Let’s Talk Books – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Warning: Spoilers

One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog was to talk about some of the books I’ve been reading lately. Not really a review, or a detailed analysis, just some general thoughts that I wanted to get out there. I originally wanted to do this on YouTube; my casual manner of speaking is probably better off in video discussions. But since Google’s busy fucking everyone in the ass over there, I figured doing this in a blog might be a better choice (not to mention that, as a writer, it will help in the long run). And while I didn’t exactly want to start with a book that so many people love while also getting its fair share of hate, it’s got my mind thinking and I’d rather just get this out of the way while it’s fresh. So let’s talk One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I haven’t read this book in years. I’d like to say I picked it up again sometime during college, but to be honest, I think the last (and only) time I read it was during my senior year of high school. I remember liking it, but I don’t remember why. It was probably because McMurphy was such an entertaining character. Back then I wasn’t exactly a smart reader. In fact, between being forced to read as assignments, writing essays on books I didn’t understand, and dealing with teachers’ frustration with my misunderstanding of themes and interpretation, I was actually turned off from reading literature for a while. It wasn’t until I started taking my creative writing workshops during college that I started appreciating reading again. Being taught to write better helped me read better, and my professors encouraged me to ask a ton of questions, and have actual discussions about stories, and overall helped me grow more than my high school teachers ever could.

One of the books that several of the other writers in my workshops recommended to look at again was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so I made a mental note to take a look at it again now that I grew as a reader. I finally got around to it, and I’ve got to say, I’m glad I did. I think one of the things I was looking forward to the most was the narration. One of the first things I learned in my workshops was that the narrator and main character aren’t necessarily the same person, and the professor who taught me that used this book as an example. I really liked how although McMurphy and his influence were such integral parts of the story, the book was really about the Chief, his growth, and how McMurphy’s actions affected that. McMurphy kind of just dominated my memories of this book, and it was really nice to see the entire story through the Chief’s eyes, to see his hallucinations, to wonder if he was a reliable narrator, and to see his memories of his childhood and father. And without the narration written as it is, the Chief would become just another patient.

Another thing I liked about the narration was that there were a lot of moments that made me feel really connected with the book. The fog that the Chief keeps describing was one of my favorite aspects of the story, even if at times it felt a little overdone. I feel lost fairly often, so seeing his perspective through the use of fog was pretty interesting. His descriptions of being alone and fear of ending up at the Shock Shop while wandering through the fog were great.

Then I discovered something: I don’t have to end up at that door if I stay still when the fog comes over me and just keep quiet. The trouble was I’d been finding that door my own self because I got scared of being lost so long and went to hollering so they could track me. In a way, I was hollering for them to track me; I had figured that anything was better’n being lost for good, even the Shock Shop. Now, I don’t know. Being lost isn’t so bad.” (118)

This was one of my favorite passages. It reminded me of all the times I’d been lost throughout my life, and how I used to rely on other people’s attention or advice so I could find a better grasp on how to live. And more times than not, doing this kind of screwed me over and put myself at the center of manipulation (kind of like most of the patients). And at the time, I really didn’t care, because I also thought being treated poorly was better than being lost by myself. And what I ultimately realized was the same thing the Chief did; being lost isn’t so bad. You can’t really find yourself or what’s important until you get lost with yourself sometimes.

While we’re talking about relying on other people to define you, there’s another part of the book narrated by the Chief that expresses this really well:

I lay in bed the night before the fishing trip and thought it over, about my being deaf, about the years of not letting on I heard what was said, and I wondered if I could ever act any other way again. But I remembered one thing: it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (178)

Again, this passage hit close to home. I don’t know how many social situations I’ve been in where I’d try to contribute to conversations but was interrupted, or talked over, or just ignored. I felt stupid, like what I said never mattered. After a while I stopped wanting to contribute altogether, and then people started treating my like an antisocial person because I stopped talking as much or just didn’t want to go to parties or out for drinks. And for a while I actually thought I was pretty antisocial. It wasn’t until later, after meeting people that did listen and did treat me with a little more respect and did genuinely want me around that I felt more comfortable being social. And that’s where this passage, and for that matter, a lot of the patients speak out to me. You shouldn’t feel like something’s wrong just because some shitty people make you feel worthless. There are a lot of manipulative people out there, and it’s not just authority figures in books like these. There are a lot of really smart and talented people out there that beat themselves into the ground because they let some assholes make them believe so. And not just bullies or other assholes, but, like, toxic friends or unsupportive family members. Sometimes there’s something really great that can’t grow because of its environment. And again, you might need to get lost by yourself for a while before getting the confidence to stand up for yourself, not unlike McMurphy.

And what happens when you don’t? Well, the Chief says that pretty well, too:

There had been times when I’d wandered around in a daze for as long as two weeks after a shock treatment, living in that foggy, jumbled blur which is a whole lot like the ragged edge of sleep, that gray zone between light and dark, or between sleeping and waking or living and dying, where you don’t know you’re not unconscious any more, but don’t know yet what day it is or who you are or what’s the use of coming back at all–for two weeks. If you don’t have a reason to wake up you can loaf around in that gray zone for a long, fuzzy time, or if you want it bad enough I found you can come fighting right out of it.” (242)

Anyone that knows the foggy gray knows how difficult it is to get out of it. Sometimes it’s a little more than just something to be lost in. Sometimes it’s a debilitating poison that saps your energy. Sometimes it becomes a breeding ground for negative thoughts that anchor you to bed. I guess that’s one of the reasons why the Chief stands out to me so much. He was in it for so long and he got out of it. Against pretty bad odds, he got out of it. And I guess that’s the main thing I took away from this book, it’s about realizing what’s true to you and what’s false, who’s really on your side, who’s manipulating you into thinking there’s something wrong with you even if there isn’t, and finding your own way out of the fog.

A lot of the negative feedback I’ve found about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that some people found it a little juvenile. A lot of older adults think it’s a little overrated and more suited for a young adult or college mindset. I don’t personally agree with that, and maybe one of the reasons is because I am a twenty-something year old, but I can kind of see where those opinions come from. The Combine, while I think worked well in the story, is just another Big Brother mechanic, and the whole “government controls us” thing does seem to work better for a younger crowd. And I did just spend the majority of this post gushing over how much I loved the whole “finding your own way” aspect of the book, an aspect that probably sounds immature or overdone to an older audience that actually has found their way. But like I said, I’m a twenty-something year old, and all these things are still really important to me right now. Maybe in 10 or 20 years I won’t think so fondly of the book, but right now it’s one of my favorites. I’m really glad I came back and looked at this book again after so long, and while I can’t say for sure everyone will like it, I do think it’s something any reader should experience at least once.

Info for my edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

  • Published 1975 by Signet
  • Paperback, 272 pages
  • ISBN 0451067525 (Signet W6752)