March 31, 2023

#08-297: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The producers and lead actors from the 1975 film version with their Oscars; Nicholson is second from left. (Wikimedia)

Note: Ken Kesey's 1962 novel captured the zeitgeist (the "spirit of the age") of personal freedom and any restrictions that might be placed on it by external authority. The film version drove this point home.

Get Ready: To what extent should a person expect complete personal freedom, and to what extent must he or she be required to submit to authority?

In 1962 American author Ken Kesey wrote his first novel, which some people consider his masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was made into a very successful film in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson. (The film won all five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay.)

The book's title refers to a children's rhyme which ends:

"One flew East, one flew West,
"And one flew over the cuckoo's nest."

A cuckoo is a kind of bird, but it's also a slang term for a crazy person. The hospital in the story, then, is the "nest," and the word "flew" leads us to believe that someone will escape from it.

The book is narrated by one of the characters, "Chief" Bromden, a gentle giant of a Native American. The Chief is a psychiatric patient, as is Nicholson's character, Randle Patrick McMurphy. But McMurphy is anything but crazy: he had faked insanity after being convicted of crimes, so he could serve his sentence at the "cushy" (he thought) hospital instead of on a brutal prison work farm.

The primary conflict in the story is between McMurphy, on the side of the inmates, and Nurse Ratched, the overly-strict head nurse, who represents authority in general.

McMurphy constantly antagonizes Ratched and interrupts the smooth functioning of the hospital. His behavior inspires rebellion from other inmates.

They even sneak some prostitutes in at night for an unsanctioned party. Unfortunately, after abusing medications they stole by breaking into the pharmacy, they fall asleep; in the morning, the staff finds them all--and especially a timid boy named Billy Bibbit--with the prostitutes in the party's aftermath. Nurse Ratched admonishes Billy, and he stands up to her for the first time ever. But when she threatens to call his mother, he has a breakdown, leading to his suicide.

This causes McMurphy to physically assault Ratched, which results in his receiving a lobotomy. He is left in a vegetative state, and, as an act of mercy, the Chief smothers him with a pillow before escaping out a smashed window, becoming the "one" that "flew."


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. act of mercy
  2. admonishes
  3. antagonizes
  4. cushy
  5. lobotomy
  6. overly-strict
  7. prostitutes
  8. psychiatric
  9. smothers
  10. vegetative

  1. provokes; makes angry
  2. the removal of the front part of the brain
  3. of the mind
  4. soft; overly-comfortable
  5. people (usually women) who have sex for money
  6. not responding mentally
  7. scolds; warns
  8. a very kind thing to do
  9. too harsh; not forgiving
  10. stops the breath (of someone)

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 31, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. h; 2. g; 3. a; 4. d; 5. b; 6. i; 7. e; 8. c; 9. j; 10. f