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In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey portrays an individual's struggle against a conformist society. Kesey's novel takes place in a mental hospital during the late 1950's. The book can be read on two levels, on the surface it is a story about a man named McMurphy who overturns the senseless and dehumanizing routines of a mental ward. On another level, the book can be read as a commentary about the conformist society of the late 1950's. First published in 1962, Kesey's book bridges the gap between the Beatnik's of the late 50's and the Hippies of the 60's, whose counterculture rebellion included free love and drug use.
Ken Kesey was born in 1935 in LaJunta, Colorado. Soon after, his family moved to Oregon where he attended public school and later graduated from the University Of Oregon. He pursued drama and athletics while in college. Kesey was a champion wrestler and almost won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. A year after graduating, he wrote an unpublished novel, entitled "End Of Autumn", about college athletics. Ken Kesey married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxy, in 1956. Faye and Ken had 3 children together. In 1958, Kesey began graduate work in creative writing at Stanford University, where he studied with several noted writers. He wrote a second unpublished novel, "Zoo", before starting work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the summer of 1960. Around the same time he started Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey became a paid volunteer of many government-sponsored drug experiments at a Veteran's Hospital in Menlo Park. At the hospital he was introduced to psychoactive drugs such as LSD and Mescaline, and became a frequent user of them. He was under the influence of them during some of the time he wrote Cuckoo's Nest. His third novel enjoyed considerable critical acclaim after its 1962 publication. The novel eventually was made into a Broadway play and an Academy Award winning movie starring Jack Nicholson. The book became very popular on college campuses. Kesey himself gained additional attention when he and a group of friends entitled the "Merry Pranksters" began travelling the country to promote the new counterculture of psychedelic drugs and social protest. The travels of Kesey and his friends were recorded in Tom Wolfe's 1968 work The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. During his travels, Kesey was arrested in 1965 for drug possession and eventually spent about five months in jail. After jail he was moved to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Honor Camp. He was released in 1967 and moved back to Oregon in 1968. Kesey gave up writing for a period of time, but returned to his former art. He later successfully kicked his drug habit and has since disavowed experimental drug use.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of a few remarkable weeks in an Oregon insane asylum and the events that lead to the narrator's escape. A tall and quiet Indian, Chief Bromden, is a long-term inmate who tells the story of those weeks. His insanity stems from a paranoid belief that the government is trying to control people with a device called "The Combine". Chief Bromden acts as if he deaf and dumb to fight control by "The Combine". Chief Bromden looks back at his time in the ward and feels that he must tell of the time and struggle between Randle McMurphy and Big Nurse Ratched. Bromden begins with the day McMurphy is admitted to the ward. McMurphy is loud and destructive, and introduces himself as a gambling man who has pretended to be crazy to get out of work camp. McMurphy introduces himself to the Chronics, permanent residents, including Bromden, and to the Acutes, patients who still may recover. McMurphy immediately tries taking charge of the ward and instigates a who-is-crazier debate with Harding, an Acute who is president of the patient's council. Nurse Ratched knows that McMurphy is going to be a disruptive force on the ward and Bromden Explains her reactions: "The big nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she's tense as steel. I know, I can feel it. And she don't relax a hair till she gets the nuisance attended to - what she calls "adjusted to surroundings"." McMurphy questions all the patients, specifically Harding, about why they except her power. He bets the entire ward that he can force Ratched to lose control in a week. Bromden recounts how McMurphy continually taunts the nurse and her attendants. A group of members including McMurphy, gain access to an old hydrotherapy room to escape the very loud music in the day room. McMurphy the group that he can lift a concrete console off of its base and through a window to escape. McMurphy purposefully loses this bet, but one week after the original bet he succeeds in turning the entire ward against Nurse Ratched in a vote to watch the world series on the TV. Chief Bromden is the decisive vote in this matter, as they needed a majority of the ward to vote. Nurse Ratched refuses to turn on the television, but the ward ignores her as they all sit around the television. While sitting there, McMurphy has an idea, he begins calling out plays of the game as if he was an announcer on television. The ward becomes full of shouting and cheering as the nurse screams hysterically. Nurse Ratched decides to wait until McMurphy realizes his fate is in her hands. During this time, Bromden grows stronger from McMurphy's tireless example. Bromden avoids his medication and begins to hallucinate less. The other patients follow suit, becoming unruly and argumentative. A few days later in the swimming pool, a lifeguard explains to McMurphy the danger of becoming permanently committed, which seems to end McMurphy's unruliness.