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How Are Themes of Race and Gender Presented in the Novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Why Was the Novel Criticized for Its Treatment of These Themes?
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a novel written by Ken Kesey and published almost 55 years ago. The plot is not as simple as it seems at first glance, it takes a long time to understand its depth, to understand the symbolism and references that the author was trying to convey. Over the years, the fans of the book and the film have been arguing about the real connotation of the creation, the meaning of the characters and signs submitted by the author. According to many experts and critics, this work belongs to postmodern literature, which main features are black humor, irony, and various references, so the novel is full of Evangelical and Freudian motifs.
One thing is pretty clear – this book is a hymn to human relations, the role of sex in the life of each person and the problems of domination and subordination in everyday life. Of the issues touched in one way or another in the book, it is worth highlighting the theme of race, gender and character, leadership qualities, and so on. So what is really hidden behind the seemingly simple plot and how much is it worth to evaluate the picture to understand the truth?
The primary location of the plot is an ordinary psychiatric hospital. Time is the 60s of the 20th century. A quiet work plan of the institution suffers changes when the threshold of the hospital is crossed by a criminal who claims to be a mentally ill person to escape punishment – Randle Patrick McMurphy. He is an Irish redhead man, a strongly expressed leader, a rebel, so the schedule and regime of the hospital evoke his anger and protest. Intermingling the patients’ private lives during therapy, neglecting personal opinion, hospital’s staff domination and obeying their absolute rules – all these problems do not leave the main character aside. He starts the fight against the regime, confronts the main antagonists, but many of his attempts are broken against the rocks – a strong Nurse Ratched, whose figure changes with the course of the plot. She is a powerful elderly woman, a strongly expressed perfectionist, she everybody being disciplined and does not tolerate any wrangling, has a real impact on the life of the hospital and, unfortunately, she enjoyed it and felt satisfied when she suppressed the opinion of other people and forced them to follow the rules that were invented by herself. The confrontation between the protagonists – McMurphy and Nurse Ratched – is the central theme of the novel. They are fighting for their interests, defending their points of view. In addition to radically different points of view, the enemies have entirely different characters. Randle is a “hurricane man,” he never sits back, has a very active life position and does not hesitate to express his protest. On the other hand is Nurse Ratched – an unemotional, cruel and relentless woman, she is a tyrant, enjoys the suffering of other people. Elaine B. Safer describes the image of this heroine as “to be monstrous and not a monster, hateful but not grotesque, the very model of the good citizen doing the job, disastrously… [She is] Of power, squelching her patient’s manhood with the blandest of smiles” (132).
The work erases specific frames of the sex stereotypes. It’s no secret that in everyday life there is a cliche that a man must be a leader, solve essential matters and not be influenced. On the other hand, the woman must follow the male decisions, in some way obey and to be weak. Noticeable that the novel reveals male and female images in entirely different forms, destroying previous stereotypes. For example, it is evident that Nurse Ratched has a dominant status over the male patients of her department. She does not give a reason for them to decide on their own and forces them to follow the rules created by herself, thereby killing their self-esteem. In turn, men are afraid of Nurse Ratched, because they know that the punishment for disobedience can be very severe and strict – a woman has special pills on her arsenal or even can use electric shock.
Another actual problem of the novel is the theme of the race. The hospital is full of people of different races and nationalities – it becomes apparent after describing the characters. Noticeable that there is a parallel with the American population racial diversity – there are Chief Bromden (by the way, the reader watches the story through his eyes, as he is a narrator), the Irishman McMurphy, Americans with the roots of different countries, a Japanese nurse and black hospital staff. The most contrastingly are these three black medical orderlies – Washington, Williams, and Warren. They are secondary characters, not regular scene heroes, but their presence in the story is not accidental – they symbolize weak-minded people who succumb to the authority of other people and disrupt their anger at the weak ones. Their figures are described as “crazy and hating all” (Kesey 9). ” Men work according to Nurse Ratched’s instructions, sometimes cruelly and soullessly dealing with the patients, in turn, the woman treats the staff with overt prejudice, demonstrating her dominator qualities. There is a certain reference to the slave trade times when the scenes of the contact between “The Big Nurse” and the men are shown.
The book received worldwide recognition, it was a fresh air breath in the 60s literature world, gaining a lot of attention till this day. The author presented such topics as relations between genders and racial discrimination in a unique manner, for which the novel was subjected to minor criticism. The main reason for this was that the Kesey’s book didn’t have its predecessor or analogs, which would describe such themes in a simultaneously defiant and veiled form, so it took some time to comprehend the real meaning of the book by critics and ordinary readers.
Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” has done tremendous work, creating a novel, that many literary critics and readers around the world have recognized as the legendary. The subtlety with which the author conveys rather serious themes, such as racism, humiliation, moral impact, combines with the vivid and contrasting figures of the main characters of the novel – the rebel Randle McMurphy, the cold-blooded castrator Nurse Ratched, and the giant Indian Chief Bromden. Kesey initiated a new literary era and showed new views on life in general by destroying stereotypes about human nature and relationships, although such works are usually criticized. However, it is worthwhile to look at the result – more than half a century later this book is re-read both old and young people, and each finds its meaning laid down by the author. One thing is clear: the world will never be the same after the release of this masterpiece.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962. Print
Safer, Elaine B. It’s the Truth Even if it Didn’t Happen: Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Salisbury University, Spring, 1977. Print