed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s difficult to think of a text with such a celebrated history – an inspiring book matched by an inspiring film and numerous inspiring stage adaptations. That’s a lot of inspiration, and it’s all the work of American author Ken Kesey (1935-2001).

It was first published in 1962 and has since become legendary. We’d have to claim, however, most people will be more familiar with the film adaptation – Jack Nicholson’s iconic role certainly helped propel the text to classic status, but if you’ve avoided the novel until now then you’re missing out on a brilliant piece of writing. Without doubt one of the best novels of the 20th century, we urge you to dash on out and purchase this as soon as humanly possible.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey must have realised he was working on a classic as he wrote it – what’s even more impressive is he was in his early twenties. It’s a unique premise and, other than Oliver Sack’s Awakenings, we can’t think of many other novels of this sort in the 20th century which delivered such a social impact.

Set in a psychiatric hospital in America, the narrative was inspired by Kesey’s time spent working a night shift at a mental health clinic in California. It was written in 1959/1960, which of course means the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t kicked off yet, so there wasn’t the best treatment for anyone institutionalised.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book, you’ll be surprised to learn it’s narrated by big Chief Bromden. He’s convinced the authorities at the ward he’s deaf and dumb, whilst the other patients fall in line with the mind numbing daily routine set by Nurse Ratched and her fellow authority figures. She rules the roost with machine-like efficiency which is, regardless of the pedantic professionalism, bullying and suppressing the patients.

Into this situation arrives one Randle McMurphy. A maverick through and through, the charismatic convict has decided to feign madness in an attempt to see out his battery and gambling prison conviction in a psychiatric ward.  Immediately subversive, his wild temperament clashes violently with Nurse Ratched’s routine, with the narrative dealing with themes such as sticking it to authority, the essence of madness, and empathy.

We don’t do spoilers here so we shall leave it there, but if you know the film you’ll know the ending. However, the book features many elements not adapted to the big screen and stands as a constantly witty, insightful, and intelligent text about the nature of mental illness and humanity.

What’s with the Cuckoos?

The wonderful title is based on an old nursery rhyme, part of which reads as follows:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn/Apple seed and apple thorn/Wire, briar, limber lock/Three geese in a flock/One flew East/One flew West/And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

Film Adaptation

We can’t mention the book without the film adaptation, simply because the film’s a genuine classic. Above is the original theatrical trailer.

You’ll notice this is enormously different to modern movie trailers, most of which have a habit of fading to black, feature several Inception braams, and usually have screen blocking text which says, “This summer… there’s a cinema event… so unoriginal… you’ll just wait until the DVD is out.”

Indeed. Anyway, if you’ve never stumbled across this film before well, by Jove, it’s time you got out there and bought yourself the DVD! Enjoy. It will make you a more complete person, but don’t forget the book as well.

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