Surprisingly, while some of the details had faded from my memory, this book has really stayed with me over the years and the experience was very much as I had expected it to be. It’s a powerful struggle between good and evil and has much to say about the history and continuing battles we have in this country over mental health treatment. It’s funny, horrifying, and maddening all at once. The novel was published in 1962–a time when debates about electric shock therapy, lobotomies, and asylums continued. Given that we still keep mental healthcare shrouded in mystery and myth in this country, perhaps it’s time to require our representatives to read it.
Kesey has created in Randle McMurphy one of the most memorable characters in 20th-Century American fiction, and with the choice of a fellow asylum inmate as first-person narrator, an unreliable but vital voice to portray the horrors of such a system of “treatment.” Both are magnificent creations.
Nurse Ratched is the ultimate symbol of “The Combine.” And yet, rereading it, I’m still not sure how I feel about her character. Is she evil, or is she simply trying to maintain order among chaos? Is she the antagonist, or just a symbolic representation of everything wrong with the mental health system in America in the 1960s?
My students tell me the story has also been done as a terrific stage play, but I haven’t seen it. I have seen, however, the brilliant 1975 Milos Forman film with Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. No, Nicholson doesn’t have red hair, but in so many other respects, he IS Randle McMurphy. It’s a career-defining role and one he played brilliantly. I may have to rewatch it this week, if for no other reason than to see what my students watched (those that didn’t bother to read the book). Their loss, though, because it’s Kesey’s masterpiece.