The Menlo Roundtable

Don’t Fly Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Fifty-seven years after Ken Kesey’s fictional novel ​One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sent shockwaves with its unsettling critique of authoritarian control over individuals, the infighting among literary critics remains unsettled: is the ending a triumph or a tragedy?

The story chronicles antagonist Nurse Ratched’s abuses of her patients, protagonist Randall McMurphy’s efforts to liberate them by undermining her rule, and the final confrontation between the two that precipitates each other’s downfall. After the nurse’s command over the ward collapses, Chief Bromden, the story’s narrator, kills McMurphy out of mercy. Soon after, many of the patients leave the ward. To some readers, the empowered liberation of inmates and the fall of Nurse Ratched’s tyrannical regime are sufficient to declare the ending a triumph. To others, the more diabolical fallouts from the events render the story a tragedy: McMurphy’s scheme on behalf of Billy Bibbit backfires with the latter’s suicide, and McMurphy all but predestines his own lobotomy before being killed by one of his allies. In my opinion, what tips the scale towards tragedy is the larger truth revealed when we zoom out from the particular dynamics of the ward and see them through the wider lens of society and American history: the pervasive existence of oppressive systems that Bromden refers to as “The Combine.”