How does Kesey make the reader question the accepted definitions of “sane,” “insane,” “sick,” and “healthy?”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the most famous novel of an American writer Ken Kesey. It was written in 1959 and published in 1963 (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” n.d.). The idea of the book has come to Kesey during his work in a hospital for veterans where he voluntarily participated in governmental experiments on the effects on the body of LSD, mescaline and other drugs, and being under the influence of those drugs he often spent time chatting with patients. The title of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a line from a nursery rhyme recited by one of the characters in the story. But “cuckoo” is also another word for crazy or insane, and since the book is set in an insane asylum the title stresses on one character that metaphorically “flew over” the cuckoo’s nest.
As it was said, the action of the novel takes place in a psychiatric hospital, and the main character is a criminal who has chosen it as an alternative to prison. The mental patients, all male, are divided into Acutes, who can be cured, and Chronics, who cannot be cured (SparkNotes Editors, 2003). They all are ruled by a cruel nurse who always tries to attack them in their most vulnerable places. If a patient does not agree with the system set in the hospital, he is sent to receive electroshock treatments or a lobotomy as an “efficient” method of treatment. But would this novel become so popular if its plot was so simple? It definitely wouldn’t be so.
The novel has an implication, with hidden elements which the reader must find himself. Ken Kesey makes the reader question the accepted definitions of “sane,” “insane,” “sick,” and “healthy.” The author himself did not believe that some patients were insane or sick. Their sickness was just in the fact that they simply could not adjust to life. Their society rejected them because they did not fit into the generally accepted framework of how people should behave. It’s society’s way of dealing with someone different (Kesey, 1962). This is a story about people who at first glance seem to be insane and sick, but actually they are healthier, including the mental aspect, than the society around them.
These people are broken by this society and are afraid of everything. In fact, these “insane patients” were captured in the hands of people like themselves, with the same life problems but fiercer, having some power and at the same time are even more insane. As the main character of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest said: “You ain’t as crazy as all this, thinking you’re some animal” (Kesey, 1962). He is not insane. He is just a prisoner. But his aim is to show us how the actions of one man, his choice, are able to change something in the others because those others are the same normal as he is and because only a sane man would act against an irrational system.
In this novel an insane asylum is shown by the author as a mini-model of a modern society. Society is different, but its inhabitants are obliged to submit to their leadership as if they behave in another way they can be interpreted an insane. We see that throughout the novel, the sane actions of men contrast with the insane actions of the medical institution. All of them have a choice either to submit or to fight. What the result of such battle will be no one can predict. You can win but it can be “Catch 22” – a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules (“Catch-22,” n.d.). And the sane fight with the insane system, will inevitably compromise your sanity. The main character of the novel tried to fight, tried to change this system and the people in it. To some extent, he lost. But his victory was in the fact that nothing would be the same as it was before, that people around are made to question whether everything is so as we see it or we must look at simple things in a more profound way. Perhaps all “sick and insane” are really so, and all people we are talking to everyday are “sane and healthy” or may be the problem is inside ourselves, inside our perception of the society?
Catch-22 (logic). (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2014 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch-22_(logic)
Ken Kesey (1962). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Retrieved from http://www.kkoworld.com/kitablar/ken_kizi_ququ_qushu_yuvasinin_uzerinde n_ucharken_eng.pdf
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (novel). (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2014 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo’s_Nest_(novel)
SparkNotes Editors. (2003). SparkNote on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Retrieved from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/cuckoo/.