Thesis: Irony, humor, and paradox illuminate the central themes in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest .
I. About the novel
A. Values and components
II. About the principal characters
III. About the themes
1. Narrator selection
2. Atrophy of protagonist
1. Ruth Sullivan
2. Character over-exaggeration
1. Oppression of residents
2. Power of Nurse Ratched
Davidson, Dorothy, ed. Book Review Digest: 1962. New York: The H.W.
Wilson Company, 1963.
Hicks, Granville. “Beatnick in Lumberjack Country,” in Contemorary Literary
Criticism.1 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc. 1974.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Magill’s Survey of American Literature. 3 vols. North
Bellmore: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1991.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Masterplots II American Fiction. 3 vols. England Cliffs.
Salem Press, 1986.
Magill, Frank N. Survey of Contemporary Literature. 8 vols. New Jersey: Salem
Irony, Humor, and Paradox in
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
“My name is McMurphy, buddies, R.P. McMurphy, and I’m a gambling
fool.” So said Randle Patrick McMurphy upon his admission to the psychiatric
ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. McMurphy, along with Chief
Bromden and Big Nurse, make major contributions to the central themes in the
novel. Irony, humor, and paradox illuminate the central themes in Ken Kesey’s
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a tall tale about a conflict
of wills and social tract attacking the medieval and inhumane treatment of mental
patients and calling for reform. This novel, upon which Kesey’s critical reputation
rests, among others values physical and moral strength, courage, independence,
and nature as opposed to fear, passivity, timidity, dependence, group effort
committees, and mechanization (Magill, Survey of Literature 1061). Compounded
of passion, vitality, and bawdy good humor, this novel has one obvious purpose.
That purpose is to protest the repressiveness of society, as personified in Big
Nurse, and to show how it can needlessly deaden those energies and enthusiasms
which seek individual expression (Magill, Contemporary Literature 5588).
According to R.A. Jelliffe,
Written on two levels of meaning, composed in two
keys together, it tells the direful tale of a struggle
for survival in an institution for the mentally
disordered, and it presents a parable of life in a world
presided over by a tyrannical junta of compulsion and
The principal characters in this novel are the heart of the central themes,
such as humor. Randle Patrick McMurphy, the protagonist, is a modern-day rebel
cast in the mode of cowboy hero of the American western. He represents the
savior, the Christ, who gives battle, and provides a model for salvation
(Magill, Masterplots II 1203). McMurphy lives by a personal code that clearly
states that whatever he wishes to do is just, and anyone who tries to stop him
from doing so is unjust (Hicks 278). He has allowed himself to be moved from
the drudgery of the work farm to the comparative luxury of the hospital ward. To
at least one observer, the work farm doctor, it is doubtful that R.P. McMurphy
suffers from any condition more severe than a deep-rooted dislike of hard labor
and rigid rules of behavior (Magill, Contemporary Literature 5588). The story is
told through the consciousness of the schizophrenic Chief Bromden, the strong
Native American. He Feigns deafness and muteness in order to protect himself
from the pain of the “shock shop”. According to Chief Bromden, “Big Nurse”
and her black attendants represent the evil force that attempts to mold men into
stamped-out replicas of each-other (Magill, Masterplots II 1204). Nurse Ratched,
also known as “Big Nurse”, is the antagonist of the novel. She is the ward
superintendent and the ultimate authority. When McMurphy arrives, there is not
enough room in the ward for him and “Big Nurse” (Magill, Masterplots II 1203).
The title, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which echoes the children’s
song (“One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”), puns
cleverly on a variety of themes covered in the book. There are three themes in the
novel that are very prominent. Those themes are irony, humor, and paradox.
There are ironic points in the novel that lead to the most ironic event at the
climax. For instance, the author unexpectedly selects one of the chronics, or
permanent residents, to serve as his narrator. It is a choice both ironic and
effective because the character is supposed to be mute and deaf is the
one who tells the whole story. He understands things that the other characters
cannot. He knows everything that goes on in the ward and can interpret it well
enough to narrate the whole novel.
Though the plot involves inmates and the staff of an unnamed asylum, the
novel bears little resemblance to the familiar “snake pit” pattern (Magill,
Contemporary Literature 5587). McMurphy, who was primarily the strongest
both mentally and physically grows weaker and weaker, as the other patients grow
stronger, spreading word of his heroism. Refusing to let McMurphy live as a
vegetable and warning for all who try to stand up to “the system”, Bromden
performs the ultimate act of love: He smothers McMurphy with a pillow and
escapes toward the highway, free as a bird. Humor plays another important role
in the novel’s central themes. As said by Ruth Sullivan:
The child-like fun of the novel, the use of ridicule
weapon against oppression, and the
demonstration on the
part of McMurphy that he is a bigger, better
the Big Bad Nurse all contribute to the novel’s
invitation: allow yourself to depend upon the
omnipotent father; he will help you conquer the
wretched stepmother. (Hicks 279)
McMurphy acts on behalf of the patients so well that a reader laughs………
Here the weak overpower the strong the way children overpower giants in fairy
tales. The novel also shows how the strong oppress the weak (Hicks 278). The
characters are larger than life and they have exaggerated black/white, evil/good
relationships. The force of social conformity is symbolized by Nurse Ratched,
a high priestess of regulations which constrict life and squeeze it into a com-
mon mold. McMurphy has his own weapon–the power of Irish laughter–
and he uses it again and again against the self pity and shame that have
settled over the ward like dark clouds.
Paradox, as illustrated in the novel, is shown by the author’s use of the
Big Nurse as the figure controlling the men, and the men being the weak,
oppressed figures in need of McMurphy’s assistance. Although Big Nurse
pretends to be motherly and warm, her consuming passion is for order and
discipline, and her ultimate weapon is fear, not love (Magill, Contemporary
Literature 5,588). She is a melodramatic device standing for an overbearing,
indefensible anti-feminine argument (Hicks 277).