Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a unique fiction novel about oppression and rebellion in an American 1950’s Mental Hospital. In this highly distinctive novel, setting definitely refers to the interior, the interiors of the Institution. It also refers to the period this novel this was set in, the 50’s, 60’s where McCarthyism was dominant. Furthermore, it has great symbolic value, representing issues such as the American struggle of freedom and conformity. This essay shall discuss the setting’ ; its significance towards Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
In the novel, setting is important towards the interiors, as the vast majority of the novel is set within the closed, confined space, the interior, of the mental institution. The Institution is there for “fixing up mistakes made in the neighbourhoods.” It is important as it is only in a confined space such as a mental institution, where Ken Kesey can achieve the dark, foggy atmosphere of conformity and oppression that the Big Nurse and the Combine exercises over all the patients of the Institution. The institution is a place under the strict control of Nurse Ratched, and it is only in the hospital where she can exercise her calculated control.
The interiors’ act as a microcosm of American society, as Dr Spivey says, the hospital is a “made-to-scale prototype of the big world. Through the Chief’s memories, we realise that the outside world is not much better, as we learn that Indian villages have been destroyed for dams, and the landscape overrun with houses for the white people. By showing us the similarities between the Inside and the Outside, Kesey is able to show how these processes not only make victims of the Chief, but also characters such as Cheswick, as he drowns himself in a river, the outside world.
The interiors are also significant as it is a representation of how’ society applied their expectations of each other. Throughout the McCarthy period, there was the great threat of the Russians, the communists, who could potentially use nuclear technology to attack America. Also, any person who unpatriotically supported communism was harshly dealt with. These events were represented in an exact scale model of the Mental Institution. Anyone who dared to cause an uproar was humiliated in group therapy sessions, or given Electroshock Therapy, or in extreme cases such as McMurphy, lobotomy. In the hospital, McMurphy represented the rebel, the opposer to the Combine (McCarthyism), the one who wanted to break free of society’s conformity.
Setting is also important, as it refers to the period this book was set in, the 1950’s. Ultimately, it is a reflection of what was happening in American society at the time, and what American society expected from each other. McCarthyism, as started by Senator Joseph McCarthy, was the most prevalent movement of the 1950’s, where there was great momentum for anti-communism and the suppression of the Anti-communist party. Freedom of speech was suppressed, just like speech and actions were inside the hospital. Here, the Combine and Nurse Ratched act like the McCarthy “representatives”, where the patients are seen as members of the public, having their every word and movement under close scrutiny.
Kesey has also given this novel great Symbolic value. As an opposer to the McCarthy scheme, he has used the mental hospital as a scale model of how society breaks free of society’s conformity. McMurphy acts as the liberator’, or rebel of the ward’s excessively strict conformity. He saves the patients from “the setting”, the conformity. This is powerfully shown when Chief Bromden escapes from the ward, he is living proof that liberation from conformity can be achieved. It is a method for Kesey to make his own statement of his rebellion of the 50’s and McCarthyism.
From establishing a dark, foggy atmosphere, to acting as a microcosm of American society, and to the McCarthy period and its symbolic value, it can be seen how significant the setting really is to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”