What or who does Nurse Ratched symbolically represent in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?  Explain. 

Expert Answers
archteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is definitely more than one answer to this question, but  I would consider the following:

Chief's physical description of the nurse, particularly of her chest.  She has very large breasts, which are obviously symbolic of femininity and motherhood.  However, she goes out of her way to hide them, along with any other type of "softness."

Chief's hallucinations.  Chief sees the nurse at one point as a huge monster who can reach out and grasp people with her arms.  He believes that she has a bag full of mechanical parts that she uses to make alterations/installations in the patient's minds.

Her relationships with men.  It seems that the nurse is in control of men in the text (even men like Dr. Spivey, who rank above her).  What could this signify given that the story is set in the 1950's?

Her treatment of non-conformists.  If a patient doesn't fly right initially, the nurse finds a way to make him conform.  She ultimately destroys Macmurphy, the only one who is truly able to resist her.

If you consider all these ideas together, you'll probably figure out what the nurse represents.

novelist224 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator of the novel, "Chief" Bromden, describes Nurse Ratched as "the Combine" and as "Big Nurse," like a play on the idea of Big Brother in the book 1984. She is meant to represent unfeeling, machine-like oppression and authority. She is repeatedly described with words like "cold" that call to mind machines instead of human beings, and she is constantly trying to squash out any human weakness she finds. She is aware of everything that goes on within the psychiatric hospital, just like a computer security system would be, and she seems to have absolutely no heart inside her.

The only hint at her own humanity is the repeated allusions to her bosom. These make her seem softer and emphasize her femininity, but she covers them up as much as possible. She is trying to tamp down the humanness of her and embrace the mechanical, authoritative side of her, which, ultimately, is her role to play in the novel.

tsdeslauriers | Student

. Nurse Ratched is symbolic of the combine and the system. She is not those directly but holds the power to them. The idea of her getting bigger and bigger is shown through the text. The patients view her as a ferocious wolf. Harding explains, “The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf as the strong”... “Mr. McMurphy my friend I'm not a chicken, I'm a rabbit. The doctor is a rabbit. Cheswick there is a rabbit. Billy Bibbit is a rabbit. 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.” Coming from Harding, a non mentally-ill patient one with a relationship crisis is quite significant.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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