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Analysis of Ken Kesey’s Novels

To understand some of the ideas behind the counterculture revolution is to understand Ken Kesey’s (1935 – 2001) fictional heroes and some of his themes. Originating with the 1950’s Beat generation, the 1960’s counterculture youth were disillusioned with the vast social injustices, the industrialization, and the mass society image in their parents’ world; they questioned many values and practices—the Vietnam War, the goals of higher education, the value of owning property, and the traditional forms of work. They protested by experimenting with Eastern meditation, primitive communal living, unabashed nudity, and nonpossessive physical and spiritual love. At the core of the protest was the value of individual freedom. One of the main avenues to this new type of life and freedom was mind-expanding drugs, which allowed them to grok, a word from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) that means to achieve a calm ecstasy, to contemplate the present moment. In that it emphasized some major problems in the United States, the counterculture had its merits, but it was, at best, a child’s romantic dreamworld, inevitably doomed, because it did not consider answers to the ultimate question: “After the drugs, what is next?”

From Kesey’s counterculture experiences, however, he learned at least two important lessons. First, he learned that drugs were not the answer to changing society and that one cannot passively drop out of life. In “Over the Border,” for example, Deboree realizes, as he bobs up and down in the ocean’s waves, that man does not become a superman by isolating himself from reality and life. Instead, he must immerse himself in the waves so that he can “ride the waves of existence” and become one with the waves.

Second, Kesey detested the mass society image that seemed to dominate life in twentieth century America. Although Kesey was pro-America and admired American democracy per se, he abhorred those things in society that seemed to deprive people of individuality and freedom. For Kesey, mass society represents big business, government, labor, communication, and religion and thus subordinates the individual, who is stripped of dignity, significance, and freedom. One of the counterculture’s protest slogans underscored this plight: “I am a human being. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” The system, preachments, and methodologies of the twentieth century had indeed betrayed humankind and left only two choices: People could either passively conform and thus lose their individuality or find some way to exist in the modern wasteland without losing their dignity and freedom.

Kesey came to believe that people must not and cannot isolate themselves from life; they must meet life on its own terms and discover their own saving grace. Kesey’s solution is similar to the solutions found in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and even John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). Having their archetypes in the comic book and Western heroes, Kesey’s McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion are vibrant personalities who defy the overwhelming forces of life by constantly asserting their dignity, significance, and freedom as human beings. Each one learns also that no victories are ever won by passively isolating oneself from life or by being self-centered. They, therefore, immerse themselves in life, ask no quarter, and remain self-reliant. McMurphy and Stamper may not be able to save the entire world, but, Kesey believes, they can save themselves and perhaps even part of the world. Their victories may be slight, but they are, nevertheless, victories.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the oppressive power of the mass society is evident in its setting—a mental ward dominated by the tyrannical Miss Ratched, the big nurse, whom Chief Bromden, the schizophrenic narrator, describes in mechanical metaphors. Her purse is shaped like a toolbox; her lipstick and fingernail polish are “funny orange” like a glowing soldering iron; her skin and face are like an expensively manufactured baby doll’s; and her ward is run like a computer. If a patient dares disrupt her smoothly running ward, Nurse Ratched has the ultimate threats—electroshock treatments—and if these fail, she has prefrontal lobotomy operations that turn people into vegetables. Bromden says that the ward is only a “factory for the Combine,” a nebulous and ubiquitous force that had ruthlessly destroyed Bromden’s father and that is responsible for the stereotyped housing developments along the coast.

Kesey’s metaphors are clear. The Combine, the macrocosm, and the hospital ward, the microcosm, are the twentieth century world gone berserk with power; it uses the miracles of modern science not to free people and make their lives better but rather to compel them to conform. It is the mass society that will not tolerate individuality and that will fold, spindle, or mutilate any person who fails to conform.

Into the ward boils McMurphy, the former Marine, logger, gambler, and free spirit who is intimidated by neither the nurse nor her black ward attendants, and who immediately becomes a threat to Nurse Ratched and her ward policies. McMurphy has had himself committed for purely selfish reasons—he disliked the manual labor on the prison work farm, and he wants the easy gambling winnings from the patients, two facts that he candidly admits. Outraged at Ratched’s power, McMurphy bets the other patients that he can get the best of her. Certain that he can win his wager, he sings and laughs on the ward, conducts poker games in the tub room, and disrupts the group therapy sessions. He finally succeeds in destroying her composure when he leads the men watching the blank television screen after Nurse Ratched cuts the power source during the first game of the World Series.

These scenes are crucial because they reveal the typical Kesey conflict. A physically powerful, free, and crucible-tested hero comes into conflict with an equally powerful force. It is simply, as most critics have noted, the classic struggle between good and evil, or the epic confrontation reminiscent of Western films. However, the dichotomy is not so simple, because the Kesey hero must learn a further lesson. McMurphy has won his wager, but he has not yet won significant victory, because his actions are selfish ones.

Several important incidents transform McMurphy into a champion of the patients. McMurphy is committed, which means that Ratched can keep him on the ward as long as she wishes. Instead of jeopardizing his relatively short sentence, McMurphy conforms and does not disrupt the therapy sessions or life on the ward. When Charles Cheswick argues with the nurse about the cigarette rationing, he gets no support from McMurphy, despairs, and drowns himself in the hospital swimming pool. Cheswick’s death plagues McMurphy, even though he is not actually responsible. McMurphy cannot understand why the other patients, who are there voluntarily, do not leave the hospital. Billy Bibbit finally tells McMurphy that they are not big and strong like McMurphy, that they have no “g-guts,” and that it is “n-no use.” McMurphy begins to realize that he must do something to convert the patients into responsible men again. At the next group therapy session, when Ratched is supposed to win her final victory over him, McMurphy rams his hand through the glass partition in the nurses’ station and thereby renews the struggle.

A key passage occurs earlier that not only summarizes Kesey’s view of humanity in the modern world but also provides a clue to McMurphy’s actions. Scanlon, who is also committed, says that it is a “hell of a life,” and that people are damned if they do and damned if they do not. Scanlon adds that this fact puts people in a “confounded bind.” At this point, McMurphy is damned either way. If he does nothing, then Ratched has the final victory and McMurphy will become another victim of the Combine, a nonentity like the other patients. If he renews the struggle, he must remain on the ward until the nurse discharges him or kills him. McMurphy chooses, however, the higher damnation, selflessly to give of himself, and in so doing, he also reaffirms his own dignity and significance.

Dedicated to the patients’ cause, McMurphy continues to disrupt the ward and ward policy by using what can only be termed McMurphy’s therapy. He continues the poker games and organizes basketball games and even a deep-sea fishing trip, during which the men finally learn to laugh at themselves, Nurse Ratched, and the world in general. He fights with an attendant who was bullying one of the patients, and as a result he is given a series of electroshock treatments. Finally, McMurphy physically attacks the nurse when she ironically accuses him of “playing” and “gambling” with the men’s lives. When a prefrontal lobotomy turns McMurphy into a vegetable, Bromden sacrificially murders him and then escapes from the hospital.

In Kesey’s world, an individual may indeed be damned either way when he or she encounters the overwhelming forces of the mass society, but through accepting responsibility and acting one can still win an important victory. McMurphy’s death is not futile, because he has saved his soul by losing it to a higher cause. He did not save or even change the entire world, but he did save and change part of it: The other patients are no longer cowed and intimidated by Nurse Ratched, and several of them voluntarily check out of the hospital. Bromden, as McMurphy had promised, has been “blown back up” to his full size. There is, then, a slight but significant victory.

Sometimes a Great Notion

Kesey remarked that he wanted his style to be a “style of change,” since he wished neither to write like anyone else nor to be part of any movement. Even though One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was innovative in style and technique, Kesey’s second novel is even more innovative. Even though some critics faulted it for being too rambling and disjointed, Sometimes a Great Notion is not only much longer than but also superior to his first novel. It is Kesey at his best. Ultimately, what makes the novel superior is its technical complexity.

More than six hundred pages in length, Sometimes a Great Notion is reminiscent of Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) by William Faulkner, Kesey’s favorite author. As did Faulkner, Kesey begins his novel at its climax, with a scene in a bus depot where Jonathan Bailey Draeger, a labor union official, asks Vivian Stamper, Hank’s wife, about the nature of the Stamper family. This interview between Viv and Draeger frames the entire narrative. The narrative then shifts to the past, at times as far back as 1898, when the first Stamper left Kansas to move west. Through these past scenes, Kesey establishes the family background and relationships, which in turn provide the psychological makeup of the characters. Having rejected traditional narrative forms, Kesey thus moves freely from past to present time. Complementing the time shifts are the complex points of view. Bromden is the single narrator in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but in Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey uses several points of view. There is the traditional omniscient viewpoint, then there are the first-person points of view in the stories of Henry Stamper, Sr., Hank, and Leland Stanford Stamper, Hank’s half brother. Kesey freely shifts abruptly from one viewpoint to another, and several shifts may occur in one paragraph. In addition, Kesey presents several incidents that are separated in space but are actually simultaneous actions.

Even the conflict in Sometimes a Great Notion is more complicated than that of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The forces aligned against McMurphy are clearly delineated; it is McMurphy versus Nurse Ratched and the Combine, and it is clear who is good and who is evil. On the other hand, in Sometimes a Great Notion, Hank confronts more subtle and complex forces. He pits himself against the logging union and the Wakonda, Oregon, community, both of which represent mass society. Hank must also contend with two natural forces—the weather and the Wakonda River, the latter being one of the major symbols in the novel. The most important conflict, however, is between Hank and Lee (Leland, his half brother).

Like McMurphy, Hank is a physically powerful man who is self-reliant, answers to no one but himself, and cherishes his freedom. Like McMurphy, Hank defies those forces of life that would strip him of his dignity, significance, and freedom. For Hank, then, the dictatorial pressures of the union and the Wakonda community are the dictates of the mass society. Having signed a contract with Wakonda Pacific, Hank becomes a strikebreaker who is harassed and threatened by union leaders and the townspeople. Literally, Hank breaks the strike to save the Stamper logging business; symbolically, he breaks the strike because to do so will assert his independence and freedom. The results of any action Hank chooses to take are undesirable, and he, like McMurphy, chooses the course of a higher morality.

Kesey uses three major symbols to underscore Hank’s bullheaded defiance. The first is the Stamper house itself, which “protrudes” into the Wakonda River on “a peninsula of its own making.” The second is the “Never Give an Inch” plaque, painted in yellow machine paint over the plaque’s original message: “Blessed Are the Meek for They Shall Inherit the Earth.” The plaque with its new dictum is nailed to Hank’s bedroom wall by old Henry Stamper. The third symbol is old Henry’s severed arm, which is a hanging pole, with all of its fingers tied down except the middle one. As part of Kesey’s complex technique, these symbols fuse with the characters’ historical and psychological background, with the various narrative viewpoints, and with the major conflicts.

Of the conflicts, the one between Hank and Leland is potentially the most destructive, and it is also important in terms of Hank’s and Lee’s character development. Through a crack in the bedroom wall, Lee watched his mother and Hank commit adultery, an act that eventually results in the mother’s suicide after she and Lee move back East. Lee returns to Wakonda, not to help the Stampers’ failing lumber business but actually to take revenge against Hank. Lee decides that he can best hurt Hank by having an affair with Viv, who, even though she loves Hank, cannot tolerate his “teeth-gritting stoicism in the face of pain.” She wants to be both loved and needed, and Lee seems to love and need her. Ironically, after the drowning of Joe Ben, Hank swims across the Wakonda instead of using the motorboat, quietly enters the house, and through the same crack in the bedroom wall sees Lee and Viv in bed together. Temporarily overwhelmed by the death of Joe Ben, his father’s horrible maiming, the bad weather, and Viv’s adultery, Hank decides that he is “tired of being a villain” and that he will fight the union no longer. His surrender is implied, moreover, in the song lyrics from which the title of the novel is taken: “Sometimes I take a great notion/ To jump into the river an’ drown.” Immediately after the fistfight with Lee, however, Hank decides to take the logs down river, and Lee joins him.

The fight between Hank and Lee embodies the novel’s central theme. Hank understands that Lee has arranged events so cleverly that Hank is damned either way, or as Hank says, “whipped if I fight and whipped if I don’t.” Hank chooses the greater notion and fights. During the fight, his inner strength is rekindled, and he later tells Viv that “a man is always surprised just how much he can do by himself.” Concomitantly, during the fight, Lee realizes that he too has regained the strength and pride that he thought had been lost. Each has a new respect for the other, a respect that is based on love—love for the Stamper name, love for individual freedom. Lee and Hank may be defeated by the river, the weather, or the strike itself, but the significant fact is that they, like McMurphy, are acting. They have not saved the entire world, but they have saved themselves, have regained their own dignity and significance; that, in itself, is a victory.

Sailor Song

Sailor Song takes place in the remote little fishing village of Kuinak, Alaska, in the early twenty-first century. Largely untouched by ecological catastrophes, Kuinak attracts a big-budget Hollywood company filming a pseudomyth of aboriginal Native American life. Sailor Song’s protagonist, Isaak Sallas—a former naval aviator, ex-environmental activist, ex-convict, and ex-husband—has dropped out of mainstream society and lives as a commercial fisherman. Independent, competent, and well intentioned but resolutely uninvolved, Salas is nonetheless caught up in a conflict with Nicholas Levertov, a native of Kuinak controlling the Hollywood company, which proposes not only to make a film but also to transform Kuinak into a spin-off theme park and resort. In Melvillian symbolism, Levertov is an albino, inherently bent not on creation but on desecration, destruction, and revenge.

The novel’s conflict evolves against a backdrop of Kuinak’s uninhibited lifestyle. Kuinak’s citizens include Sallas’s friend Greer, transplanted from Bimini; members of the Loyal Order of Underdogs, a rowdy but sometimes purposeful organization; Michael Carmody, a displaced English fisherman; and Carmody’s wife, Alice the Angry Aleut. Into this community come the filmmakers, including Levertov, his sycophantic assistant, a figurehead director, and the Innupiat star of the film, Shoola.

The novel’s loosely connected episodes come together satisfyingly in the denouement. In the opening episode, Sallas rescues a neighbor from Levertov, her vengeful former husband. Later Sallas rescues the marijuana-dealing president of the Underdogs from a charismatic cultist. Later still he rescues Carmody and Greer from their malfunctioning fishing boat. Most important, he saves himself, both literally and metaphorically. However, although Sallas is sometimes characterized in explicitly messianic terms, he is more modern-day Ulysses than Christ figure, while Alice Carmody is an ironically inverted Penelope.

The anticipated final confrontation between Sallas and Levertov never occurs. In the open-ended, understated denouement, a commotion of bears and wild boars may signal Levertov’s end. Whether it does or not, Levertov’s consuming malice not only defeats itself but also sets loose a worldwide electronic apocalypse ironically transforming civilization to a state much like Kuinak’s, a transformation symbolically marked by butterfly-shaped electrical phenomena.

Technically interesting for its symbolism, fluent manipulation of point of view, and command of narrative rhythm, Sailor Song clearly expresses Kesey’s philosophy of independence, integrity, and perseverance and counters critics’ accusations against Kesey of racism or sexism. Sailor Song is above all an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable story.

Last Go Round

Kesey wrote Last Go Round with Ken Babbs. Much shorter than Kesey’s other novels, it is no less artfully written. Last Go Round, like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, presents only a version of the truth—in this case a version told to a comatose listener by Jonathan E. Lee Spain, the story’s protagonist, almost a century after the events being described. Spain’s account is supplemented, if not corroborated, by a set of historical photographs of participants in the first Pendleton Round Up, held on three days in September, 1911. Spain, unlike Kesey’s other heroes, is young—only seventeen—and the novel recounts his initiation into adulthood. He meets two older rodeo riders, the black cowboy George Fletcher and the Nez Perce Jackson Sundown, who make him their protégé. He rejects the corruption of the cynical showman Buffalo Bill and the malignant strongman Frank Gotch. He is attracted to a young horsewoman, Sarah Meyerhoff, whom he loses. Above all, Jonathan Spain learns. He learns the tricks of the rodeo, the trust that rodeo riders share, and the untrustworthiness of others. He learns the inconsequence of championships, the importance of excellence, and the meaningfulness of peers’ approbation. He learns the unpredictability and inexorability of events. Finally, he learns to accept what comes, even while he defines himself by what he has chosen to do, however briefly.

Major Works
Long fictionOne Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962; Sometimes a Great Notion, 1964; Caverns, 1990 (with others; as O. U. Levon); Sailor Song, 1992; Last Go Round, 1994 (with Ken Babbs).
Play: Twister, pr. 1994.
Nonfiction: The Further Inquiry, 1990; Kesey’s Jail Journal, 2003. Children’s literature: Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, 1990; The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People, 1991.
Edited texts: The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, 1971 (with Paul Krassner). miscellaneous: Kesey’s Garage Sale, 1973; Demon Box, 1986.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

 

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Postmodernism

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