Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey
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What are some key motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

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One key motif in Cuckoo's Nest is power. Chief Bromden thinks incessantly about The Combine, an entity he he believes runs the world, or at least the mental hospital in which he is confined. He imagines some type of apparatus or machine literally at work behind the hospital walls, monitoring...

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One key motif in Cuckoo's Nest is power. Chief Bromden thinks incessantly about The Combine, an entity he he believes runs the world, or at least the mental hospital in which he is confined. He imagines some type of apparatus or machine literally at work behind the hospital walls, monitoring patients and making them fall into line. The Chief does not believe he has any true control over his thoughts and actions, and has thus lost touch with his identity. He has surrendered power, along with the other patients, to Nurse Ratched, who represents the establishment.

Another motif is deception, which author Ken Kesey weaves into his main theme of the nature of sanity. The story's protagonist, Randle McMurphy, is a convicted criminal who feigns mental illness to land in a mental hospital instead of prison. He's not mentally ill, but has somehow tricked doctors into declaring otherwise. And Chief Bromden, of course, has deceived hospital staff and inmates for years by pretending to be deaf and dumb. But he is not deaf and dumb, and may or may not be mentally unstable.

Conversely, Nurse Ratched and the hospital staff have been deceiving patients by conditioning them to depend on drugs and therapy, rather than working toward addressing their real issues. In one scene, McMurphy is flabbergasted to learn that most of his fellow patients volunteer to receive hospital treatment. They could walk away, but don't. Part of the reason for this, undoubtedly, is that if patients try to buck the system too much, they are lobotomized and can become human vegetables, unable to move and think, as McMurphy would have been at the end of the novel had Chief Bromden not euthanized him.

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Two of the key motifs in this excellent novel are the perception of size and the power of laughter. An interesting aspect of Bromden's narration is the way that he describes the size of people not based on their appearance but based on the way that they are controlled or control others. This is why although he is six feet seven inches tall, at the beginning of the group he describes himself as small. He tells McMurphy that "I used to be big, but not no more." Nurse Ratched, on the other hand is "big as a tractor" because she controls so many others, Bromden himself included. However, during the course of the novel, thanks to the intervention of McMurphy, Bromden regains his real size as he builds up his self-esteem, individuality and sexuality.

Laughter is another key motif, particularly focused in the character of McMurphy, who, as Bromden and the other patients see him for the first time, sounds out a laughter that is in stark contrast to the patients and his surroundings:

He stands looking at us, rocking back in his boots, and he laughs and laughs. He laces his fingers over his belly without taking his thumbs out of his pockets... Even when he isn't laughing that laughing sond hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing--it's in his eyes, in the way he smiles and staggers, in the way he talks.

McMurphy's ability to laugh is in marked opposition to the patients' inability to laugh, as they can only smirk and smile behind their hands. For McMurphy, laughing is synonymous with sanity, and his ability to laugh in the face of the craziness of life actually is shown to keep him sane. Key to realise is the way that on the fishing trip, the other patients laugh for the first time for a long time, indicating their move from insanity towards sanity.

 

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