What statements about human nature and society is Kesey making in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, there is the examination of man's struggle for individual freedom and the establishment of his sanity.

Statement #1  Man must struggle for his individuality in a conformist society that suppresses personal expression as a means of maintaining order.

In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Walso Emerson writes,

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.

Kesey concurs with this judgment of society, for in his novel the authority of society, represented by the "Big Nurse," dehumanizes the men in the ward.  Alienated from other Native Americans, Bromden withdraws into feigned deafness and the "fog" rather than be subjected to her dominance.  Harding, who has willingly committed himself further "surrenders his liberty" by allowing Nurse Ratched to make him "rabbit-souled" and intimidate, humiliate, and institutionalize him. 

Statement #2  One man's sanity may differ from that of another; there is no single definition for self-realization.

In one of her insightful poems, Emily Dickinson writes,

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -
The authoritative and controlling Nurse Ratched wishes her patients
to become institutionalized and compliant to her rules. For instance, when the Nurse learns that Billy Bibbitt has had sexual relations with one of the women who entered the ward, she threatens to tell his mother and intimidates him so much that he commits suicide. Likewise, she handles McMurphy "with a Chain" by having him subjected to electro-shock therapy. Yet McMurphy's "madness" has had much sense in it, for he has restored Bromden to a man; in addition, he has Billy to gain confidence and grow.
Certainly, McMurphy's refusal to surrender to the actions of the Nurse regarding the showing of the world series (her shutting off of the television) as he sits before the blank screen, indicate his strength of mind and hold upon his own independence. And, despite all the shock therapy to which he is subjected, McMurphy remains independent, defying the control of the Nurse. In contrast to other patients, McMurphy understands that the Nurse's authority is dehumanizing.
Read the study guide:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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