Published in 1962, the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is a defining work in the counterculture of the Beat Generation. Describing the story of a troublemaker attempting to throw into chaos a rigid system of oppression, the novel offers social commentary on the status quo through its themes of individuality and conformity. As the novel’s objective is critiquing certain aspects of society, understanding the events and culture of the publishing time is imperative for interpreting the author’s choices in setting and characterization. As such, discerning parallels between the real world and the novel will help readers decipher the work’s intent and the author’s message. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey illuminates the persecution of individuality in the nineteen-fifties and encourages people to struggle against societal oppression.
An image of the mass society can first be noticed in the setting. A psychiatric ward where Nurse Ratched has complete control over its residents, the setting of the novel is reminiscent of the numbing and sterilizing society in nineteen-fifties America. The psychiatric ward represents the unnatural machine-like world that industrialization and technology has created. Anyone who cannot accept this artificial way of life is deemed to be antisocial and mentally ill. The purposes of a psychiatric ward was to fix patients and eventually reintroduce them into society. Chief Bromden reveals “that it’s not just the big nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation wide combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high ranking official for them” (Kesey 181).
This demonstrates that Ratched and the ward itself are tools of the Combine used to enforce conformity. In the name of curing the patients, Ratched employs group meetings, electroshock treatment, and even lobotomy. These methods find their metaphoric counterpart in the real world. (Book quote). Through various ways, society try to manipulate and contort individuals to fit in the middle. This parallel allows readers to draw the connection between the unpleasant ward with the unhealthy society. Thus, Kesey is able to communicate the negative qualities of the nineteen-fifties culture.
Furthermore, Kesey uses more detailed metaphors to convey the idea of a machine-like society. With a name that closely resembles “wretched”, Ratched is described in mechanical terms by Chief Bromden, who notes that she carries a “a bag shape of a tool box with a hemp handle…full of a thousand parts she aims to use in her duties today—wheels and gears, cogs polished to a hard glitter, tiny pills that gleam like porcelain, needles, forceps, watchmakers’ piers, rolls of copper wire” (Kesey 4). Her machine-like physical features are also translated into her rigid manner of conducting her schedule. To disrupt and mess with this schedule will bring upon punishments and measures to keep the disruptor in line. This exposes how society try to use the carrot and stick method to keep people from manifesting individualism.
During the nineteen fifties, “the typical suburbanite…were white and Christian, heads of nuclear families, and proudly middle class. Their clothing…architecture…jobs…and leisure all supported this kind of sameness”(Young & Young 21). Since being a part of the majority is rewarded with wealth and a comfortable life, people give up their uniqueness. And when people try to express extreme ideas that challenged the “status quo usually saw themselves depicted in a negative way”(Young & Young 22) . These metaphors expresses the idea that those in power exploits the advances in technology to restrict the creativity of the population.
After establishing the dystopian psychiatric ward, Kesey introduces one of the protagonists Randle McMurphy to destroy this oppressive system. By comparing the characteristics and attitudes of McMurphy to the Beat Generation of the nineteen-fifties, many similarities can be noticed. The beats are characterized by their distaste for conventions and authority (Rahn). As an icon of the Beat Generation, Ken Kesey clearly imbued the rebellious McMurphy with the ideas and values of the counterculture. Much like the beats, McMurphy did not conform to the conventions of their days.
Before the appearance of McMurphy, the ward functioned without change and freedom. Only when McMurphy comes crashing in and starts causing trouble do the other patients gain freedom. Stating boldly to Ratchet that whenever someone tells him “about the rules,” he will “do the dead opposite” (Kesey 24). This is akin to the emergence of the beats and their “relentless challenging of the middle class lifestyle” (Howell 30). His acts of defiance come to an end, however, after deciding that he should not risk extending his sentencing. Becoming another gear in the machine, McMurphy conforms with the rest in order to avoid punishment. It took Charles Cheswick’s drowning for McMurphy to realize that not acting against the system does harm regardless. Selflessly, McMurphy gives himself up for the greater good. Resuming his defiant activities, McMurphy brings the story to a climax by assaulting Ratchet (Kesey 304-307). Through this, he takes away her voice, which in turn takes away her ability to command and oppress the patient.
Although this results in the death of McMurphy, he was able to inspire the other patient’s to finally muster up the courage to leave the ward, an ability they have always had. Precisely Kesey’s message, the courage to step outside the arbitrary boundaries of society will spawn individuality. Kesey does not claim that individuals can persevere in the face of immense societal pressure, but argues that action is better than inaction. Even though McMurphy could not beat the system, he did not allow it to beat him. As a result, Bromden stops relying on escaping to his own mind and instead escape the ward via smashing the immovable control panel into the window. Kesey wanted people to realize that by not acting, they too will become part of the machine.
Kesey creates social commentary regarding the nineteen-fifties way of life through allegorical setting and characters. By drawing parallels between the novel and real life, one can understand his message of striving for achieving nonconformity. Through representing the cultural atmosphere of the nineteen-fifties with the psychiatric wards, Kesey provides insight into the societal pressures of that time period. Kesey’s depiction of Ratched highlights the cold-bloodedness of society and the extent it goes to ensure conformity. His characterization of McMurphy presents insight into the Beat Generation’s reactionary philosophy. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel that defines the dangers of compliance and the need for breaking social conventions.