In Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, how does the nurse emasculate the patients and how does McMurphy rebel against her. Can I get some quotes as well. Also quotes on the theme of power.

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of power runs throughout Ken Kesey’s classic of American literature One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the test of wills between Nurse Ratched (the Big Nurse) and newly-arrived inmate Randle McMurphy providing the battleground upon which the struggle for power will play out. From the novel’s beginning, with McMurphy’s arrival from the prison farm, it becomes apparent that a power struggle will likely ensue, and that the Big Nurse represents the ultimate authority in this institution. Unfamiliar with his new surroundings and with the notion of an established hierarchy, McMurphy wastes no time presenting the appearance of imminent rebellion, a rebellion that Nurse Ratched understands must be put down immediately lest some of her power be seen as weakening. In the following passage from Part 1, Ratched is responding to a call for her appearance to confront the new and troublesome inmate, McMurphy:

“The Big Nurse tests a needle against her fingertip. ‘I’m afraid’—she stabs the needle down in the rubber-capped vial and lifts the plunger—‘that is exactly what the new patient is planning: to take over. He is what we call a ‘manipulator,’ Miss Flinn, a man who will use everyone and everything to his own ends’.”

Nurse Ratched correctly assesses that McMurphy poses a potential threat to her power and to her ability to control the environment with absolute authority, authority not even questioned by the attending physician, traditionally a superior position in a medical facility’s organizational structure. During a scene in which the patients are discussing ways to enliven their environment and their lives, the suggestion of a carnival is raised, to which the physician expresses an interest. The following passage illuminates the actual hierarchy within this particular medical facility, and the extent to which Nurse Ratched represents the highest authority:

“Oh, there are numerous possibilities,” the doctor says , sitting up straight in his chair and really warming to it. “Why, I’ve got a million ideas ...”

He talks full steam ahead for another five minutes. You can tell a lot of the ideas are ideas he’s already talked over with McMurphy. He describes games, booths, talks of selling tickets, then stops as suddenly as though the Nurse’s look had hit him right between the eyes. He blinks at her and asks, “What do you think of the idea, Miss Ratched? Of a carnival? Here, on the ward?”

“I agree that it may have a number of therapeutic possibilities,” she says, and waits. She lets that silence rear up from her again. When she’s sure nobody’s going to challenge it, she goes on. “But I also believe that an idea like this should be discussed in staff meeting before a decision is reached. Wasn’t that your idea, Doctor?”

The doctor, of course, meekly retreats from his previously enthusiastic position with respect to the carnival suggestion. If Nurse Ratched can exercise this level of control over the more highly-trained and educated physician, imagine what authority she can exercise over the patients, all, with the exception of McMurphy, are there voluntarily, thereby, as McMurphy will point out, demonstrating their innate weaknesses as human beings. Nurse Ratched continuously, of diplomatically, demeans the patients and reaffirms her position of power over them. The novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden, describes a typical scene involving Nurse Ratched and the patients, further demonstrating her absolute control:

“She stops and nods at some of the patients come to stand around and stare out of eyes all red and puffy with sleep. She nods once to each. Precise, automatic gesture. Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive babydoll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils—everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom.”

Bromden’s narration describes the managerial style of Nurse Ratched as being entirely consistent with a form of psychosis characterized by sadism and megalomania, evident in her approach to hiring and retaining the African American orderlies she selects on the basis of their capacity to hate. If she adopts such a stance with regard to her own enforcers, what regard is she likely to have for the patients in her care, who are seen as defying authority merely by inquiring as to the nature of the medication he is being forced to take:

“’That’s all right, Miss Flinn,’ she says. ‘If Mr. Taber chooses to act like a child, he may have to be treated as such. We’ve tried to be kind and considerate with him. Obviously, that’s not the answer. Hostility, hostility, that’s the thanks we get. You can go, Mr. Taber, if you don’t wish to take your medication orally.’”

The implication, of course, is that Mr. Taber will be restrained and administered the medication in a less pleasant manner, such as intravenously or through the rectum – the latter representing the ultimate humiliation.

McMurphy, of course, does not suffer from any particular mental or emotional disorder. He is there as part of a ruse to escape the hard labor associated with the prison farm. The concept of total subjugation to a higher authority is completely alien to him, and his rebellion against Nurse Ratched’s system begins small and picks up steam as the novel progresses. The “small” involves his effort at democratizing the process by which decisions are made at the hospital. Baffled by the willingness of his fellow patients to submit to such an authoritarian system, McMurphy challenges Harding and the others to stand up for their rights:

 “McMurphy looks at me a while, then turns back to Harding. ‘Man, I tell you, how come you stand for it? What about this democratic-ward manure that the doctor was giving me? Why don’t you take a vote?’

Harding smiles at him and takes another slow drag on his cigarette. ‘Vote what, my friend? Vote that the nurse may not ask any more questions in Group Meeting? Vote that she shall not look at us in a certain way? You tell me, Mr. McMurphy, what do we vote on?’

‘Hell, I don’t care. Vote on anything. Don’t you see you have to do something to show you still got some guts? Don’t you see you can’t let her take over completely? Look at you here: you say the Chief is scared of his own shadow, but I never saw a scareder-looking bunch in my life than you guys.’”

 McMurphy, of course, grows increasingly agitated at Nurse Ratched’s sense of order and discipline. Such an environment as she has created is alien to him; the rigidity of her structures is confining and illogical, as when she refuses to allow the schedule to be altered so that he and the others can watch the World Series. It is Harding, the displaced leader of the patients, who sums up the world in which they are living with respect to the nature of individuals and the power structures to which they must submit:

“This world . . . belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must face up to this. No more than right that it should be this way. We must learn to accept it as a law of the natural world. The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf is the strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows his place. He most certainly doesn't challenge the wolf to combat. Now, would that be wise? Would it? . . .Mr. McMurphy ... my friend ... I’m not a chicken, I’m a rabbit. The doctor is a rabbit. Cheswick there is a rabbit. Billy Bibbit is a rabbit. All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees, hippity-hopping through our Walt Disney world.”

McMurphy is not a rabbit. He is a social misfit and a petty criminal, but he is most definitely not a rabbit. His experiences during the Korean War, most notably his leadership efforts while a prisoner-of-war and eventual discharge, speak to both his courage and to his inability to tolerate disciplince. As his minor acts of rebellion escalate to full-scale revolt, with the electroshock therapy gradually but surely wearing him down, the novel moves towards its ultimate act of rebellion and the price McMurphy will pay for his resistance to authority: the lobotomy to which he is subjected. The raunchy party he instigates one night in the hospital that results with Nurse Ratched’s demeaning and threatening comments towards Billy Bibbit, which cause the young and eminently decent young man to slit his own throat is the culmination of a process begun with the introduction into Ratched’s finely-tuned world of an individual both sane and defiant.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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