Ken Kesey presents his masterpiece, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with popular culture symbolism of the 1960s. This strategy helps paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Music and cartoons of the times are often referred to in the novel. These help to exaggerate the characters and the state of the mental institution.
Popular culture supplies the music which is used as a recurring theme in the novel. McMurphy dislikes the tape playing in the day room because it represents how the ward is run routinely and without change. McMurphy also uses music to obtain good relations with the patients. On his first morning in the hospital, McMurphy is heard singing several verses of “The Wagoner’s Lad”: “Hard livin’s my pleasure, my money’s my o-o-own, an’ them that don’t like me, they can leave me alone” (Kesey 93 ). In this scene, he sings to express his good spirits (Twayne). Later, in the hall, as one of the aides goes to talk to the angry Big Nurse, McMurphy whistles, with an illusion to the Globetrotters, “Sweet Georgia Brown” as ” an amusing accompaniment to the aide’s evasive shuffle” (Sherwood 399). After shocking Nurse Ratched with his whale shorts, he accompanies her retreat to the Nurses’ Station with the song “The Roving Gambler” to establish his style, define his character, and show his indifference to policy: “She took me to her parlor, and coooo-ooled me with her fan’- I can hear the whack as he slaps his bare belly – whispered low in her mamma’s ear, I lu-uhvve that gamblin’ man” (Kesey 97).
The cartoon symbolism demonstrated in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest helps create dynamic features and traits in each character. Bromden indicates early that the ward is “Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren’t for the cartoon figures being real guys…”( 31). Technicians in the hospital speak with voices that “are forced and too quick on the comeback to be real talk – more like cartoon comedy speech” (33). Kesey chooses to describe some of his characters as symbolic caricatures, and others as stock figures who outgrow their black outlines (Twayne). The Big Nurse remains a cartoon villain, funny in her excessive frustration and hateful in her manipulations towards the patients.
The Individual and The System in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Individual and The System One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Many social issues and problems are explored in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Perhaps the most obvious complaint against society is the treatment of the individual. This problem of the individual versus the system is a very controversial topic that has provoked great questioning of the government and the methods used to treat people who are unable to conform to the government’s standards.
McMurphy is an individual who is challenging and rebelling against the system’s rules and practices. He eventually teaches this practice of rebellion to the other patients who begin to realize that their lives are being controlled unfairly by the mental institution. When McMurphy first arrives at the institution, all of the other patients are afraid to express their thoughts to the Big Nurse. They are afraid to exercise their thoughts freely, and they believe that the Big Nurse will punish them if they question her authority. One patient, Harding, says, “All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees…We need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach us our place” (Kesey 62).
This novel has a very strong theme of government rejecting those who are considered nonconformists in modern society. The government then places these nonconformists in mental institutions so it will not have to deal with them. This is society’s way of ditching those with nonconformist attitudes so they will disappear from the world and be forgotten. According to one critic, oppressive, conformist, regulatory, civilization is the suppressor of individual freedom (Barsness 433). “He (McMurphy) hadn’t let what he looked like run his life one way or the other,anymore than he’d let the Combine (the characters’ metaphor for the government) mill him into fitting where they wanted him to fit…He’s not gonna let them twist him and manufacture him” (Kesey 153).
McMurphy is symbolized as the typical individual, while Big Nurse Ratched is symbolized as a member of the system, or the Combine. Bromden narrates, “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them” (181).