Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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

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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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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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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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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 key 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 key 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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Give an example of a motif from Part I of 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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