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Review of Sometimes A Great Notion
by Robert Waxman

      In Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, the three main male characters, Henry, Hank and Leland Stamper are manifesting ‘neurotic trends’ that are motivating their actions and affecting their relationships. Karen Horney defines a neurotic trend as, “a quality that develops early in life through the combined effect of given temperamental and environmental influences. In the absence of strong counteracting factors there is considerable danger that the trends acquired not only will persist, but in time will obtain a stronger hold on the personality” (1945, p. 43). This paper discusses the identification of neurotic trends in the personalities of these three characters, and how these trends cause conflict, suffering and loss of self.

      Henry, Hank, Leland Stamper (and other members of their family) are living in a house on the edge of a river. The local logger’s union is on strike, but the Stamper’s refuse to close down their logging business despite protests from the local logger’s union. This showing of independence, determination, and non-conformity are central themes throughout the novel.

     Henry does not trust the outside world and takes pride in his individualism. He does not care what others think of him, does whatever he chooses, and speaks his mind without holding back. His personality traits of independence, determination, and contempt for conformity are giving him the freedom to express himself. Instead of using this freedom to express the nature of his true self, he uses it in self-destructive ways. Henry escapes from freedom by getting drunk, insulting people, glorifying himself, and controlling others. He uses ‘protective mechanisms’ such as sarcasm, blame and guilt to bully others into acting according to his wishes. He enjoys feeling superior to others, and manipulates people to get his way. Even after his death, his detached arm is prominently displayed on a tugboat, symbolizing his defiance and resentment toward the collective mind of the logger’s union and the townspeople.

     In childhood, Henry’s father Jonah abandons the family after living in Oregon for three years. His mother and three brothers are left on their own and are dependent on the Stokes family for survival. One of the Stokes’ sons (Boney) convinces his mother to sign papers transferring the Stamper feed store over to the Wakonda Co-op. Boney assures them they are doing the right thing, however, Henry understands on an intuitive level that his family is never going to receive any benefits from joining the Co-op. He tells Boney, he is not expecting any privileges of membership, and proclaims that his family will survive on their own. Henry knows the Stokes family is cashing-in on their ‘generosity’ by taking advantage of the Stamper’s at their weakest moment.    

     This background information provides insights into Henry’s fear of trusting others, his need for emotional protection, and security.  Henry develops neurotic trends as a coping-mechanism, to survive in a desperate situation and terrifying environment. Never again will he allow anyone to take advantage of him or hurt him emotionally. When receiving a plaque in the mail from his estranged father reading “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”, he paints over the Biblical verse and writes ‘NEVER GIVE A INCH’. He is showing resentment toward his father and declaring his intellectual and spiritual independence. He is defining himself as the opposite of meek by choosing to become inflexible, stern, untrusting, non-conforming and aggressive. He is refusing to become financially or emotionally dependant on anyone, and is developing into a selfish and defiant individual. Later on, his wife tells him the motto on the plaque is appalling, and calls it a monstrosity. She tells Henry, this philosophy of life will lead to loneliness and emptiness. Her warning is prophetic as Henry becomes insensitive to other peoples’ feelings. He is not emotionally involved in family matters, and distances himself from his wife and sons.

     Henry’s childhood experiences are causing him to rebel against outside authority. He loses trust in people, organizations, religion, government, and societal rules. As a result of his childhood traumas, Henry develops neurotic trends. He becomes a perfectionist and manifests this compulsive behavior by demanding perfection from himself and others. He has a compulsive need for independence, and does not make personal commitments to any organization, community, or family member. He is also threatened by loss of security, and compulsively protects his house and business. He wants to maintain the status-quo and feel secure. He believes he will lose everything if he does not maintain complete autonomy. According to Horney, loss of security is primarily responsible for the compulsive nature of neurotic trends (1945, p. 43). Henry’s need for independence and security are taken to an extreme, and he becomes obsessive. His obsessive behavior is destroying his true self and the relationships with those around him.

     Henry’s neurotic trends are affecting his two sons, who are manifesting their neurotic trends in similar and different ways. All the Stamper men are living according to the motto: ‘never give an inch’. Like his father, Hank is determined to maintain the status-quo within the family. He lives in the same house he grew-up in, keeps the family logging business running smoothly, and spends time with his wife and family. His family and the logging business define who he is. Sometimes, he is like his father: selfish, insensitive toward his wife, and ruthlessly aggressive (throwing homemade bombs at the union-leader’s boat). Other times he is loyal (to his father), committed (to the business) and courageous (when trying to save Joe-Ben from drowning). However, unlike his father, Hank is friendly, shows emotion, offers affection, and has a sense of fairness. When he is determined, he shows the positive side of his nature. He is an inspiring leader in business and motivates the other men to meet the deadline for the logging contract. However, underneath his outer persona, he is motivated by a compulsive need for independence and security for himself and his family. Throughout the novel, Hank does not change his attitudes toward life and does not overcome his neurotic trends. Eventually, his world collapses when his father and cousin die, his wife leaves him, the business is sabotaged, and he and Leland have a bloody confrontation.

     One of Hank’s neurotic trends is a compulsive need for self-glorification. He has accepted the responsibility of trying to fulfill a huge logging contract that the company can barely handle. Everyone is forced to work under tremendous pressure to meet an unrealistic deadline that Hank has agreed to. If they finish on time, Hank will be viewed as a hero by his employees, family, and especially his father.

     Another of Hank’s neurotic trends is his compulsive need to gain recognition and approval. Like his father, he has a compulsive need for perfection which manifests itself on the job. By expecting others to work as hard as he does, he is striving for perfection. When his compulsive need to push everyone to their limit is not being effective, he feels threatened. If someone makes a mistake on the job, his compulsive need for perfection creates anxiety. Consequently, he becomes insecure about losing his battle with the forest and the forces of nature.

     Hank’s anxious feelings relate to his compulsive need to appear strong at all times. He never lets down his guard or allows anyone to see his weaknesses. However, he begins to understand that appearing strong is a false mask, and showing weakness is “true and real” (Kesey, 2006, p. 601). He accuses Leland of faking his weakness, but comes to realize that weakness cannot be faked – only strength can. With this admission, Hank is taking a first one step toward overcoming this neurotic trend by identifying it.

     Hank’s neurotic trends develop in childhood. His mother dies when he is ten, and initially, he does not speak to his step-mother (Myra). His father is emotionally unavailable to him, and he is left to fend for himself. Hank is developing defensive coping mechanisms to protect himself against a difficult father. These coping mechanisms develop into neurotic trends, which are necessary for Hank’s day-to-day emotional survival. According to Horney, “a child growing-up under difficult conditions develops a set of attitudes toward life which are fundamentally neurotic trends, and these he cannot change by free will but has to adhere to by necessity (1945, pp. 46-47). The child is forced to deal with his fears, inhibitions, vulnerabilities, false goals and illusory beliefs about the world (p. 47). As a child, Hank is facing these psychological challenges that are limiting him to defensive behaviors. As the novel progresses, he is becoming rigid, insensitive, emotionally disconnected, and intolerant of others. Unfortunately, he does not have many choices for altering his behavior and is becoming just like his father. He feels he must prove himself worthy of his father’s approval.

     Hank also has a compulsive need for security. Henry provides security for Hank by allowing him and his wife to live in Henry’s house, eat his food, and earn a living from his company. Consequently, Hank never takes life into his own hands and stays where he feels secure.

     Another of Hank’s neurotic trends is his compulsion to believe he is better than others. This is why he is constantly teasing, insulting and belittling Leland. He needs to feel superior to others, and is manifesting this trend by treating the union leaders and the striking loggers with distain. By believing he is better than these groups, he finds his identity. Hank’s final action of navigating the logs down-river for delivery (with Leland), is his way of proving he is better than the union and the conformity it represents.

     Hank has a complicated relationship with his younger brother Leland. This is the central personality conflict in the novel. Leland and Hank have two different mothers. While growing-up Hank receives attention from their father, while Leland is ignored. Henry is not interested in Leland, and justifies his behavior by thinking Leland is his mother’s (Myra) responsibility. Myra is much younger than Henry, and her primary responsibility is taking care of Leland. She is miserable living in Oregon and is not in love with Henry. She considers leaving many times, but does not leave until Leland is ready for college.

     When Leland is very young he watches his mother having sex with teenage Hank through a small hole in the wall. This is a crushing blow to Leland, and he hates Hank for taking advantage of his mother (even though the reader is not sure of who is taking advantage of whom). Here we find overtones of Freud’s ‘Oedipal Complex’ as Hank becomes a threat to Leland’s desire for his mother. However, Leland not only blames Hank for having sex with his mother, but also for her suicide. Leland’s hatred of his brother is his primary motivating force for returning to the Stamper house. He wants to destroy Hank’s life because he feels Hank destroyed his life and his mothers. 

     Since the novel is filled with Biblical references, it is interesting to note that these two brothers have a Jacob and Esau type of relationship (Genesis 27). Leland (second born) is like Jacob; smarter, physically weaker, and cunning. Hank (first born) is like Esau; hard-working, loyal to his father, and unaware of his brother’s devious intentions. As Jacob and Esau are wrestling for the blessing of their father, Leland and Hank are wrestling for the approval of their father. Jacob plans to ruin his brother’s life by stealing his father’s blessing, and Leland plans to ruin Hank’s life by stealing his wife. Both Jacob and Leland are successfully carrying out their plans, and both will suffer the consequences when their misdeeds are discovered. Esau hunts down Jacob and threatens to kill him (but decides not to), while Hank loses his temper and engages in an all-out fist fight with Leland (and could have killed him if he wanted to). 

     Leland’s compulsive behavior begins in childhood as he becomes submissive. His mother is submissive to his father, and he adopts a similar compulsive behavior. He clings to his mother with desperate devotion. This neurotic trend of submissiveness causes Leland to appear soft on the outside, while he is developing a hard core of self-sufficiency on the inside. Leland grows-up in the Stamper household which is filled with anger, aggression, stubbornness and pride. He cannot compete for attention in this environment since his father has no interest in him, and his brother is fulfilling the expectations of his father. As a young child, Leland does not want to play football, and Hank humiliates him while Henry looks-on in an approving manner. Henry and Hank are of the same mind, while Leland is sensitive and unsure of himself. To survive psychologically, he is forced to acquire coping mechanisms to guard against mean-spirited verbal attacks by Hank.

     Leland uses submissive behavior as a coping mechanism and hides behind his protective mother. This is how he survives psychologically, and feels safe and wanted. His significance in the Stamper house is minimal, and he grows-up without self-respect or feelings of self-worth. Consequently, Leland becomes insecure, fearful, lonely and filled with resentment. While living at home he is helpless against these strong outer forces around him, but when he leaves for college, he develops a compulsive need to hurt the person who has hurt him most - Hank.

     When Leland returns to the Stamper place, he and Hank talk about a game they played as kids called ‘the Hide-behind game’. The game symbolizes the relationship between them. It is a metaphor for their sibling rivalry and provides an insight into their feelings of animosity toward each another. The ‘Hide-behind game’ is also a reminder of Leland’s feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability when Hank is nearby.

     Leland’s neurotic trends of submissiveness and manipulation are rooted in his childhood relationship with Hank. However, as Leland returns home, he intends on switching roles with Hank and becoming the dominant one. Eventually, he devises a plan to sleep with Viv as payback to Hank for sleeping with his mother. However, as time goes by, he finds that his plan for revenge is difficult to implement. He comes to realize there are certain aspects of Hank’s personality that are likeable, and he begins falling in love with Viv. However, Viv tells Leland he needs ‘something’ rather than ‘someone’ to love. That ‘something’ is the true-nature of his self, which is longing for release from anger, suffering and pain.

     There are differences and similarities between the two brothers. Hank is part of the family group, while Leland is an outcast and a loner. However, Hank becomes a loner when he loses all the important people in his life: Henry, Joe-Ben, and Viv. At the end of the novel, the Stamper house is empty and the business has been crippled. Hank has nothing to belong to anymore and neither does Leland. They have both lost Viv, and both have nowhere to go. Now, they need each other for the first time and decide to cooperate by navigating the logs down the river. They are learning to respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and there is hope for their future relationship.

     At the end of the book, Kesey leaves us with the impression that Leland and Hank will forgive each other. If they decide to live in the Stamper house and keep the family business going, they will have an opportunity to start their lives over again. If they can overcome their compulsive feelings toward each other, there is a chance they will find meaning and purpose in life. By living in harmony with the flow of the river, they will find an inner freedom to be who they truly are.

    The neurotic trends of Henry, Hank and Leland are necessary psychological defenses created by unfavorable conditions stemming from their childhoods. The development of these trends represents the need to survive insecurities, fears, and loneliness (Horney, 1945, p. 45). Through most of the novel, all three men feel they must stay the course with their established behaviors. If they were to change, they would feel threatened by each other and the outside world. Instead, they each developed neurotic trends for coping with emotional pain and fear. According to Horney, “Every step that leads him closer to his real self and closer to others renders him less hopeless and less isolated and thereby adds to his active interest in life, including also his interest in his development” (1945, p. 300). These trends must be removed before the individual is liberated from the pain of inner conflict.


                                   Works Cited

Horney, K. (1945). Self-analysis. New York: W.W. Horton and Company.

Kesey, K. (2006). Sometimes a great notion (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books