Last year, I decided to read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and was delighted to discover that I found it a quick and entertaining read. Written in 1962, the novel is not very old but is often recognized as a piece of great literature. I whipped through the story and finished the final chapter with thorough satisfaction. Yet when I happily shared with a literature scholar I deeply respect that I had read this novel and liked it, he quickly wrinkled up his face and said, "Really? I find it awfully anti-feminist." All of my good feelings about the novel instantly crashed to the bottom of my gut and left me speechless. After years of ignoring the values of feminism, I was finally on my way to great appreciation and respect for it. How could I have loved a book that is so anti-feminist?
I'll back up for a minute and summarize the plot quickly in case you aren't familiar with it. This is a story about a group of people in a mental institution. They lived very quiet and routine lives until a prisoner named Randle McMurphy pretends to be mentally ill in order to serve his sentence in the hospital rather than prison. The mental ward is run by Nurse Ratched, a cold and severe woman who controls all the patients quite strictly. My friend saw this character as the source of anti-feminism. She is the only significant female character in the novel, and she fulfills the "bad guy" role with a cloud of fictional evil. She repeatedly emasculates the patients (who are all male) and essentially oppresses them. Yet at the same time, she has an unusually large chest, which exploits her stifled sexuality and eventually acts as her Achilles heel. When my friend pointed this out, I couldn't defend his objections and fell into quiet contemplation. Despite his legitimate concerns, I couldn't turn my feelings against the novel, so I spent some time pinpointing the aspects of it I like.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this novel is the message that the way people perceive you can dramatically shape your own definition of yourself. In a way, I feel that this is a concept many African American authors have addressed in literature, but Kesey also illustrates it through patients in a mental hospital. The most significant example of this is the narrator, Chief Bromden. So many people treated him as though he were deaf and mute that he eventually took on that persona. Although he could hear everyone perfectly well and had the ability to speak, he spent years pretending otherwise. Yet after McMurphy started treating him like a person, (i.e. encouraging his participation and talking to him), Bromden spoke back to him so naturally that it came out completely by accident. Another good example of this kind of behavior is in the character Billy. He is a nervous young man who is so self-conscious that he has developed a severe speech impediment. However, as McMurphy builds up his confidence, even helping him gain the attention of an attractive woman, Billy's stutter disappears and his attitude is strengthened. Sadly, the Nurse is able to radically reverse Billy's progress with just a few words near the end, resulting in tragic consequences.
I could continue along this line for just about every character in the story. And that's what I love about this novel - the plethora of interesting and diverse characters. Each person is very different and unique in his or her own way. The setting of a mental hospital enables Kesey to unleash his creativity with the various personalities and disorders the characters display. And in the end, he presents a powerful message: The only thing that truly holds each of us back is ourselves. We are our own obstacles as well as our own sources of relief. It is not an overly happy ending in which everything works out perfectly, but there is nevertheless a sense of great accomplishment in the end. Even if we are physically detained or oppressed, we can nevertheless conquer the power within ourselves. As for the anti-feminism, I'm not convinced that it's so strong in the story after all. Yes, Nurse Ratched it awful, but if she were a male nurse, I don't think we would worry that the book is anti-man. Instead, I think she represents part of this same message because she is not physically strong but is psychologically very powerful.
Although I would recommend the book first, I want to mention that the Hollywood movie version of this story starring Jack Nicholson is actually quite faithful to the book. I found it to be a very good portrayal of the story if you enjoy film as well.