Ken Kesey’s novel is based on individuals whom he met while working in a Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, CA.
When he was writing One flew over the cukoo’s Nest, he worked the graveyard shift in the psychiatric ward and actually underwent real-life shock treatment. At a surface level then, the book can be read as a revelation of the mental health system and psychiatric practices of the 50’s & 60’s.
Just beneath this surface it is an attack on conformity and the organizational “man” and a celebration of individualism. But we reap its greatest rewards when we peel back another layer of cukoo’s nest and, intentionally or not, the symbols and themes that Kesey mines reach deep into the archetypes of our entire mythos and the tale returns to the central dilemma of human existence, first presumably presented in the Garden of Eden, should mankind choose blissful ignorance or freedom?
Without being too erudite, here lies a line up of the metaphorical elements of the novel:
Authoritarian as is a Social Welfare state, which offers inmates a sense of security at the cost of their freedom
Tyrant of this secure realm, significantly she is a maternal figure, since the security impulse is fundamentally female?
Our protagonist a character who represents revolution against authority-symbolizes the male yearning for freedom and is essentially a deliverer figure
The most telling factor is that they are there voluntarily, they are willing participants in their own, degradation-submissive, sexless, spineless, but safe from the treacherous big bad world, they have surrendered to the Evil Nurse Ratched and the system
Electro shock therapy:
Hmmm… Crucifix scene? as McMurphy says, it’s his “crown of thorns”
He is McMurphy’s Judas. McMurphy heals him (he stops stuttering after McMurphy procures a woman for him), but he denounces McMurphy to Nurse Ratched and then commits suicide.
McMurphy dies for his sins-after McMurphy is lobotomized, the Chief smothers him and then breaks out of the Hospital by heaving the enormous control panel through a window.
Obviously Kesey may not have intended the characters be read this way. In fact, as an icon of the counterculture it as, at least, ironic that they can be read this way. But the point is that all of these elements have fundamental cultural meanings, regardless of his intentions.
The result is that a seemingly simple fable about a con man in an asylum achieves mythic dimensions and partakes of universal truths that are central to our culture and our vision of mankind.
This is a great book is a must read and is one of the Century’s great dystopic fantasies that have best symbolized the human dilemma and come down on the side of Freedom.