(from Carol Pearson's essay, "The Cowboy Saint and the Indian Poet: The
Comic Hero in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." [Studies in
American Humor 1,2 (October 1974), 91-98.])
Ken Kesey is a romantic. His wasteland is epitomized by Nurse Ratched,
who "dreams of...a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a
pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable
and all the patients who aren't Outside, obedient under her beam, all
wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to
the sewer under the floor." His alternative to an orderly, mechanistic
world is found among the psychopaths (for example, McMurphy),
schizophrenics (Chief Bromden), neurotics (Harding), and idiots (Pete)
who inhabit an insane asylum because they cannot, or will not, become
well-adjusted robots. In less analytical times, these lunatics and idiots
were called fools.
(from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
[New York: Penguin Books, 1996])
to Text Listing
weeping the dorm soon's it's empty, I'm after dust mice under
his bed when I get a smell of something that makes me realize for the
first time since I been in the hospital that this big dorm full of beds,
sleeps forty grown men, has always been sticky with a thousand other
smells--smells of germicide, zinc ointment, and foot powder, smell of piss
and sour old-man manure, of Pablum and eyewash, of musty shorts and socks
musty even when they're fresh back from the laundry, the stiff odor of
starch in the linen, the acid stench of morning mouths, the banana smell
of machine oil, and sometimes the smell of singed hair--but never before
now, before [McMurphy] came in, the man smell of dust and dirt from the
open fields, and sweat, and work. (98)
And the more [McMurphy] talked about fishing for Chinook salmon
the more I wanted to go. I knew it was a fool thing to want; if I signed
up it'd be the same as coming right out and telling everybody I wasn't
deaf. If I'd been hearing all this talk abou t boats and fishing it'd
show I'd been hearing everything else that'd been said in confidence
around me for the past ten years. And if the Big Nurse found out about
that, that I'd heard all the scheming and treachery that had gone on when
she didn't think anybody was listening, she'd hunt me down with an
electric saw, fix me where she knew I was deaf and dumb. Bad as I wanted
to go, it still made me smile a little to think about it: I had to keep
on acting deaf if I wanted to hear at all.
I lay in bed the night before the fishing trip and thought it
over, about my being deaf, about the years of not letting on I heard what
was said, and I wondered if I could ever act any other way again. But I
remembered one thing: it wasn't me that star ted acting deaf; it was
people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say
anything at all.
It hadn't been just since I came in the hospital, either; people
first took to acting like I couldn't hear or talk a long time before that.
In the Army anybody with more stripes acted that way toward me. That was
the way they figured you were supposed to act around someone looked like I
did. And even as far back as grade school I can remember people saying
that they didn't think I was listening, so they quit listening to the
things I was saying....(197-8)
"There you'll be. It's the Big Chief Bromden, cuttin' down the
boulevard--men, women, and kids rockin' back on their heels to peer up at
him: 'Well well well, what giant's this here, takin' ten feet at a step
and duckin' telephone wires?' Comes stompi n' through town, stops just
long enough for virgins, the rest of you twitches might's well not even
line up 'less you got tits like muskmelons, nice strong white legs long
enough to lock around his mighty back, and a little cup of poozle warm and
juicy an d sweet as butter and honey...."
In the dark there he went on, spinning his tale about how it would
be, with all the men scared and all the beautiful young girls panting
after me. Then he said he was going out right this very minute and sign
my name up as one of his fishing crew. He s tood up, got the towel from
his bedstand and wrapped it around his hips and put on his cap, and stood
over my bed.
"Oh man, I tell you, you'll have women trippin' you and beatin'
you to the floor."
And all of a sudden his hand shot out and with a swing of his arm
untied my sheet, cleared my bed of covers, and left me lying there naked.
"Look there, Chief. Haw. What'd I tell ya? You growed a half a
Laughing, he walked down the row of beds to the hall. (211-2)
I sat down and held the pole and watched the line swoop out into
the wake. I smelt the air and felt the four cans of been I'd drunk
shorting out dozens of control leads down inside me: all around, the
chrome sides of the swells flickered and flashed in the sun.... ...and
suddenly all around me the smooth slopes of chrome were shattered by
diving birds and churning minnows, and the sleek silver-blue torpedo backs
of the salmon slicing through it all. I saw one of the backs check its
direction and turn and set cour se for a spot thirty yards behind the end
of my pole, where my herring would be. I braced, my heart ringing, and
then felt a jolt up both arms as if somebody'd hit the pole with a ball
bat, and my line went burning off the reel from under my thumb, red a s
blood. "Use the star drag!" George yelled at me, but what I knew about
star drags you could put in your eye so I just mashed harder with my thumb
until the line turned back to yellow, then slowed and stopped. I looked
around, and there were all three of the other poles whipping around just
like mine, and the rest of the guys scrambling down off the cabin at the
excitement and doing everything in their power to get underfoot.
"Up! Up! Keep the tip up!" George was yelling.
"McMurphy! Get out here and look at this."
"Godbless you, Fred, you got my blessed fish!"
"McMurphy, we need some help!"
I heard McMurphy laughing and saw him out of the corner of my eye,
just standing at the cabin door, not even making a move to do anything,
and I was too busy cranking at my fish to ask for help. Everyone was
shouting at him to do something, but he wasn't moving. Even the doctor,
who had the deep pole, was asking McMurphy for assistance. And McMurphy
was just laughing. Harding finally saw McMurphy wasn't going to do
anything, so he got the gaff and jerked my fish into the boat with a
clean, graceful motion like he's been boating fish all his life. He's big
as my leg, I thought, big as a fence post! I thought, He's bigger'n any
fish we ever got at the falls. He's springing all over the bottom of the
boat like a rainbow gone wild! Smearing blood and scattering scales like
little silver dimes, and I'm scared he's gonna flop overboard. McMurphy
won't make a move to help. Scanlon grabs the fish and wrestles it down to
keep it from flopping over the side. The girl comes running up from
below, yelling it's her turn, dang it, grabs my pole, and jerks the hook
into me three times while I'm trying to tie on a herring for her.
"Chief, I'll be damned if I ever saw anything so slow! Ugh, your
thumb's bleeding. Did that monster bite you? Somebody fix the Chief's
"Here we go into them again," George yells, and I drop the line
off the back of the boat and see the flash of herring vanish in the dark
blue-gray charge of a salmon and the line go sizzling down into the water.