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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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The next two scenes show us the hospital and its routine, then
introduce us to the character who will shatter that routine.

Chief Bromden, who was drugged after refusing his morning
shave, awakens. Although in the past such disobedience has
earned him time in the "Shock Shop" (we'll learn the meaning
of that unpleasant-sounding phrase later), this morning he was
only placed in Seclusion. Now he's back in the day room with
the other patients, and he shows us the hospital that is his

Both in fact and in literature, mental hospitals have been seen
as high places not of healing but of punishment. Perhaps the
most infamous was London's Bedlam, the 18th-century
institution whose name is now a synonym for chaos and
confusion. The ward run by Nurse Ratched is not bedlam. As
the public relations man announces on his tours, it is cheery
and bright-not at all like the hospitals of the old days. Indeed,
the very fact that citizens are concerned enough about the
mentally ill to take tours of the facilities shows that conditions
have at least superficially improved.

Yet we know from the Chief that conditions have not improved
enough. The public relations man's speech is hypocritical.
Portions of the hospital, like the Seclusion room, are dirty; the
food (the unsalted mush the Chief sometimes gets) can be bad.
More importantly, brutality, both physical and psychological, is
rampant. In the first scene we saw the orderlies' pleasure in
keeping Chief Bromden under their thumbs: "Big enough to eat
apples off my head and he mine me like a baby." Now we're
given evidence of sexual assaults against the patients.

The orderlies who frighten the Chief are in turn frightened of
the Big Nurse, as of course the patients are too. Her weapons
are not-yet-physical ones, but words and threats. The ward is
divided into two sections: Acutes (patients who in the staffs
opinion can be helped by treatment) and Chronics (those
deemed incurable). Nurse Ratched plays on the fears of the
Acutes by warning them they will become Chronics if they
don't obey her rules. She also encourages the Acutes to spy on
each other-by turning patient against patient, she prevents
them from turning against her.

Into this grim, rigid setting comes the hero of the novel.

We saw clues to the Big Nurse's character in the first sentence
about her; we now see clues to McMurphy's in the first
sentence the Chief uses to describe him. He is "no ordinary

McMurphy is painted in a way that shows how completely
different he is from the patients who have entered the hospital
before him. His voice is too loud: "He sounds like he's way
above them, talking down, like he's sailing fifty yards overhead,
hollering at those below on the ground." (That description may
bring to mind a bird soaring overhead, and we'll see the image
of birds, linked to flight and freedom, repeated throughout the
book, even in the rhyme that provides its title.) McMurphy's
voice reminds the Chief of his father, and though McMurphy
doesn't look like the elder Indian (instead, with his red hair, he
resembles the stereotypical hot-blooded Irishman), he is
similarly toughened from hard outdoor work. Perhaps most
important is McMurphy's laugh. The public relations man has
a false, silly laugh; the Acute patients can only snicker in their
fists. (Later we'll hear one, Harding, attempt a laugh and make
only a sound "like a nail being crossbarred out of a plank of
green pine." McMurphy's laugh is the first real laugh the Chief
has heard in years, a brave indication of strength and sanity.

McMurphy's name, too, has meaning. Just as Ratched shows
the nurse's machinelike personality, and Chief Broom the
Indian's diminishment to a mere household object, McMurphy's
initials hint at the effect he's about to have on the ward:
R.P.M., identical to the acronym for revolutions per minute
found on phonograph records. And a revolution is just what
McMurphy will bring.

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

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