The central theme of the story is how Chief Bromden becomes strong, self-confident, and sane again. This rescue and transformation succeed because McMurphy treats him as a worthwhile, intelligent, and sane individual. In addition, McMurphy gives him the example of standing up to and occasionally beating the apparently all-powerful Combine.
That machine is the central symbol of evil in the story. The Chief accurately sees that the powerful in society subtly and unsubtly coerce people into becoming cogs in the machine. The Chief imagines the ruling part of the mechanistic society as a combine, which is a huge harvesting machine. It chews up the growing plants in the field and spits them out as identical products for sale. Thus, the Combine is the machinelike conspiracy that sucks people in, turns them into robots, and spits them out to carry out the Combine’s will in society. In the cuckoo’s nest, the repair shop for the Combine, the same kind of oppression continues. The shop symbolizes the hidden oppression operating in the outside world. The patients are broken-down machines that the asylum seeks to adjust. The Big Nurse’s basic method is to destroy the patients’ self-confidence by making them admit their guilt, shame, and uselessness.
Into that repair shop McMurphy comes, a man free from the controls of the Combine because he never stays in one place long enough for the controls to be installed. He is an outsider, like the three geese flying overhead in the song: One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest. The last goose comes to rescue the singer, just as McMurphy rescues the Chief, who is the singer of this novel-length song. The Chief, the narrator of the story, provides a central source of its power. Readers initially see the ward through the Chief’s psychotic haze. His fantastic visions show his paranoia and how oppressive the asylum really is. Then as McMurphy brings him back to sanity, the picture gradually clears, the fantastic visions becoming realistic. The Chief comes to see that his slavery is due not only to the Combine but also to his own capitulation. McMurphy’s refusal to give in provides the example the Chief needs to give him confidence in his own ability to live freely.
The Chief sees McMurphy not only as the goose who rescues the slaves from a cuckoo’s nest but also as other popular culture heroes. He speaks of him as a superman, calling him a giant come out of the sky to rescue them. Often the Chief describes him as a cowboy hero coming into town to gun down the bad guys. In particular, one of the patients identifies McMurphy as the Lone Ranger. The allusion that the Chief uses most to place McMurphy in the pantheon of heroes is that of Jesus, the self-sacrificing savior. On the fishing trip, for example, the group is called McMurphy and His Twelve, and one patient tells them to be fishers of men. On the way back, the Chief sees McMurphy as a Man of Sorrows, doling out his life for his friends. The shock treatment takes place on a table shaped like a cross, with McMurphy referring to their anointing his head and asking if he will get a crown of thorns. A patient speaks like Pilate, saying he washes his hands of the whole affair. The ward party is a Last Supper parody. In the end the powers destroy McMurphy by lobotomy, just as Jesus was killed by the Combine of his day. After that, the Chief (a big fisherman) escapes to tell his story, just as Jesus’ disciples escaped.
Though the Chief’s portrait of McMurphy in some central ways alludes to Jesus, in a variety of other ways it provides a contrast. McMurphy is not simply a selfless savior; he is also the fabled western American fighter, sexual braggart, and con man, which contrasts with Jesus’ nonviolence, chastity, and honesty. In particular McMurphy promotes sexual indulgence as a saving activity. In the story, however, the Chief realizes that sexual indulgence is what leads to Billy’s death, thereby portraying his savior as far from perfect. That imperfection has led some critics to object to the novel as promoting immorality. Whether one considers that the novel promotes immorality or not depends on whether one takes McMurphy as a model for all that is good. The Chief does not. He sees the good and the bad in his rescuer. An even stronger criticism made of the novel is that it is misogynist. The women in the novel are either tyrannical emasculators or sweet-natured whores. The novel offers no example of an ideal woman; it offers no model men either; McMurphy’s considerable weaknesses lead to his destruction.
The great value of the novel is that it provides a picture of a universal fact of human life. Oppression of the weak by the strong is a constant reality. Rebellion by the weak is occasionally successful and can appropriately be celebrated and encouraged by stories such as this. In the end, the two chief opponents, Big Nurse and McMurphy, do not provide the only two choices available to readers. Instead, the model is the Chief, for he gains his free life again and lives to tell the tale.