Two nights ago I woke up after having a terrifying dream. I was sitting down in a hall surrounded by large open fields, the hall looked like an old school hall, and there were a panel of people sitting down some distance from myself. I knew these people were there to judge my sanity in some way but felt powerless to have any input on how they judged or viewed me. I just had to sit and wait and in the process felt extremely vulnerable and frightened. As you would expect, I woke up feeling rather disorientated but also found myself recalling the name of Randle McMurphy, one of the central protagonists from Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel which I had only just finished reading for the first time a few days before.
My memory of McMurphy’s highly disturbing experience of a psychiatric institution during the 1960s and his relentless commitment to challenging the ‘all-powerful Combine’ in which he finds himself trapped no doubt had contributed to my nightmare but also helped me to refocus and get up out of bed that day.
I don’t know why remembering McMurphy’s experience should have helped to steady my nerves that morning. The book is a terrifying read and McMurphy both undergoes and witnesses some horrendous treatment while he is at the asylum. McMurphy is also a morally dubious character himself, having supposedly faked insanity to escape serving time in a state penitentiary for being convicted on a charge of rape. I think however McMurphy comes to encapsulate a massive challenge to the system during the novel and champions the cause of many of the vulnerable men also staying on the ward and I think this is why I found myself trying to remember his name after the dream and, shortly after his, the name of Chief Bromden, the narrator of the story who rediscovers his voice quite literally through his relationship with McMurphy. The book taps into that deep-seated fear which I’m assuming lurks within many a soul at any one point in their lives – the fear of losing one’s sanity in life, and in that sense the book, however harrowing, provides a language and a narrative through this darkness. The reader sees McMurphy not only challenge the psychiatric system, but also help to reawaken the hearts and minds of the other male inmates – most of whom, he discovers to his shock, are voluntary patients of the hospital, frightened to live in the world outside.
So if you can withstand and get through some of the more harrowing passages in the book, it is certainly worth reading. Reading this book will take courage, but the experience will stay with you forever and as well as remembering the pain in the novel, you will never be able to forget how McMurphy makes men laugh again, men who for a long time have been too frightened to laugh. The novel is about therefore the possibility of reawakening back into life as much as it also follows the tragic loss of life. It is a shame Kesey didn’t write some more.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Ken Kesey, Penguin Classics (1962)