Ken Kesey’s use of race in the prolific and controversial novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been a major subject of inquisition in many reviews and opinions. The novel most defiantly presents racist tones and characterization, but when viewed closely along with the context, it is used as a tool rather than a weapon. The clear racial divide between the orderlies and patients is a necessary evil; it works to present the reader with a clear sense of us versus them. This, along with the many times Chief Bromden’s heritage is lampooned, end up strengthening and building upon to message of the novel.
The idea of us versus them is a central theme in this text, and is laid out plainly in the very first sentences. Beginning with “They’re out there”(1) , Kesey goes on to illustrate the ‘black boys in white suits” (9) who stand ready to dominate anyone unfortunate enough to cross them. From this beginning it is clear that these men are the opposing force. Black is also the color of the machinery, Chief Bromden’s metaphor for the precise and cold workings of the ward under the icy rule of the Big Nurse. This color concept ties the aids and inner workings together creating the effect of the institution existing as a single entity with only an entrance and an exit and the area in between corrupted and oppressive, and filled with torment.
While the patients are at the mercy of the orderlies for the better part of the novel, the latter are still outranked, and controlled by Nurse Rached as if by strings. Her starched and sterile whiteness stands in contrast to blackness of her ward, and brings forth a vision of sharp contrast, exemplifying the notion that when the ward is running smoothly and to her liking, everything is leveled and totally monotone. This idea of depressing monotiny and ruthless precision are best described by Chief Bromden in his hallucinations in which Nurse Rached literally controls time itself and how everyone interacts inside its grasp.
This contrast that the black aids bring to the story is not only apparent in color, but by character as well. They oppose the patient’s morality in every way. While the interned seek to help each other when rallied, and band together tp improve their situation, the orderlies attempt to evade blame for various mistakes at the expense of their own. They talk in slang, appearing menial and peonistic in comparison to Harding’s collegiate vocabulary and eloquence. This character divide serves to embolden the feelings of dislike towards the staff, and cast a positive light on the patients whom we are meant to view as oppressed and heroic.
All this comes together to show the nature of the black boys and solidify their general character, setting us up to despise what they do. The aids along with Nurse Rached destroy men, committing subtle but scarring acts that reduce their masculinity and self worth to absolute zero. They are depicted in such a negative light because we are meant to cheer on the patients as they attempt to outsmart and over through this unfair and unnatural system. If the aids had been of the patients same race, they could not have been put at odds with them as effectively.
We see these events unfold through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a tall and strong Indian who resides as a chronic patient in the ward. Throughout the Chief’s life, people never seemed to listen to him or notice him at all due to the fact that his heritage made them write him off before ever giving him a chance. Thusly, throughout the beginning of the novel, he puts on a show of being dumb and deaf, a manifestation of deep issues that this racism left upon him through the years. I found that Kesey satires racism in making Chief Bromden, talk down to the black aids when he himself is the victim of racism on a daily basis. The latter is also true with the aids making remarks such as “Inniuns ain't able to write'" (191). In this way, the book serves as an edgy lesson to its readers and highlights the absurdity of prejudice.
The fact that the Chief eventually begins to talk is also a very important concept in the novel. As the general situation in the hospital improves, Bromden does as well. He came from a past in which his family’s land was taken by whites, as well as his father’s last name, so Bromden is no stranger to loss at the hands of supposedly civilized society. As he began to exit the shell he’d built for himself, he realized he wasn’t insignificant and small after all. All of the realizations and emotions he goes through on his road to recovery are reflected in the tribulations of the ward. Fittingly, by the time Chief Bromden is ready to leave, the hospital he abandons has finally gained some level of self sustaining peace.