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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
Table of Contents

THE STORY

PART I

Part I of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is divided into 15
scenes.

SCENE 1

The opening scene is constructed to introduce the reader to two
major characters, to hint at themes that will be developed later
in the book, and to give readers an understanding of how the
novel's somewhat unusual narration and point of view work-to
let the readers know what they should believe, and what they
shouldn't.

The story begins in medias res (Latin for into the middle of
things), without introduction, as if some stranger suddenly
grabbed us by the collar and began talking. "They're out there,"
the narrator begins. Who is out there? And who is speaking?
We learn that the narrator is talking about the orderlies in a
hospital, that his name is Chief Bromden (shortened to Chief
Broom by the orderlies, in honor of his assigned task of
sweeping), that he is half-Indian, and that he has fooled the
patients and staff into thinking he is deaf and dumb. At the end
of the first scene, he lets us know the events he's describing
have taken place sometime in the past-the book is a flashback
to that time.



NOTE: THE NARRATOR'S POINT OF VIEW.
It won't take you long to see that the Chief's description of the
morning's activities in the hospital is in many ways unlikely.
It's possible that the orderlies do commit sex acts in the hall
(later we're given evidence that the Chief's claim is true), and
when the Chief describes their eyes as resembling radio tubes
and their talk machinelike humming, he could be speaking in a
rational if unusual metaphor. But when he tells us that the Big
Nurse, angered by her staffs laziness, swells until she bursts
her uniform and reaches the size of a tractor, it's clear we can't
trust Chief Bromden to give us the truth-in the usual sense, at
least. These are hallucinations; soon we realize that the
hospital in which the Chief resides is a mental hospital. We see
other aspects of his illness in his mention of a sinister Combine
that tries to control him with machinery, and, towards the end
of the scene, in his reference to the fog that obscures
everything around him. Only when he recalls his Indian
boyhood do the Chief's thoughts seem completely coherent. But
even that refuge doesn't last: he says, "When I try to place my
thoughts in the past and hide there, the fear close at hand seeps
in through the memory." The pointer dog used for hunting
becomes a bluetick hound, lost and baying in the fog.

Why is this book being narrated by someone so unreliable?
Over the course of the novel we will watch the Chief's
hallucinations come and go; we will watch the fog advance and
retreat. Having the story told by the Chief gives us an unusual,
insider's view into a troubled mind and into the forces that
trouble it. The Chief's illness and the fight to rescue him from it
make up a major portion of the book's plot.

Secondly, though the Chief is a fool, he is like the wise fools of
Shakespeare: his words may sound crazy, but beneath their
craziness very often lies unexpected sense. The Chief himself
signals this fact at the end of the scene, when he says of his
story, "But it's the truth even if it didn't happen." in these
opening pages, the Chief's hallucinations reveal a skewed but
strangely accurate understanding of the hospital, its staff, its
patients.

The first major character the Chief introduces us to is the nurse
on the ward, and we find a clue to her personality in his earliest
mention of her. she opens the door easily because she has
"been around locks so long." She is a woman who likes
control, and to maintain this control she can imprison people
for life. Much of the Chief's description-her purse jammed
with gears, her anger that enables her to wrap her arms six
times around the orderlies-is so distorted it becomes, in a
literal sense, impossible. Some of it-her doll-like face, for
example-is more or less realistic. But all of his words portray a
person who, in her desire for perfection and power, is almost a
machine. Even her name, Ratched, possesses a mechanical
echo in its similarity to the word ratchet, as in a notched ratchet
wrench. The one inconsistency in the nurse is her large,
womanly bosom, and this she sees as a flaw. (We'll see the
repression of sexuality becoming an important theme in the
book.)

The nurse, as the Chief describes her, may be a monster. But if
we visited her ward, would we see her that way? After all, she
speaks nicely enough to her orderlies, sympathizing with them
about "mean old Monday morning," and asking them sweetly
to get back to work. Who hasn't heard such words from
parents, teachers, employers? But thanks to the Chief's
description, we wonder if the sweetness isn't just a tactic, and if
there isn't a great hunger for authority and a great rage under
that smiling, doll-smooth facade.

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