What is the difference between a chicken and a rabbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?
In Chapter 4 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the control of Nurse Ratched is exemplified as she sets the men of the ward upon Harding after reporting his problems with his young wife in a Group Therapy session. After the others tear into Harding for his sexual problems, McMurphy asks if this is the way the meetings usually go, "Bunch of chickens at a peckin' party?" But, Harding tells McMurphy that he does not understand his "quaint" phrasing; so McMurphy explains. If a flock of chickens sees blood on another chicken, they will "go to peckin' at it" until they tear the chicken to shreds, "blood and bones and feathers." But, usually some other chickens are poked and bleed, so the flock begins to peck them madly, too. "Oh," McMurphy adds, "a peckin' party can wipe out the whole flock in a matter of a few hours...."
Harding asks McMurphy if he is the chicken with the blood spot that is preyed upon, and McMurphy tells Harding that he is. Thus, Harding is the victim of a predatory act by the other chickens. And, the nurse "pecks the first peck," so she is the greatest predator. But, Harding disagrees. Instead, he contends that he and the others in the institution are "rabbits" who accept their role in the ritual of group therapy as they recognize the "wolf." So, as rabbits they
...become sly and frightened and elusive and...dig holes and hide when the wolf is about.
But, he continues, he and the other rabbits of the ward need the wolf, Nurse Ratched, "to teach us our place"; that is, to keep them submissive and happy with their roles as rabbits.
The rabbits of the ward are victimized as they are intimidated into becoming Big Nurse's interrogators, Harding contends. They are not equal to her as chickens are who join in the pecking and fear no authority.
This section of the novel comes when Harding seeks to explain his position in the world and how Nurse Ratched maintains her dominance over the ward and the patients. He explains to McMurphy that he is not a chicken, in that he is not instinctively a coward, rather he is a rabbit. Note what Harding says about the role of the rabbit and the wolf that Nurse Ratched represents:
The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognise the wold as the strong. In defence, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows his place. He most certainly doesn't challenge the wolf to combat.
Harding goes on to explain that being a "rabbit" is an intrinsic part of somebody's identity. Whether they were in the ward or not, they would still be a rabbit. Being a chicken is acting out a role, or choosing not to challenge authority because of fear. Being a rabbit is different because it involves the acceptance of being the weaker person and recognising that this is a vital and intrinsic part of one's identity.