What are some symbols in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and what is their significance? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several symbols in counter-culture Kesey's portrayal of a mental institution:

The Combine

Named after a huge farm machine that takes in corn and grain and grinds them down, the "Combine" is the name that the Chief assigns to the machinations of those in authority to impose control over individuals in concert with technology and, thus, make these individuals conform and become mere cogs on the wheel of humanity. The Chief perceives the Combine working to weaken and control the inmates of the asylum,

Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking about the street giving the product a bad name.

The Fog Machine

In a flashback to when he was a high school football player, the Chief recalls his encounter with one of the textile workers who worked in a factory that his team visited. This woman approached him, and the Chief remarked that the residue from the cloth created what seemed a fog between him and the young woman. This experience becomes a metaphor for what he now perceives in the asylum. Just as he misunderstood the woman's motives for talking to him, the fog represents a lack of insight and a blurring of reality. Sometimes, the chief hides in this fog.

The fog is also representative of the blurring of the men's minds that Nurse Ratched effects with her senseless routines, mind-dulling games, and humiliating treatment of the men. 

McMurphy's underwear

Black satin with white whales whose eyes are red, McMurphy's boxer shorts are a prized possession that he proudly shows to Nurse Ratched. As a mockery of the classic whale, Moby Dick, the shorts ridicule psychiatry's obsession with the interpretation of symbols. In addition, Moby Dick is a phallic symbol, so McMurphy challenges the emasculating female nurse in his suggestion of his manhood that lies behind the symbol. Also, the pattern connotes the Ahab/Moby-Dick relationship that is Ratched's to McMurphy's. Furthermore, Moby-Dick is symbolic of an untamed nature which can be likened to McMurphy, who is in conflict with institutional conformity. Finally, as the white whale was deified, which parallels McMurphy's role as a Christ figure who comes to redeem others, but sacrifices himself in doing so.

The Electroshock Therapy table

This table furthers McMurphy's significance as the sacrificial victim and Christ as it is constructed in the shape of a cross. One patient named Ellis was even nailed to the wall in the electroshock room.

The control panel

Located in the tub-room, the control panel is extremely heavy, but McMurphy tries to lift it; after his failure, he tells the others, "At least I tried." McMurphy argues that the Chief is capable of lifting this apparatus and throwing it out the window, but the Chief has no confidence. However, after "freeing" McMurphy from his lobotomized body, the Chief frees himself by pulling up the apparatus and hurling it through the window, taking "control" of his life as he escapes the institution. 

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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