ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST
Magnificently written by Ken Kesey, One flew over the Cuckoos Nest is a disturbing, dark, and somewhat ironically humorous look into the structure of society and the effect a free spirit can have on those shackled by the social constrictions and conformity of a mental institution. There are many different interpretations of the story, which is testament to the richness of the theme, and strength of the characters.
Some critics suggest that the theme of this story is related to false diagnosis of insanity, or even a more controversial view that females in power are seen as castrators. However a deeper, broader view of the theme and its characters reveal a chilling image of societys destruction of natural impulses. McMurphy, the central character in the story, embodies everything that Nurse Ratched and the institution is not. McMurphy alone is almost a theme in himself, as he is such a strong character and represents the "rock'n'roll" and "stick it to the man" attitude of those who oppose the constrictions and constraints of social order in society. It almost seems as though it was fate that McMurphy's rebellious, yet colorful behavior was brought in to shake up the institution as well as the lives of the patients. He is somewhat of a saviour to them and they look up to him with god-like admiration.
Critic L. Bozolla suggested that Keseys intention was to display McMurphy as the catalyst for "sanity", symbolized by his exuded confidence, sexuality and strength, and stands in contrast to what Kesey tragically implies is an insane institution. Critic P. Villarreal suggests McMurphy represents unbridled individuality and free expressionboth intellectual and sexual. One idea presented in this story is that a mans virility is equated with a state of nature, and the state of civilized society requires that he be desexualized.
McMurphy battles against letting the oppressive society make him into a machinelike drone, and he manages to maintain his individuality until his ultimate objectivebringing this individuality to the othersis complete. However, when his wildness is provoked one too many times by Nurse Ratched, he ends up being destroyed by modern societys machines of oppression.
Relating back to the patient's admiration of McMurphy, there is an aura surrounding him that is almost of biblical proportions, in the way that they look up to him. He seems to be their saviour and more than once he put himself on the line for his fellow "inmates". Such actions included taking them out to sea on a fishing trip, which is almost a literal bible reference to Jesus and his disciples, as well as performing a miracle when he finally got the deaf and mute cheif to speak. His electro-shock therapy seemed like a crucifiction, sacrificing himself for the behaviour of the rest of the patients. And at the end of the story, he sacrifices his freedom to help Billy. It seems very likely that Kesey had intended to portray McMurphy this way, the rebel against society, just like Jesus Christ was.
An interesting motif throughout the story is the role of the games that are played. Murphy teaches the patients how to play blackjack and basketball, as opposed to monopoly, which they before his arrival. McMurphy brings somewhat of a Hedonistic approach to his chosen activities for himself and the patients. Nurse Ratched seemed agitated by these stimulating activities, as they promoted unity and brotherhood. Perhaps Nurse Ratched feels as though she is losing power over them as a whole. Throughout the story we see Ratched continually break the patients spirit, and these lively activities are counterproductive to what she is trying to achieve.
Although there are several angles to view the themes in this story, Critic L.Bozolla's thesis was based on wrongful diagnosis, and one cannot deny such a claim. However, the characters in the story, especially the solemn and empty face of Chief Bromden, seem to illustrate the institutions destruction of any spontaneous thoughts or natural impulses.
Bromden, as the son of an Indian chief, is a combination of pure, natural individuality and a spirit almost completely weakened by mechanized society. Keseys original book goes into great detail, the story of Bromden's early life. He had free will, and he can remember and describe going hunting in the woods and fishing for salmon with his relatives. The government, however, eventually succeeds in paying off the tribe so their fishing area can be converted into a profitable hydroelectric dam. The people of the tribe are banished into the technological workforce, where they become hypnotized by routine, like the half-life things that Bromden witnesses coming out of the train while he is on fishing excursions. (K.Kesey)
In the storys present time, Bromden himself ends up semi-catatonic and paranoid, a mechanical drone who is still able to think and conjecture to some extent on his own. He is a character who has to work his way back to being and acting like a real human after so many years of being dehumanized into a machine created by the evil Nurse Ratched. However as the story progresses, he starts changing for the better. He started out as a machine that just responded to stimuli in the ward, and then slowly progressed until he had enough strength to make his escape. Nurse Ratcheds dehumanizing methods were supposedly meant to eventually help the patients become functioning members of society. Instead they she turns them into mindless drones, which is another irony placed in the theme. Who is really insane, the institution or the patients?
Critic T. Wick suggests Modern day psychiatrists would like us to believe things are different now, and that we have left those barbaric days behind us. This is not true - not at all. Underneath the fancy terminology, expensive business suits, well-funded "research centers" and "scientific" jargon is the same ill-formed theories, brutal practices and complete failure to do anything positive about the human mind and the human condition.
Another popular view of several critics is that the story is about societys dislike for and destruction of the unrepentant non-conformer. McMurphy is clearly disturbed by the other patients comfort of conformity within the institution and stands up for himself and other patients and questions Nurse Ratcheds rules. Critic T. Parsons suggested that McMurphy is somewhat of a hero to the other patients. No single patient had the ability to stand against the injustices to which they were subjected. McMurphy united these patients. He gave them collective courage and a sense that they could resist their persecutor. Not only did McMurphy unite the patients, but he understood the enemy, the staff. He recognized the ultimate authority and oppressive power of those in charge of the psychiatric ward.
He also knew that to resist them would put him at great personal risk. McMurphy, however, took the risk and defended his fellow patients.
Critics of the Women in power are castrators school can be well illustrated in the form of the antagonist to McMurphy, Nurse Ratched. The fear of women is one of the storys more central features. The male characters seem to agree with Harding, who complains, We are victims of a matriarchy here.
After having sex with Candy, Billy Bibbit briefly regains his confidence. It is no coincidence that this act, which symbolically resurrects his manhood, also literally introduces him to sexual activity. Shortly after his manhood returns Nurse Ratched takes it away by threatening to tell his mother and spurring him to commit suicide. The hospital, run by women, treats only male patients, showing how women have the ability to emasculate even the most masculine of men. (T. Parsons)
Not only does Nurse Ratched squash sexual behaviors of any sort in the institution, contrary to her own beleifs, she actually worsens the patients condition. She keeps the patients docile, medicated and childlike. These are hardly behaviors that would prepare them for re-entry into society and then live a fulfilling life. McMurphy plays the ultimate antagonist here, in encouraging stimulating, man-like behaviour, through fishing and basketball. The patients find McMurphys activities fulfilling and liberating, yet Nurse Ratched disagrees. To her dismay, the patients then begin to question Ratched's authority. Cheswick has his cigarettes confiscated by Ratched, to which he responds angrily and informs her he is not a child. This response is justified and rational, however, Nurse Ratched sees this as disrespectful and compromising to her powerful image, and has Cheswick sedated through electro shock therapy. Critic E. Levy Observes Ratched's group therapy sessions and questions the motives of them;
"The patients try to please her during the Group Meetings by airing their dirtiest, darkest secrets, and then they feel deeply ashamed for how she made them act, even though they have done nothing. She maintains her power by the strategic use of shame and guilt, as well as by a determination to divide and conquer her patients."
McMurphy eventually manages to ruffle Ratched's feathers and throw her off track, which seems to agitate her, even though her icy demeanour allows her to keep her cool on the outside. A scene which typifies her bitterness and evil is illustrated when McMurphy is released from the ward, after his first encounter with electro shock therapy. McMurphy walks in the room, in a zombie like fashion, jaw open and drooling. Ratched's face, which is usually expressionless, begins to crack in a sickly rise smile. The patients look at McMurphy in horror, but the mood soon turns to jubilation when they realise he is joking with them, and putting on an act. Nurse Ratched is noticably unimpressed.
One Flew over the cuckoo's nest is a strong, powerfully themed story. T.P Anderson summed up McMurphy's eventual demise by commenting;
"When McMurphys lobotomy robs him of the character traits that made him an individual, Bromden returns his love through an act of death and resurrection. The Chief frees McMurphy, affirming that the spirit lives on after the bodys death in the minds and behaviours of the living."