Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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Student Question

Which words on page 10 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest establish the atmosphere?

Expert Answers

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Without knowing which edition is alluded to, it is impossible to know what exactly is on the student's page 10, but the assumption will be made that the Signet Book is the edition used. Referring to this edition, then, in Part I as the narrator who is referred to as "Chief" because he is half Native American walks along with his broom, he describes the orderlies who work in the mental hospital where he is a patient as "hating everyone."  Further, he describes the atmosphere as dark and foreboding in several ways:

  • "Hum of black machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets."
  • The Big Nurse turns her keys in the locks with her fingers which have the nails painted a "funny orange...[L]ike the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can't tell which."
  • The Nurse carries a wicker bag which contains "a thousand parts she aims to use." There are, according to Chief, "forceps, watchmaker pliers, roll of copper wire, wheels and gears, cogs, and tiny pills."
  • The Nurse, too, is like a machine.

Chief Bromden, the narrator, perceives the Big Nurse as mechanical herself. For, he describes her as such when she spots the three orderlies huddled together. "She goes into a crouch" and "swells till her back's splitting out the white uniform" and her arms "section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five or six times." The Chief says that he can "smell the machinery." 

The frequent mention of machinery metaphorically expresses the dehumanization within the hospital. In addition, the depersonalization is furthered by the orderlies' and the nurse's ignoring the Chief's presence because they think he cannot hear them because he is deaf. There is also fear expressed as the orderlies are going to be torn "limb from limb" by the Nurse and the Chief falls backward against the wall when she passes him. 

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