At first glance, a reader may wonder how Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book depicting a group of mentally unstable men and their boisterous Irish-American leader, connects with the economic and sociological view of Marxism. The novel, which takes place in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, centers around the conflict between manipulative Nurse Ratched and her patients. Randle McMurphy, a transfer from Pendleton Work Farm, becomes a champion for the men’s cause as he sets out to overthrow the dictator-like nurse. Initially, the reader may doubt the economic implications of the novel. Yet, if one looks closer at the numerous textual references to power, production, and profit, he or she will begin to interpret Cuckoo’s Nest in a different light. Marxism was developed by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-nineteenth century. It holds that productive labor is essential for human survival, that producers dominate consumers, and that societies evolve through a series of conflicts between the ruling class (bourgeoisie) and the working class (proletariat). Marxists advocate a classless society in which wealth is distributed evenly among citizens (Bressler 192-3). Capital is not merely money, but money that that is used to make more money (Parker 213).
Marxists detest the alienation of labor experienced by workers who exert exceptional amounts of energy in factories, yet never benefit entirely from their work (Parker 214). There are many examples within the text that illustrate the conflict between the ruling class (Nurse Ratched), middle class (Dr. Spivey, who is intimidated by Ratched), and working class (patients). The symbol of machinery as a means to mass-produce a standard product is also explored, as well as what??”or whom??”counts as machinery. By viewing One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest from a Marxist perspective, one will discover how Kesey uses his novel to make a statement about money, materialism, and mechanization in the twentieth century United States of America. The author skillfully uses plot, imagery, and character development to declare that individuals with mental disorders are more than machines that need to be fixed in order to be productive in society; they have value in and of themselves.
Like Marx’s proletariat, the patients in Cuckoo’s Nest are alienated, the result of their labor being directed and overseen by Ratched. The patients continually have a sense that someone is watching them because not only are they mentally ill, but Ratched actually insists they spy on one another and report any of their peers’ poor conduct. The narrator, Chief Bromden, relates how the doctor who works with Ratched urges: Talk . . . discuss, confess. And if you hear a friend say something . . . list it in the log book for the staff to see. It’s not . . . squealing,’ it’s helping your fellow (Kesey 47). This helping your fellow creates a feeling of contempt and competition among the men, and competition is the antithesis of Marxism. This is just one of Ratched’s many abuses of power over the ward. Literary critics Roger C. Loeb and Irving Malin shed light on the way patients are used as laborers, or at least treated as such. Both critics clearly illustrate the divide between the patients and the people in power within the facility. One of the first things the reader notices is that the hospital functions on a rigid schedule run by a rigid nurse who seems more machine than woman, or human being for that matter. She runs the ward like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine (Kesey 26). The only thing feminine about her is her large breasts which she keeps hidden underneath her uniform. Malin writes that “The ‘Big Nurse’ is no longer a woman??”she has become a Frankenstein monster. All of her gestures, commands, feelings, and possessions are mechanized (441). Even her voice has a tight whine like an electric saw (Kesey 138). Bromden describes her as a truck, who trails her nurse’s bag behind in her exhaust like a semi behind a Jimmy Diesel (Kesey 93). Loeb points out that the reason the nurse acts like a machine is because it enables her to control others (87-88). She determines who is released, who stays on the floor, and who is sent to the Disturbed floor. She even controls time by adjusting the clocks on the wall, or at least it seems this way to Bromden, a schizophrenic, She’s given to turning up the speed . . . when you got somebody to visit you. . . . But generally it’s the other way, the slow way (Kesey 74-5).
Another important way the nurse controls the inmates is by withholding gum, cigarettes, and television privileges from the men. This is characteristic of an economic system that distributes aid at its own leisure (Capitalism 222). It is also representative of how the upper-class denies the lower-class of wealth, status, leisure, and even the fruits of their labor. Consider poor factory laborers who work for extremely low pay to make fine clothes that they will never have a chance to wear themselves. When McMurphy attempts to change Ratched’s policy about television, he faces considerable opposition, and after McMurphy finally gains enough votes to have the World Series shown in the ward, Ratched insists that he does not have a majority because he has not accounted for the Chronics, patients with such severe mental illnesses that they are considered incapable of ever leaving the ward, in the total amount of patients (134). The Chronics cannot do much of anything, let alone vote to watch a baseball game. Kesey seems to suggest that democratic voting holds little value even in a capitalist society built on the principle of individual freedom. Sadly, the patients watch a blank screen and pretend they are watching the game instead. Interestingly, the Chronics symbolize a separate class than the Acutes, patients considered capable of rehabilitation, whom Ratched also dominates. The Chronics are described as machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired (Kesey 51). Imagery such as shock treatments and brain operations carry Kesey’s message that society is becoming too preoccupied with fixing things and that people are not pieces of equipment that need to be fixed, but are thinking, feeling human beings whose illnesses need to be cured through warmth and compassion. He advocates that those with mental disorders have more to contribute to society than their own ailments, which secure health care providers such as Ratched a place in the workforce. Through McMurphy’s rehabilitation of Bromden, a Chronic, over the course of the novel, Kesey argues that the patients are more than the paychecks they provide hospital management; they are more than defective brains to be examined and probed.
It is worth noting that the people who have the most power in the story are those that are educated, including the nurses, doctors, board members, and president of the hospital. The “black boys,” the male, African-American orderlies who serve Ratched, are portrayed as less intelligent and merely function as robots following orders. McMurphy’s ethnic, working class background also puts him in a position lower than that of the Big Nurse. This is a reflection of the hierarchy in real-world America. Kesey could be warning his readers about the danger of science and knowledge as he makes the characters with the best education powerful, but also cruel. The uneducated McMurphy is unlike the machinery-like Ratched in that he is uninhibited, rowdy, and emotional, while she is cold and calculating. The Irishman laughs at problems to keep his spirits up and prevent himself from becoming a body with no soul. At one point in the story, McMurphy takes the men out on a fishing trip where they are rejuvenated with nature, far away from the mechanical institution (238).
While Ratched acts like a machine, she essentially functions as a manufacturer and symbol of the oppressive upper-class (Haslett 35). While McMurphy tries to bring about equality between the patients and head nurse, she holds onto her self-proclaimed right to exact power over her charges because of her money, education, and, ultimately, sanity. The patients represent the working-class by providing Ratched, the manufacturer, with the products from which she profits??”their deranged minds. The patients can even be viewed as products themselves after shock therapy treatments and lobotomies leave them without personality. The negative effects of the hospital’s organizational structure are numerous. The men feel worthless, abused, and manipulated, much like the proletariat who endured horrendous working conditions and rarely saw the fruits of their labor during the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom and United States in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century (Industrial Revolution 630). Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the hospital environment’s detrimental impact is Billy Bibbit’s suicide after Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother about his night with Candy, the prostitute McMurphy brings onto the ward (Kesey 302-304). While this event can be interpreted as merely a tragedy between a manipulative nurse and an overwrought patient, it can also be interpreted as a representation of the harm that can result from an economy that encourages certain groups of people to dominate others.
By examining One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from a Marxist perspective, the reader develops a sense of the underlying meanings beyond much of the imagery that fills the novel. Kesey makes a powerful statement about overproduction and overconsumption in 1960s America by depicting a group of mental patients whose function is to serve the hospital from which they should be receiving quality care from, a reflection of how the poor serve the rich. Through varying techniques, he expresses that there should be more equality between different classes and groups, and that there must be more value placed on the human than the machine. With any hope, society can learn something from Cuckoo’s destructive, yet equally hopeful outcome.