Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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What characterization techniques does Kesey use in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

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In his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesy makes use of these methods of indirect characterization:

  1. physical descriptions of characters
  2. through the characters' actions
  3. through the characters' comments and reactions about other characters'
  4. through the characters' thoughts, feelings, and speech.

However, because one of the characters, Chief Bromden, is the narrator, the characterization is subjective.  For, Bromden often engages in an interior monologue that diverts his attention from reality. In one instance, Bromden imagines that the staff creates a fog which hangs over the ward.  He also believes that "the ward is a factory for the Combine," a machine symbolic of the oppressive authority of those like Nurse Ratched and society that manipulates and suppresses the men of the ward. Even the nurse is described in terms of machinery: "She is as big as a tractor."

Although Bromden does stray from reality at times in his paranoia, his imaginings are, nevertheless, fairly intuitive; for, Nurse Ratched is, indeed, oppressive in a surreptitious manner, and the men are truly in a fog at times from the drugs given to them in order to control them.

In addition to the interpretations of Bromden as narrator, Kesey allows his characters to develop through dialogue. In Chapter 10, for instance, during one of the ward meetings, the men argue about watching the World Series on television. McMurphy's character is revealed as rebellious and non-conformist in this dialogue, while others demonstrate their weakness and conformity. When the Nurse says that watching the baseball game would interfere with the schedule, nobody says anything. Enraged, McMurphy shouts, 

"Look here,....there's at least twelve of you guys I know of myself got a leetle personal interest who wins these games.  Don't you guys care to watch them?" 

"I don't know, Mack," Scanlon finally says, "I'm pretty used to seeing that six o'clock news. And if switching times would really mess up the Miss Rached says-"

"The hell with the schedule. You can get back to the bloody schedule...when the Series is over....Let's take a vote..."

"Ay," Cheswick calls out and gets to his feet.

Cheswick is the only one who votes for watching the Series, indicating his individuality.  From this dialogue, the reader learns that McMurphy is also an independent person who refuses to conform, but Scanlon retreats into this conformity.

Using the characterization method of a character's actions, Kesey has Bromden portray Billy:

"Some of us have b-been here for fi-fi-five ears, Randle," Billy says.  He's got a magazine rolled up and is twisting at it with his hands:  you can see the cigarette burns on the backs of his hands.  "And some of us will b-be here maybe th-that muh-muh-much longer, long after you're  g-g-g-gone....."He throws down the magazine and walks away.

In a previous confrontation in Chapter 4, the submissive and pusillanimous Billy climbs atop the controls in the shower in fear after McMurphy asks him if he is afraid of Nurse Rached:

-he shrugs and sighs and climbs up on the big panel that controls the nozzles on the shower, perches up there like a monkey--

Clearly, Ken Kesey employs traditional means of characterization, although he does use his character Chief Bromden as an authorial voice who, in his paranoia, envisions fog and a Combine, symbols for the state of society and its demand for conformity. 


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