UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Technique as meaning : language, perception and time in "One flew over the cuckoo’s nest" and "Sometimes a great notion" Segal, Judith


Both "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" are essentially about conflict, and the thematic resolution of both novels involves the affirmation of the dignity of the individual. While Kesey's theme is not unusual, his method of articulating theme is worthy of study. Conflict is acted out structurally in each text. Point of view is the primary element to consider. In" One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", there is a single first person narrator who is clearly psychotic and only intuitively reliable. In "Sometimes a Great Notion", there are a series of first person narrators as well as a third person narrator and the contradictions in accounts of events and thoughts throw the whole nature of truth into doubt. The novels focus our attention on perception. Attention to perception carries us to an awareness of the structural and contextual implications of language and time. Language shapes, records and transmits perceptions; time is experienced as a subjective phenomenon and is therefore a function of perception. Reading the novels in terms of perception, language and time leads to a recognition of the complexity of Kesey's work and to a series of conclusions about the intricacy of the thematic patterns which Kesey forms. The quality of conflict is such that there are never absolute winners or absolute losers; rather there are moments of ambiguous victories and defeats. Both novels endorse a vision of life as a cyclical process and any kind of finality (except for the finality of death) implicitly becomes questionable. Perception, language and time are themselves arenas for conflict in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"; but in "Sometimes a Great Notion", Kesey transcends open confrontation in these areas and goes on to explore the further ramifications of perception, language and time. The more subtle dynamics of "Sometimes a Great Notion" result from the evolution of a real union of method and meaning in Kesey's writing. In his first novel, Kesey is trapped by limitations of sequence, chronology and-point of view, and he writes through the contradiction of conveying a cyclical vision in a linear form. His second novel is more sophisticated and more integrated. "Sometimes a Great Notion" is structurally, not just thematically, cyclical. Yet in both novels, either through contrived or natural momentum, a sense of cycles is projected. The theme of individual dignity is reinforced by the peculiar structural contortions of each novel. Lines give way to fragmentation or circles give way to centrifuge and then to entropy, but in each case, the result is the dispersion of characters. In both novels, protagonists either die or spin off, not even to an ambiguous end, but to the next phase of an ambiguous process. In focusing on perception, language and time in both novels, we are focusing ultimately on Kesey's concept of reality as perpetual flow.

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