I originally intended to write a blog post about ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ by Ken Kesey during Banned Books Week (27th September – 3rd October). However, I fell a bit behind with my reviewing around that time and while it’s important to have these events to spread awareness, reading banned books needn’t be restricted to just one week of the year. First published in 1962 followed by an equally famous film adaptation in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson, the story is set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon and follows the lives of the patients who live under the controlled regime of Nurse Ratched. However, the arrival of a new patient, Randle McMurphy, who faked insanity to serve his prison sentence in what he believed would be more comfortable surroundings, soon changes everything.
There have been repeated attempts to ban ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ over the last few decades in the United States. In one example, five residents of Strongsville, Ohio sued the board of education in 1974 to get the novel removed from schools on the grounds that it “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.” More recently, it was challenged at the Placentia-Yorba Linda, California Unified School District in 2000 after parents complained that teachers “can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again.”
I watched the film adaptation of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ starring Jack Nicholson for the first time last year. The film is mostly very faithful to the events in the original book and McMurphy’s charismatic personality comes across as powerfully in the book as Nicholson’s performance on screen. However, one key difference is that the story in the book is told from the point of view of half Native-American Chief Bromden, widely believed by the other characters to be deaf and dumb. His constant presence as a long-term patient at the institution yet without any significant participation in most of the events he witnesses offers a unique perspective for the reader.
The patients are classified either as Acutes who are potentially curable along with Chronics, Disturbeds and Vegetables who can’t be cured and will never be able to leave the institution. Although the power struggle between the patients and the institution has been widely commented on, the most compelling aspect of the book for me was the increasingly blurred distinction between what can be defined as sanity and insanity. Although I already knew how the story was going to end, the final scene itself was still just as shocking to read even in its relative brevity.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is a fascinating read and serves as a reminder that it’s no coincidence that many of the most frequently banned books also happen to be widely celebrated classics confronting the most significant social and political issues which continue to affect the world today.
Have you read any banned books recently?