One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest



Ken Kesey was born La Junta, Colorado, in 1935, and raised in Oregon. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, and then won a fellowship to Stanford University’s creative writing program. While a student at Stanford, Kesey participated in voluntary experiments for the United States government designed to test the effects of psychotropic drugs such as LSD, mescaline and peyote. Kesey also worked as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital during this time, and developed a great sympathy for the patients. It was from these personal experiences that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962, emerged.

The novel, which revolves around themes of individual self-expression versus institutional oppression, met with great popular success and continues to hold a place in the American literary canon as an important articulation of countercultural rebellion against conformity. The swaggering, masculine individualist, Randle McMurphy, is pitted against the cold, machine-like Nurse Ratched in a battle of wills that represents a microcosm of the battle between social conformity and individual freedom. The novel’s schizophrenic narrator, Chief Bromden, perceives society as a giant, mechanized Combine whose mission is to churn out emasculated, obedient servants. The hospital itself is a factory where those who don’t easily fit into society are sent to be “fixed.” Kesey’s own experimentation with LSD contributed to his ability to perceive reality through an altered state of consciousness, in much the same way that a schizophrenic individual might perceive the world. Chief’s perceptions often are not real in the strictest sense, but his hallucinations offer windows of insight into the underlying truth of the reality the novel seeks to capture.

With the sudden wealth from the novel’s success, Kesey bought a farm in California, where he, along with his friends, continued to experiment with psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD. Kesey believed that LSD, which was still legal at that time,...

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