Like, so many nuthouse films, this one details the often corrupt medical practice and misuse of control of power from within residential wards.

Ironically, the scenarios represented in these films are all too similar with everyday life and everyday people. The criminally insane we see on the screen are our kin, our other selves that we seldom show but always know are there, locked inside our frenzied brains.

The one scene from this flick that has always stayed in my mind occurred toward the end of the movie, where Jack Nicholson and his fellow nuts were in the bathroom and he began boasting about how easy it would be to escape from the ward.

He theorized that he could rip the sink out of the floor, hurl it through the bathroom window, jump out, and escape. At that point, he began struggling to do just that, to no avail, with the fellow patients watching him, helpless and terrified to assist.

Upon forfeiting his attempt, he backed away, and panting, he stated, "At least I tried."

The book is told from the first person perspective of one of the patients, who happens to be Native American. He pretends all along to be deaf, yet is actually aware of what is going on around him. He chooses not to fight the establishment, but the system gets all riled up by the admittance of McMurphy. McMurphy's presence creates a power struggle between his individuality and the machinations of the corrupt system.

I was fourteen, and in the fast-track English group. Next year we were all going to be hemmed in by the O level syllabus, but in the intervening year, my English teacher decided to give us a course of more "challenging" reading to get us into the habit of thinking about the books we read. He put together an incredible list. Each of us was to choose two books and study them in-depth, but independently. Generic questions that could be equally applied to any book would replace specific ones on the exam.

The list included, amongst many others, three which had the parents up in arms -- Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kinflicks was held to be the 'dirtiest', so most of my classmates selected that. The French Lieutenant's Woman was considered the most difficult, so, being the bloody-minded kind of person I am, I chose that, and as my second, I chose the Kesey, because I'd always wanted to see the film, but had never been allowed. I was blown away.

At first glance, it appears to be a savage indictment of the Mental Health establishment, which destroys what it is instituted to save, but I feel there is a second conflict as deep and fundamental as system vs individual. For me, the primary conflict was about male and female operating from the extreme ends of their power. Please note: all the below is my reading of the book, and has no authority other than my interpretation.

We see the whole story from the perspective of the longest term inmate of the institution -- Chief "Broom" Bromden, who is the son of the chief of a small Native American tribe and his caucasian born wife.

"Bromden" is the Chief's mother's name, not his father's, and this is the first instance of what was, for me, the most persistent theme throughout the book -- the emasculation of men by women.

Nurse Ratched is the embodiment of a "type" -- Firstly she is "the system", trying to mould individuals into components of a larger whole, but she is also the classic ball-breaker. She rules her kingdom, not just the inmates, but the orderlies and the Doctor too, with the power of words -- with talking and sharing -- a feature more closely associated with the feminine than the masculine.

The patients on Ratched's ward are largely there because of women -- Harding is undermined and emasculated by his wife, Billy Bibbit and Bromden by their mothers. These are explict, other such situations are implied -- such as one patient's regular refrain "F-f-fuck da wife!"

Into this atmosphere of conformity and masculinity repressed by the feminine comes Randall P. McMurphy, who is the antithesis -- he's unregenerated man's man, agressively male -- and agressively individual.

He does battle with Ratched on both levels. He disrupts her routines, and confronts her methods. He fails to comprehend the source of her power, and it's indicated (by the women he associates with: giggling, brainless whores) that he's had little or no contact with women with her type or level of power.

Following his example, the other patients begin to regain their individuality, and their male pride, and the Doctor also asserts himself more effectively.

It is significant that in the final confrontation between the two, McMurphy attacks Ratched on both levels, ripping away her uniform -- the symbol of her authority within the system -- and revealing her breasts -- the symbol of the vulnerable side of her femininity.

Retribution is swift and complete on McMurphy himself. He is lobotomised, and all that makes him individual, and male, is ripped away.

However, this retribution is not victory. The remaining patients leave, either legally or by escape. They've got enough balls and self-respect back to deal with life outside the institution and they achieve freedom. However, they do leave, they don't take up McMurphy's standard and challenge the system, so they also take the lesson that direct confrontation between extremes is destructive to both sides.

It's also important to recognise that an ideal is also presented -- the ward where McMurphy and Bromden are sent for electro shock therapy is presided over by a strong, but compassionate woman, who crushes neither individuality or masculinity.

The book is beautifully written (yes, I cried at McMurphy's fate -- not something that I do easily) and multi-layered. It's also entertaining, the heavy subject matter covered with humour and wit, and the characters portrayed with depth and compassion, even when they seem for a while to be stereotypes.

The title of the book / play / movie comes from a children's folk rhyme. It is a counting rhyme; akin to One potato, two potato or Dip, dip, dip my little ship. Like most oral folk verses, changes have happened over time and the origins are difficult to determine. There are two distinct versions that I have found, and not knowing which is the original, I've decided to list them both.

Chief Broom mentioned this in the book; he comments that it was a game he would play with his grandmother when he was a child:

Tingle, tingle, tremble toes
She's a good fisherman
Catches hens
Puts 'em in pens
Some lay eggs.
Some lay none.
Wire, blier, limer lock
Three geese inna flock
One flew east,
One flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo's nest
O-U-T spells out
Goose swoops down and plucks you out

This is variant of the William Matrimmatoe chant:

William Matrimmatoe
He's a good fisherman.
He catches hens,
Puts them in pens.
Some lay eggs.
Some lay none.
William Matrimmatoe
He's a good fisherman.
Wire, briar, limber, lock.
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east.
One flew west.
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.
Wire, briar, limber, lock.
Out goes you, old dirty dish rag, you.

The William Matrimmatoe chant has several alternatives. "William Matrimmatoe" is sometimes replaced with "William, William Tremble Toe," "William a Trimmy Toe" or "William Trimble Trow Tran." Also, it sometimes ends with "But O-U-T spells out. So begone You dirty trout. You."

This rhyme is commonly credited with the origin of the title:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn;
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east,
And one flew west,
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

It is a variant of this Mother Goose rhyme that was printed in 1814:

Intery, Mintery, cutery corn,
Apple seed and briar thorn:
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Five Geese in a flock,
Sit and sing by a spring,
O-U-T and in again.

These two verses have some similarities and probably have common roots. However, I cannot find any information that links to the two. If anyone out there has any more insight, please let me know or node it yourself.


It has been a long while since I read this story, but it was a formative story in my adolescence. I forgot many of the details, but perhaps that makes the essence easier to remember.

The story is about how a man, and a society, move through three phases. In the beginning, the society, in this case a mental hospital, is controlled by authority that tries to control through rules. Into this is introduced a man who breaks all the rules, who is a raw force of nature, who refuses to go along with the system. The rules, and the rule makers, buckle under his assault.

But it is what happens next in the story that was the true lesson for me. After having upset all the rules, the hero finds that he has a responsibility to those he has freed. And he sets aside his self-centered ways, and sacrifices himself for them: because after he has broken all the rules, he finds his own, new humanistic set of rules.

I find this story particularly interesting because while the first two steps of the story have been played out in the world at large, with the conservative society of the 1950s and before having had its rule challenged in a constant, decades long bacchanalia, I am still waiting for the point when people decide to treat each other humanely.

Brevity Quest 07

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