Reveals in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The first time I finished One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I was in a lounge chair at the beach.  I was in college, and I thought the ending was the best conclusion to a novel I’d ever read.  Recently, I reread the novel and came upon some of the techniques Kesey used.

Key among this is the revelation.  After the infamous fishing trip, Kesey shows us the kink in McMurphy’s bravado when he allows us to catch this glimpse:

Then—as he was talking—a set of tail-lights going past lit up McMurphy’s face, and the windshield reflected an expression that was allowed only because he figured it to be too dark for anybody in the car to see, dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there wasn’t enough time left for something he had to do.

And then, in the climactic scene, Kesey pulls back the covers and tells us what I suppose we felt all along.  As the Chief observes:

First I had a quick thought to try to stop him, talk him into taking what he’d already won and let her have the last round, but another bigger thought wiped the first thought away completely.  I suddenly realized with a crystal certainty that neither I nor any of the half-score of us could stop him.  That Harding’s arguing or my grabbing him from behind, or old Colonel Matterson’s teaching or Scanlon’s griping, or all of us together couldn’t rise up and stop him.

We couldn’t stop him because we were the one 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 from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and  standing like one of those moving-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed up at him from forty masters.

So not only do we get the climactic moment of violence and revenge, we are offered a heady observation, an insight, not only into McMurphy, but into ourselves.  Not too shabby a stretch of literature there.


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