s Nest and The Bell JarWhat could a convicted rapist possibly have in common with a young aspiring female writer? These characters, depicted by Ken Kesey and Sylvia Plath respectively have a lot more in common than one may think.
Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar are two radically different stories. These two stories, however have striking similarities in the message that each of them conveys, a message commenting on the poor manner in which mental illness, or perceived mental illness is treated by the medical community. Similarities in the two novels can be seen when examining the reasons that protagonist of each novel was committed as well as the treatment that was administered, specifically medications given, and Electro-shock therapy treatments.”The Bell Jar is a recording of a period of confusion, disintegration, and renewal in the life of its protagonist.” In the beginning of the novel Esther Greenwood is portrayed as a fairly successful student and young woman. She is, in essence, the all-American girl.
She grew up with fifteen years of straight A’s, attended an ivy-league women’s college and spent her weekends at Yale. This novel is an autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath’s breakdown as a young woman. Greenwood, like Plath, was a young woman who came to her vocation early and as a result suffered in creasing isolation from her peers. It is clear from the very first lines of the novel that Greenwood has a few instabilities.
As the novel progresses the decline of Greenwood’s health is evident. She sinks into not a mental illness, but a severe case of depression. A case of depression that today may be “cured” with a steady diet of Prozac was treated in a wholly different manner. Greenwood was taken to a psychiatrist who attempted to begin to “treat” her condition. Her meeting with the psychiatrist simply served to frustrate Greenwood further; pushing her deeper and deeper into her depressed state.
Greenwood could not even find understanding or comfort in her psychiatrist.So I told him again in the same dull flat voice, only it was angrier this time, because he seemed so slow to understand how I hadn’t slept for fourteen nights and how I couldn’t read or write or swallow very well. Greenwood’s depression escalated and eventually she attempted to commit suicide but failed. This is when Greenwood was first officially institutionalized. Greenwood was thrown into a ward for the mentally ill. Her depression was being treated among schizophrenics and catatonics; people with disorders far more severe than her own.An author writes what he or she knows. Ken Kesey, as a young man, volunteered for medical experiments with the then new drug LSD.
His experiences with this drug that often mimics the symptoms of schizophrenia, as well as with the medical community prompted Kesey to write the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The protagonist, Patrick Randle McMurphy, in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a man that never should have been committed. The nurse, during a group therapy session explains exactly why McMurphy was committed, according to his file.Committed by the state from the Pendleton Farm for correction. For diagnosis and possible treatment. Thirty-five years old.
Never married. Distinguished Service Cross in Korea, for leading escape from a communist camp. A dishonorable discharge, afterward, for insubordination. Followed by a history of street brawls and barroom fights and a series of arrests for Drunkenness, Assault and Battery, Disturbing the Peace, repeated gambling, and one arrest-for Rape. He is a man that has a long criminal record but no record of mental illness. The state no longer knew what to do with McMurphy, so they sent him away and hoped for the best. McMurphy did not in any way benefit from the treatment he was given; he was being treated for a sickness that he simply did not have.
At best McMurphy was simply a loud individual, at worst he was a man suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder in need of some Ritalin. McMurphy was by no means insane.Although these stories are different, and although both Greenwood and McMurphy were committed in entirely different ways for entirely different reasons, a similarity may be drawn. Each character was misdiagnosed for their illness and therefore mistreated as well. Neither Greenwood nor McMurphy truly suffered from a mental illness and therefore neither of them should have been institutionalized.One of the steps to Greenwood’s recovery was treatment through medication.
After Greenwood’s first suicide attempt she awoke in a confused and numb state.Air breathed and played over my face.I felt the shape of a room around me, a big room with open windows. A pillow molded itself under my head, and my body floated, without pressure, between the sheets. Greenwood describes her dazed state as she awakens in this passage. It is a state with which she becomes familiar with as the novel progresses. The numbness that Greedwood feels from the drugs she is given seems to shut her off from the world.
She looses whatever will she still had left to fight her way out of her depression. Although Greenwood eventually did, with quite a bit of help, pull herself out of her depression, the medications seemed to play no role in the process to her recovery.In Kesey’s novel it was like clockwork; after breakfast and before bed medications were given to patients in the ward.
Each patient reacted differently about being given medications. Some of the patients on the ward took the medication without asking any questions or even thinking about it. Some demanded to know what they were being given before consuming the pills – something the nurse never told them.
Some simply refused to take the medication all together – they were dealt with sternly. And some of the more extreme cases took their medication, but believed the pills were actually tiny electronic-controlling devices. Although the medications that McMurphy was given did not seem to have any negative effects on him, they did not seem to have any positive ones either. If anything McMurphy began to act out more after he started on the medications, largely due to his surroundings.Greenwood and McMurphy both reacted differently to the medications that they were given.
Greenwood was numb and dazed while McMurphy did not notice much of a change at all. Again though there is a parallel between the two stories: the medications that each of the characters was prescribed did not help. Each characters’ being was altered by the prescribed medications, and neither of the characters gained anything from the medications.Perhaps the most disturbing part of both Plath’s novel as well as Greenwood’s treatment is the Electro-shock therapy that was administered. On her second visit to her psychiatrist Greenwood was taken to the shock room for her first treatment. No prior warning was given and the process was not explained at all to Greenwood. “I had tried to ask him what the shock treatment would be like,” Greenwood explains to the reader before her first session,but when I opened my mouth no words came out, my eyes only widened and stared at the smiling, familiar face that floated in front of me like a plate full of assurances. Greenwood’s first shock therapy session was the last straw, so to speak.
The experience was so mortifyingly painful that even simply the thought of going back for one more terrified Greenwood beyond belief. Greenwood felt trapped, life was painful enough for her as it was, to add physical pain to an already tortured life is what led Greenwood to her first suicide attempt. “She arranges an encounter with death like one arranges a doctor’s appointment.” Her attempt at suicide was a failed one and Greenwood was shortly thereafter institutionalized. The path to recovery began here, with little help from her doctors, Greenwood began to reach out, first with a fellow inmate at the asylum she had been placed in.
It was her that Greenwood received further shock therapy. Although they were not as horrifying as the first one they were still not exactly therapeutic, and did not seem to aid in her progression at all.The shock treatments are probably the most horrifying and vivid parts of not only The Bell Jar, but also in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Kesey’s novel shock therapy is used not so much as an actual treatment as it is a punishment. It is a deterrent of bad behavior. McMurphy is sent for his first shock treatment after he attacks one of the hospital attendants.
He did not attack without reason. More than anything else, the nurse wanted to make an example of McMurphy. She did not want other patients following in his rebellious footsteps. The other patients already looked up to McMurphy, much of the novel, in fact is “devoted to showing how McMurphy teaches the rest of the patients to be sane” where the doctors cannot, the last thing that the nurse wanted was for them to start imitating him as well.
The shock treatment has another purpose as well; it quiets down the patient for a few days. As the narrator of the story describes it:There had been times when I’d wandered around in a daze for as long as two weeks after a shock treatment, living in that foggy, jumbled blur which is a whole lot like the ragged edge of sleep, that gray zone between light and dark, or between sleeping and waking or living and dying, where you know you’re not unconscious anymore but don’t know yet what day it is or who you are, or what’s the use of coming back at all – for two weeks. Like other treatments though, the shock treatments did not affect McMurphy in quite the same way that they did other patients. Most patients only experience a few shock treatments before quickly adjusting their behavior. McMurphy refused to change. He was sent for repeated treatments with no success. More severe measures were taken by the nurse in McMurphy’s treatment after the failed shock therapy sessions.
Greenwood and McMurphy reacted to shock therapy sessions in different ways. Despite their different reactions, the outcome of the therapy was similar for both characters – the therapy failed. This utterly cruel method of treatment drove Greenwood to her first suicide attempt and it worsened McMurphy’s condition.
McMurphy’s worsened behavior due to the therapy is what eventually led to his death.Radically different, yet strikingly similar; these two novels tell different stories and yet seem to convey a similar message to the reader about the poor treatment of the mentally ill. Misdiagnosis as well as treatments that simply did not work, such as medications and shock therapy, prevailed in both novels. So now ask yourself: What could a convicted rapist and a young aspiring female writer possibly have in common?