You are on page 1of 5

Elmer 1

Michael Elmer

Mr. Loomis

Survey of American Literature

2 March 2007

Like the Hard Glitter of Radio Tubes

How Mechanical Imagery Affects Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“[We] …are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws

beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the

hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot” (19).

Big Chief Bromden’s descriptions of how he sees the world offer readers a view of the

world inside his head and supply additional information that is not fully apparent in from simply

observing the actions of characters in the story. The Chief uses mechanical imagery in order to

convey the metaphorical and symbolic meaning in the actions and words of not only himself, but

also other characters. These include his descriptions of the Black aides’ accustomization to the

Big Nurse’s desires, his multiple narratives about various mechanically-involved incidents in his

personal life, or the section of the book devoted to a description of the ward’s daily routine –

described as the inner workings of a mechanical device of sorts. (Complete with humming walls

that suggest the building itself has ticking gears and buzzing rotors contained within its

architecture.) Kesey, through the Chief, “…employs a consistent range of images to express his

almost manic condemnation of the system” (Malin 432) – the mechanically-inclined system

known as “The Combine”.

As a youth on a football team. which have provided him with enough technological know-how to turn these thoughts into his reality. Also. One of the first. and The Chief’s happen to prominently feature machines. Additionally. A youth’s first journey out-of-state is a highly significant event in his growth. Jack Hicks sums up the truth behind the Chief’s visions well when he notes that: “Chief Bromden’s aberrations are a form of peculiarly heightened truth… His paranoid vision of the Big Nurse [is] accurate in its symbolism” (170). . And how the black aides are able to “…disconnect the direct wires and operate on beams” (32). Elmer 2 The Big Chief utilizes motorized metaphors in the telling of his story because they are incredibly unique to his character. machines saved the life of The Big Chief during the Second World War when the airstrip his squad landed on was protected from Nazi bombers by a fog machine (116). This changes the entire paragraph from a madman’s rant into the craftily constructed metaphor of a deep thinker. It is my belief that machines have played important roles in Bromden’s life during psychologically significant times. and arguably the simplest use of metaphorical machinery is the Chief’s description of how after “years of training…all three black boys tune in closer and closer with the Big Nurse’s frequency” (32). he was taken to a cotton mill overloaded with large machines during his team’s trip to California (38- 40). This phrase would appear just to be the ravings of a maniacal. The chief has taken several electronics classes (30). paranoid schizophrenic without the realistic statement of the needlessness of written or verbal orders followed by a small bit of the Chief’s perspective on how the aides can “…[perform the nurse’s] bidding before she even thinks it” (32). This prominent role of machines at such a significant point in his life easily explains why the chief thinks in terms of mechanical and electrical engineering. and have made such dreams feasible possibilities.

with the inclusion of this little tale in the novel. that readers would not mistakenly believe the Chief to be solely a wise and cryptic man. bent on the repair of the “broken” patients inside of it. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance…” The Chief makes the ward appear as one gigantic machine. however. This reinforces the reader’s belief that the Chief is indeed. with the unfortunate patients. insane.) Mr. no matter what its ostensibly beneficial effect. Elmer 3 Despite appearing to be very intelligent and careful in the selection of his metaphors. the Chief still allows his mechanical schizophrenia to creep into his narrative. and his frequent references to whirring . and even the building itself described as machines. such as in the incident where he describes how. In the novel. Eventually. and how the patients’ “…hearts [are] all beating at the rate the OD cards have ordered. after acting as though he had taken his nightly medication. is a device intended by society to control the inmates. most basic form – a lunatic. (This is. rather that they would know he is – in his simplest. to render them docile and bovine. He claims to see a small electronic component hidden within the drug that instantly turns to white powder upon contact with air. and he made sure whilst craftily piecing his narrative together. We are told that “efficiency locks the ward like a watchman’s clock. Barry Leeds has already indicated in Ken Kesey that “The capsule. a pointless issue. Sound of matched cylinders” (34). after leading up with descriptions of how “powerful magnets in the floor maneuver the personnel through the ward…” (33). and to rob them of [that]… which might threaten…the established order” (19). since we certainly know that the contents of pills are almost always a fine white powder. he removes the pill from beneath his tongue and breaks it open. the staff. Kesey was no fool. the preceding quote about the mechanical pill is embedded into a fairly large section of the book that describes the daily routine on the ward as one of mechanical efficiency.

the quote provides a semi-logical basis for all of the Chief’s beliefs about. Leeds calls the concept of The Combine. as is the prompt. successfully identifying it as a figment of the imagination created to rationalize the Chief’s hopes and fears. Ken Kesey brings “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” from the insane to the sane and back again. Some would even go as far as to say that “…the images are the real meaning of the novel” (Malin 432). unfeeling mechanical society. with a heavy emphasis upon metaphorical symbolism. an enormous. Kesey’s novel stands as a triumph of and a tribute to American engineering. such as the given example where he simply cannot accept that society wants to cure him and others like him because it cares about them. known as The Combine. and conclusions pertaining to. Chief Bromden comes right out and boldly claims that “The Ward is a Factory for the Combine. fearful obedience of hospital employees to her commands and the ease with which she levies her distinctive brand of totalitarianism upon the Ward. Secondly. . “…the most frightening product of Bromden’s hallucinatory perceptions” (20). both mechanical and literary. The Big Nurse’s Motives are made clear to the Chief by his simple portrayal of her as a tool of The Combine. Elmer 4 and humming noises he hears coming from the walls at certain times of the day. Through the use of intense mechanical language. Nonetheless. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches…” (40). this core belief of Bromden’s proves that The Big Chief creates all of his mechanical rationalizations to explain the things he finds hardest to believe. This line is unbelievably important for two reasons: First. The Chief must construct a mechanically-based fantasy about some sort of an omnipotent industrial institution in order to simply make the concept of the psychiatric ward valid within his own mind. with each form of success being heavily dependent upon the other.

Ed. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Ken. Jack. . New York: Ungar Publishing. John C. “In the Singer’s Temple”. New York: Signet. 1981. Barry H. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Ken Kesey. “Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Irving. 1981. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1981 Malin. Ed. Kesey. Pratt. 1962 Leeds. Pratt Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. John C. Elmer 5 Works Cited Hicks.