- Consider the characters of Harding’s wife, Chief Bromden’s mother, the prostitutes, Billy Bibbitt’s mother, and, of course, Nurse Ratched. What function do they serve and how do they affect the progress of the novel?
According to McMurphy, women such as Chief Bromden's mother, Billy's mother, Harding's wife, and, most of all, Nurse Ratched, are "ball-cutters." Seeking to emasculate men in order to control them, these women take from their husbands and sons their power. These women are, as McMurphy describes them in Chapter 4,
...people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to. And the best way to do this, to get you to knuckle under, is to weaken you by gettin' you where it hurts the worst."
Chief Bromden's mother, for instance, became "bigger" as his father "shrank." Convincing her husband to sell the tribal lands, Bromden's father is forced to take the surname of his white wife. After this, he "shrinks" because he has lost his identity and male name; the man becomes an alcoholic, and Bromden grows up in the shadow of his mother. This act of betrayal, this selling of the tribal lands, causes the Chief to perceive a conflict of machinery with humans as figuratively "the Combine" represents the repression forced upon him by his mother's actions.
Dale Harding's attractive wife is also a woman who figuratively castrates her husband, who has voluntarily committed himself to the mental institution as a means of escaping her. He admits his weakness to McMurphy, saying he and the other Acutes are "rabbits":
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.”
As he continues, Harding seemingly contradicts McMurphy about Nurse Ratchid; he contends she never accuses anyone of anything. Yet, he continues, she has the power to control them. For, she can send them upstairs where they can be given shock therapy, or for Billy, the worst thing is that the nurse can phone his mother after making intimidating notes in her book.
The other type of women are the whores, who weaken men in a different way. They provide men pleasure, but these women distract men from threats around them by engaging them in carnal pleasure.
The conflict between male and female is the archetypal conflict of man as a positive force and female as negative. For, the females emasculate the men, making them "rabbits" that are fearful, able to be exploited, and ineffective victims of the machinery of society and its controls over freedom and independence.