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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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CHIEF BROMDEN

Our guide to the world of the Cuckoo's Nest is the towering
Chief Bromden, son of a Columbia Indian Chief, Tee Ah
Millatoona (The-Pine-That-Stands-Tallest-on-the-Mountain),
and a white woman, Mary Louise Bromden. In many ways One
Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is as much the Chief's story as it
is McMurphy's, and he is as much its hero. For all of the battles
McMurphy fights in the ward are fought by the Chief as well;
of all the patients, the Chief shows the greatest courage in
fighting against the longest odds, and it is only because of his
final victory that we are able to hear the story of Cuckoo's Nest
at all.

The Chief may seem at first an impossible narrator to know. A
man who has for years pretended to be a deaf-mute, his mind is
a jumble of seemingly random, terrifying sights and sounds:
people swell and shrink according to their power over others;
like machines, they shoot electric beams at those who stand in
their way. In moments of greatest stress, the Chief's mind
becomes entirely clouded by a dense fog. Only when he recalls
his Indian boyhood are his thoughts at all clear, and even these
happy memories tend to be shattered by his fear of the present.



Yet as we come to make sense of the Chief's visions and
nightmare, we see they paint a weirdly accurate picture of the
hospital and of the illness that sent him there. He has been
damaged by an organization he calls the Combine; in fact, the
Combine is just his unstable view of forces that affect every
one of us. In the modern world, machines destroy nature,
efficiency comes before beauty, and robot-like cooperation is
more valued than individual freedom. As an Indian, the Chief
was particularly vulnerable. His white mother forced her
husband and son to take her name; she helped arrange the sale
of the Indian village for a government hydroelectric dam. After
these childhood defeats, come many others. Though intelligent
and schooled, he can only find menial jobs. His experiences in
World War II are so frightening they form the basis for his
hallucinations of the fog machine that operates on the ward. He
sees his father "shrink"- in his mind, the diminishing is a
literal, physical one-from a proud Indian Chief to a man
stripped of his name, able to live only off charity from the
government that ruined his life. By the time we meet him, the
Chief, too, is "small," though his height remains six-feet seven
inches. To the aides he is a baby, a household object, as
evidenced by their nickname for him, Chief Broom.

McMurphy arrives at a crucial point in the Chief's life. The
Chief has endured years in the hospital, years of self-imposed
silence, years of abuse. He's undergone over 200 shock
treatments. Clearly, he is a strong man. But now, we see, his
strength is near its end. He tells us, "One of these days I'll quit
straining and let myself go completely, lose myself in the fog."
McMurphy's arrival at first seems able only to postpone that
day slightly. The Chief is entertained and impressed by the new
patient, who reminds him of his father, but he's also frightened
of him. The freedom that McMurphy offers is as much a threat
as it is a blessing-and the Chief reacts to it as he does to all
threats, by cowering in the fog. In fact, by the time McMurphy
is battling for his right to watch the World Series, the stress
within the Chief is so great it seems he will at last lose himself
in the fog completely. It's easier to be lost than to be sensitive
to all the pain and injury the Combine has caused, pain and
injury that neither he nor anyone else can heal.

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