I first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when I was maybe 19. It made a strong impression on me at the time, and remained at the back of my mind as an example of a Great Novel. Picking it up again at 33, I realised how much of my recollection was on the broad strokes of the plot, and on Randle Patrick McMurphy as a character. McMurphy is a solid character, a prototypical 60’s system-bucking hero, and it’s not surprising that we would become the focal point of the novel for most readers. But as I read through the book a second time, I found my attention drifting more and more to the narrator, Chief Bromden.
Books like Cuckoo are written in what we creative writing workshop dorks call “first person pedestal.” This means that the narrator is a character in the story, but unlike a standard first person novel, the narrator and the hero are not the same person. First person pedestal works to give an intimate portrait of an exceptional person from someone who knows them well, but whose own light shines a little less brightly. The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird are probably the two most famous examples. Cuckoo is another.
But while Nick Carraway and Scout Finch can never match the allure of Gatsby and Atticus, I actually found Chief Bromden to be an even more interesting character than McMurphy. Kesey drops in details of the Chief’s past life with elegant restraint, and paints an evocative picture of his madness. A lesser author would take the fact that he pretends to be a deaf-mute as a simple narrative device and make his thinking otherwise normal, but it is clear that Bromden really does suffer from some sort of psychological ailment, quite possibly schizophrenia. Much of the narrative richness comes from Bromen’s interpretation of emotional states as affected by the Combine, a nefarious mechanism that controls everything it touches. The recurring images of machinery and fog play into common tropes among schizophrenic patients. It is interesting that Bromden’s paranoia seems to heighten rather than obscure his perception—we don’t question that Nurse Ratched controls the ward, even if we don’t take Brmden’s insistence that she does so through a fog machine literally. This device might not be medically accurate, but it makes for very rich prose.