Criticisms of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest vary greatly depending upon the perspectives of those evaluating it and the time period in which criticisms have been written. So, since this format is limited, discussion of this novel will be directed toward it as one written in 1962 in which feminist views were not as overriding as they are today. Kesey's novel, too, was composed from his personal experiences as an employee in a mental institution, so the reader must give a certain credibility to his perspective.
In such places, there were often sadistic individuals who worked there as they enjoyed the power that they had over captive and weakened people. It would certainly not be unusual for misandrists to be among those employed in such a place as the hospital in which McMurphy is put. Realizing, then, that the big logger is a man who thinks of women in terms of sex most of the time, Nurse Ratched could easily feel even more antipathy toward him than the other weakened inmates of the ward. Also, in the closed environment of the ward, the "Big Nurse" can feel empowered and exert this control to her advantage, as she cleverly does. Thus, she is an emasculating woman. Even Dr. Spivey, who ranks above her as the ward psychiatrist, is intimidated by her.
For the Chief, Nurse Ratched is symbolic of the Combine and the mental health system of the late 1950's and early 1960's, as she becomes larger and larger in the perspective of the men. Shortly after McMurphy arrives in the ward, the emasculated Harding explains that the patients view Nurse Ratched as a wolf:
“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. Oh, don't misunderstand me, we're not in here because we are rabbits-we'd be rabbits wherever we were-we're all in here because we can't adjust to our rabbit hood. We need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach us our place.”
It is, then, because McMurphy is not a "rabbit" that he conflicts so strongly with the domineering nurse, rather than because of misogyny upon his part, although he does have a rather chauvinistic attitude, one not untypical for his time. Nevertheless,
Readings that emphasize racist and sexist attitudes blame Kesey for creating stereotypical characters who are used to convey a white macho-paternalism that degrades women and blacks.
Nurse Ratched and McMurphy's attitudes toward the black workers is stereotypical of the time frame in which the narrative occurs, as is the workers' personal responses. (McMurphy calls the three orderlies "coons" a few times and uses the pejorative n***** for Washington.) Marginalized in society, these men realize that their employment opportunities are limited, as are their options for reacting to their mistreatment. Many of their actions, then, are done in rebellion against the environment in which they are so marginalized. For instance, they are cruel to the Chief because he also is a minority and supposedly he is deaf and will not speak about anything, anyway.
One must also emphasize that the story, written as a tall-tale with metaphor, belongs to the Chief as the main character (although McMurphy was portrayed as the central character in the movie). While he is half-white clearly, his soul is that of the Native-American and he represents the terrible effects that the oppression of his race have had upon a once proud people. As the "free goose" who has flown over "the cuckoo's nest," McMurphy leads the Chief to the realization that his enslavement in society and in the ward is due to his own surrender to the "Combine," the machinery of white people [Nurse Ratched is referred to at one point as "her and her chalk doll whiteness"] which took his father's land away, as he relates in his flashbacks to his childhood. In the first chapter of Part 4, Chief narrates that the orderlies accuse him of soaking with his urine the pillows on which he lies, but he cannot remember. However,
...I couldn't remember all of it yet, but I...tried to clear my head....I never worked at coming out of it before....I saw an aide coming up the hall with a tray for me and this time I had them beat.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fits into a category of literary works that portray protagonists in search of freedom against a society determined to restrict that freedom, whether through racism, sexism, or institutional control.