One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest is a novel by Ken Kesey. It was first published in 1962. It is set in an American psychiatric hospital and is written from the perspective of one of the patients, thus showing to the reader what life in a psychiatric hospital is like. One of the main themes in the novel is the theme of power. Nurse Ratched is an extremely authoritarian person who rules very strictly over the ward. When a very self-confident new patient arrives, McMurphy, her well-established power is suddenly challenged.
The author’s main message about power in this novel is that power comes easy for someone in a position of authority. In the outside world, in the 1950s and early 1960s, a woman like Nurse Ratched would never have been able to be as powerful as she is able to be on the ward. Back then, women were still treated very unequally compared to men. A man was seen as the head of the family, the person in charge. A woman was supposed to merely support her husband and otherwise obey him. However, away from her home, at work, Nurse Ratched is able to express a lot of power over her male patients. This is only possible because of the institution she works in and her senior role within that.
Kesey also shows the reader that a rise of female power is often linked to a loss of sexuality and masculinity within men. Nurse Ratched is portrayed as such an overpowering, terrifying, and dehumanising character that the male patients on the ward feel as if they had lost all their masculinity—as if they had been castrated. This further cements Nurse Ratched’s position of power. However, her power is suddenly challenged when McMurphy appears, a man who is still very much interested in sex and who clearly feels very masculine compared to the other patients. This clearly shows the link between sexuality and power in this novel.