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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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NOTE: CUCKOO'S NEST AS COMIC STRIP
The Chief describes the ward as being "like a cartoon world,
where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking
through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it
weren't for the cartoon figures being real guys." Here we see
Kesey giving us a clue to one of the literary techniques: many
critics have pointed out the similarity of One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest to cartoons and comic strips, in its humor, its
fast pace, and most of all in its characters who, as the Chief
says, are flat. In outline they may resemble the people we see
around us in the real world, but where real people possess a
complicated mixture of sympathetic and unsympathetic
qualities, flat characters are all good or all bad. They're larger
than life, more vivid than life. As he shows us with the Chief's
words, and in his description of the technicians as having
"cartoon comedy speech," Kesey is well aware of what he's
doing. But he lets us know that while his characters may be
cartoon-simple, their plight is not cartoon-funny. Punch and
Judy puppets may be "beat up by the Devil and swallowed
headfirst by a smiling alligator"- but they'll return for the next
show. The patients will not get that chance. Their defeat will be
final.



After the Chief entertains us with a wild description of the PR
man that makes him seem like a rubber toy, he remembers back
to a time before he came to the hospital, and we see an example
of the forces that make up the Combine. While in high school
he toured a California cotton mill; like the hospital it was
crammed with machines devoted to efficiency at the expense of
human beings. A young black girl flirts with him, then asks
him to rescue her from her life in the mill-to rescue her, in
effect, from the Combine. But the Chief is powerless to help.

Like the cotton mill, Nurse Ratched's ward is just one small
portion of the Combine, a place "for fixing up mistakes made
in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches"-
places that are themselves segments of the Combine. Now we
learn Mr. Taber's fate. (And because Nurse Ratched classes
McMurphy as Taber's equal, we wonder if this is a
foreshadowing of McMurphy's fate.) Thanks to his lobotomy,
he's no longer a manipulator, no longer an enemy of the
Combine. Nor is he like Rucker: the operation has been
perfected. Taber is a model citizen; a useful cog in the
Combine. Even his death is machinelike, for he runs down after
a determined number of years and is embalmed in thirty weight
oil, like an auto part. These sorts of deaths are the final
dismissal from the hospital ward and from the Combine; they
please Nurse Ratched. What doesn't please her is the spirit that
McMurphy has carried into the hospital as a new Admission:
the spirit of life. The Chief knows she will do her best to
destroy it.

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