Mental Illness as an Escape from Cruel Society in The Bluest Eye, Tender is the Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Mental illness in literature is often a way to accentuate eccentricities, make a character seem dangerous, or lend a character a greater sense of tragedy. The best examples, however, involve using the specter of mental illness as a way to reflect on the way society oppresses the Other, and how these people can use it to empower themselves and their own sense of agency. This latter example is highlighted in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All three of these works feature characters either dealing with mental illness or living among those who are mentally ill, and by identifying with them and embracing their own madness, they may overcome the societal pressures they are placed under to be normal.
All three of these works showcase the mentally ill as the ‘aberrant’ ones within a society, being ill-equipped to handle the expectations and pressures foisted upon them. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison tells the story of Pecola, a young black girl who has an incredibly difficult time fitting into the small community of Lorain, Ohio, as she is the only black child in the town. Tender is the Night chiefly follows Nicole Diver, a young, mentally ill woman who finds her way into high society after marrying her psychologist, Dick Diver. Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, conversely, follows the character of Macready, who is sane but feigns illness to spend time in a mental asylum over prison for his crimes. While Macready is notably sane in a community of the insane, the asylum itself acts as a way to ‘cast off’ society’s unwanted, making the book’s focus on the inhabitants as a community, and how they must interact when proper society no longer wants them. All of these individuals are somewhat ignored and cast off, showcasing the way society dispassionately disposes of the people it no longer wants – Kesey’s ward is specifically mentioned as a place for “fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches,” indicating society’s culpability in creating these mental patients (Kesey 25).
The primary issues revolving around these mentally ill characters reveal flaws not in their specific psychologies, but in society itself. Pecola, in particular, suffers from this, as her mental breakdown comes as a result of tremendous racial discrimination and prejudice. The normalized whiteness of her hometown leads her to wish she was whiter: “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (Morrison 46). As a woman, beauty is culturally coded as a significant part of her identity, and, as she does not fit the norm of whiteness, she becomes endlessly frustrated with her lack of desirability in life. To varying degrees, Nicole and the inmates of Cuckoo’s Nest also experience this ostracization and desire to be ‘normal,’ but it is rarely as explicitly racialized as in the case of Pecola. Even though all Pecola wants is a normal life – the first words of the novel being a recitation of the American Dream of “Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it is very pretty” – her race precludes her from being fully accepted as a part of society; therefore, she must lose herself in insanity (Morrison xvi).
Sexual abuse and specific traumas are at the heart of many of the mental illness cases in these three works, though they are treated somewhat differently. Pecola experiences significant trauma at the hands of her father, Cholly, who rapes her after turning into an alcoholic. Similarly, Nicole Diver is said to have been sexually abused by her own father, and consequently suffers from psychotic breakdowns. While the inmates of Kesey’s hospital have their own varied psychoses, sexual abuse and molestation is definitely an aspect of this abuse (inmates mention past crimes such as “I tried to take my little sister to bed” and “I-one time- wanted to take my brother to bed”) (Kesey 31). Much of Billy Bibbit’s psychotic issues stem from his continued virginity and the emotional grip his mother holds over him. He only ends up killing himself after Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother about him losing his virginity to prostitutes, a thought so traumatic that Billy would rather cut his own throat open than risk disappointing his mother. To that end, sexual identity, abuse and molestation are significant elements to the treatment of mental illness in all three novels, indicating significant ties to parents and the visiting of their sins upon their children.
Despite the cast-off nature of these characters, many of them find ways to overcome the pressures that society places upon them – typically through either the inspiration or exploitation of the sane. This is most prominent in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which Macready’s sanity and free-spirited, rebellious nature inspires the other inmates to live their lives instead of waiting to die cooped up in a mental asylum. Macready’s own character arc involves him growing to identify with, befriend, and try to help the inmates of the asylum, despite his own goals being inherently selfish. Macready, despite his sanity, finds himself identifying with the fellow inmates against the oppressive forces of order and society, as represented by Nurse Ratched. Ratched is the villain who must be overcome in order for the inmates to feel something, so they latch on to Macready’s revolutionary spirit in order to do so. His call of “I tried, thoughGoddammit, I sure as hell did that much, now, didn’t I?” after he fails to lift the control panel to the shower room shows his ability and desire to rebel, inspiring the inmates to do the same (Kesey 72).
Nicole Diver, meanwhile, benefits from the benevolence and goodwill of Dick Diver, particularly as they fall in love and start a relationship. At the beginning of the book, Dick is an incredibly graceful, well-renowned and respected part of normal society, his marriage to Nicole being done as a way to try to heal her. His motives are not entirely unselfish, as he often feels “An overwhelming desire to help, or to be admired” just as part of his nature; one gets the impression that his favor to Nicole feeds his ego (Fitzgerald, Chapter 19). Dick goes into the scenario knowing what he is getting into; Nicole even tells him, "I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember. Somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am to-night” (Fitzgerald, Chapter 18). Nicole’s marriage to Dick allows them to move to the French Riviera and enjoy a charmed life of extravagant parties and continental living, which seems to mitigate Nicole’s own mental breakdowns but starts to take its toll on Dick.
The trip to freedom and agency for these mentally ill characters is not without sacrifices, however - even when these mentally ill characters succeed, it is at great cost. While Macready grants the inmates a wonderful sense of agency, personhood and freedom, he himself is sacrificed by becoming lobotomized by Ratched and euthanized by the Chief. The Chief’s eventual ability to lift the control panel then becomes a victory for Macready as well, achieving his freedom thanks to Macready’s sacrifice. Dick Diver is similarly destroyed by his time with the mentally ill, as Nicole’s freedom and connection to Dick through marriage ends up driving him to alcoholism and brawling, as well as losing his job and his own will. Eventually, Nicole becomes the stronger person in the relationship, leaving Dick for Tommy Barban. The book treats Dick almost as a plot device for Nicole’s recovery, her sister Baby coldly remarking that “That’s what he was educated for” (Fitzgerald, Chapter 12). While these characters were able to make it to freedom (if not wellness), it cost the blood, sweat and tears of others to accomplish this goal.
While Nicole and the Chief end up in good straits by the end of their works, Pecola is far less lucky. Because she has essentially no support system or way out of her own insanity (no Macready or Dick Diver to use to climb back to safety) Pecola collapses in on herself, becoming a gibbering mess who travels around town looking for garbage and is completely lost to the world. Claudia, the other narrator of the story, illustrates her own guilt at what happened to Pecola, though she did nothing to stop it – she recognizes that society and the pressures placed on her are to blame for Pecola’s mental collapse: “We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair” (Morrison xviii). This moment is one of the few in which society recognizes that it has failed the mentally ill in these books; otherwise, the mentally ill themselves must fight for their own agency and freedom against society.
Pecola, Nicole Diver, and the inmates of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest struggle with their mental illness as they are failed by their respective societies – whether through racism, class issues of rich vs. poor, or a simple desire to see the Other ridiculed, sequestered and put away from them. While Pecola is ultimately failed by the system that made her insane, Nicole and the inmates of Kesey’s novel find at least a measure of happiness and success, typically at the expense of those sane people who chose to help them, who must suffer for violating society’s mutual decision to reject the mentally ill. In these ways, the mentally ill are not negative forces on society, but people who have been underserved, abused and let down by that same society, and therefore are deserving of sympathy and great care.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night. Scribner, 1934.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Viking Press, 1962.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Random House LLC, 2007.