Friday, January 21, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

This is one of those books for me where I have been meaning to read it for years and have never prioritised it. Your review of it was fascinating and I have never read anyone discuss a feminist perspective (or anti) in relation to the story. Seems even more interesting. Hopefully i can push it to the top of my priority list but it is so hard when there are so many good books to rea.d

christina said...

I saw the movie ages ago and thought it was brilliant. I think that it's been long enough that I can now enjoy the book separately without comparing it.

Amy said...

That's great! If you remember, come back and let me know what you thought of it after you've read it.

Laura Katherine said...

I haven't read the book (yet), but I saw the movie, which was amazing. I like your analysis on the characters, and I'm tempted to read the book now, after I've read every other book on your site that I somehow have never read!

Amy said...

Hi Laura, I just caught this comment. Thanks for your input and be sure to revisit some of these earlier posts once you've had a chance to read the books!

Chris Bell said...

I just read this book and was looking for any reviews that mentioned anti-feminism in this novel, so this comment is much later then your review. I believe the feelings of anti-feminism in this novel stems from the fact that all of the major female characters are pretty terrible, emasculating people. Nurse Ratched is obvious, but there is also Harding's wife and Billy's mother. Most of the nurses, especially the one with the birthmark, are shown in a negative light. The only kind nurse is the "jap" that runs the disturbed ward, and the most positive female characters are prostitutes that will have sex with men for money!

I don't think the book is anti-feminist though. These women all have incredible agency, Nurse Ratched being the most powerful character in the book. Even the prostitutes are carefree (one leaving her husband without a problem). At first, it seems Kesey is suggesting this is new agency is bad, but I think it is more Nurse Ratched's attempt to deny sexuality (both the males in the ward, and her own) that is so damning to Kesey. In general, it is this emphasis on order, on primness and lack of offense, that really pisses him off. Parts of feminism, particularly the freedom for men to think of women in a purely sexual way, fall under this horrific (to Kesey) umbrella of Political Correctness (some of the racism is connected to this as well). I don't know whether I agree with Kesey on this stuff, but I think the themes he brings up are more nuanced then "men in power = good, women in power = bad," which is the assumption a lot of people make about the novel.

Amy said...

Chris, thanks so much for stopping by and writing about the issues of anti-feminism in more detail. This reminds me of the first time I considered this, as I mentioned in the blog, because my immediate reaction is - Shoot, you're right. All of those characterizations display anti-feminism.

However, your further consideration about the potentially feminist interpretation of Nurse Ratched's stifled sexuality is quite interesting. Ultimately, I think I may have to agree with you and say that I don't know what Kesey had in mind concerning women in the story, but I like the questions it brings up. And despite the concerns, I still think it's a good example of "Classic Literature."