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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Study Guide

Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Context


Culture and Counterculture

The 1950s are often remembered as the glory days of American life. World War II was over, the Great Depression was well in the past, and the United States and its citizens were prosperous once more. Suburbia exploded, with nearly 18 million people leaving big cities for new houses, new cars, and better lives. The 1950s were also a time of great fear and social discontent, placing the foundations of the so-called American Dream on shaky ground.

The Red Scare of the late 1940s bled into the 1950s as the Cold War gathered steam. Republican senator Joseph McCarthy led the charge to persecute Communists in the United States. The litmus test for labeling someone a Communist was weak at best, but McCarthy was particularly looking for people who engaged in what he called "domestic subversion." Repercussions were steep. People accused of being Communists lost their friends and their livelihoods. This created a culture of fear about speaking out against American policies or ideals.

It was not acceptable to go against the mainstream in the 1950s. There was safety in conformity, and dissenting opinions were rarely welcome, particularly in the workplace. Many large corporations encouraged their employees to look the same, dress the same, and think the same. People who actively wanted to be different had no place in society.

However, some of those who fell into the category of "different" did not covet anonymity. The Beats were a group of middle-class writers and artists who distanced themselves from the trappings of the middle class. Uninterested in material goods and traditional social and political values, they shed light on the wealth-obsessed nation of automatons that the United States had seemingly become.

The Beats are generally credited with setting the stage for the counterculture revolution, of which Ken Kesey was a major figure. Yet there were other groups fighting for social change as well. African Americans were clamoring for civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama; feminists were itching to break down the "prison walls" of the American housewife. Liberals sought to reveal the poverty still rampant in American cities, while scientists and ecologists pointed to the harm associated with rapid economic growth. All of these forces provided the backdrop for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which takes place at the dawn of the 1960s.

Impact on Psychiatry

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest did not just question the structure and function of American society—it also brought to light the misguided practices used in so many psychiatric wards across the nation, particularly electroshock therapy. In a 2011 article in the Telegraph, American psychiatrist Frank Pittman described the work as giving voice "to a basic distrust of the way in which psychiatry was being used for society's purposes." The purpose of such therapies was to satisfy society's expectations of conformity, rather than to help patients achieve healthy lives.

The publication of Kesey's novel led to widespread changes in the American psychiatric system. Patients were granted more rights, and many of the larger institutions, such as the one portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, were restructured to provide optimum patient care. The outcry against electroshock therapy and lobotomies as go-to procedures resulted in the creation of a wider range of antipsychotic drugs that could be taken at home, decreasing the need for around-the-clock care.

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