Let’s deal with the Heart of Darkness question first. Like Heart of Darkness, discussion of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is depressingly likely to be focused on its alleged racism (and sexism) rather than the essential themes it is seeking to explore. Sensible criticism of Heart of Darkness now appears to be virtually extinct, and it is likely that Cuckoo’s Nest will go the same way. The ‘baddies’, after all, are the ‘black boys’, while in Nurse Ratched we surely have the personification of Leslie Fiedler’s Castrating Female archetype? Thus, the argument goes, Cuckoo’s Nest must be racist and sexist. But just as it is facile to consider Heart of Darkness purely in terms of racism, so it is to dismiss Cuckoo’s Nest in this way. In my view, this is not a debate worth having but, if it must be had, here’s an answer: in the novel, Kesey is constructing an inverted world where sane is insane and insane is sane, where there is a sense that the system, the ‘combine’ is a malevolent force stripping away our humanity and turning us into machines. Everything is twisted, Kesey is telling us, what we think is real is not real and vice versa. Bromden, supposedly deaf and dumb, is neither. And not for nothing does McMurphy describe the inmates as doctors when they are on their fishing trip: the division between sanity and insanity is not always clear-cut and is, in any case, a matter only of definition. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that, in his invented and inverted world, Kesey should assign the roles of master and enforcers to women and black people, groups more commonly associated with oppression by the white, male system. Therefore, it is neither racist nor sexist, but simply an ironic reversal.
Having decided what it isn’t, what is it? As much as anything, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is about power. Harding even says at one point: ‘mental illness [can] have the aspect of power, power,’ while Nurse Ratched makes this chillingly clear when she tells McMurphy, ‘You’re committed… Under jurisdiction and control.’ The system is in charge, and it organises itself in order to maintain its control. Daily life is designed for the perpetuation of the status quo: the inmates are not cured, they are maintained in their current state, they are controlled by drugs so that they do not – cannot – change. They are encouraged to tell tales on one another, writing overheard gossip in a book so that all can read it. Therapy sessions concentrate on discussing their failures, the men urged to confess to their crimes or shortcomings. In this way they are diminished, their place under the control of the system is reinforced. They are, as McMurphy describes them, rabbits. Worse than that, they are the rabbits of the rabbit world, demasculated, impotent, helpless. This is hell. No man is in control of his own destiny, nor is there the vaguest prospect that he might one day be able to do so. Anyone who attempts to subvert the careful control of the system is dealt with, like the unfortunate Tabor. These poor men, in William Schopf’s chilling description, ‘lie pathetically locked in sub-humanity.’ Meanwhile, the power feeds itself.
Janet Sutherland suggests three themes for the novel. Firstly, we must look beyond appearances to judge reality. This is most clearly demonstrated through Chief Bromden who, once his perceptions of the world change, begins to see himself in a more palatable light. Secondly, the notion that ‘fools and madmen have wisdom’ and, through them, we can better see the faults in our society. And thirdly, the idea ‘that the bumbling fool may be transformed into a worker of good deeds’, as personified by McMurphy who, according to Sutherland, ‘almost assumes the stature of the typical quest hero at his death.’
These are, indeed, characteristics of the novel, and important ones at that. Sutherland extends her thesis by arguing that the novel ‘works through the eyes and action of madmen to go from a vision of the world where all things are profane to a vision of the world where all human things are potentially sacred.’ This is the key to it, because what we have in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a paean to humanity, a humanity that is resolved, through even the severest constriction, to aspire, to fly, to soar. Chief Bromden, when he makes his escape from the asylulm, describes it thus: ‘I remember I was taking huge strides as I ran, seeming to step and float a long ways before my next foot struck the earth. I felt like I was flying. Free.’ Thus, we have a novel in which humanity overcomes oppression, and the instinctive personality of the individual can find contentment.
Elaine Ware, however, suggests a less optimistic interpretation of Chief Bromden’s flight. Although he has clearly progressed throughout the novel, Ware points out that, after killing McMurphy, Bromden initially retires to his bed and it is Scanlon who urges him to make his escape. Further, when he does escape he describes himself as a ‘professional Indian wrestler’, the vocation which McMurphy had jokingly suggested for him: Bromden then, according to Ware, ‘still cannot take the responsibility of defining himself and may continue to submit to outside pressures to determine his actions.’ I think Ware is too pessimistic. She links the ending to an earlier scene, in which Bromden looks out at night at a skein of Canadian geese flying past and a dog cavorting in the grounds of the institution. The scene concludes with the dog running off, apparently on a collision course with an approaching car. Ware connects this dog to the Chief, suggesting that through it he experiences a vicarious freedom. However, its fate, although unresolved, may be to be run over by a car – crushed, that is, by the system.
Ware is correct to highlight this scene, as it is the most important in the novel, but her pessimistic interpretation is wrong. It is here, as the Chief looks nostalgically out of the window, that he first begins the tentative recovery of his sense of self and his humanity. He has hitherto been confined, both literally and psychologically, and has lost all ability to see himself within the context of general daily life. He has essentially removed himself from reality, making himself deaf and dumb, an invisible. Remember , too, that Bromden, an Indian, comes from a largely oral tradition, and so his use of silence as a defence mechanism must have been desperately difficult. The transformation scene unfolds beautifully. First the gamboling dog and then the geese absorb Bromden’s attention and he starts to become real again, and from there he is thrown into a reminiscence from his childhood, reinforcing that fragile sense of recovery of self. He is not rescued yet, of course. He remains an inmate. He becomes aware of a presence behind him. The ‘whir of fear’ starts up in his head. His reverie is over, his moment of freedom finished. The black boy and the nurse coax him back to bed, oblivious of the transformation that has come over him. But from here the scene is set. The Chief will recover, and he will succeed, and he will escape.
Indeed, for the novel to succeed, Bromden has to escape and find equanimity: to do otherwise would be counter to its unfolding thematic intent. If the Chief did not ultimately succeed, this would mean that McMurphy’s assault on the system had failed. The novel, as John A Barsness notes, is essentially a depiction of the heroic quest of McMurphy to break Nurse Ratched and the Combine. He does fail, of course, and meets his doom, as heroic questers customarily do. If that were the truly the end, however, Kesey would be presenting a dismally bleak picture of the prospects for humanity, and I do not believe that to be the case. McMurphy dies and Nurse Ratched wins, but her victory is pyhrric and his death glorious, one might even say, if a Christian interpretation were to be made, transcendent. His actions are the catalyst for change. The rabbits become men. One by one the inmates take action: Harding recovers his self-esteem and walks out the front door, Fredrickson and Sefelt discharge themselves. So do others. Only a handful remain. Nurse Ratched’s control over her domain has been broken. Finally, the Chief recovers his sense of self and escapes from his confinement – literal and psychological – out of the fog and into the freedom of nature. And thus we have the essential point – the real hero of the novel is Bromden. McMurphy is the catalyst, the one whose action and energy impel the others to action, but Bromden, the silent observer, misses nothing. For all McMurphy’s bluster and brio, the Chief notes what nobody else does, that he is ‘dreadfully tired and strained and frantic.’ By the end, both McMurphy and the Chief know that McMurphy cannot win: his final, fatal confrontation with Nurse Ratched after Billy Bibbit’s suicide is as inevitable as it is tragic. But even as he does so, McMurphy is handing the baton to the Chief, and the Chief finally takes responsibility, doing the one good thing he could possibly do, freeing McMurphy from the hell of defeat.
That flight at the end, then, is truly a moment of beauty. The dog may or may not have been on a collision course with the car, but the Chief surely is not. He is able to choose his destiny. Note how ambiguous his ideas are in the following description of his plans:
I might go to Canada eventually, but I think I'll stop along the Columbia on the way. I'd like to check around Portland and Hood River and The Dalles to see if there's any of the guys I used to know back in the village who haven't drunk themselves goofy. I'd like to see what they've been doing since the government tried to buy their right to be Indians. I've even heard that some of the tribe have took to building their old ramshackle wood scaffolding all over that big million-dollar hydroelectric dam, and are spearing salmon in the spillway. I'd give something to see that. Mostly, I'd just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again. I been away a long time.
This is not, as Ware suggests, the uncertainty of a man who is still not ‘self-reliant.’ Rather, it is the gentle equivocalness of being free.