When I was in the 10th grade, I had an English class that all but thrilled me. Up until that point, I had always greatly looked forward to the assigned reading that had been handed out. This particular teacher, however, didn’t seem to have a particularly good grasp on what makes good literature. Most of what we read in her class consisted of books that were more investigative journalism than prose. Not that that is a particularly bad thing to read (I’m currently reading The Creature from Jekyll Island; great book, by the way), but it seemed that this teacher had an agenda to teach us more about things that she felt were wrong with society, and less about appreciating written language. Enter “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey.
The title alone was a drastic change of pace from our previous assignments (and thankfully, was a change of pace for the entire class; our next assignment was “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, another wonderful novel). Upon reading the first few chapters, I was immediately hooked. Told from the perspective of the quiet Native-American giant, Chief, the novel tells the story of Randle McMurphy and his misadventures within an Oregon Mental Institution. After feigning insanity to dodge a jail sentence, Randle is placed under the care of one Nurse Ratched, who is far and away one of the most abhorrent characters ever to grace 20th century literature. She rules her ward with an iron fist, controlling the schedules, regimens, and overall lives of the inmates under her “care”.
Upon witnessing the way these people are treated, Randle tries to bolster a sense of self within his fellow inmates. He stands up to her on a regular basis, outright challenging the authoritarian command she and her orderlies exert on many occasions, hoping the other inmates will follow suit. Despite his outwardly gruff demeanor and multiple escape attempts, Randle proves throughout the course of the novel that he is indeed a good person, willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. This, accompanied by the bonds he forms with everyone makes the ending all the more tragic. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but it makes for a really gripping denouement.
This book, along with a formal introduction to psychology, really made me want to pursue a career in therapy. I desperately wanted to be the antithesis to the Nurse Ratcheds of the world. I realize now that mental health isn’t the field it used to be, but hey, being inspired to help people is never a bad thing.
I also really felt for the inmates, and in my own way, related to them very strongly. For years, I had insults and epithets thrown at me about my weight, about my style (or lack thereof), and about my awkward social tendencies. I felt like the world was Nurse Ratched, and that I had no choice but to succumb to her will if I were to make it out alive.
Though this book has a bittersweet ending, it really put a lot of things in perspective for me. Nurse Ratched in and of herself is an excellent parallel to many authority figures in this day and age. Give someone with a thirst for power a taste of it, and that thirst will never be slaked. I see Nurse Ratched in many politicians, I see her in a few overcompensating police officers, and I see her in the eyes of many of my previous superiors. So many people who wish to exert their power on those too weak to fight back. It saddens me to see the world this way, but I walked away from this book with a willingness to question authority. A willingness to fight for myself in the face of those who would haze me. If I end up like Randle for it, “hey, at least I tried.”