Notes on Ken Kesey’s



We will be discussing this book on November 26, and this handout is intended to help you to read it with understanding. The book appeared in 1962, and it was a huge hit. Kesey himself drew on his personal experiences as an aide in a California mental hospital, and I stress that everything that is described here - the therapeutic community notion, the lobotomy, electroshock  - really happened. This really is how mental hospitals worked back then.

Kesey himself went on to be a pioneer of the hippie phenomenon, and was described at length in Tom Wolfe’s book THE ELECTRIC KOOL AID ACID TEST. (Both Wolfe and Kesey are discussed at length in ACID DREAMS). Kesey formed a kind of proto-hippie commune that was heavily influenced by STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND  so yes, all the books in this course do link together!


Several questions to think about when reading the book, all of which we will discuss in class:


*Focus initially on the book’s attitude to women: note how the hippie and beatnik attitude to women is often hostile, in the sense that dominant or authoritarian women are seen as evil and threatening. Thee hippie revolt is an assertion of free masculinity. Note how personal liberation is defined in the book in traditional male/Hemingway terms. Is the book anti-woman?  In Kesey’s terms, what are the “good” female characters like? What prospects does this book offer a woman as opposed to a man?


*Tell me about the name of Nurse Ratched.


*Note how repression is identified as the suppression of masculinity, with “castration” a common image. In what sense was America in this era a “matriarchy”?


*Is the book racist and/or anti-black? Why?


*Throughout the book, McMurphy is presented very much as a Christ character, often in quite heavy-handed ways  why and how? Think about this carefully  there are a real lot of examples to draw on. How does Candy fit in all this? And how does the “Christ” treatment compare to that of Valentine Michael Smith?


*Why is the fishing trip such a central episode of the book? What does it all mean?


*The mental hospital is clearly meant as a microcosm of America in the early 1960s, a picture of the world the hippies and others are rebelling against. In what ways? What does this tell us about the nature and shape of that revolt?


*Why do we hear so much about McMurphy’s record in resisting the Communists in Korea? What parallels are suggested between the communist enemy and American liberalism? What aspect of Communist misbehavior is being recalled throughout the book?


*Tell me about Chief Broom. Is he a reliable narrator? Why is it significant that he is an Indian? Tell me about his idea of the Combine? What form does his liberation take?


*How is the book influenced by Freudian thought?


*Much of the book concerns the evils of approved official drugs. What does this tell us about the use of other pleasurable drugs by hippies and other 1960s dissidents?


*Why does the book become such an influential manifesto for 1960s dissidents and rebels?


*The “therapeutic community” is saturated with mutual informing and betrayal, the culture of denunciation. What other great political satires of the 20th century does this recall? Why is this so powerful a theme for an author writing in this period? For Kesey, what has gone wrong with modern America?


*How does the book criticize political liberalism of the sort that would become dominant under the Great Society and related eras? To use a phrase of the 1970s, is liberalism any more than “friendly fascism”?


*The book is very cynical indeed about democracy. Why and how?


*The book glorifies criminals and lunatics. What does this tell us about how 1960s radicalism is likely to go wrong?


*Why is gambling so significant to McMurphy’s character? Why is this so unpopular with the authorities?


*what or who might be symbolized by Big Nurse?


*How does the book imagine or portray liberation? How does this differ from traditional political solutions? Note that liberation does NOT mean healing from insanity.


*Note by the way that Kesey was making heavy use of LSD and other drugs when writing this book. When does this fact become particularly apparent in the text?


*Why is laughter such a theme of the book? What does it mean for Kesey?


*In the book, the argument is clearly that the “loonies” are much healthier than the sane. Why and how? Is insanity the only sane response to a crazy world? What does this tell us about the labeling of other problems, like crime? How would this affect social policy in the 1960s and beyond?


*If you believe the arguments that Kesey is putting forward  -and many people would  what would that suggest about how best to reform society?