In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched uses an extensive system of rules and regulations, as well as an ordered routine, to keep the asylum patients under control. Note the rules and...

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched uses an extensive system of rules and regulations, as well as an ordered routine, to keep the asylum patients under control. Note the rules and examine what purpose they serve. How are the rules on the ward determined? Are there any examples of rules in this novel that actually are for a person's (or a patient's) own good?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kesey's novel demonstrates how those in the position of power can use rules as a way to consolidate power.

In keeping a list of the rules that Nurse Ratched employs, you can focus on everything from the smallest to the largest ones.  All of them are ways to enhance her own control.  For example, one rule that would make the list is how all of the patients must be together at all times.  It is stated that if patients were on their own, they would "brood."  This makes it easier to control the patients because they lack the experience of independence.  Being apart from the group would enable them to think critically about their surroundings.  The rule of forced socialization is done to enhance the nurse's control.

Rules about where patients can and cannot go are how patients have their movements monitored.  This increases the power of authority because it denies freedom of mobility.   Some of the rules are so detailed that they could only be for control purposes.  Toothpaste being locked away because it could be used as a means of escape or a weapon is one such example. Another one would be to ensure that staff members are not allowed to eat with patients.  Finally, the music that is played reflects this routine form of existence.  These rules enforce the hierarchical structure that gives authority figures like Nurse Ratched her power. 

Despite claims about the process of determining rules being "democratic," the patients are not able to collectively or individually create lasting change. For example, patients cannot voice their opinion about the medicine they take or whether they wish to take it.  Nurse Ratched suggests that if they don't take it, they won't get well and "reasonable" people would want to get well.  In creating this dynamic, she is able to control the decision-making ability of the patients, and in doing so denies democracy.  This shows how rules are not actually for the good of the patients, but rather a way to maintain control.

Kesey depicts a world where authority does not demonstratively dominate. Nurse Ratched is not an outward fascist.  She smiles and seems very "reasonable."   Authority creates the impression that everyone who is "reasonable" agrees with the rules and those who don't are "unreasonable."  This is another form of control.  It is the way that Nurse Ratched and her staff are able to subdue the men.  McMurphy sees through this, and for this reason he is deemed a threat.

These examples show how rules are meant to increase control over the patients. Given how many rules are designed to enhance authority's power, I am not sure that a single rule is geared toward a person's or patient's own good.  Nurse Ratched and her staff do not make the attempt to authentically and therapeutically work with the patients.  They do not seek to create bonds through which the patients can get well.  Instead, led by Nurse Ratched, the staff makes the judgment that the patients are not worthy of such an approach and must be controlled:

Please understand: We do not impose certain rules and restrictions on you without a great deal of thought about their therapeutic value. A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside World, because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them... That foolish lenience on the part of your parents may have been the germ that grew into your present illness. I tell you this hoping you will understand that it is entirely for your own good that we enforce discipline and order.

Nurse Ratched's blanket condemnation of the men as deviants who need structure and order reflects how the rules are not necessarily for their own good as much as they are to establish authority's power and control.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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