How "madness" is shown in Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" and Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

In terms of context and how they depict mental illness, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Bell Jar have a number of parallels and differences. Both of these books' writers deftly present the problem of psychological disorder, bringing out a crucial point that most readers are likely to miss. The two writers illustrate the psychological difficulties in the cases by using fictional characters based on their own experiences. In fact, both stories are personal narratives that use literary techniques to present the situations. Similarly, by use of personal narratives, “Girl Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen and J. D Salinger’s, and the “Catcher in the Rye” by Susanna Kaysen and Holden Caulfield depicts mental illness in various situations.

The semantics of each title given to the two novels significantly brings the relationship that exists between the theme of mental illness and Books’ titles. The topic “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” intends to present the theme of psychological problem. For instance, ‘Cuckoo’s nest’ represents a hospital. Furthermore, Mcmurphy, the protagonist of the novel, is the individual that ‘flew over’ imply that was out of his senses. The chief also quotes the full nursery rhyme after recovery from shock treatment. His Indian grandmother usually played the nursery rhyme for him when he was younger. The full nursery rhyme plays; “Ting, Tingle, tingle, tremble toes, she’s a good fisherman, catches hens, puts ‘emm inna pens…wire blier, limber lock, three geese inna flock…one flew east; one flew west; one flew over the cuckoo’s nest…O-U-T spells out… goose swoops down and plucks you out (Kesey, 2017 p. 220).” The quote portrays Mcmurphy as the goes that fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Moreover, the quote describes the chief as the individual that is plucked out and manages to escape at the end of the novel. On contrary, “The Bell Jar” depicts the cyclical depression that Sylvia Plath undergoes.

The author uses metaphors inform of animals to provide the hidden meaning of the text as she explains the theme of the story (Jansson, 2015 p. 180). The Big Nurse is portrayed by ‘Tingle, tingle, tremble toes.’ She goes further to encourage the hens to peck each other to death. The hens had all been locked in a pen of the ward. The Big Nurse is presented as an excellent fisherman in the text imply the important played.

Similarly, the heading The Bell Jar resembles that of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest directly. Besides, the titles contains several conspicuous connotations that are allegorical. The bell-shaped glass cover is portrayed as the bell jar. The title is used to represent the symbolic use of the jar as a display and protection of fragile or delicate objects. In other words, the bell-shaped glass cover is portrayed as in the text protects the breakable objects. Additionally, it has many others uses including that it is used in science as an apparatus that establishes controlled atmosphere or rather a vacuum. Scientists use it as a scientific apparatus that contains gases. From the text, one can deduce that the bell jar has metaphorically trapped the protagonist- Esther Greenwood. Therefore, villain’s physical, emotional, and sexual confinements and orientations do not make sense to those confinements found outsides the bell jar. For instance, Esther Greenwood offers her clashing opinion of Doreen at the beginning of the novel. She says, that she can guess that Doreen was one of her troubles because she singled her out the right way. Doreen also made her feel that she was sharper and she said this in a funny way (McCann, 2012 p. 18). The quote portrays Greenwood’s inability to express herself fully. Furthermore, Sylvia Path uses this oxymoron to show how the dilemmas that Esther Greenwood bruises her physical, emotional and sexual orientation. Esther Greenwood is on a path that leads to her harassment when she encounters some strange predicaments. The bruises that she encounters can be foreseen at the inception of the novel. At the beginning of the story, Esther Greenwood reflects on the things she was supposed to do. She contemplates of how she was supposed to be having a times of his life in such a way that every college gal would envy her (McCann, 2012). It is worth noting that one thing that was confusing her was this divergent desertion of the conventional practices.

The clash in her mind hurts her life. The conflict interrupts every aspect of Esther Greenwood’s mind and finally digresses her. The battle is responsible for her ensuing suicide. Besides, the bell jar is considered as a symbol that represents the prospects of mental illness (Lui, 2016 p. 22). Esther Greenwood feels as though she is deep inside bells jar when the possibilities of psychological illness grip her. These prospects of mental illness distort Esther Greenwood’s perception of the world and therefore thwart her from connecting and interacting with the people around her. In fact, she never communicates nor talks to her neighbours. In her novel, Sylvia Path skilfully can bring out this exciting opinion at the moment where she allows Esther Greenwood to wind up that she is stewing in her sour air as she sits at the same bell jar of glass. This helps Sylvia path stirs up deep sensual reactions in any reader of the text. Nevertheless, Sylvia Path makes the use of the pronoun that can be termed as possessive ‘my’ that comes before the adjective ‘own’ is a clear indication that Esther Greenwood has been prevented from socialising (Marcarian and Wilkinson, 2017 p. 15). In fact, she had become lonesome hence mentally ill.

Similarly, the semantics of the title ‘Girl Interrupted’ depicts the theme of mental illness. The words Girl interrupted imply that the girl was in a dangerous situation. In the text, Susanna takes an overdose at the inception of the novel since her mind could not take anymore. In the later pages of the book, the girl becomes lost in reality and does not understand herself anymore. Her friend Daisy commits suicide which makes her question the effectiveness of the methods of treatment.

Kesey’s text Over Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sets the novel in a mental asylum when exploring many aspects of mental illness (Jansson, 2015 p. 400). The structure that the author of the book uses directly criticises the Merican institutions. In fact, the direct criticism is evidently portrayed in the individuals’ gradually growing opposition against being advised on what to think. Patients participate in doing group therapy in the first pages of the novel ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ The group therapy was all about all the patients collectively sitting together and presenting all the challenges that they would like to share. The patients also collectively sit to discuss any progress that they have made. Any keen reader wold notice the claim by Nurse Ratched of the therapeutic value of the group therapy. However, it is evident from the beginning that it is a way of control and management for the nurse in her quest to belittle patients in front of each other. For instance, in the opening pages of the novel, the nurse forces every patient to disclose a secret about himself/herself in front of the whole group as the first group meeting progresses. In fact, each patient is forced to admit his or her secret in front of the whole group that he or she can no longer contain due to the shame of revealing. The text states that “he tried to take his sister to bed but her eyes were flicked to the next man as they shot like a shooting star” (Kesey, 2017). A reader will observe that the patients are trying to outdo each other by sequentially confessing to their outrageous acts that they had committed in their quest to try and please the nurse. From this example from the novel, the author Kesey suggests that nurse Ratched controls and manages the patients in almost each and every aspects of their life.

Similarly, the author of ‘The Bell Jar ‘Sylvia Path, uses a collective group to define mental illness and its various factors. The inception of the novel brings a revelation to readers on the typical society in America where the women lived in the 1950’s. The revelation of the 1950’s American society that hosted the woman occurs life-like descriptions and intrinsic descriptions that Sylvia Path has illustrated. Moreover, this revelation introduces readers to Esther Greenwood’s colleagues who are a group of women of a similar age. The author also gives the readers an intuitive picture of the American society at the time through her unique description of New York. She says that “they were all intending to go to secretarial schools that were posh as the likes of Katy Gibbs”. Here they had to wear things like hats, gloves and stockings while going to class “the girls looked so bored as they await to get married to men that had their careers in order” (McCann, 2012). It is evident that the women were shut in or instead trapped in a society that was so patriarchal. In fact, these women had rigid expectations in a patriarchal society. Any woman who went against these social norms was extremely isolated. Moreover, any woman who went against these social norms in this patriarchal society was always going to destruct herself. Esther Greenwood was subject to isolation, breakdown and destruction since she went against the social rules which lead her to a course of being different from the rest of the people. Sylvia Path enables the reader to have a way of exploring mental illness through the formulation of this basic structure discussed above.

Furthermore, these novels give the reader a proper awareness of the various interpretations of illness that are mental. One can define mental illness as that unusual or abnormal behaviour (Collins, 2017 p. 297). Similarly, one can determine mental disease as the incapacity to function socially. Moreover, an individual can determine psychological disease as emotional distress. Finally; an individual can define mental illness as the inability of a person to function safely. All these four aspects of mental illness are evident in these four novels. Besides, it is very confusing when interpreting psychological disease within these texts and the person who is ill. An excellent example in the novel,’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’ is of Chief Bromden; a first-person narrator is prone to delusions and hallucinations. These may sometimes be confusing to the reader as he is left to wonder on whether there is likelihood of the events he depicts happened or not. Chief Bromden thinks that he has viewed little mechanical item that is inside capsules of medicines that he is given. In fact, he thinks that a machine is used to create the ‘fog’ that contaminates his perceptions. Moreover, Chief Bromden is an excellent narrator. His efficiency as a person narrator hugely makes an impact to the proper creation of the story. However, the story opens out in part through Chief Bromden’s changing intellectual and emotional state.

In the subsequent pages of the novel, McMurphy revolts on the World Series. For instance, Chief Bromden observes that fog was nowhere to be found everywhere he looked. This means that McMurphy is assisting to sanitise the ward. Kesey transmits this knowledge at the beginning of the information hence allowing readers detect a greatly significant structure. On the other hand, Sylvia Path’s ‘The Bell Jar’ depicts Esther Greenwood as sadly misplaced in the opening pages. Furthermore, Path describes Esther Greenwood as a woman who is far away from the reality. Readers can also deduce that Esther Greenwood is not optimistic as expected from her from the society and she expects only of herself. In fact, she lacks humour that the society also expects from her. She admits that most of the female age-mates crave to do things that she is doing. However, Esther Greenwood does not decipher why she is not so enthusiastic; while instead she expected to be excited just like most of the girls seemed but unfortunately she could not get herself to even react (McCann, 2012).” In the novel, the phenomenon of death dramatically preoccupies Esther Greenwood’s mind. A hostile tone complements this negative attitude in the manner that she is heard saying that she is ‘stupid’ and starts to feel sick. In the novel, Sylvia paints a clear picture of Esther Greenwood’s summer. According to Sylvia Path, her summer is mesmerising, repulsive and death-oriented. Esther Greenwood’s life experiences and attitudes also seem to be repulsive, perplexed and death-oriented.

Ken Kesey uses a reminiscent opening line that provokes thinking at the beginning of the novel to intensify the meaning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey’s texts start with the following words: “They’re out there (Kesey, 2017).” The next sentence on a new line explains the meaning of these words. The author makes use of this catastrophic opening line to depict the significance of a society that is unknown and the narrator’s colleagues. Note that has used two demonstrative words: ‘They’re’ and ‘There’ to structure this opening line. The author has used carelessly used these affectionate words since they are not specific therefore bringing out the significance of an unknown something. Furthermore, the reader starts questioning the use of such a confusing opening line.

On the other hand, Sylvia path employs a different approach to that used by Kesey in starting of The Bell Jar at the begining of the novel. She focuses more on the personal nature of the narrator and the context. The Bell Jar starts; “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York” (Sabbagh and Bozorgian, 2015 p. 113) At the beginning of the novel we can deduce that Esther Greenwood is misplaced from this first sentence. Note that Esther Greenwood has no clue of what she is up to in New York. The lack of clue of what her purpose is in New York means that Esther Greenwood does not have knowledge of what she wants to with her life and why she is even in New York. She uses the words ‘queer’ and ‘sultry’ to depict a clashing and conflicting image that she achieves through applying language at the beginning of the novel. Traditionally the word queer means unusual or strange. However, in most cases, queer refers to gay men. In fact, sex will hugely preoccupy Esther in the entire novel. This is illustrated in the novel where Esther Greenwood disgust for her life is evident when she is in the company of an elderly man on the night out with Doreen. She is also wholly depressed when she witnesses Doreen having sexual encounters with Lenny, her man. The mention of Rosenberg’s trial in the opening sentence of the novel forecasts the effects of foul events such as political events on the mind of Esther Greenwood. In the novel, Esther Greenwood confirms her fears of being affected by political events when she says; “that she kept receiving rumours concerning Rosenberg at the office and at the radio until it got to a point that she could not get the voices off her mind” In fact, Esther Greenwood confesses about her unusual situation; “I knew something was wrong with me that summer.” A reader can easily depict that Esther Greenwood is undergoing mental anarchy just from the start of the novel and forms a foundation for the mental illness that is expressed in the later pages of the novel.

In the novel, Girl Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen also employs a different approach at the beginning of the novel. The opening sentences of the novel explore sanity and insanity to greater lengths. Girl Interrupted starts with a question of people asking the author how he got there? And if there is likelihood that they may end up there too? But the author cannot give a certain answer to those questions and all he can say is that it is very easy to slip into a pararell universe. There are so many of them; worlds of the insane… (Kaysen)”.The use of the words ‘worlds of insane’ forecasts the mental illness that is expressed in the later pages of the novel. The words also lay a foundation for the expression of the theme of mental illness in the entire book. The opening sentences use insanity as an ambiguous word. Indeed, in the novel, Susanna is admitted to McLean Hospital for the mentally ill. She receives several diagnoses. It should be noted that the society usually confuses social non-conformity with insanity. Susanna was never mentally ill, and hence there was no need of committing her.

In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger uses a similar approach to that of Sylvia Path at the beginning of his book. The author also focuses on the personal nature of the narrator. The text goes, “if you really want to hear about it, the first thing you will probably want to hear is where I was born, a what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me. “All that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth…(Kaplan, 1999).” From these first sentences, one can deduce that the narrator does not understand his life. In fact, the author does tell us where he had to go and take to easy. However, it gives the reader the impression that Holden is an insane asylum at the current time. This brings out the theme of mental illness that is expressed in the entire novel.

The authors of the novels opted to use their primary characters or protagonist to reflect their gender. Furthermore, the opposite sex is responsible for causing the revulsion that later exists in the minds of each main actor or protagonist. For instance, the protagonist in The Bell Jar is Esther Greenwood who is a female hence mirroring the gender of the author, Sylvia Path who is also a woman. In the novel, the protagonist decides to have sexual encounters with men on realising that Buddy Willard, her boyfriend had sexual encounters with a waitress who was young in age, white in colour and free. Esther understood that being a virgin bruised her. She says that “ever since she knew about the corruption of buddy Willard, her virginity became like a milestone around her neck”. This depicts the viewpoints of Esther Greenwood about her virginity and the quest to cast out this virginity as soon as she realised her boyfriend Buddy Willard was no more. She felt that it was no longer necessary to continue being a virgin. Her desires to lose virginity was only to equal his boyfriend, Buddy Willard. In fact, she thought that her virginity made her feel like incomplete in front of Bill Willard. Sylvia Path uses the connotation of the word ‘millstone’ to imply that women are supposed to serve. It is always a burden to hold a heavy object. A reader would realise that the burden, in this case, is Esther Greenwood’s virginity. Therefore, it is essential to note that the author has repeatedly made use of the prospects of mental illness as a stage for dealing with the feminine and masculine argument. Similarly, the protagonist in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Mcmurphy who is of the male gender. The author Ken Kesey is of the male sex too. A quote from the novel shows that Mcmurphy dares to challenge nurse Ratched at what she does best. Mcmurphy aims to “…have her where she doesn’t whether to shit or go blind... (Kesey, 2017)” This quote challenges the nurse who is oppressing the patients. This challenge also throws the other characters under the state of anarchy and fear.

The novel, Girl also interrupted similarly to the other books in that the protagonist, Susanna Kaysen gender reflects that of the author. However, in this novel, Girl Interrupted, the characters who make Susanna Kaysen is of the same sex. Daisy commits suicide hence making Susanna Kaysen ask herself so many questions. She reflects on the effectiveness of the methods of treatment. Indeed, she gets lost in reality in attempting to come up with the answers to the questions.


In summary, one can easily deduce the discussed comparison in the approaches of all the four authors to segregate and present the main ideas of mental illness by using and fusing several techniques of literature. The first two novels, The Bell Jar and One, Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wonderfully beautifully portray mental illness. Similarly, the paper craftily uses the two supporting texts to support arguments on the form, language and structure used in describing psychological illness.


Jansson, J., 2015. The Monster Behind the Smile: An Analysis of Nurse Ratched’s Character in Kesey’s One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Wasserman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A Play in Two Acts.

Lui, E., 2016. Torn Together: An Analysis of Internal Conflict and Feelings of Guilt as Components of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (Master's thesis).

Marcarian, H. and Wilkinson, P.O., 2017. Sylvia Plath's bell jar of depression: descent and recovery–psychiatry in literature. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 210(1), pp.15-15.

Jansson, J., 2015. The Monster Behind the Smile: An Analysis of Nurse Ratched’s Character in Kesey’s One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Wasserman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A Play in Two Acts.

Collins, A., 2017. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Dean Brooks–psychiatry in the movies. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 210(4), pp.297-297.

Sabbagh, M.R.G. and Bozorgian, F., 2015. The bell jar: A study in characterization, figure, and ground. In 2nd Conference on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Language Teaching, Literature and Translation Studies (pp. 113-122).

McCann, J. (2012). The bell jar, by Sylvia Plath. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press.

Kaysen, S. (n.d.). Girl, Interrupted.

Evans, R. (n.d.). One flew over the cuckoo's nest.

Kesey, K. (2017). One flew over the cuckoo's nest. New York: Penguin Books.

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