American Dominance in Works by Ken Kesey

The idea of having the power of taming an unknown, rugged territory has always been a significant goal in American society. The early American settlers came over to this continent to find a better home with the intention to conquer and make their surroundings fit their needs. In an interview with Ken Kesey, he said:

What I explore in all my work: wilderness. Settlers on this continent from the beginning have been seeking wilderness and its wilderness. The explorers and pioneers sought that wilderness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked in tight. . . .When we got here there was a sense of possibilities and new direction and it had to do with wilderness. (Faggen 22)

In Kesey's novels, this American feeling of confidence in oneself to dominate and control one's surroundings is a continuing theme. Kesey is predominately known as an author of the Beatnik generation. He was very influential as a leader of the psychedelic movement on the West Coast, and drugs played an important part in his life and often influenced his writing.
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What I explore in all my work: wilderness.
-Ken Kesey
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His first published novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, was extremely popular and is often thought of as one of the great books demonstrating the social values of the Beatniks. In this novel, the protagonist, R.P. McMurphy, is a con man who fakes mental illness to enter a psychiatric hospital to escape working at a strenuous state correction farm. He goes there with the idea that this will be an easy life and he'll make a profit. Miss Ratched, known as the Big Nurse, is the dictating power on the ward, and the place runs in exact order under her control. The two engage in a continual power struggle. McMurphy encourages the patients to rebel against her authority for his own self-interest as well as for the theirs. He makes it his personal goal to overthrow her rule and uses whatever means he can. He has the intention of taking control of the ward and conquering the ruler, and uses the ward meetings to get the other patients to vote against her policies. Once McMurphy tries to get the daily schedule changed so the World Series would be on during the TV hour. With a great effort, he persuades the patients to stand up against her and switch the time slots the way they want, but their immense fear of her makes it difficult for McMurphy to take control.

Using his con man skills to weaken her rule, McMurphy brings gambling to the ward, betting for the patients money and cigarettes. He is able to take much of their money fairly, without the Big Nurse being able to stop him. He bets that he will be able to make her lose her cool within a week. He tells the patients, . . .a bee in her butt, a burr in her bloomers. Get her goal. Bug her till she comes apart at those neat little seams, and shows, just one time, she ain't so unbeatable as you think. On week. I'll let you be the judge whether I win or not. ( 72) He comes very close by upsetting her, and making a fool of her. He plays games such as innocently offering to help and them getting her all upset and flustered. He does lose this bet but he proves his point that he is clever enough to get to her. This is an important step in winning the patients' confidence in McMurphy and their support of him.

The Big Nurse shows society's inhumanity in dealing with the insane by locking them up out of its sight. Kesey has McMurphy set out on the goal to conquer the villain and take control for himself. For him, the end justifies the means, even if he sacrifices himself for the cause. He sees the ward as a challenging wilderness that he can tame in order to accommodate it to his own needs.
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...a bee in her butt, a burr in her bloomers.
-McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
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Kesey's second novel is Sometimes A Great Notion. It is a difficult novel to comprehend because it quickly shifts from first to third