In what ways does the author of a novel you have studied make the reader aware of an important theme or themes? One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, by Ken Kesey, is a novel which explores many themes relating to human society, spirit and structure. It written in a unique style, that, in combination with strong symbolism and characterisation, successfully conveys these themes to the reader. The book is also backed up by a strong realism which Kesey managed to acquire from years serving on a mental ward and from his own explorations into mind-altering drugs. But probably the most important way in which Kesey communicates his themes with the reader is through the use of third person narration.
Kesey chooses one of the patients, Chief Bromden, as the narrator of the novel. The world which Bromden describes is a hazy, transparent realm, where the borders between insanity and sanity are unclear.
"There's long spells -three days, years- when you can't see a thing, know where you are only by the speaker sounding overhead like a bell clanging in the fog (94)" Bromden's view is omniscient. Although he poses to the ward staff as a deaf-mute, he actually hears and comprehends all that happens within the hospital. The Chief was able play the part of a passive observer, stationing himself in important meetings and able to see and hear things which are concealed from other inmates. This insight into what is happening around the ward is vital to the way in which Kesey's themes are brought to the readers awareness. We are able to understand not only Bromdens delusions but also his perceptions into the way the ward and society work.
Although Bromden does not always see everything as it literally happens. He hallucinates often, seeing things in terms of machinery, 'She's carrying a woven wicker bag ... I can see inside it; there's no compact or lipstick or woman stuff, she's got that bag full of a thousand parts she aims to use in her duties today - wheels and gears, cogs polished to a hard glitter, tiny pills, needles, forceps, watchmakers' pliers, rolls of copper wire ...' (10). Kesey uses the Chiefs distorted subconscious ramblings and perceptions to give the reader the true subjective account of the action, summed up by the phrase: "It's the truth even if it didn't happen". For instance the Chief's dream/vision of the mechanised butcher shop. The Chief's phobia and paranoia about machines and power are focussed in this passage, where human corpses, one being Old Blastics, are being moved around on mechanical meathooks. But the vision is not just another delusion, as the Chief awakes the next day to find Old Blastic has died during the night. This shows the Chiefs 'truth' is symbolic of what is happening in reality.
The Chiefs images and fascinations become central symbols of the book. The constant associations with machinery and the 'Combine' which he describes as being a "huge organisation that aims to adjust the Outside as well as she [Big Nurse] has the inside"(27), present the reader with more of Keseys ideas. The Combine is the opposite to everything natural. It represents everything which is "smooth, accurate" precise and organised. The Big Nurse is seen as the Combines primary tool in 'adjusting the Inside' : "I see her sit in the centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants." The Big Nurse symbolises all that is sterile, mechanical, conformed and unnatural - a mechanical matriarchy.
Women, such as the Nurse Ratched, feature in Kesey's novel in either of two lights. Either as a "ball-cutter" like the Big Nurse, who are intent on dominating men and depriving them of their freedom and masculinity. Or as Candy, the whore, who is intent on giving men freedom and pleasure. There is no middle ground between these extremes, which only goes to exaggerate Keseys themes. He uses these contrasting extremes throughout the novel for other such themes as good vs evil, mechanical vs natural and sterility vs fertility. Using such juxtapositions Kesey makes his ideas stand out clearly to the reader.
The dichotomy between the Big Nurse and McMurphy is another example of the way Kesey uses juxtaposition to present his themes to the reader. McMurphy is the protagonist. A wiry, red-haired, incorrigible character who soon becomes the 'chief bullgoose loony' of the ward. The antagonist is Nurse Ratched. The conflicts which arises between these two characters with opposing ideologies explore the themes of individuality versus conformity, and natural order versus the establishment. An example of this was seen when McMurphy 'ran his hand through the glass' of the Nurses station. By doing this McMurphy illustrates once again that he will oppose all the Nurse stands for and at the same time 'shatters her increasingly fragile composure'.
McMurphys hostility toward the Big Nurse at first is simply to make his life on the ward more bearable. Taking possession of the tub room for an alternative recreation room, and trying to pass a vote to watch the World Series Baseball show us this. Meanwhile the other patients on the ward decide not to fight the Combine, but rather let themselves be 'repaired' in order to fit back into normal society again. But later in the novel McMurphy, after realising he is committed to the ward, takes up the fight for a different reason. The battle becomes not one between patient and nurse, but between liberation and restriction, life and lifelessness, and ultimately good and evil. In taking up this battle on behalf of the patients, McMurphy gives them some of his courage and confidence. "These weren't the same bunch of weak-knees from the nut-house that they'd watched take their insults on the dock this morning"(194), which was a phrase Bromden used to explain how the patients had been changed by McMurphy.
McMurphy is seen as a saviour to the patients. Kesey uses other such religious imagery sparingly throughout the novel to present his themes. First seen in Ellis who stands against the wall with arms outstretched - 'crucified'. The EST table is in the shape of a cross which the patient is strapped to, and a 'crown of thorns' fastened to their head to deliver the treatment. The whole preparation of EST has parallels to crucifixion of Christ. "[McMurphy] climbs on the table without any help and spreads his arms out to fit the shadow. A snitch snaps the clasps on his wrists, ankles, clamping him into the shadow." (218). The fishing trip also has religious connotations. As McMurphy leads the twelve patients/disciples towards the ocean, Ellis tells Billy Bibbit to 'be a fisher of men'. Which was a phrase Christ used to tell his disciples in winning converts to his cause. McMurphy carried the other patients hopes, dreams and aspirations upon himself. He carried their 'cross': "We couldn't stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up ... obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters." McMurphy also, like Christ, both 'gave their lives that others might live', when he was undertook a lobotomy at the end of the novel.
Kesey employs the use of flashbacks to give the reader a more in depth view of the themes relating to the Big Chief. We discover how he was raised and why he became 'cagey': "it wasn't me that started acting deaf: it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all."(163). We also learn why he has such an affinity to automation and machinery, by explaining his electricians background and his 'robotic' paranoia. Using this literary technique effectively, Kesey is able to convey themes relating to the structures and pressures which society imposed on the Chief in his youth.
Kesey also intends the title of his book 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest' to have allegorical meaning. The full nursery rhyme which the Chief recalls as a child was as follows: "Ting. Tingle, Tangle tremble toes, she's a good fisherman, catches hens, puts 'em inna pens ... wireblier, limber lock, three geese inna flock ... one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoos nest.. O-U-T spells out .. goose swoops down and plucks you out." (224) Kesey uses this rhyme to 'spell out' the underlying theme in his novel. That being of a man, McMurphy, who swoops over the 'cuckoos nest' and 'plucks out' the Chief to freedom. The nurse is symbolised as "Tingle, Tangle tremble toes' who locks the patients like hens into a slow, subtle 'pecking party'. Kesey uses the title of the novel to give the reader not only a lasting first impression of the novel but also to summarise the main ideas he intends his novel to convey.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a microcosmic look at an individual defying authoritarian rule on the grounds of a psychiatric ward. It is a clever commentary on the courage required to break pre-conditioned restrictions and plunge head first into liberation. Using a wide variety of literary techniques Kesey successfully uses this novel as a platform to proclaim his themes and ideas which out branch out into the macrocosmic world of everyday life.