Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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Exploration of sanity and societal norms in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey


In Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, sanity and societal norms are explored through the characters' interactions within a mental institution. The novel questions what constitutes true sanity, contrasting the oppressive, conformist society represented by Nurse Ratched with the individualistic, rebellious spirit of McMurphy. The story critiques how societal norms can marginalize and oppress those who deviate from expected behaviors.

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What is the message of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest touches on many themes, and could conceivably contain more than one "message," depending on how it's read and how readers focus their attention. One message you might explore is the nature of sanity, since the novel is set in a mental hospital. What is author Ken Kesey saying through the story about mental institutions, and their patients, and the hospital administrators? We know that the protagonist, McMurphy, gets admitted to the hospital by feigning mental illness to avoid prison. If McMurphy is not "insane," or mentally ill, how many other patients might be like him? Is Chief Bromden sane? Is Nurse Ratched? Is anyone?

Another possible message of the book concerns control and rebellion. McMurphy rebels against the rules imposed by Nurse Ratched, and encourages other patients to do the same. Why? Ultimately, his efforts cost McMurphy his life, but free Chief Bromden. Could the situation inside the hospital be similar to other institutions in America at that time? Could the situation be similar to government?

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What is the message of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The main message in this novel is that insanity is mostly a matter of the powerful calling people who are different or less powerful insane. The patients on the ward seem, in many ways, more sane than the people who run the mental institution. Nurse Ratched, for example, is a sadist who enjoys keeping the men on the ward as repressed and sick as possible so that she can exercise her power. Rather than hoping for them to get well and to have a healthy sense of their own power, she wants to keep the men submissive and repressed. She will use whatever means possible, including drugs and even lobotomies, to achieve her goals. In addition, McMurphy is put in the ward even though he isn't really insane so that he can avoid going to prison. Therefore, the definition of who is insane and who isn't is flawed.

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What is the message of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

In the late 1950's, American society was very conservative and predominantly of one culture. Thus, conformity was considered important in maintaining law and order. This conformity is challenged in Kesey's novel. In fact, his message is much like that of Emily Dickinson's little poem "Much Madness is Divinest Sense"

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain 
Authority, the "Combine," of technology and authoritarian types, Kesey seems to say, restricts individuality and dehumanizes people by controlling their behavior and emotional expression. McMurphy is the maverick who stokes the fires of creativity and ambition and expression, fighting against a stultifying system that insists upon controlling individuality. He is Thoreau's man that "marches to the beat of a different drummer" and rejects blind conformity; he is Emerson's individual whose mantra is "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string" because society is in conspiracy against the individual. As McMurphy expresses it,
"If you don't watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.”
Kesey suggests his message in the first part of his novel:
The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon....
The idea of moving away from the "circle" of society and blind conformity and being an individual, marching to one's own music, is central to Kesey's novel. In the conclusion, the Chief looks out the window before hurling the control panel through it and sees the moon, that moon from which he will soon move farther out as he escapes to his own person, his own stars.
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How is Kesey's message evident in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The original question had to be edited.  I think that Kesey's message is evident in the novel through McMurphy.  One of the novel's most critical themes is individuals asserting their voice no matter how overwhelming forces of social control and oppression might be.  McMurphy represents the idea that all people have the right to speak and be heard.  Regardless of the machinery and apparatus of control that subsumes individuals, it is the ability the individual to speak and be heard that defines their humanity.  This message is evident in how the other inmates are essential silent, dormant beings who buckle under Nurse Ratched's control.

Yet, this changes when McMurphy enters the ward.  He recognizes that she is "running things," but he will not be intimidated or silenced because of it.  He is able to embody the force of change by demanding that his voice be heard and seeking to form solidarity with others in demanding that they have their voices heard.  It is here where Kesey's message is so poignantly clear.  McMurphy is not content with having his own voice heard.  He wants the other inmates along with him to be heard, to have their experiences validated, and to rebel against Nurse Ratched.  McMurphy's use of voice is not simply an individualistic one, as it seeks to forge bonds of solidarity with others.  This becomes the important message from Kesey's work.  When individuals seek to broaden social alliances and generate solidarity, greater success will be evident.  Chief is able to rebel and break out because of McMurphy's willingness to reach out to him and create a sense of social cohesiveness.  It is here where the message of the novel is evident.

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How does Ken Kesey challenge societal views of sanity and insanity in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"?

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, author Ken Kesey consistently challenges our notions of sane and insane in a variety of ways.

First, Kesey’s protagonist, McMurphy, gains admittance to a mental hospital by faking insanity to avoid prison. If one person can fool the hospital administrators, it raises immediate questions in reader’s minds: How many other patients do not live with a real mental illness? Can the staff really tell the difference?

Continuing with this theme, Kesey reveals that Chief Bromden, another main character, has also fooled the hospital staff. He has been faking being deaf and dumb (an outdated medical term for one who is unable to speak) for years. Kesey also implies at several points that Bromden has been “cured” of his disabilities. This is indicated when the chief talks about “seeing clearly,” without the fog that clouds his vision before McMurphy arrives.

Furthermore, Kesey exposes the use of shock treatment (electroconvulsive therapy) and lobotomies, which were common treatments throughout the mid-twentieth century. After reading about these treatments (or seeing them on the screen), one might wonder if the hospital personnel are the insane ones.

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