Our Central Market Book Club discussion last night by fourteen attendees was lively and enlightening as usual. I read some brief biographical information to the group about the author at the beginning and Scott leading the discussion started out with a question about the author's choice of Chief Bromden as narrator, "How well did it work?". All of us who spoke thought the choice was very effective even though the Chief was portrayed as either insane or seriously disturbed in the beginning.
There was at least one in the group who didn't speak but who as I learned later after the discussion in the cafe downstairs believed that the use of a crazy person as narrator didn't make sense. That the chief's credibility hindered the story line but she also said afterwards that she liked hearing the opinions of those of us who disagreed. That she understood better why the book was written that way. Because of the chief's invisiblity as a result of being thought to be deaf, he could hear and subsequently report many of the incidents of the hospital which were crucial for the reader to know in order for the story to progress as it was intended. In my opinion, this kind of narrator is always better than one who is "omniscient", a technique which I think imparts a "heavy hand" to a story and makes a book less enjoyable.
What is it to be disturbed? What is it to be crazy? What is it to be different? These are questions that Scott brought up as being questions that the book basically asks the reader. Most thought that the Chief was disturbed and not crazy. After we discussed some of his background and what brought about his incarceration in the mental hospital which is the primary setting of the book, we talked about McMurphy, the outgoing unconventional protagonist who was incarcerated because he was diagnosed at a work farm where he was being punished as a psychopath. He had manipulated his incarceration because he thought it would be easier than his term at the work farm.
We discussed the intelligence of Chief Bromden who was cautious and observant and not participating actively in relationships with other patients or employees of the hospital as compared to the intelligence of McMurphy who from the beginning displayed significant social skills including laughing and game playing with the other patients. One attendee asked the group what we thought McMurphy would have become had he had education and was absent a police record. Another answered "a politician" and we all laughed.
Scott and others in the group talked about the author's skill in depicting the stories of the other patients of the hospital. Two of the members at the discussion had worked in hospitals or were familiar with the workings of mental institutions in the 60's (the book was written in 1962) and said they were amazed at how realistic the portrayal of the treatment was. But also included the additional information that shock treatments were not customary in mental hospitals in Illinois at least at this time but may have been in Texas.
We discussed whether or not McMurphy changed during the course of the book. Most thought he had. We spent some time trying to find that point at which he made the change where he was no longer the small-time conman looking to make a buck either gambling or overcharging the other patients for one thing or another. Nurse Ratched was an extremely abusive nurse and adversary of McMurpy's from the first minute he entered the hospital. When she denied the "tub room" privileges (which they used for playing cards) as a result of their misbehavior watching (or not watching) the World Series, he "ran his hand through the glass" window. He said "he completely forgot it was there".
The reason this seems like a change because it wasn't in his self-interest to aggravate Nurse Ratched since he learned shortly before this incident that he had to depend on her approval in order to get released from the hospital. He hadn't realized how important it was for him to get along with her and yet, as a result of the mistreatment by the nurse of the other patients, he still proceeded to try to upset her.
His behavior becomes more in line with being called "heroic" from this point on because he seems to be mainly thinking of how he can defend the other guys against the abuse of Nurse Ratched or at the very least, show them that he has guts enough not to stand for her abuse. He shows them that he is not giving in to her authority without a protest.
We talked much more at length about Nurse Ratched, whether she was evil or just seriously disturbed. Most thought she was evil because her actions were so premeditated. Most thought she was too functional to be disturbed though we all thought that it was she who belonged in an institution, not the characters in the story. Her manner of approaching Billy, a very fragile patient, after his escapade with Candy the whore brought in by McMurphy was painful to read as the shame Nurse Ratched caused Billy to feel was described so well by the author. I won't spoil the ending by discussing this incident further but we believed this was the defining moment for Nurse Ratched.
The fishing trip that McMurphy planned for the guys was another sign of his change. He originally wanted to make a few bucks but even when it became apparent that he was going to lose money on the trip, he continued to go along with the planning demonstrating further that his own self-interest was not his primary motivation at this point. One attendee in our group called him "heroic". But this same attendee called him a "loser". Most in the group defended McMurphy heartily.
Though it made me feel like I was a supporter of Nurse Ratched, as a result of the comment about McMurphy being a "loser", I felt I had to bring up the point that McMurphy risked the guys lives taking them on the boat after stealing it and designating someone who he wasn't totally sure about as driver of the boat. Some in our group thought that even if they would have had a deadly accident, it was better that they have this wonderful joyous experience fishing and drinking and having more fun than any of them had had in a long long time, even the doctor.
At risk of alienating almost everyone in the group (LOL), I brought up the point that responsible living in a civilized society requires the ability to control one's impulses. As we talked about this, I realized this kind of thinking, i.e. talk about controling impulses, is what actually is responsible for institutions such as this. But that the book demonstrates that this kind of thinking can "run amuk" and that is what happened as reflected by Nurse Ratched's abuse and the continued ineffective therapy for men who were not insane but who lacked courage to go out into the real world, men who if given a "boot in the seat of their pants" by someone like McMurphy might actually be able to function eventually on the outside rather than stay hiding on the inside.
I've concluded at least for myself (and the rule is that we don't all have to agree) that yes, controlling impulses is important but over-controlling to the point of abuse can be deadly and damaging just as much as the type of risky behavior that McMurphy seemed to thrive on.
Additional topics in our discussion included:
- the nature theme as represented by Chief Bromden and numerous descriptions of his Indian background and scenery prior to his incarceration,
- the sexism as represented by the many negative female characters,
- the rascism as demonstrated by the negative black characters,
- significance of laughter
- the metaphor of the "Combine" and other industrial symbols that are mentioned throughout the book,
- the metaphor of the control panel as well as
- a metaphor of a Christ-like figure being applied to McMurphy by the ending of the book.
As pointed out by Scott, there was a wide gamut of emotions covered by the story including humor such as the World Series incident which I haven't written about here to any great extent. I won't spoil it for others by talking about the ending which was believed to be both hopeful and tragic by most attendees of our discussion. One attendee summarized one of the themes well, she said "sometimes you have to break the rules". Another attendee also summarized the ending by commenting that McMurphy "defeated the wicked witch."
Looking forward to our next discussion August 10, 2009 THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS by Booth Tarkington. For more info about our upcoming reading list, check out our web page at http://www.houstonbookclubs.org/CentralMarket/.