“Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn’t it?”
This classic of the sixties is without doubt worth reading. At first glance it’s about an asylum and its patients, with in charge Nurse Ratched. She runs her ward like a dictator and nobody dares to defy her. Three black male nurses are her ‘helpers'; each selected for their hatred towards the patients and obedience to her. She was the authority on her ward, until a new patient comes in. Randle Patrick McMurphy is a loud and life-loving troublemaker who fakes his mental ilness in order to be transferred from a prison farm to Ratched’s mental hospital. Once there he starts a so-called mental revolution. McMurphy challenges the authority of the Big Nurse (Ratched) and one by one wins the patients to his side by bringing gambling, alcohol and even women into the ward. He defies the rules openly and soon it’s war between the two. But Nurse Ratched has a strong ally: the autorities. First she tries to make McMurphy obey as she does with the other patients, but the big redhead is not one easy to be scared. So she turns to more drastic solutions: shock therapy. McMurphy still seems to be winning, until the Nurse uses her last and biggest hand and we read the book’s shocking end…
The message in this little masterpiece can be seen and understood in different ways. A rather obvious one is the struggle of the individual against the mass. Everyone is trying to work together like an oiled machine – the Combine – in order to maintain uniformity. McMurphy stands rather alone against the Combine, breaking the uniformity and structure of both the asylum and the outside world. According to the Big Nurse, the patients are admitted to the asylum because of their problems fitting in and adjusting to the outside world. But who says a person that is different than most is insane? The book questions the Combine and its rules and show that even de patients in the end are able to escape and feel free again.
There are various other ways to explain the story, but I won’t be going into that just for now. What I can tell you is that although McMurphy appears the main character, it is actually a Native American who tells us the story, Chief Bromden. He is also my favorite character. We see the ward through his eyes, and sometimes it’s hard to understand his thoughts because of the hallucinations and ‘mental fog’ he’s suffering from. But in a way it makes you understand the whole situation inside the ward that much better, and without Bromden the story wouldn’t have been the same.