In Ken Keseys novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the clash of opposites is an integral part of the texts thematic development. Centrally, three main polarities, or dichotomies are conformity vs individualism, power of the group vs power of the individual, and man vs machine. Kesey has used the clash of opposites, often demonstrated by characters or groups of character, in the evolution of oppression and authority as key ideas.
The clash of conformism and individualism is very important in the text, and the struggle between parallel viewpoints leads to a clear understanding of theme. Nurse Ratched and the mental hospital in general are representative of rigidity and conventionalism. Chief Bromden, despite his drug induced hallucinations and delusions, sees that the combine, which is conformist society, has rejected those in the hospital. Rather than the patients being insane, they are social misfits, put into a facility designed to make them institutionalised men. A strict set of guidelines imposed on patients, the ward policy, is used to keep patients doing menial, repetitive work, and not allowing for freedom of expression, seen when the nurse states severely, You must have a majority to change the ward policy. Im afraid the vote is closed. The institution of the mental hospital does not allow for emotional or mental development in the hopes of conditioning them to be unobtrusive in conventional society. In direct opposition to conformism is McMurphy in his capacity as an agent of change. Through his extroversion and confidence, Mc Murphy inspires defiance and a shrugging off of the institution among the patients. The effects of individualism can be seen in McMurphys protg Bromden, who finds it in himself to embrace his difference, and come out of the comfortable but unsatisfying shell of deafness and dumbness. Bromden also finds the mental strength to wield his formidable physical strength from McMurphy, who tells him, Goddamn it Chief, you about as big as a damn mountain! He draws courage from this simple statement and McMurphys reassurance, and uses this in the escape. These polarities are essential in the themes development because they show the authoritative, oppressive nature of not just the hospital, but the conforms of society, and show the power of the individual in the face of authority.
Power of the group vs power of the individual is a clash of opposites, in which the dictator is pitted against democratic decision-making. Nurse Ratched, despite her attempts at appearing otherwise, rules the hospital in an authoritarian and dictatorial manner, but feigns an interest in equality of opinion and freedom of speech. The power of a group is demonstrated in the baseball match scene, where, Were all sitting there lined up in front of a blanked out TV set, this showing beyond a doubt the patients capacity for rebellion and peaceful protest. Though there is no actual game being played, and no self-serving reason to continue watching, the patients realise the power of their group, and act on principle rather than self-interest. The scene further augments the conflict between the group- McMurphy and the patients, and the individual. For the first time we really see that the nurse has a side to her that is not invincible and invulnerable, Bromden says, a fifty year old woman hollering and squealing about discipline and order, theyd have thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons. It is made apparent here that when the patients band together, their unity provides more power than even Nurse Ratched can subdue, and she completely loses her carefully cultivated calm demeanour.
The dichotomy of man vs machine is important to the theme of oppression, as machines, and the metaphor of machines are used in relation to the persecution of the patients. The major machine metaphor is that of the combine, which is the institutionalised society. This is an apt metaphor because Keseys view of society is that of an automated and mechanical one. The idea of the patients vs the combine is a major one because it represents man, the freedom of expression, and free thought innate to humanity, while they struggle to resist conventionality, choosing instead to rebel against its shackles. McMurphy facing electro-shock therapy is a prime example of this dichotomy. He receives numerous treatments, and is offered the chance to apologise after each, and to admit that he was at fault, but he tells her, "She could kiss his rosy red ass before he'd give up the goddamn ship." If McMurphy admitted he was wrong, he could avoid the electro-shock therapy, however, he is too stubborn to allow the Big Nurse to win the war so easily. This is admirable even though he is killing himself for no real cause just to be proved right. Here man futilely resists the machine; the combine and the EST, but in the spirit of determination shows selflessness and sacrifice. EST is also a biblical allusion, with McMurphy likened to Christ, when he sings, "It's my cross, thank you Lord, it's all I got, thank you Lord." The significance of the quote and allusion is Jesus was a societal reformer, and could be said to have resisted the temptation to conform to the mechanistic society of the time. The control panel is a representation of the combine that the Chief believes mechanically controls the patients of the ward, and even though the men are not being controlled by electronic devices, they may as well be because they have been deprived of the ability to think for themselves to such an extent. This idea of man vs machine, both in a metaphorical and literal sense is key to the revelation of the themes. Though man often comes up short against the machine, and the nature of the combine, which is deeply interconnected with society, is such that it is extremely hard to resist, the struggle, however futile, is the essence of free thought and individualism. The oppression of the mechanical operation and repetition of the hospital is made clear- however, here we see the idea that authority is much harder to impose on those willing to stand up to injustice.
Kesey has utilised dichotomies, or the clash of opposites, throughout the text, making them the focal point, and constantly referring to these polarities. The dichotomies of conformity vs individualism, power of the group vs power of the individual, and man vs machine all contribute to the further development of themes, as through conflicts and interaction, we see the ideas of authority and oppression. The courage and determination of characters in the face of opposition- the combine, the nurse, the institution, and society, all representative of authority and oppression, is integral to the novel, and is revealed through the successful presentation of a clash of opposites.