What’s it about?
The narrator is a character called Chief Bromden, a patient at a mental hospital who pretends to be deaf and dumb so as not to draw any attention to himself – even though he is 1.8 metres tall. He has been in the mental hospital for 10 years when new patient Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives.
When he ended up in prison, McMurphy claimed to be insane so that he could serve his time in a mental hospital. He figured that it would be more fun and less strict than being in jail. However, the matron of the ward, Nurse Ratched, is a former army nurse who runs the hospital with an iron fist. She, along with her assistants, ignores the normal medical practices in favour of her own, often cruel treatments.
She scolds the patients and anyone who speaks out against her is sent for electroshock therapy or a lobotomy, a type of brain surgery that was used to treat mental disorders in the past. McMurphy upsets her grip on the patients, encouraging them to stand up for themselves.
Why is it so great?
This is a novel about self-awareness and personal growth. The author, Ken Kesey, worked in a mental hospital in the 1950s, which is also when the novel is set. Kesey felt that life in 1950s America was very oppressive, and this oppression is a key theme in the novel. The idea of Nurse Ratched controlling the patients reflects the ability of the governments to control individuals. How we, as individuals, react to, and deal with this pressure is ultimately what defines us.
The book also challenges stereotypes and expectations – people assume Chief Bromden doesn’t have a voice, as he appears to be deaf and mute, yet he is the voice of the novel. Expectations about mental health are also challenged; are the patients truly suffering from health issues, or are these issues forced upon them by society (in the form of Nurse Ratched)?
Why should you read it before you get to university?
This novel has caused a lot of controversy through the years, having been frequently challenged and often removed from school curriculums in the US. Yet it is a widely read and universally known book, and if you want to engage in debates and discussions with people who have been raised in the US, it makes sense to understand the issues they have been exposed to.
The implied message behind the book is that it is the pressures of society that drive people insane. When you go to university, you are presented with a lot of choices; choices about who you want to be, what you want to study, what you want to do with your life. You will also be under a lot of pressure to do well; to follow the path you have chosen; to get a good job at the end of it – essentially, pressure to conform.
When people let all of these external pressures affect them, they cannot cope and this could lead to mental problems. This is a key message to remember as you enter university: you will encounter a great deal of pressure and may feel like you are struggling to cope, but it’s important not to let these things overwhelm you.
If you liked this, you might also like …
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Birdy by William Wharton