Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer Reading: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A colleague of mine has long praised Ken Kesey's classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as one that her student's annually count as their favorite read of the school year. It has been many years since I have sat down with the book, so I began my personal summer reading early this year, digging out a copy just prior to the end of the school year. Immediately engaged, it took me only three days to devour the adventures of "Chief" Bromden and Randle Patrick McMurphy. The now familiar story set in an Oregon psychiatric ward, pits the inmates (some of whom are there voluntarily) and others, like Randle, who are committed due to criminal activity, against uber-authoritarian Nurse Ratched.

As I read, my teacher-brain saw numerous thematic similarities with other novels traditionally taught in eleventh grade, most obviously The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The overt rebellious nature of the three protagonists, Hester Prynne, Holden Caufield and Randle Patrick McMurphy, would appear to make Cuckoo's Nest an accessible companion read, though given limited instructional time, I am unsure what text I woudl be willing to drop in favor of it. There are some elements that are clearly appealing to high school readers (though given this novel's cultural influence run the risk of seeming overdone), such as the anti-authoritarian stance of the inmates, as punctuated by the liberal use of expletives and their engagement in, and discussion of, "adult activities."

One of the more interesting elements of Cuckoo's Nest, and one not necessarily shared with the other two books, was Chief's numerous references to a "machine" that manipulates and coerces individuals to respond to the world in a defined way. (While the cultural confines faced by teh main characetrs in Catcher and Letter are key to each novel, neither characterizes this facet of tehir story as a conscious "actor" like Cuckoo's Nest does.) This approach successfully establishes two antagonists, one very figurative and dubbed "The Combine" by Chief, and the other the very literal agent of the Combine, the aforementioned Nurse Ratched, more commonly referred to by Chief as "Big Nurse". Big Nurse's powers, and by extension the coercive reach of the Combine, extend so far as to "turn[ing] up the speed [of time]... this way on days when you... got somebody to visit you." (77) The pervasive "fog machine" also serves to oppress the inmates and obfuscate the truth from everyone but Chief. Chapter 7 (the section's are not numbered but I annotated them numerically in my copy for ease of review) in particular might offer a suitable challenge for student readers given its emphasis on an unmedicated Chief's responses to the environmental stimuli of the psychiatric ward and observations of the machines at work.

This "machine" aspect of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest could be massaged so as to dovetail nicely into a discussion of how one might assert control over others, especially as used by a relatable modern incarnation of the Combine, the media. Givent hisd line of thinking, it also occurred to em that this migth offer a good transition to working with excerpts from a non-fiction graphic novel I read two summers ago. The history of the use of rhetoric by the powerful (authority) was very well laid out in The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld. The more I noodle it through, the more useful Cuckoo's Nest, or maybe select excerpts when considered through a lens of a few key -isms, might be...

In addition to being a flat-out entertaining read, Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest also provided this teacher with a most valuable intellectual nutrient: food for thought.

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