One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Themes

Ken Kesey

At a Glance

  • When discussing the theme of insanity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, one must keep in mind that very few of the patients on the ward are certifiably insane. McMurphy fakes his insanity, Harding's latent homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, and Billy, though suicidal, has voluntarily committed at his mother's insistence. Insanity is thus a slippery theme, something Kesey calls into question repeatedly in the course of the novel.
  • Chief Bromden introduces the theme of power early in the novel. As a Native American, he has firsthand experience of the ways white society has kept indigenous populations in check. Chief likens Nurse Ratched to a dictator using the guise of democratic rule to control and manipulate the patients. Chief Bromden doesn't realize his own power until McMurphy shows it to him.
  • Kesey also explores the theme of gender in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Women in the novel are generally depicted as flat characters who serve a single purpose (prostitutes, nurses), and little time is spent developing Nurse Ratched's backstory. Kesey makes Nurse Ratched the embodiment of evil by refusing to give her redeeming character traits.


(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 605 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 698 words.)