'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Themes

Within the confines of the Oregon psychiatric hospital where the majority of the novel takes place, Ken Kesey manages to weave a multi-layered reflection on society, which works with machine-like efficiency; sanity vs madness, which hinges on the way society represses the individual, both intellectually and sexually, and on the danger of tyrannical women, who are portrayed as castrating forces.

Female Tyranny

Harding tells McMurphy that the patients of the wards are “victims of the Matriarchy,” which is expressed in forms of female tyranny. In fact, the ward is ruled by Nurse Ratched. Dr Spivey cannot fire her, and the supervisor of the hospital, a woman whom Nurse Ratched knew from her army days, is the one with the authority to hire and fire everyone. The women in the novel are the ones who exert control, in a way that is harsh, non-domestic, and emasculating. Harding’s wife, for example, is just as scornful: she perceives her husband’s laugh as a “mousey little squeak.” Billy Bibbit has an equally complicated relationship with the main woman in his life, namely his mother, who works as a receptionist in the hospital and is a personal friend of Nurse Ratched. She denies his wish for manhood, because it would mean giving up on her youth. When he says that, at thirty one, he should go to college and look for a wife, she replies with “Sweetheart, do i look like the mother of a middle-aged man?”. Chief claims she “didn’t look like a mother of any kind.” Chief’s father himself was emasculated, in that he took his wife’s last name. McMurphy is the only man who does not suffer any form of emasculation: after losing his virginity at the age of ten with a nine-year-old girl, he swore he would become “a dedicated lover,” rather than a man in petticoats. 

Female tyranny also appears with references to castration: Rawler commits suicide by cutting his testicles, to which Bromden remarks that “all he had to do was wait.”

The Repression of Natural Impulses

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, society is rendered with mechanical imagery, whereas nature is represented through biological imagery: the hospital, an organ that is meant to conform to society, is an unnatural structure, and for this reason, Bromden describes Nurse Ratched and her aides as being made of machine parts. He also believes that the hospital is part of a Matrix-like system that hums beneath the floor and behind the walls, that is set out to suppress individuality. Chief Bromden used to revel in his natural impulses: he went hunting and to spear salmon. When the government paid off his tribe, though, and their fishing ground was converted into a hydroelectric dam, the members were absorbed into the technological forces, where routine stunts them. When we meet Bromden, he is paranoid and semi-paranoid, but he still can think on his own. McMurphy, by contrast, first represents unbridled individuality and unabashed virility, as the hospital’s female tyranny still hasn’t subdued him. He manages to teach the others to lean into their own individuality, and is then subdued for good by Nurse Ratched, first through shock therapy then through lobotomy, which symbolizes the way society eventually oppresses and suppresses the individual. The name Ratched is also a pun of “ratchet,” which indicates a device that uses a twisting motion to tighten bolts into place. This pun serves a dual metaphorical purpose in Kesey’s hands: Ratched manipulates the patients and twists them to spy on one another or expose each others’ weaknesses in group sessions, and her name is also indicative of the machine-like structure she is part of.

Open Sexuality vs. Puritanism

Kesey equals having a healthy, open sexuality with sanity, whereas a repressive view of sexual impulses does, to him, lead to insanity. This is shown in the patients of the ward, with all of them having warped sexual identities due to strained relationships with women. Nurse Ratched allows her aides to perform sexual assaults on the patients, as it’s hinted when she leaves a tub of vaseline behind. 

By contrast, McMurphy boldly asserts his own sexuality:he plays cards depicting 52 different sex positions; he lost his virginity at ten to a girl of nine. After the deed was done, she gave him her dress and went home in pants.“taught me to love, bless her sweet ass,” he remembers. In the latter part of the novel, he befriends two prostitutes, Candy and Sandy, who both reinforce his own manhood and help other patients regain, or find their own masculinity. They are depicted as “good” whores, who are good-natured and fun-loving. Billy Bibbit, a 31-year-old virgin with a stutter and a domineering mother, eventually loses his virginity to Candy thanks to McMurphy’s encouragement, but is then shamed into suicide by Nurse Ratched.

The Definition of Sanity

Free laughter, open sexuality, and strength, all qualities that McMurphy possesses, indicate sanity, but, ironically, they stand against what society dictates. Society, symbolized by the psych ward, is conformist and repressive. Just asking a question is enough to warrant punishment: a former patient, Maxwell Taber, who was both strong and clear-headed, once asked what medication he was given, and, as a consequence, he was subject to shock therapy and brain work. 

Paradoxically, sanity leads to question the methods of society (or the hospital), which is punished by the act of causing permanent insanity. Kesey also demonstrates how altered states of perception actually denote wisdom: Bromden thinks, and hallucinates, that the hospital conceals a system of machinery, which he tries to dodge by pretending to be a mute. While that sounds nonsensical at first, his hallucination actually mirrors the way society represses the individual with machine-like efficiency. You’re making sense, old man, a sense of your own. You’re not crazy the way they think.” “[C]razy the way they think,” however, is all that matters in this hospital. The authority figures decide who is sane and who is insane, and by deciding it, they make it reality.

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Frey, Angelica. "'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Themes." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-themes-4769198. Frey, Angelica. (2020, January 29). 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Themes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-themes-4769198 Frey, Angelica. "'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Themes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-themes-4769198 (accessed June 2, 2023).