Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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Themes, Imagery, Symbols, and Characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest explores themes of individuality versus conformity, the power dynamics within institutional systems, and the struggle for personal freedom. Key imagery includes the fog, representing confusion and control, and the electroshock therapy table, symbolizing societal oppression. Important symbols are McMurphy's cap, representing rebellion, and Chief Bromden's escape, symbolizing liberation. Major characters include Randle McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and Chief Bromden.

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What themes are prevalent in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and how are they illustrated and linked? Who are the characters involved, including the protagonist and antagonist?

Kesey's work speaks to a universal human condition.  While the setting involves a mental hospital and its patients, there are ideas present in the novel that are important to all people.  One such idea is the struggle to maintain individuality in the face of conformity.  While McMurphy might challenge the readers to broaden their understanding of what it means to be a "hero," he is the force of transformation in the hospital.  He seeks to challenge the authority structure, one that Harding calls a "matriarchy."  Nurse Ratched not only represents unquestioned authority, but also represents the force of conformity.  She wishes to ensure that everyone around her is submissive to her will.  Chief notes this aspect of control that is intrinsic to her personality:  

So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman's clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses' Station.

The "watchman's clock" is a direct reference to the sense of control that Nurse Ratched imposes on the other patients and those around her.  It is this order that McMurphy wishes to undermine.  When he challenges the other patients to rise up in opposition, it becomes clear that he seeks to break the conformist hold that Nurse Ratched has on all of their worlds:

Jesus, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are for Christ sake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets.

The struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched is representative of the battle that exists between individuals and the social settings that surround them which preach conformity and homogeneity.  The fight for individual differentiation is an idea from the novel that applies to all human beings.  On some level, there are forces which represent "Nurse Ratched" in our lives and we have to become the McMurphy characters who must question if we "got the guts" to raise our voices in opposition to such structure.

Such a condition illuminates another idea from the novel that applies to all human beings.  The role of resistance becomes a critical idea in the novel. From McMurphy's sense of defiance to Chief's embrace of McMurphy's teachings, the novel speaks to how individual voice is a critical part of what it means to be human.  The characters in the novel must make the conscious choice of whether to defy the structure that envelops them or capitulate to it. McMurphy's voice of anti- conformity is also one of defiance.  Kesey's novel demands that individuals take stock of the conditions in their own world that seek to silence the authentic experience of the individual.  It asks us under what conditions would we recognize that exercising voice for its own sake is its own intrinsic good, something that lies outside of consequences.  

Both of these themes are linked to one another because of their impact on the characterizations' in the novel.  Both McMurphy and Chief have to address the reality that the structure that surrounds them would be much happier to silence their voice.  This silencing takes the form of repressing voice and eventually using technology in the form of medical science and lobotomies to ensure that voice is removed. They must recognize that the desire to activate individual voice brings with it great cost to themselves.  In the choices they make, Kesey establishes the paradigm with which the reader must analyze their own sense of choice.  At some level, the novel's discussion of conformity, activating individual voice, and defining what it means to be human on an subjective level challenges the reader to reflect.  The interconnection between both themes and their effect on the reader is how the novel presents ideas that are applicable to all human beings.  As the reader sees Chief and McMurphy make critical decisions that define who they are and what they shall do, the reader is forced to examine what choice they would have made and what choices they make in their own world regarding issues of power and justice.

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Can you explicate the theme, imagery, and symbols in Kelsey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Please note that actual written compositions are not completed by eNotes.

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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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

An additional motif in the book is invisibility. The inmates of the institution might as well not exist to the outside world. No one really wants to know about them and their problems, which is why they end up being confined to a psychiatric facility in the first place. But even within the walls of the institution, invisibility of one sort or another still determines how the men are treated. For instance, the power of the institution to control its inmates rarely manifests itself openly; it's there all the time, but hidden from plain sight.

Nurse Ratched maintains her iron grip on power, not by shouts or threats or physical violence, but through a subtle deployment of divide-and-rule tactics, preventing the men from developing solidarity with each other, the better to keep them firmly under her thumb. She's become so effective at doing this that the men are unable to see what she's really up to. That is, until McMurphy comes along and makes visible what had previously remain hidden.

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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The most prominent motif of One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest would be found in the stories' setting, as the mental health hospital provides many allusions to the circumstances of America during this time period. As a novel written in the mid-twentieth century, it predates and overlaps with many aspects of the hippie movement, which fomented from the earlier Beat movement. As such, freedom of expression (a hallmark of both these movements) is represented in visual and aesthetic themes, such as the blue electricity that inhabits the dreams and hallucinations of the protagonist. This imagery alludes to the liberal movement of this time period, with freedom of expression as the predominant value that was promoted. So, the mental hospital itself could be interpreted as a symbol of oppressive past conditions in America, in terms of free speech.

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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

A motif that runs through the book is fog. The Chief refers to a "fog machine" that causes white fog to descend on him. The fog stands for the confusion that results when the Chief is subjected to medical treatments, such as drugs or shocks, that cause him confusion. The fog machine is described as a person with "whistling wet breath" (81). Its cottony billows cover the entire ward to render the patients on the ward inert; the Chronics, or the men who have been on the ward for a long time, have completely lost themselves in the fog (42).

Another motif is hands. When the Chief first meets McMurphy, he immediately notes McMurphy's hands, which are "big and beat up" (16). McMurphy extends these large hands when he meets Billy Bibbit and the other men on the ward. His hands are a symbol of McMurphy's humanity, in contrast to the strings, dials, and mechanical contraptions that control everything else on the ward. Eventually, McMurphy's hands will rebel against the mechanical control that Nurse Ratched exercises on the ward.

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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Ken Kesey's impeccable writing talent means that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is packed with symbols and motifs.  One of the most prominent motifs in this novel is laughter.  The power of laughter is a theme that develops throughout the novel beginning with McMurphy's resonant laugh during his first few moments in the hospital.  As McMurphy's influence upon the patients becomes stronger, the increasing amount of laughter symbolizes the men's reconnection with their individuality and humanity.

Another motif would be size.  Bromden is constantly having issues with his perception of people's sizes.  Anyone who is domineering or powerful in his eyes appears to be much bigger than they truly are.  At one point Bromden tells McMurphy that he is a much larger man than himself, even though Bromden is most certainly taller and wider than McMurphy.  By the end of the book, Bromden feels that he has grown in size, symbolizing the inner strength and sense of self-respect that he has found.

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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

One key motif in Cuckoo's Nest is power. Chief Bromden thinks incessantly about The Combine, an entity he he believes runs the world, or at least the mental hospital in which he is confined. He imagines some type of apparatus or machine literally at work behind the hospital walls, monitoring patients and making them fall into line. The Chief does not believe he has any true control over his thoughts and actions, and has thus lost touch with his identity. He has surrendered power, along with the other patients, to Nurse Ratched, who represents the establishment.

Another motif is deception, which author Ken Kesey weaves into his main theme of the nature of sanity. The story's protagonist, Randle McMurphy, is a convicted criminal who feigns mental illness to land in a mental hospital instead of prison. He's not mentally ill, but has somehow tricked doctors into declaring otherwise. And Chief Bromden, of course, has deceived hospital staff and inmates for years by pretending to be deaf and dumb. But he is not deaf and dumb, and may or may not be mentally unstable.

Conversely, Nurse Ratched and the hospital staff have been deceiving patients by conditioning them to depend on drugs and therapy, rather than working toward addressing their real issues. In one scene, McMurphy is flabbergasted to learn that most of his fellow patients volunteer to receive hospital treatment. They could walk away, but don't. Part of the reason for this, undoubtedly, is that if patients try to buck the system too much, they are lobotomized and can become human vegetables, unable to move and think, as McMurphy would have been at the end of the novel had Chief Bromden not euthanized him.

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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Two of the key motifs in this excellent novel are the perception of size and the power of laughter. An interesting aspect of Bromden's narration is the way that he describes the size of people not based on their appearance but based on the way that they are controlled or control others. This is why although he is six feet seven inches tall, at the beginning of the group he describes himself as small. He tells McMurphy that "I used to be big, but not no more." Nurse Ratched, on the other hand is "big as a tractor" because she controls so many others, Bromden himself included. However, during the course of the novel, thanks to the intervention of McMurphy, Bromden regains his real size as he builds up his self-esteem, individuality and sexuality.

Laughter is another key motif, particularly focused in the character of McMurphy, who, as Bromden and the other patients see him for the first time, sounds out a laughter that is in stark contrast to the patients and his surroundings:

He stands looking at us, rocking back in his boots, and he laughs and laughs. He laces his fingers over his belly without taking his thumbs out of his pockets... Even when he isn't laughing that laughing sond hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing--it's in his eyes, in the way he smiles and staggers, in the way he talks.

McMurphy's ability to laugh is in marked opposition to the patients' inability to laugh, as they can only smirk and smile behind their hands. For McMurphy, laughing is synonymous with sanity, and his ability to laugh in the face of the craziness of life actually is shown to keep him sane. Key to realise is the way that on the fishing trip, the other patients laugh for the first time for a long time, indicating their move from insanity towards sanity.

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What are some motifs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

One of the most interesting motifs in Part I is presented through the character of McMurphy and how he obviously is so different to the rest of the patients on the ward. One of the aspects of his character that makes him so different is his laughter. Note how Bromden describes his laughter in the following quote which comes as he is first introduced:

He stands looking at us, rocking back in his boots, and he laughs and laughs... Everybody on the ward, patients, staff, and all, is stunned dumb by him and his laughing. There's no move to stop him, no move to say anything... Even when he isn't laughing, that laughing sound hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing...

McMurphy's ability to laugh in such an open and loud way separates him from everybody else, as the other patients are not able to laugh. They are only able to snigger behind their hands. For McMurphy, laughter, and the ability to laugh at life is part of healthy living, and being able to laugh is something that allows one to cling on to sanity in a world that often presents itself as insane. After the fishing trip, it is highly significant that some of the patients are able to laugh for the first time, which marks their recovery.

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What are some significant symbols in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

There are several symbols in counter-culture Kesey's portrayal of a mental institution:

The Combine

Named after a huge farm machine that takes in corn and grain and grinds them down, the "Combine" is the name that the Chief assigns to the machinations of those in authority to impose control over individuals in concert with technology and, thus, make these individuals conform and become mere cogs on the wheel of humanity. The Chief perceives the Combine working to weaken and control the inmates of the asylum,

Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking about the street giving the product a bad name.

The Fog Machine

In a flashback to when he was a high school football player, the Chief recalls his encounter with one of the textile workers who worked in a factory that his team visited. This woman approached him, and the Chief remarked that the residue from the cloth created what seemed a fog between him and the young woman. This experience becomes a metaphor for what he now perceives in the asylum. Just as he misunderstood the woman's motives for talking to him, the fog represents a lack of insight and a blurring of reality. Sometimes, the chief hides in this fog.

The fog is also representative of the blurring of the men's minds that Nurse Ratched effects with her senseless routines, mind-dulling games, and humiliating treatment of the men. 

McMurphy's underwear

Black satin with white whales whose eyes are red, McMurphy's boxer shorts are a prized possession that he proudly shows to Nurse Ratched. As a mockery of the classic whale, Moby Dick, the shorts ridicule psychiatry's obsession with the interpretation of symbols. In addition, Moby Dick is a phallic symbol, so McMurphy challenges the emasculating female nurse in his suggestion of his manhood that lies behind the symbol. Also, the pattern connotes the Ahab/Moby-Dick relationship that is Ratched's to McMurphy's. Furthermore, Moby-Dick is symbolic of an untamed nature which can be likened to McMurphy, who is in conflict with institutional conformity. Finally, as the white whale was deified, which parallels McMurphy's role as a Christ figure who comes to redeem others, but sacrifices himself in doing so.

The Electroshock Therapy table

This table furthers McMurphy's significance as the sacrificial victim and Christ as it is constructed in the shape of a cross. One patient named Ellis was even nailed to the wall in the electroshock room.

The control panel

Located in the tub-room, the control panel is extremely heavy, but McMurphy tries to lift it; after his failure, he tells the others, "At least I tried." McMurphy argues that the Chief is capable of lifting this apparatus and throwing it out the window, but the Chief has no confidence. However, after "freeing" McMurphy from his lobotomized body, the Chief frees himself by pulling up the apparatus and hurling it through the window, taking "control" of his life as he escapes the institution. 

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What are some themes in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

There are three major themes in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:

Individual vs. Society

Much of the plot revolves around McMurphy's struggles against Nurse Ratched, who is dictatorial in her occupation.  From the time that he arrives, McMurphy challenges the "democracy" of her group therapy in which she sadistically renders punishments later to those who speak out.  For Kesey, the society of the institution became a microcosm of contemporary society in which conformity, too, was a means of upholding law and order.

Sanity and Insanity

In portraying the sane McMurphy's conflicts in the Acute/Chronic Ward, Kesey questions what is truly insane?  When McMurphy asks some of the male patients why they have self-committed, one of them, Billy Bibbit, replies that he does not have the "guts" to get along in outside society.  However, Nurse Ratched exacerbates Billy's condition by demeaning him and undermining his confidence, rather than trying to build it.  These actions suggest that an authoritarian society wishes people to weakly conform and dehumanize.


McMurphy's war against Nurse Ratched is lost as she has him lobotomized.  However, his rebellion against conformity inspires the other men.  The Chief narrates,

She tried to get her ward back into shape, but it was difficult with McMurphy's presence still tromping up and down the halls and laughing out loud in the meetings and singing in the latrines.  She couldn't rule with her old power any more, not by writing things on pieces of paper.  She was losing her patients one after the other.  After hrding signed out and was picked up by this wife, and George transferred to a different ward, just three of us were left out of the group tht had been on the fishing crew, myself and Martini and Scanlon. 

Recurring images of shock patients and patients under seizure in positions of one who has been crucified reinforce this theme.

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