Ken Kesey’s novel was published in 1962 followed by a film version in 1975. It was inspired by talking to mental patients, while author’s work on a night shift at a Veteran’s Hospital in Oregon. The writer did not believe the patients who were in the mental clinic were insane. Instead, he thought that they had been simply removed from the society. At the time when Kesey was writing the novel, it had become common in the USA to confine those who had deviated from moral behaviour to mental institutions. The story being described in a mental clinic highlights the institutional processes that occur in such places. The story focuses on the character of Randle Patrick McMurphy, who decides to fake his insanity to be imprisoned. In general, a hospital is a symbol of personal safety and security for the patients. The author uses themes, irony, and setting to show how the society had neglected the people considered insane.
In the current section, the author’s troubling messages he wanted to address are represented through the theme of disability and gender. The intersection between the two issues has been portrayed and discussed in the novel in relation to other social forms and processes. This is the theme of gender and disability. Kesey’s novel has triumphed in providing an incisive view of a mental health clinic that is free from the stigma, which is always associated with such institutions. Through the first-person narrative of Chief Bromden, the asylum setting becomes so ordinary that the reader becomes more interested in finding out about the personalities inhabiting the clinic instead of seeing the characters merely as examples of disability. Retrospective thoughts created through Kesey’s inclusion of Bromden’s delusions within the narrative and through the disruption of linear reading, are important. It helps to discover that though disability makes Bromden different, it does not debilitate him both as a narrator and a man. In simple terms, it could be argued that though the novel removes the prejudices associated with mental disabilities on the one hand, it creates prejudices regarding gender on the other hand.
The connection between masculinity in relation to gender and disability is evident in the novel, and it forms a discussion in the current paragraph. The idea that the men in the ward were not able to affirm their masculinity is the clearest example connecting disability and gender in the novel. While introducing the men in the ward to McMurphy, Harding hints that they were all “sly and frightened and elusive-they are “rabbits”, “the weak” (Kesey 57). Together with the other men inmates, Harding considers himself a failure that lacked the stereotyped sexual promiscuity that “rabbits” and macho men, such as McMurphy, shared (Kesey 60). Harding metaphorically assigned animals names to the people around him without indicating their gender, For instance, he calls the Nurse Ratched a wolf, while for McMurphy he says “may be” (Kesey 60). Attributing some people to wolves and rabbits is a clear indication of stereotypical gender roles. In the social dynamic of masculine hegemony, men are considered strong, aggressive, courageous, self-reliant, and independent. Therefore, when Harding claims that the world “belongs to the strong” (Kesey 57), while labelling himself a rabbit, is an indication of a feeling of inadequate masculinity. Harding further claims that he and the others are in the hospital for the reason that they “can’t adjust to rabbithood” (Kesey 58). It is a clear depiction of their emasculation as a reason for their incarceration, thus a part of their disability.
Emasculation and disability of the men in the ward cannot be overlooked because it forms a core section of the novel as discussed in the current paragraph. Chief Bromden is struggling with emasculation that has become a part of his disability. He is from a mixed-race heritage that consists of an oppressive white mother and an alcoholic Native American father, a combination that results in the Chief’s model for emasculation. Such kind of emasculation becomes the root cause of the Chief’s problem of identity and, to a large extent, accounts for his schizophrenic narrative. The argument is reinforced by McMurphy who is also a re-masculinizing entity. When McMurphy arrives, he helps the Chief to grow “big” again and lessen his delusions. The “fog” that blurs the Chief becomes less frequent, which affects the man positively. The Chief says the following words, “The ringing that was in my head had stopped” (Kesey 172). As the novel comes to an end, the Chief acknowledges that he is “a man again” and realizes that he has to “free McMurphy” (Kesey 280). A clear correlation between re-masculinization and reduced cognitive impairments occurs turning the Chief into a courageous achiever.
As Kesey spends time working in the mental hospital, he constantly observes the abuses directed at the mental patients. Thus, the irony of working in an environment where one has to contend with abuses is examined in the paragraph. Deloria makes ironic observations when describing the circumstances that could have led to the Chief’s committal. The observation is that even the low quality health services that the government introduced for the Indians were being exploited by the whites. In a conversation with an Indian health worker, Deloria says that he confessed of his psychological problems and hoped to find some Indian medicine men in the health service to help him deal with the problem. Deloria extends his observation by exclaiming: “These people have been crazy from the very beginning. These are the same guys that landed here and ran all over looking for the fountain of youth! Go back to your reservation, find your local medicine man, learn to do some ceremonies, and cure yourselves” (Kesey 27). A situational irony is manifested when Deloria says that Indians have to seek healing from local medicine men and through ceremonies instead of being treated in a government health facility. Moreover, he seems to believe that the only way of ensuring sane life is through the Indian ceremonial way. From Deloria’s comments, a logical connection can be developed between the moral imprisonment in the psychiatric hospital and Indian hesitations. The connection becomes complicated because the schizophrenia that Bromden elicits is a possible response to all the experiences that he has undergone. It is also ironic that the dominant culture where Bromden belongs to has contributed to his insanity as a suitable way of preventing him from making interrogations to reveal the weak moral, as well as psychic health of the people that would institutionalize him (Connor 242).
In the current paragraph, Waxler’s perspectives and their contribution to situational irony are discussed. Waxler performs a deeper analysis of the Indian ancestry of Bromden, and equates his mixed heritage with schizophrenia. In the end, he sees Bromden as an individual with half-breed status and considers it as the main cause of his mental illness, as well as confused and incomplete narrative vision (Connor 245). However, Waxler loses sensitivity to the Indian culture of Bromden’s imagination and thinking when advancing the theme of “problem of manhood” (3). Waxler identifies Bromden as a perfect example of what he termed as Freudian psychosis, or simply an interruption that hinders an individual from recovering the source of his or her native identity (Connor 245). A verbal irony is seen when Waxler manages to impose a European psychotherapeutic style on a Native Americans, as well as a further example of what manhood can achieve. Through Waxler’s analysis, one can notice the American and European models of how to achieve “male individual identity and phallocentric control” (Waxler 5), which ironically provides an alternative myth regarding the way of Native Americans’ lives (Connor 245).
Point of View
Through a first-person narrative, Kesey uses Chief Bromden to reveal the happenings in a mental ward, which is important in analyzing the society. The patients in the mental ward are victims of a society that requires conformity. The society wants its people to behave like machines, thus creating a socio-economic conspiracy (Vitkus 65). The Chief uses the word “the combine”, which he thinks is a huge machine. He argues that the combine was slow but surely dehumanizing, homogenizing cultures of the society so that everyone could function based on the adjustable component (Kesey 40). The combine was an imaginary belief describing the American social order during the 1950s. The Nurse Ratched runs the ward and is responsible for controlling the process of turning the men into the huge machines that the Chief talks about. To transform the patients into being obedient and autonomous, they have to lose their sexuality, individuality, as well as masculinity. The Chief, for instance, narrates how he was delivered from the Big Nurse following the arrival to ward of Randle Patrick McMurphy. The Chief narrates about the opposition between the Big Nurse and McMurphy that concluded with the sacrifice of McMurphy saving the men who were in the ward, as well as the escape of Bromden (Vitkus 65).
Kesey’s tactful writing that shows how the society is covered with madness is discussed in the current paragraph. In the Kesey’s novel, there is a combination of powerful description and critique of the American society, as well as the madness that exists in the society in general. The text conforms not only to the structure of a conventional male myth, but also implores the reader to acknowledge its heroic pattern. For example, McMurphy has been represented as a charismatic hero in discussing the masculinity perspective. He exhibits spiritual strength, sexual energy. and laughter that restore life to men. Nonetheless, the struggle witnessed between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy is based on a gender construction crudely judged as misogynistic (Vitkus 66). Therefore, natural maleness is celebrated in the text, and it is placed in opposition to a dominant and emasculating feminine representation. The Big Nurse is at the center of the feminine construction. She is an evil mother trying to keep and control her boys, the men in the ward, through mechanical surveillance and mind control.
Kesey presents two forms of abnormal consciousness in the novel: one that occurs due to madness and the other resulting from hallucinatory drugs. In the early 1960s when Kesey lived in the Perry Lane community, he used drugs, such as marijuana and peyote. It means that he was writing the novel from a first-hand experience. He also volunteered in drug experiments at the Veteran’s Hospital in Menlo Park and he wrote some of the drafts of the novel during the days when he used drugs. Moreover, it was the time when he started working in the psychiatric department at the Veteran’s Hospital. Consequently, the novel was, to some extent, the reflections on his personal experience aimed at showing that unconventional visions and sane thinking could be the best ways of gaining freedom from the psychic ruin that the mainstream culture promoted at that time (Thomas 25). Considering things outside abstraction reason is a strategy that many artists use to communicate their opposition against the dominant regime. The discourse has been used for a long time to oppose the unjust systems through creativity and depiction of madness (Vitkus 67).
The author has integrated the theme of gender and disability to show how powerful women are in society. In addition, he depicted men who consider themselves the weaker gender and who have to assume conflicting roles. Anyway, through the character of Chief Bromden, the author proclaims the idea that the men can find a way of freeing themselves from oppression. The setting of the study has also enabled the author to create and develop own perspective through another character.
In an attempt to investigate and criticize the culture of male emasculation, Kesey has replaced disability representation with emasculation. In that way, he broke the stereotypes that follow mental disability. Instead, he centers on the patients’ personalities by making it difficult to understand individuality through repetitive portrayal of stereotypical symptoms that are witnessed among mentally ill people. However, such replacement reduces mental disability to the problem of masculinity. Besides, the woman is represented as an institutional system responsible for abuse of power. Even though the novel skillfully makes the reader to reassess his or her view of stereotype on mental disability, it manages strengthen gender stereotypes by making the suggestion that powerful women and emasculated men are both abnormal. Unfortunately, the novel fails in its duty of challenging normalcy regarding disability but reinforces patriarchal gender roles.
It is easy to read the novel and comprehend its conventional interpretation. However, through a deeper reading, one can find the interpretation that discovers irony of the author’s choice of narrating the book from the perspective of the Chief Bromden. Such decisions of the author, as well as his mastery of point of view are the key factors for the novel’s success as a literary material. The characters, such as the Chief, have been carefully chosen to make the reader understand the setting in a manner that would be difficult if a more traditional narrator was used. The surface appearance of the characters, as well as their deeper portrayals helps the readers understand and see their real value.