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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) is a novel written by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the narrative serves as a study of the institutional processes and the human mind as well as a critique of behaviorism and a celebration of humanistic principles. It was adapted into the Broadway play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman in 1963. Bo Goldman adapted the novel into a 1975 film directed by Miloš Forman, which won five Academy Awards.

Time Magazine included the novel in its “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005” list.

An international bestseller and the basis for the hugely successful film, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the defining works of the 1960s.

“In this classic of the 1960s, Ken Kesey’s hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the world of a mental hospital and takes over. A lusty, life-affirming fighter, McMurphy rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women, and openly defies the rules at every turn. But this defiance, which starts as a sport, soon develops into a grim struggle, an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Nurse Ratched, back by the full power of authority, and McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story’s shocking climax.

Background One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written in 1959 and published in 1962 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and deep changes to the way psychology and psychiatry were being approached in America. The 1960s began the controversial movement towards deinstitutionalization, an act that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel. The novel is a direct product of Kesey’s time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, but he voluntarily took psychoactive drugs, including mescaline and LSD, as part of Project MKUltra.

In addition to his work with Project MKUltra, Kesey experimented with LSD recreationally. He advocated for drug use as a path to individual freedom, an attitude that was reflected in the views of psychological researchers of the time. In the 1960s LSD was thought to offer the best access to the human mind. Each individual’s experiences were said to vary; emotions and experiences ranged from transformations into other life forms, religious experiences, and extreme empathy. It was Kesey’s experience with LSD and other psychedelics that made him sympathetic toward the patients.

The novel constantly refers to different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods. The novel’s narrator, the Chief, combines these authorities in his mind, calling them “The Combine” in reference to the mechanistic way they manipulate and process individuals. The authority of The Combine is most often personified in the character of Nurse Ratched who controls the inhabitants of the novel’s mental ward through a combination of rewards and subtle shame. Although she does not normally resort to conventionally harsh discipline, her actions are portrayed as more insidious than those of a conventional prison administrator. This is because the subtlety of her actions prevents her prisoners from understanding that they are being controlled at all.

The Chief also sees the Combine in the damming of the wild Columbia River at Celilo Falls, where his Native American ancestors hunted, and in the broader conformity of post-war American consumer society. The novel’s critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censor aspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also criticizes the emasculation of men in society, particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.

Editorial Reviews

This excellent version of Kesey’s classic novel does not supplement the fine Recorded Books edition (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/93). However, this Blackstone version is a worthy companion, based on the reading skills of narrator Tom Parker. Parker does an exceptional job of bringing to life the characters of Randall Patrick McMurphy, Big Nurse Ratched, Chief Broom, and the others occupying the Oregon mental hospital. He is especially good with Chief Broom, the story’s narrator, presenting the chief’s state of mind in seeing dark forces behind the nurse’s actions plus the changes he undergoes through McMurphy’s rebellious, fun-loving nature. Parker’s skills and the continuing popularity of this work make this version a required purchase for all collections, even those libraries that have the earlier edition.?Stephen L. Hupp, Univ. of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, PA

Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“A work of genuine literary merit . . . What Mr. Kesey has done in his unusual novel is to transform the plight of a ward of inmates in a mental hospital into a glittering parable of good and evil.” – The New York Times Book Review

“[A] brilliant first novel . . . a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil . . . Keysey has made his book a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them.” – Time

“The final triumph of these men at the cost of a terrifying sacrifice should send chills down any reader’s back. . . . This novel’s scenes have the liveliness of a motion picture.” – The Washington Post

“An outstanding book . . . [Kesey’s] characters are original and real. . . . This is a tirade against the increasing controls over man and his mind, yet the author never gets on a soap box. Nor does he forget that there is a thin line between tragedy and comedy.” – Houston Chronicle

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