The New York times described Ken Kesey’s novel One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “a glittering parable of good and evil, a work of genuine literary merit.” Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Here is Time’s original review:
The world of this brilliant first novel is Inside—inside a mental hospital and inside the blocked minds of its inmates. Sordid sights and sounds abound, but Novelist Kesey has not descended to mere shock treatment or isolation-ward documentary. His book is a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil, despite its macabre setting. For as the boardinghouse provided a stock slice-of-life locale for another generation of writers, the sanitarium seems to appeal to many modern writers as a comparable microcosm of the times.*
The narrator is a giant of a man, the half-breed son of an Indian chief. Scarred by World War II and his white mother’s destruction of his proud father, he opts out of things so completely that for years the staff of the mental hospital have believed him to be deaf and dumb. His skewed observation of the ward-world is well managed; the reader has a vivid sense both of “the Chief’s” sick perceptions and of the reality behind them.
The ward has two kinds of citizens: the Chronics (the Walkers, the Wheelers and the Vegetables) and the Acutes, who have hope of being fixed up and sent back Outside, where, the Chief is convinced, everything is run by “the Combine.” Chief representative of the Combine in the hospital is a purse-mouthed Sataness known as Big Nurse. Big Nurse is a specialist in control; she controls everyone—the patients and the doctors and the “black boys” who clean up the ward and push the Chronics around. “She wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants.”
Saviour of the ward—and especially the Chief—from the organised inhumanity of Big Nurse is a patient named Randle Patrick McMurphy. A laughing, brawling, gambling man of the world, McMurphy begins his duel with Big Nurse in sheer human exuberance and ends it in a grim, heroic struggle to the death.
Author Kesey, 26, who worked as a nursing assistant in the mental wards of two California hospitals while he was writing his novel, has used his empathy with the Insider’s view of the Outsider’s world to tilt the reader’s comfortable assumption about the nice normalities, has made his book a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them. But Kesey’s lunatics and his story are full of gaiety too—including a wild ward party complete with wine, women and song. As the Chief says admiringly of Randle P. McMurphy: “He won’t let the pain blot out the humour no more’n he’ll let the humour blot out the pain.”
* As witness such recent novels as: Captain Newman, M.D., by Leo Rosten, Faces in the Water, by Janet Frame, and Lilith, by J. R. Salamanca.