Fixing Men: Castration, Impotence, and Masculinity in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Meloy, Michael | The Journal of Men's Studies, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Fixing Men: Castration, Impotence, and Masculinity in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest


Meloy, Michael, The Journal of Men's Studies


Years after the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in an essay entitled "On Editing Kesey: Confessions of a Straight Man," John Clark Pratt recounts an incident that occurred while he visited Kesey on the novelist's Oregon farm. Describing the difficulty he and Kesey were having controlling an evasive calf, Pratt writes,

As I threw myself at a galloping calf which was larger than the rest, Kesey yelled, "Let that one go. He's got too much spirit to be a steer." I suggested that we name him Bromden. "Yeah," Kesey said. "The Chief." (Kesey, 2001, p. 7)

The implications of this conversation--that to castrate a male is to take away the very essence of his being, or his "spirit"--reflects an argument about masculinity that pervades One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Kesey, 1962). In our current political climate, where foreign policy decisions often utilize a gendered rhetoric that seems to reflect an obsession with ensuring our national vitality and virility, Kesey's criticism of a cold-war society that he believed fundamentally emasculated men strikes a chord in contemporary America. Randall P. McMurphy's brief stint in a mental hospital, where he persuades the submissive male patients to rise up against ruthless, emasculating Nurse Ratched, is a story replete with issues of particular immediacy in contemporary America: heightened surveillance, the corruption of administration, the degradation of the individual, and a fundamental terror of perceived feminization.

For at least the first ten years of Ken Kesey's literary career, his works seemed to reflect a belief in a stable self, an idea that resists most postmodern theory, which posits a decentered, unstable self and a dismantling of mythological structures--what Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) called meta-narratives. Kesey's fiction complicates Lyotard's and similar arguments such as Suzanne Clark's theory (2000) that the political environment of the 1950s undermined the 1940s era masculine warrior ethos. Instead, Kesey's fiction affirms mythological structures, asserting or re-establishing masculine hero myths rather than rejecting or satirizing them like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut do. Likewise, the connection between masculinity and national identity made by theorists such as Susan Jeffords (1989) and Susan Rosowski (1999) conflicts with what Kesey envisions as American conformity and homogenization. Rather, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we find a male identity alienated from national identity through a narrator who sees the psychiatric ward as "a factory ... for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches" (Kesey, 1962, p. 40). Kesey's ideology, and the undercurrent of masculine virility in the novel, occupies a nebulous area that fails to fit into the most common artistic dichotomy of 20th Century literature: modernism or postmodernism. Existing at the crossroads of the sexual revolution, Kesey takes up a subversive position--one that offers a unique reaction to this perceived threat to masculinity commonly found in postwar literature. The sacrifice of McMurphy, his lobotomy at the end of the novel, opens a space in which Kesey's narrator-fellow patient Chief Bromden, who is pretending to be a deaf-mute-undergoes an existential crisis regarding the self. In a particularly turbulent time in American history, where the Korean War and the Red Scare were overshadowed by the terrifying presence of atomic power, the novel's conclusion seeks to reiterate or reestablish the individual as a destabilized identity.

Kinsey, Playboy and the Bomb: Witnessing Masculinity in the Cold War Fifties

The central argument of this essay posits that Kesey was one of a number of figures who formed a primal, virility-centered conception of masculinity as a subtle response to the political climate of the McCarthy era. Kesey's fictional rebellion in the mental ward--his heroic characterization and victimization of the inmates and his analogous demonization of the institution and its representative, Nurse Ratched--responds to a cold war age of overwhelming surveillance and fear. …

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