One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Themes
The main themes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are insanity, power, and gender.
- Insanity: The novel questions the value of insanity as a label: McMurphy fakes his insanity, Harding's latent homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, and Billy, though suicidal, voluntarily committed himself.
- Power: Chief Bromden has observed how white society controls indigenous populations. Chief likens Nurse Ratched to a dictator, who uses the guise of democracy to manipulate the patients.
- Gender: Femininity, as represented by the prostitutes, is presented as natural and therapeutic, whereas Nurse Ratched's authoritarian power over the men of the ward is oppressive and unnatural.
Individual vs. Society The main action of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest consists of McMurphy's struggles against the strict rules of Big Nurse Ratched. Her ward at the hospital is a society in itself, for it has its own laws and punishments, both for the inmates and for the orderlies and nurses who watch over them. McMurphy challenges the rules from the time he arrives, from upsetting the supposedly "democratic" procedure of group therapy to brushing his teeth before the appointed time. By having McMurphy question and ridicule Nurse Ratched's ludicrous, controlling rules, Kesey portrays the individual's struggle against a conformist society as a noble, meaningful task. McMurphy's fight within the small world of the hospital can also be extended to the outside world. During the time Kesey was writing the novel, society emphasized conformity as a means of upholding law and order. Through the portrayal of one individual's meaningful fight against a small society, Kesey brought into question the standards of his own society at large.
Sanity and Insanity One of society's standards provides the most pervasive theme in the book: What is sane—and what is insane? Is sanity conformance with society and its norms? Or is sanity a sense of self as separate from society? These are questions that psychiatrists have wrestled with for over a century. Is it their job to reprogram a person to fit better into what may be an unsatisfactory life or a flawed society? Or is it their responsibility to guide a person toward self-realization, no matter how that differs from the norm of the patient's environment?
In portraying McMurphy's struggles on the Acute/Chronic Ward, Kesey questions his society's definitions of sanity, which seem to ask all people to conform to the same standards of behavior. When McMurphy discovers that many of the Acutes are at the hospital voluntarily, he wants to know why: "You, you're not exactly the everyday man on the street, but you're not nuts." Billy Bibbit replies that they don't have the "guts" to get along in outside society, but ironically, Nurse Ratched's methods are designed to undermine the men's confidence, not encourage it. In this way, Kesey portrays his 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. His hero, McMurphy, is the person who sees through this sham. By showing his fellow patients how to create their own standards of sanity, McMurphy leads a bunch of institutionalized robots back towards their humanity. In the process, he suffers greatly and in fact lays down his life.
Sacrifice McMurphy's struggle against Nurse Ratched, although eventually lost, is shown to be a sacrifice which liberates his fellow inmates. As Scanlon encourages Chief Bromden to escape at the end of the novel, he says that McMurphy "showed you how one time, if you think back." Reinforcing this theme of sacrifice are the recurring images of crucifixion that appear throughout the book. Consider the pathetic character of the mind-destroyed Chronic Ellis, "nailed" in Chief's eyes to the wall behind which sinister wires and machinery hum. Or the cross-shaped table on which the victims of electroshock therapy lie. The image of the cross is repeated in Chief's description of the position in which Sefelt lies after he suffers an epileptic episode: "His hands are nailed out to each side with the palms up and the fingers jerking open and shut, just the way I've watched men jerk at the Shock Shop strapped to the crossed table, smoke curling up out of the palms...
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from the current."
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a prototypical 1960s novel in its strong antiestablishment stance. Presenting an archetypal conflict between Good and Evil, Kesey pits the individual against the Combine, a mechanistic, monolithic bureaucracy, whose chief representative is the Big Nurse. In the microcosm of the psychiatric ward, control is the objective — an ominous control that supplants freedom with regulations, favors monotonous routine over spontaneity, and rewards assertions of personal opinion with visits to the "Shock Shop." Dehumanization results, as the men on the ward lose their sense of self-worth and become mere robots for the Combine. One of Kesey's central concerns is the danger of conformity, of mindless capitulation to a system. Therefore, as the novel progresses, he reveals that the Combine controls not only the hospital, but American society as well, as seen in Chief Bromden's vision of 5,000 children, dressed exactly alike, who live in 5,000 houses, "punched out identical by a machine," owned by 5,000 men, who disembark from a commuter train "like a hatch of identical insects."
To combat the threat of the Combine comes the champion of nonconformity, the restorer of humanity to the men on the ward, Randle Patrick McMurphy. A quintessential American hero, McMurphy is associated with freedom, self-reliance, and nature. He encourages the men to make choices, such as voting whether to watch the World Series on television, he helps them escape the stifling routine through basketball practice and a clandestine party, and he brings them back in touch with nature by leading a deep-sea fishing trip — all the while forging the bonds of camaraderie. Kesey's prescription for mental health seems to be an oxymoronic coupling of rugged individualism and esprit de corps.
While the principal conflict in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is between the individual and the Combine, or, as some critics have expressed it, between Nature and the Machine, there is a significant secondary opposition between male and female. Kesey has conceived of the hospital environment as a matriarchy, with the reins of power in the hands of Big Nurse, who, in turn, has derived her power from a female supervisor. Nurse Ratched is an emasculator, completely subjugating the weak-spirited Dr. Spivey and transforming the men on the ward into little boys through her motherly treatment of them. She is, as McMurphy succinctly notes, "a ball-cutter." Other similarly castrating women include the white mother of Chief Bromden, Billy Bibbit's mother, and Dale Harding's wife. To restore the men's self-confidence, McMurphy, whose animalistic lust is insatiable, must first restore their sexual potency. This he does by spinning tales of young virgins that cause the Chief to have an erection and by arranging for Billy to spend a night with the prostitute Candy. He also sexually defies Nurse Ratched, from his parading before her in his whale-decorated undershorts, to his symbolic penetration of her glass-enclosed office, to his climactic mock-rape of her during which he exposes her breasts. A number of critics have objected to the novel's sexual stereotyping, especially to Kesey's association of women with repressive forces; however, other critics and Kesey himself defend One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. They contend that it advocates an uninhibited expression of sexual vitality for both males and females, and that it criticizes not women per se but rather a lack of warmth and compassion.
A minor but important theme found in the novel is the oppression of minorities in America by the white power structure. Kesey expresses concern about the mistreatment of Indians through Chief Bromden's memories of how the government seized his tribe's land to build a hydroelectric dam. He also highlights Native Americans' problems with alcoholism because of cultural disfranchisement. In addition, Kesey is sensitive to the plight of blacks. Although his characterizations of the black orderlies who sodomize and humiliate the patients are morally repulsive, Kesey reveals that the lack of employment opportunities to advance from merely cleaning and scrubbing floors has made these men abusive. Furthermore, the history he provides of one black attendant who as a five year old witnessed whites rape his mother and torture his father explains why the blacks harbor intense hatred of the whites. Kesey's message is that cruelty breeds racism.