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The Story More Accurately Macdonald English Literature Essay

Connor Forsythe

Mrs. Byrnes

Honors American Literature

Ken Kesey Research Essay

Did you know that while Ken Kesey was writing One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he received shock therapy so he could describe the story more accurately (Macdonald)? This is just one of several things that Kesey did that inspired his writing of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This is the first novel that Kesey ever wrote, and it was published in 1962 (Charters). This is considered to be his most famous work. The story and characters in the fictional One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest are strongly influenced by the real life experiences of Ken Kesey, and this influence has led to its critical acclaim and prominent position among American literature.

Ken Kesey was born on September 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado, but he grew up in Oregon (Tanner). As a child, he enjoyed activities such as boxing, wrestling, and fishing ("Ken Kesey," Encyclopedia of World Biography). Many think that the reason he liked activities such as these was due to his upbringing in Oregon and its surrounding area. For instance, Kesey biographer Ann Charters says "Ken Kesey’s upbringing in the Pacific Northwest developed interests that he has retained all his life- a fascination with magic and illusions, a commitment to risk-taking in feats of physical endurance like wrestling and a love of the rural countryside near his home in Eugene, Oregon"(Charters). Clearly, she believes that the environment in which Kesey grew up had a major influence on his interests and beliefs.

Kesey attended school in Oregon and eventually went to the University of Oregon (Tanner). After graduating from the University of Oregon, Kesey attended Stanford to study Creative Writing (Tanner). While at Stanford, Kesey became very radical in his beliefs and became one of the leaders of the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, rebelling against the establishment (Macdonald). As part of this, Kesey began experimenting with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. Kesey was introduced to these drugs when he was a paid volunteer for government conducted experiments at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, where he eventually worked. While working there, Kesey came up with the idea of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and began writing it (Macdonald). While he was writing the book, drugs had an apparent effect on the story and its characters ("Ken Kesey," Contemporary Authors Online). Biographer and literary critic Stephen A. Tanner addressed this issue when he said "Both the experience with drugs and the hospital work provided material for his novel. Some of the book was written during his night shifts, and, according to Kesey, certain passages were written under the influence of peyote" (Tanner). This quote shows the influence drugs had on Kesey while he was writing this book and the effect that it had on it. After he completed One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he continued writing books and experimenting with drugs ("Ken Kesey," The Schribner Encyclopedia of American Lives). He eventually settled in Pleasant Hills, Oregon, where he lived until he died of liver cancer on November 10, 2001 ("Ken Kesey," The Schribner Encyclopedia of American Lives). His legacy still lives on, though, as he is one of the most memorable and influential writers in the twentieth century.

In examining One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it becomes clear that the two main characters in the book are drawn almost directly from Kesey’s own life experience: Randle P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. As such, the genuineness and reality of the characters adds to the impact of the story. Randle P. McMurphy plays a very important role in the story. McMurphy is the story’s lead character and hero, and he goes to the mental hospital to avoid prison time (Charters). While there, he fights with Nurse Ratched, who controls the place (Macdonald). Literary critic Irving Malin says that McMurphy begins to disobey and aggravate the Nurse by "breaking a window, by not doing his appointed job, by asking for outrageous things" (Malin). One can see that McMurphy makes it his goal to fight Nurse Ratched. McMurphy also rounds all of the patients together to form a rebellion against the oppressive rule of Nurse Ratched (Charters). Because of the many similarities between the author and McMurphy, one cannot escape the conclusion that McMurphy is the fictional embodiment of Kesey himself. The most obvious parallel is that McMurphy is very disobedient and leads a rebellion against the control of Nurse Ratched, and in real life Kesey was one of the leaders of the counterculture revolution of the 1960’s and, along with several others, rebelled against an oppressive society (Macdonald). The author was tireless in his efforts to be himself and to not be told to do anything by societal at the time (Charters), just as is the case with his character McMurphy. Kesey is also similar to McMurphy for reasons other than rebellion. McMurphy reflects some of Kesey’s interests growing up such as fishing and fighting ("Ken Kesey," Encyclopedia of World Biography). In the story, McMurphy manages to set up a big fishing trip for every person on the ward, which is something that he is really excited about ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," Novels for Students). It is known that Ken Kesey enjoyed violent sports such as wrestling and boxing, and those violent characteristics are also shown in McMurphy. In the story, the Nurse reads his criminal record aloud for him and for all the other patients to hear. The record includes "a history of street brawls and bathroom fights and a series of arrests for Drunkenness, Assault and Battery, Disturbing the Peace, repeated gambling, and one arrest- for Rape"(Kesey 44). The criminal record clearly shows McMurphy’s violent nature, one closely resembling that of the author. Certainly, by drawing on his own experience, the author is able to make the characters in his book come to life much more vividly than would otherwise be possible.

The other character that is taken from Kesey’s life experience is Nurse Ratched. Ratched controls the hospital in a very particular and strict way, so that it is exactly the way she wants it. As the author has McMurphy describe it, "The Big Nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit room from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she’s tense as steel. I know, I can feel it. And she don’t relax a hair till she gets the nuisance attended to- what she calls ‘adjusted to surroundings’" (Kesey 30). This clearly shows the Nurse’s desire to make everything the way she wants it and to force all the patients to concede to her will; in other words, Ratched represents conformity and control. This strategy of hers works until McMurphy shows up. He brings a whole new attitude to the place, and the patients begin to follow him instead of her, and that forces her to try very hard to get them back to what she considers normal behavior. As Gina Macdonald, a Kesey biographer and a literary critic, notes, "Big Nurse turns the inmates against each other, preys on their fears, and weakens their nerve, while McMurphy uses laughter, comic exaggeration, impudence, and absurdist acts to teach independence and self-reliance"(Macdonald). Nurse Ratched is threatened by the change McMurphy has brought to the place and tries her hardest to prevent that change from happening. The parallel to Kesey’s rebellious role in society is obvious: Kesey rises up against conformist society; McMurphy rises up against the controlling micro-society as personified in Nurse Ratched. In the 1960’s, Kesey took drugs and led a rebellion against the normal way of life and the people that enforced the rules (Macdonald). That is who Ratched represents. She represents all the people that were against what Kesey and the rest of the counterculture movement were doing. Again, the character is brought to life because what she represents is something that was near and dear to Kesey’s own experience and persona.

Two themes dominate One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and both again strongly and directly reflect the author’s life experience. Both themes are key parts of the book, and they both involve Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. The theme of individual versus society dominates the book, with the individual being obviously McMurphy and society as clearly being Nurse Ratched. McMurphy hates Ratched’s strict rules and how cruelly she treats the patients, so he starts breaking rules and eventually starts up a rebellion with the patients (Charters). Kesey means to show by writing this story that a noble fight can be fought against a conformist society and can help people in the long run ("One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest." Novels for Students). Unfortunately for McMurphy in the story, Ratched ends up winning the battle by giving him a lobotomy (Charters). The other theme in the story is sacrifice. The sacrifice in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is when McMurphy is lobotomized and then mercifully killed by Chief Bromden, the narrator of the story (Malin). However, McMurphy’s death is not for nothing. While McMurphy was alive, he helped several patients realize self-independence and in essence liberated them all ("One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest," Novels for Students). When he dies, several of the patients check themselves out of the hospital, and Chief Bromden escapes, because they all realize that they have a life to live after all. The theme of sacrifice in the story shows that if something is important enough, one can sacrifice one’s own interests to accomplish it. Kesey got into trouble and went to jail because of something he believed in, motivating others to follow in his steps; McMurphy fought Nurse Ratched and it cost him his life ultimately, but the other patients gain the strength to fight on their own. The reality is brought home to the reader because this is what Kesey lived.

Due to its universal themes, interesting characters, and significance to American society back then and today, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has become a book that critics love to analyze. Ian Currie, a freelance writer, feels that the book really reflects the time period it was set in. He notes that "Cuckoo’s Nest captured the fear and uncertainty of a postwar generation who came of age with the still-new and very real possibility of total nuclear destruction" (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Novels for Students). He feels that the story might strike fear in people due to the fact that the story talks about rebellion against society. People might think the new generation of "baby boomers" will rebel against society during a time of such tension during the Cold War. Actually, there was a massive cultural rebellion during the time period when the story was published. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was so popular in that time period, according to Currie, because the book dealt with rebellion against the old ways of life and experimenting with new things. Many agree with Currie’s thoughts. According to the Schribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, "Randle P. McMurphy’s heroic battle against the controlling forces of Nurse Ratched and the ‘Combine’ appealed to a generation of rebellious baby boomers about to launch a cultural revolution" (Schribner Encyclopedia of American Lives). This describes the importance of the book during the time period. Teenagers and young adults saw the story’s themes of individual vs. society and sacrifice, and that is why the book became so popular with the new generation of people. It represented something that they all were feeling at the time, the need to challenge conformity. However, not all critics see this story solely as an inspiration for the countercultural revolution. Ann Charters, a literary critic, believes that the story "celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in a conformist postwar American society shaped by materialistic consumer values" (Charters). What she is saying is that America was finally out of the dark period of war during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and this story was an inspiration to some people to throw away some of the old values that they once had during that time period and find new values and spirit in a whole new generation of America. Regardless of the specific reading that a particular critic makes, it is clear that critics still analyze One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest because of its profound impact on the time period it was in. The clear importance of the book, not to mention the genuineness that the author brings to the story, make One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest l a popular book among Americans even today.

Moreover, Ken Kesey remains one of the most talked about authors of all time, primarily because of one work, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That story has themes that appeal to many Americans today, but many people do not know how Kesey’s life affected what he wrote in the book. The events in Kesey’s life, from his early life to his rebellious counterculture period and drug use, had a major impact on the themes and the characters in the story. Kesey may be dead, but his impact on literature and American society will live on forever.

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