I recently finished reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and something in it struck me. It is an incredibly well-written novel that is focused on a mental health ward in the late 1950s. It is upsetting, and in places horrifying, as it shows the awful ways in which people were treated and has a vivid description of the electro-shock therapy that they were given.
I think one of the most disturbing things about it is the characters’ acceptance of it, they see all of these things as simply ‘part of their lives’ and do nothing to change it until McMurphy turns up. This kind of apathy is what I found the most troubling.
But I don’t want to talk about mental health treatment in the 1950s, I want to talk about the way that Kesey plays with time in his novel. It occurs over a relatively short space of time, but it appears both a much longer yet also much shorter length of time. There are references to the ‘the next day’ or ‘the next morning’ but then it is said that McMurphy has been there for a week. The timing doesn’t seem to match up.
This is at least in part because of Nurse Ratched, who Kesey says has the ability to change the speed of the clocks on the ward either making a single day last for weeks or making a day consist of a single hour. The control that she has over time clearly affects the characters and therefore this could be the reason that the timeline is difficult to follow. Either, that she is manipulating time throughout the novel or that the changing time has affected our narrator in such a way that he struggles to comprehend how much time has actually passed.
Time is an interesting one and is often used in novels as a symbol or a plot device. One such novel is The Great Gatsby (which I adore) in which time plays a crucial role as both symbol and plot device. Jay Gatsby spends his life trying to ‘repeat the past’ and this is then symbolised by things such as the falling clock. Another example is Shakespeare’s Othello (if you are a Shakespeare fan, I wrote a post about it a short while ago, you can find it here) where the long/short timeline is used in order to make the story work, there is the timeline that the play actually follows which is only a few days and the timeline that Iago appears to create which is much longer and more detailed.
There was a novel I read recently that used time in a different way. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is a story of woman looking back on her life. It begins with a short prologue regarding time which states that ‘time is not a line’ and that we look down through it ‘like water’. This idea is developed and explored throughout the novel in the way that the character – Elaine Risley – remembers different things at different times during the story and that memories are brought to the surface by specific events. The idea of time – and also in this case, memory – as something fluid brings up interesting thoughts about it’s consistency and perhaps the ways in which it can be manipulated.
I think that time is an extremely clever thing to use but that it can be difficult to use well… if done properly, however, it can really make you think about the way in which time affects your own life and maybe even how you can affect time.
Let me know what you think! Can you think of any other novels that use time?