I see a dice. I see it from the inside, me at the bottom. I'm the weight, loading the dice to throw that number one up there above me. They got the dice loaded to throw a snake eyes, and I'm the load, six lumps around me like white pillows is the other side of the dice, the number six that will always be down when he throws. What's the other dice loaded for? I bet it's loaded to throw one too. Snake eyes.
One thing I look for in fiction novels is the chance to use a personal perspective to understand a complicated issue. It is one thing to read about topics like aboriginal culture, psychiatric hospitals, PTSD, behaviorism...but to experience these concepts through the intimate medium of literature begets a unique understanding. I know it's been said many times before, but I wholeheartedly agree that by reading a book, you are invited to see some aspect of existence through someone else's eyes, and to feel a mindset entirely foreign to your own. It is a special connection between the reader and the author; a cultivated state of mental diffusion, the strength of which depends on the author's writing abilities, among other things. This is what I love about fiction, it's emotional learning. Certain books I've read have been very influential because of their emotional lucidity and it is those experiences that make reading worthwhile. I think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may end up in that category for me.
The story of Cuckoo's Nest was engaging, sad, funny (at times), and genuine. Ken Kasey did a superb job of conveying a very deep and intricate story, all through the voice of a mentally unstable narrator. This narrator, named Bromden but nicknamed Chief, is a half-indigenous and half-white chronic patient in a psychiatric ward somewhere in Oregon. Despite being physically enormous, his presence is barely felt by those around him - through years of silence and reclusion he has convinced everyone he is deaf and mute. The story of Cuckoo's Nest does not take place within the real world, it is set within the isolated and confused consciousness of Chief. Each transpiring event in the story is presented through this distorted lens - Chief's limited vocabulary and unique slang terms takes some time to pick up. Not only that, but Chief is also subject to recurring delusions and hallucinations, all of which are integrated into the narrative. For example, the physical size of people and things are very dynamic in Chief's mind. People appear to grow and shrink in tune with their emotional state. Nurse Ratched, as Chief observes her berating and disciplining her ward aides angrily, is seen to increase in size dramatically. She "blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor" says Chief. I believe that his fixation on size is somewhat to do with his huge physical presence and the attention it must've gotten for most of his life. I also think that his embellishment of reality is a byproduct of the indigenous culture Chief was raised in. Storytelling and metaphors are huge parts of native culture, and I think that this influence is reflected in Chief's narration. He explicitly calls out the "objective" accuracy of his story very early into the book:
you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen.
This story is reality according to Chief. Some events may be embellished, imagined, or misinterpreted by him but that's not the point. What Kasey has written is not a cohesive recollection of events, it's a story about the mind of a confused and unwell man. That's why truth, as mentioned by Chief above, is not an objective record...it's a personal experience. And for Chief, this personal reality has been full of suffering and confusion.
McMurphy can't help any more than I could. Nobody can help. And the more I think about how nothing can be helped, the faster the fog rolls in. And I'm glad when it gets thick enough you're lost in it and can let go, and be safe again.
The fog is mentioned often by Chief, especially during moments of elevated duress and fear. To Chief, the fog is a physical element that comes and goes in the ward like the changing of the weather. Certain days its extremely foggy and Chief can barely see anything, other days its clear. This fog isn't real of course, it's a mental cloudiness, a state of reduced awareness that is likely both a result of Chief's PTSD, but also a coping mechanism to help him deal with it. That's why he says he feels safe within the fog. Whenever Chief is confronted with the real world, with stress, and with reminders of bad moments from his past, he retreats into this mental fog where he does not think. We find out later that Chief served time overseas in WWII, which is likely the origin of these fog delusions - except it was presumably real fog over there, and real trauma. It appears that it was around this time that our narrator decided that internal withdrawal and mental isolation was his best option for survival:
You had a choice: you could either strain and look at things that appeared in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself.
Chief chose to lose himself. But as everyone knows, choosing to ignore your problems will never solve anything; you will be worse off in the long run.
But they kept making the fog thicker and thicker, and it seemed to me that, no matter how hard I tried, two or three times a month I found myself with that door opening in front of me to the acid smell of sparks and ozone. In spite of all I could do, it was getting tough to keep from getting lost.
Once Chief was admitted to the psych ward (it's never clear exactly how this happened), they attempted to treat him with electroshock therapy but this only reduced his lucidity, to the point he was eventually considered deaf and mute due to how little he responded. And so began Chief's long slow descent into apathy and solitude.
I'd take a look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anybody could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was. There'd be my face in the mirror, dark and hard with big, high cheekbones like the cheek underneath them had been hacked out with a hatchet, eyes all black and hard and mean-looking, just like Papa's eyes or the eyes of all those tough, mean-looking Indians you see on TV, and I'd think, That ain't me, that ain't my face. It wasn't even me when I was trying to be that face. I wasn't even really me then; I was just being the way I looked, the way people wanted. It don't seem like I ever have been me. How can McMurphy be what he is?
Chief is a complex character, and I am certain Kasey intentionally wrote him as such. The cause of a debilitating psychic complex is almost impossible to pinpoint, so for Chief to be believable his past experiences must justify his condition. Over the course of the book you gradually learn a lot of different things about him and his life. I believe that the primary struggle for Chief has been the concept of identity - how to understand his place in the world and who he is supposed to be. Chief was born to a white mother and an aboriginal father, both who held on strongly to their cultural backgrounds. As such, Chief was raised on the border of two very different worlds, worlds that have a complicated history with each other which would be impossible for a child to understand. Chief's upbringing was a constant battle between his parents, a game of tug-of-war between very different cultures. His mother kept her last name because "you're the biggest by God fool if you think that a good Christian woman takes on a name like Tee Ah Millatoona". His father taught Chief to fish, eat bugs, and survive in the wilderness like a "Good Injun boy". His mother "kicked the living tar" out of Chief when she found out he ate bugs. All these disagreements and battles drove Chief into a life of uncertainty.
Standing in stark contrast to Chief's trepidation and existential doubt is McMurphy. McMurphy is the perfect antithesis to Chief's character. He is confident, boisterous, cunning, and completely comfortable in his own skin. McMurphy is an embodiment of confidence and control, something that stands out very clearly in a psych ward. As such, Chief's attention is inevitably drawn to McMurphy and he becomes the subject matter for the majority of the story. I think that deep down Chief wanted to learn how to live like McMurphy - how to become himself. This internal desire is never actually stated by Chief, but considering the bulk of the story is focused on McMurphy and his actions I believe that Chief's salvation was dependent on McMurphy. There are several important moments throughout the story where McMurphy initiative to restore some dignity or take back some independence for the patients in the ward. In particular, I think that the "day trip" organized by McMurphy was a significant moment in Chief's personal journey. It was a fishing trip with a female "friend" of McMurphy, and it provided a healthy amount of chaos for everyone involved.
he won't let the pain blot out the humor no more'n he'll let the humor blot out the pain.
The trip revealed a lot to Chief about how McMurphy deals with stress and difficulty. He observes McMurphy in the real world, both literally and metaphorically represented by the dangers and unpredictability of the open waters. Chaos is abound even before the boat leaves the docks, and things only get worse on the waters. As this pandemonium reaches a breaking point on the boat, McMurphy reacts by beginning to laugh uncontrollably. Chief, along with the other inmates, are taken aback by this response at first, but then they too begin to laugh. All of them, in the midst of a dangerous and unknown situation, laughing together. It is a cathartic moment for the inmates, and Chief learns something important about dealing with pain and misfortune.
I think one of the biggest unanswered questions I had after finishing Cuckoo's Nest was McMurphy's true intentions. On the surface it was apparent that McMurphy's goal was to escape the ward, either via an official discharge or on his own terms. Prior to the climactic series of events that leads to McMurphy's death, he is confronted by Chief about his true intentions. Chief is convinced he is being manipulated by McMurphy, and he accuses him of simply wanting to con the other inmates instead of genuinely wanting to help them:
"You're always...winning things!" "Winning things! You damned moose, what are you accusin' me of? All I do is hold up my end of the deal." "We thought it wasn't to be winning things" "Winning, for Christsakes," he said with his eyes closed. "Hoo boy, winning."
In what can be seen as a response by McMurphy to this accusation, his final triumphant act of sacrifice was to do the impossible. He assaulted Nurse Ratched, in order to show the patients that she was only human and she too could feel humiliation. Its hard to explain this act as anything but self-sacrifice - martyrdom even. As a result of this heinous (and incredibly satisfying for the reader) act, McMurphy is deemed too dangerous and he receives a lobotomy. After witnessing McMurphy's decisive act, and the repercussions that followed, something changes within Chief. He finds within himself the resolve to change, to stand up straight and accomplish what McMurphy couldn't and now will never be able to. Chief escapes from the ward using his unique physical size and strength. He picks up a heavy HVAC panel, an act that McMurphy himself couldn't do but assured Chief that it was possible. With the heavy metal machine in his hands, Chief hurls it through a window and creates a new exit for himself:
The chrome was cold against my neck and the side of my head. I put my back toward the screen, then spun and let the momentum carry the panel through the Screen and window with a ripping crash. The glass splashed out in the moon, like a bright cold water baptizing the sleeping earth. Panting, I thought for a second about going back and getting Scanlon and some of the others, but then I heard the running squeak of the black boys' shoes in the hall and I put my hand on the sill and vaulted after the panel, into the moonlight.
Chief breaks free. He leaves the ward on his own accord and chooses to forge a new path for himself. Not only that, but he does it using his physical strength which I think is significant due to Chief's preoccupation with size. Chief believed he wasn't big anymore, which is why he didn't think he could lift the panel. McMurphy believed in him though. Or at least he was hoping it would win him a bet. Not sure it really matters much as long as he convinced Chief to believe in himself. This is Chief's reality after all - it's the truth even if it didn't happen.