Manipulation and control is the name of the game on nurse Rached’s ward. The mental patients are subjected to her cunning rule and domination. It’s a system, it’s a game, and it’s a well-oiled machine that works flawlessly. Flawlessly, that is, until “Mac” (Randle Patrick McMurphy) comes to the ward. From there on out, it’s a show down. I felt the tension of the power struggle all throughout the book, I could sense the stress in my body as McMurphy. It’s an easy plot to follow: the conflict of man versus machine.
It did take me a bit, however, to warm to the novel. In the first several chapters, I felt the author, Ken Kesey, belabored his description of the control mechanisms of the mental institution a too much. It felt, at times, like he was using the novel form as a sort of soap box for railing against the system. Then, about 1/4 of the way through the novel, Kesey begins to beautifully narrate a story, and from there I was hooked. His character development is superb. It is easy to fall in love with the characters, particularly Chief Bromden, the character’s voice through whom the novel is narrated.
A dynamic brotherhood develops between the patients, as they rally around McMurphy. Mac, as they call him, is something of a Messianic, Jesus figure, who brings salvation and deliverance to the patients, but at great personal cost.
One important theme that attracts my attention is that of the voice. The mental ward patients, at the beginning of the novel, lack the ability to formulate and express their individuality. They are dulled and sedated, static and disengaged from life. Mac comes in and expresses himself fully. He is an individual. (He’s also, incidentally, not actually mentally ill!) He pushes the patients to find their own voices. Initially, they only find their voice through aligning themselves with Mac against Nurse Rached. Gradually, they develop their own voice.
By the end of the novel, Nurse Rached’s voice is actually physically taken away by Mac. Conversely, the Chief, who was presumed to be deaf, begins not only to speak but to formulate his own identity through his words. The Chief had found early in his life that it was easy for him to pass through life with people presuming he was deaf. Because people didn’t value his speech, it was easy to pretend as though he didn’t have a voice!
The question that arises for me is this: if you are within a system that denies your voice, how do you gain it back? For the characters in the novel, it is cunning resistance and even violent engagement. Perhaps this is true, in some instances, in closed systems where the powers-that-be have a monopoly on power and no accountability. Working within a system, however, that has some form of accountability, groups and individuals can appeal to others outside the system and gain sympathy. In either case, finding one’s voice seems most effective when the individuals become creative.
Ken Kesey’s book , in my opinion, is a masterpiece, and it is essential reading regarding American counter culture. He makes it clear within the novel itself that his description of the mental ward is meant to be taken as a commentary of society as a whole, that there is some sort of system of control, a combine, a mechanistic grind that forces uniformity onto individuals.
As individuals move away from being dominated, they enter into greater personal freedom. This is not necessarily a self-centered individualism. In fact, the patients on the ward develop a deeper brotherhood, the more free they become. Trapped within the system of domination, they mentally and spiritually check out from relationships. The communal spirit comes alive, as they slowly find their voices. Eventually, they break out of the institution, both actually and psychologically.