Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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Critical Essay

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Intended for a general audience, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been popular with high school and college students because of its vivid prose, its sharply drawn and readily comprehensible characters, and its theme of self-reliance and self-respect.

This theme can be clearly seen in Kesey’s presentation of McMurphy as a Christ figure. McMurphy is crucified on a cross-shaped table when he undergoes electroshock therapy. The party that he and the others have on the ward is a kind of Last Supper, with pills and codeine-laced punch taking the place of bread and wine. Candy is a Magdalene, Billy Bibbit is a Judas, Nurse Ratched and her staff are Pharisees, and the twelve people whom McMurphy takes on the fishing trip are Disciples. Yet, there is a significant difference between McMurphy’s story and the Christian Gospels. According to the Gospels, when a storm blew up on the sea of Galilee, the Disciples awakened Jesus, who miraculously calmed the waters. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when McMurphy’s followers on the fishing trip ask for help, he stands in the doorway and laughs. In the Christian worldview, salvation comes by the grace of God; in McMurphy’s worldview, salvation can only come from within each individual.

A gambler, brawler, ladies’ man, and drifter, McMurphy also resembles figures from folklore such as the Roving Gambler and the Wagoner’s Lad, about whom he sings his first morning on the ward. He reminds Harding of the Lone Ranger. In an era when even the West has been settled and civilized, McMurphy makes Nurse Ratched’s ward a last frontier. The great American Dream that he pursues is the existential authenticity of nonconformity, or even of madness. (True madness, unlike neurosis, has its own authenticity, at least in this novel.) The worldview that presents nonconformity as such an unquestioned ideal divides the world and the people in it absolutely. Individualists are “good guys,” and representatives of restraining or civilizing forces are oppressive “bad guys.” Readers must decide whether such an antithetical worldview is a simplification that clarifies important truths or an oversimplification that distorts reality.

Paradoxically, this novel, which so clearly challenges oppression, uses sexist and racist language. Even more significant is that the novel generally characterizes women and African Americans unsympathetically. While the little Japanese nurse on the Disturbed Ward might provide an attractive role model for young female readers, the novel’s most vivid characterizations of women are all negative: McMurphy’s nymphomaniac, underage lover; the stereotypical prostitutes with hearts of gold and minds of plastic; and overwhelming, mechanistic, hypocritical, and emasculating figures such as Billy Bibbit’s mother, Chief Bromden’s mother, and, above all, Nurse Ratched. Similarly, although the African American night orderly, Mr. Turkle, is presented as relatively benign, he is also shown to be an incompetent substance abuser; and although Nurse Ratched’s day orderlies—Washington, Williams, and Geever—are presented as victims of oppression themselves, they are also characterized much more emphatically as hate-filled, perverted, sadistic instruments of oppression in their turn. While the novel’s language referring to minorities and women surely may be taken as representative of the American society in the late 1950’s, the pattern of these characterizations is unfortunate and not in keeping with the novel’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment of Chief Bromden’s problems with cultural assimilation and its championship of oppressed persons in general.

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Critical Context