While the novel is set in a mental hospital in Oregon and tells the story of a group of inmates, it deals with ideas that are important to all people.
1) What are these ideas or themes?
2) Describe incidents that illustrates these themes.
3) Identify the characters involved in these situations. Identify the protagonist and antagonist where applicable.
4) In what way are the themes linked?
Kesey's work speaks to a universal human condition. While the setting involves a mental hospital and its patients, there are ideas present in the novel that are important to all people. One such idea is the struggle to maintain individuality in the face of conformity. While McMurphy might challenge the readers to broaden their understanding of what it means to be a "hero," he is the force of transformation in the hospital. He seeks to challenge the authority structure, one that Harding calls a "matriarchy." Nurse Ratched not only represents unquestioned authority, but also represents the force of conformity. She wishes to ensure that everyone around her is submissive to her will. Chief notes this aspect of control that is intrinsic to her personality:
So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman's clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses' Station.
The "watchman's clock" is a direct reference to the sense of control that Nurse Ratched imposes on the other patients and those around her. It is this order that McMurphy wishes to undermine. When he challenges the other patients to rise up in opposition, it becomes clear that he seeks to break the conformist hold that Nurse Ratched has on all of their worlds:
Jesus, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are for Christ sake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets.
The struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched is representative of the battle that exists between individuals and the social settings that surround them which preach conformity and homogeneity. The fight for individual differentiation is an idea from the novel that applies to all human beings. On some level, there are forces which represent "Nurse Ratched" in our lives and we have to become the McMurphy characters who must question if we "got the guts" to raise our voices in opposition to such structure.
Such a condition illuminates another idea from the novel that applies to all human beings. The role of resistance becomes a critical idea in the novel. From McMurphy's sense of defiance to Chief's embrace of McMurphy's teachings, the novel speaks to how individual voice is a critical part of what it means to be human. The characters in the novel must make the conscious choice of whether to defy the structure that envelops them or capitulate to it. McMurphy's voice of anti- conformity is also one of defiance. Kesey's novel demands that individuals take stock of the conditions in their own world that seek to silence the authentic experience of the individual. It asks us under what conditions would we recognize that exercising voice for its own sake is its own intrinsic good, something that lies outside of consequences.
Both of these themes are linked to one another because of their impact on the characterizations' in the novel. Both McMurphy and Chief have to address the reality that the structure that surrounds them would be much happier to silence their voice. This silencing takes the form of repressing voice and eventually using technology in the form of medical science and lobotomies to ensure that voice is removed. They must recognize that the desire to activate individual voice brings with it great cost to themselves. In the choices they make, Kesey establishes the paradigm with which the reader must analyze their own sense of choice. At some level, the novel's discussion of conformity, activating individual voice, and defining what it means to be human on an subjective level challenges the reader to reflect. The interconnection between both themes and their effect on the reader is how the novel presents ideas that are applicable to all human beings. As the reader sees Chief and McMurphy make critical decisions that define who they are and what they shall do, the reader is forced to examine what choice they would have made and what choices they make in their own world regarding issues of power and justice.