Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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Write an explication that includes all three of the following literary elements: theme, imagery, and symbols. Be sure to discuss all three elements: one in each body paragraph (theme, imagery, and symbols) with regard to Kelsey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  

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Explications de texte are 

...detailed yet relatively objective examination of structure, style, imagery, and other aspects of a work.

Explications are composed of the following:

  1. A short summary of the literal content under examination
  2. A description of the type of text that is used
  3. The figurative devices used in the text 
  4. A conclusion   []

For assistance with the summary, see the eNotes summary.

The following is given as an aid to number 3 (figurative devices):

  • Symbolism

The Fog

As narrator, the Chief alludes to the Fog as a means of placing the inmates of the institution under conditions in which they cannot think clearly. It seems that this fog symbolizes the effects of the drugs which the patients are given, drugs which place them in a sort of stupor in which they do not become angry or excited. Thus, they are in a medicinal fog that Bromden perceives as permeating the atmosphere of the institution. Sometime Bromden welcomes this fog that "gets thick enough that you're lost in it and can let go, and be safe again."

Pecking Parties

According to McMurphy in Chapter Five, Nurse Ratched’s Therapeutic Community meetings are pecking parties. She has one of the men speak and then she points out a failing or weakness in him; after she does this, the other men follow her lead in criticizing him. McMurphy compares the Big Nurse's method to how chickens react when one of them is hurt and bleeding; they all attack it and peck it to death.

Rabbits and the Wolf

In Chapter Five, Dale Harding, a very educated patient who is also weak, tells McMurphy that Nurse Ratched controls the meetings in her sadistic manner because the patients are rabbits and she is the wolf. Her nature, like that of the wolf, is predatory as she delights in exposing the men's weaknesses. Harding tells McMurphy,

She has a genius for insinuation....Did you ever hear her...accuse me of anything? Yet it seems I have been accused of a multitude of things....
The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak....In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about....he endures....He knows his place.

The Combine

The Chief alludes often to the Combine, a symbol of the oppressive forces of society and those in authority. These forces are a huge conglomeration. (In agriculture a combine is a huge and formidable harvesting machine that combines the operations of at least three separate farm machines. It gathers up an entire crop and separates it into parts.)
Bromden imagines that Nurse Ratched operates this combine and he is frightened that he will become a victim of this psychological machinery that he thinks he hears behind the walls.

McMurphy as a "comic-book Christ"

At one point Harding explains electroshock to McMurphy as much like a crucifixion:

"You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns."

McMurphy certainly becomes the sacrificial victim of the institution because he brings laughter to the men as a defense against their subjugation by Nurse Ratched. She later has him given electroshock, and finally a lobotomy, an operation that renders McMurphy helpless. 

  • Imagery

White enamel

In Chapter 1 of Part II, Bromden describes Nurse Ratched as having a "white enamel face" that leans over her desk. It also "warps and flows" and then pulls back into shape before she comes out. This image of enamel is that of a false and impenetrable facade.


When Nurse Ratched walks past him in the hallway where Bromden is by himself, he feels the coldness of ice where she has been. The chill that he feels is the lack of human warmth in Nurse Ratched.

Green Seepage

The Chief narrates that when the staff congregates, there is a green fog surrounding them. Afterwards, he has to clean the "green seepage" that they leave behind on the walls and the windows, and even in the drains of the latrine. It appears to Bromden as a hazardous substance.

  • Themes

—Society and the Individual

Because most of the patients have voluntarily committed themselves, it is apparent that they are in conflict with a society that they feel represses them in various ways.

Society is like a machine that is unconcerned with the individual; the Chief alludes to the Combine that gathers everyone and places them all together in conformity.

—Insanity and Sanity

Apparently, there are conflicting definitions of insanity. For example, Chief Bromden has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but his thinking does not seem unclear, and he is certainly aware of the personalities of others. For instance, his evaluation of Nurse Ratched is fairly accurate.

In this novel Kesey questions what society considers sanity because in his narrative he presents nonconformity as a form of insanity:

...society's definition of "madness" as something used by an authoritarian culture to dehumanize the individual and replace it with an automaton that dwells in a safe, blind conformity. (eNotes)

—Christ-like Death and Redemption

McMurphy's sacrificial death to institutionalization and conformity redeems Bromden, who then has the courage to break out of the institution and renew his freedom and no longer be "a robot."

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