In One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, what did the fishing trip mean for each of the men?
The fishing trip represents a resurgence of the patients' virility. Outside the asylum, the men can express themselves after McMurphy sets the tone for them. Deep sea fishing is a manly venture; added to this, there is a loose woman coming along.
Even before the men arrive at the dock, they stop to get gasoline in the doctor's car. When the gas station attendants think they are going to bully them, insisting that they need supreme gasoline and they want to buy sunglasses and other things, McMurphy steps in and gives orders to the employees. He tells them that they want regular gas at a discount of three cents a gallon less because they are on a government expedition. Then, McMurphy says that are not just ordinary patients from the asylum,
. . . we're every bloody one of us hot off the criminal insane ward, on our way to San Quentin where they got better facilities to handle us. . . . You see that big guy? He's an Indian and he beat six white men to death with a pick handle when they tried to cheat him trading muskrat hides. (part 3, Ch.2)
McMurphy also tells the attendants that he is a back-lot boxer who killed a man in the ring. Quickly, he yanks the ten-dollar bill out of an attendant's hand and tells him to charge the bill to the hospital because he is going to the grocery store nearby. When McMurphy returns, "everyone was feeling cocky as fighting roosters and calling orders to the service-station guys." For McMurphy has set an example of virility for them. Harding tells him, "Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. . . . " But McMurphy and the Chief realize that the men are just posturing; they are still not really brave.
When the captain of the boat refuses to take the men out because he does not have the proper papers signed, McMurphy suggests that they make a phone call. In a short while, he returns and tells the men. "Pile in, crew, it's all set! . . . " The doctor hesitates, asking if they should not wait for the captain. McMurphy grabs him and tells him the captain is calling a phone number that belongs to a Portland whorehouse. The old Swede pilots the boat, and the men catch fish, some of which are huge. On the way back to shore, the boat is waited down with the fish, and there are not enough life vests to go around. The doctor uses this fact as a counter-argument when the police and the captain are angrily waiting for them. But first, the doctor informs the policeman that he has no jurisdiction over their legal, government-sponsored expedition. If they wish to dispute anything, they must take it up with a federal agency, but there could be a problem because there were not enough life vests. The captain is quiet, and the policeman takes notes and leaves. Everyone shares a celebratory beer together. Billly makes a date with Candy, the prostitute who has been on the boat, and seems to have cast off his shyness and intimidation.
The fishing trip provides the men with a brief taste of freedom, a chance to escape the confines of the mental ward and Nurse Ratched's petty rules and regulations. Some of the men have never seen the ocean before, so this is a whole new experience for them, something of an adventure. The ocean is a particularly appropriate symbol of freedom, as it's open and seemingly endless. Out there on the ocean waves, the men are no longer confined psychiatric patients; they are explorers, setting out on a voyage of discovery in which they find something new and unexpected about themselves.
McMurphy tells the harbormaster that the men are all doctors from the institute. He makes George captain and Harding second in command. McMurphy's motives are not entirely pure: he wants to slip away and be alone with his girlfriend, but nonetheless he gives the men a rare taste of responsibility, an opportunity to be out there in the open air without any supervision. Ironically, it is only by adopting false identities, be it doctor, captain, or fisherman, that the men are able to find themselves on the fishing trip.
This is a scene from the novel that is difficult to visualize, even today: patients from a mental ward getting on a charter fishing boat and spending the day out on the water. This is part of McMurphey's struggle, almost from the moment he enters the institution, to convince the other inmates that they are still human, still men, still deserving of some of life's simple pleasures, and deserving of being out of Nurse Ratched's iron fisted control.
This act, however, is more than simple rebellion on McMurphey's part. It is perhaps the most normal event in the entire story, and provides a stark contrast to the daily life of the inmates. It is also a humanizing event in the eyes of the reader, where we are allowed to forget about both the mental illness and the abuse suffered by the characters in the story.
To chime in with brettd, I think this is a normal scene, but it's also vey steeped in Biblical allusions. Before they leave, one of the characters in the hospital pulls his hands off the wall and tells Mac to go and be a fisher of men. It's also important that it's not just the patients that are there, there is also the male Dr. Like the men on the ward, he has been emasculated by Ratched and the domineering women in the novel. This is his opportunity to become a "real man" as well. There is also the image of the men fishing for the leviathan of the deep. They are battling with this great evil, you could consider Nurse Ratched, or maybe even Moby Dick here, and the men are able to land this huge fish that impresses everyone. They have gone out and conquered the archetypal female image (the sea) and come back stronger for it.