One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest From a Marxist Perspective
At first glance, a reader may wonder how Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book depicting a group of mentally unstable men and their boisterous Irish-American leader, connects with the economic and sociological view of Marxism. The novel, which takes place in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, centers around the conflict between manipulative Nurse Ratched and her patients. Randle McMurphy, a transfer from Pendleton Work Farm, becomes a champion for the men’s cause as he sets out to overthrow the dictator-like nurse.
Initially, the reader may doubt the economic implications of the novel. Yet, if one looks closer at the numerous textual references to power, production, and profit, he or she will begin to interpret Cuckoo’s Nest in a different light. Marxism was developed by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-nineteenth century. It holds that productive labor is essential for human survival, that producers dominate consumers, and that societies evolve through a series of conflicts between the ruling class (bourgeoisie) and the working class (proletariat). Marxists advocate a classless society in which wealth is distributed evenly among citizens (Bressler 192-3). Capital is not merely money, but money that that is used to make more money (Parker 213).
Marxists detest the alienation of labor experienced by workers who exert exceptional amounts of energy in factories, yet never benefit entirely from their work (Parker 214). There are many examples within the text that illustrate the conflict between the ruling class (Nurse Ratched), middle class (Dr. Spivey, who is intimidated by Ratched), and working class (patients). The symbol of machinery as a means to mass-produce a standard product is also explored, as well as what??”or whom??”counts as machinery. By viewing One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest from a Marxist perspective, one will discover how Kesey uses his novel to make a statement about money, materialism, and mechanization in the twentieth century United States of America. The author skillfully uses plot, imagery, and character development to declare that individuals with mental disorders are more than machines that need to be fixed in order to be productive in society; they have value in and of themselves.
Like Marx’s proletariat, the patients in Cuckoo’s Nest are alienated, the result of their labor being directed and overseen by Ratched. The patients continually have a sense that someone is watching them because not only are they mentally ill, but Ratched actually insists they spy on one another and report any of their peers’ poor conduct. The narrator, Chief Bromden, relates how the doctor who works with Ratched urges: Talk . . . discuss, confess. And if you hear a friend say something . . . list it in the log book for the staff to see. It’s not . . . squealing,’ it’s helping your fellow (Kesey 47). This helping your fellow creates a feeling of contempt and competition among the men, and competition is the antithesis of Marxism. This is just one of Ratched’s many abuses of power over the ward. Literary critics Roger C. Loeb and Irving Malin shed light on the way patients are used as laborers, or at least treated as such. Both critics clearly illustrate the divide between the patients and the people in power within the facility. One of the first things the reader notices is that the hospital functions on a rigid schedule run by a rigid nurse who seems more machine than woman, or human being for that matter. She runs the ward like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine (Kesey 26). The only thing feminine about her is her large breasts which she keeps hidden underneath her uniform. Malin writes that “The ‘Big Nurse’ is no longer a woman??”she has become a Frankenstein monster. All of her gestures, commands, feelings, and possessions are mechanized (441). Even her voice has a tight whine like an electric saw (Kesey 138). Bromden describes her as a truck, who trails her nurse’s bag behind in her exhaust like a semi behind a Jimmy Diesel (Kesey 93). Loeb points out that the reason the nurse acts like a machine is because it enables her to control others (87-88). She determines who is released, who stays on the floor, and who is sent to the Disturbed floor. She even controls time by adjusting the clocks on the wall, or at least it seems this way to Bromden, a schizophrenic, She’s given to turning up the speed . . . when you got somebody to visit you. . . . But generally it’s the other way, the slow way (Kesey 74-5).
Another important way the nurse controls the inmates is by withholding gum, cigarettes, and television privileges from the men. This is characteristic of an economic system that distributes aid at its own leisure (Capitalism 222). It is also representative of how the upper-class denies the lower-class of wealth, status, leisure, and even the fruits of their labor. Consider poor factory laborers who work for extremely low pay to make fine clothes that they will never have a chance to wear themselves. When McMurphy attempts to change Ratched’s policy about television, he faces considerable opposition, and after McMurphy finally gains enough votes to have the World Series shown in the ward, Ratched insists that he does not have a majority because he has not accounted for the Chronics, patients with such severe mental illnesses that they are considered incapable of ever leaving the ward, in the total amount of patients (134). The Chronics cannot do much of anything, let alone vote to watch a baseball game. Kesey seems to suggest that democratic voting holds little value even in a capitalist society built on the principle of individual freedom. Sadly, the patients watch a blank screen and pretend they are watching the game instead. Interestingly, the Chronics symbolize a separate class than the Acutes, patients considered capable of rehabilitation, whom Ratched also dominates. The Chronics are described as machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired (Kesey 51). Imagery such as shock treatments and brain operations carry Kesey’s message that society is becoming too preoccupied with fixing things and that people are not pieces of equipment that need to be fixed, but are thinking, feeling human beings whose illnesses need to be cured through warmth and compassion. He advocates that those with mental disorders have more to contribute to society than their own ailments, which secure health care providers such as Ratched a place in the workforce. Through McMurphy’s rehabilitation of Bromden, a Chronic, over the course of the novel, Kesey argues that the patients are more than the paychecks they provide hospital management; they are more than defective brains to be examined and probed.
It is worth noting that the people who have the most power in the story are those that are educated, including the nurses, doctors, board members, and president of the hospital. The “black boys,” the male, African-American orderlies who serve Ratched, are portrayed as less intelligent and merely function as robots following orders. McMurphy’s ethnic, working class background also puts him in a position lower than that of the Big Nurse. This is a reflection of the hierarchy in real-world America. Kesey could be warning his readers about the danger of science and knowledge as he makes the characters with the best education powerful, but also cruel. The uneducated McMurphy is unlike the machinery-like Ratched in that he is uninhibited, rowdy, and emotional, while she is cold and calculating. The Irishman laughs at problems to keep his spirits up and prevent himself from becoming a body with no soul. At one point in the story, McMurphy takes the men out on a fishing trip where they are rejuvenated with nature, far away from the mechanical institution (238).
While Ratched acts like a machine, she essentially functions as a manufacturer and symbol of the oppressive upper-class (Haslett 35). While McMurphy tries to bring about equality between the patients and head nurse, she holds onto her self-proclaimed right to exact power over her charges because of her money, education, and, ultimately, sanity. The patients represent the working-class by providing Ratched, the manufacturer, with the products from which she profits??”their deranged minds. The patients can even be viewed as products themselves after shock therapy treatments and lobotomies leave them without personality. The negative effects of the hospital’s organizational structure are numerous. The men feel worthless, abused, and manipulated, much like the proletariat who endured horrendous working conditions and rarely saw the fruits of their labor during the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom and United States in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century (Industrial Revolution 630). Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the hospital environment’s detrimental impact is Billy Bibbit’s suicide after Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother about his night with Candy, the prostitute McMurphy brings onto the ward (Kesey 302-304). While this event can be interpreted as merely a tragedy between a manipulative nurse and an overwrought patient, it can also be interpreted as a representation of the harm that can result from an economy that encourages certain groups of people to dominate others.
By examining One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from a Marxist perspective, the reader develops a sense of the underlying meanings beyond much of the imagery that fills the novel. Kesey makes a powerful statement about overproduction and overconsumption in 1960s America by depicting a group of mental patients whose function is to serve the hospital from which they should be receiving quality care from, a reflection of how the poor serve the rich. Through varying techniques, he expresses that there should be more equality between different classes and groups, and that there must be more value placed on the human than the machine. With any hope, society can learn something from Cuckoo’s destructive, yet equally hopeful outcome.
Review Of The One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is seen through the eyes of the mute, supposedly deaf Chief Bromden. He witnesses the ongoing cruel activity that happens in the mental ward. As the newcomer, R.P. McMurphy was admitted, he plans to break the head nurse, Miss. Ratched, which leads the inmates to rebel and oppose the Big Nurse, who governs the asylum. In the novel, Ken Kesey identifies the development of the character and the dialogue.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest displays how many of the characters are evolving because of McMurphy’s presence. On page 3, Bromden refers to the nurse’s aides as the black boys. He mentions how nervous and daunted he is by them, Better if they don’t see me they got special sensitive equipment detects my fears, Bromden exclaims. As he is hiding from the aides, he reminisces old memories to eliminate his fear. As soon as they found Bromden, they shaved his face and turned on the fog machine. Kesey demonstrates to his readers that he is weak and uses techniques to relieve his anxieties. When terrible incidents begin to occur, the fog appears and he does not remember a bit of what happens. The fog and Bromden’s flashbacks symbolize the escape of his reality to help him cope with the situation he is in. We, readers illustrates that his mind keeps him from rebelling against Miss Ratched and her aides.
Another example is that Bromden views himself as not big, but some characters claim that he is. Even if he is big, he’s scared of his own sh-sh-shadow. Billy Bibbit stated on page 23. Because of his self-appearance belief, McMurphy said he will help him gain his strength back. On page 211, I get you big as you used to be you not only get my special body-buildin’ course for nothing McMurphy told the him. Chief Bromden is somewhat similar to The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion because they are both afraid and do not believe in themselves. As soon as the lion takes the courage potion, he is fearless. Just like Bromden when McMurphy helps him regain his confidence. He begins to defy the nurse by avoiding taking his medication at night. Towards the end of the novel, the fog begins to clear up and he is able to resist the aides and the Big Nurse. While I was watching him go, the other one came out of the shower and a put a wrestling hold on me–arms up under mine from behind and head locked behind my neck The author turned his cowardly lion into the king of the jungle by the help of his friend. McMurphy’s act of rebellion made the other inmates follow his path which Kesey showed the development of the character.
The theme of this novel is rebellion. The Big Nurse is described as, pleased and peaceful, on page 4. This is misleading because she is strict and controlling. Her aides were chatting and Bromden thought she would show anger towards them because they should be cleaning and not talking but Nurse Ratched calmly says, . . . and we have quite a number of appointments this morning, so perhaps, if your standing here in a group talking isn’t too urgent If the patients do not do what they are told she gets frustrated that is why Bromden thought the aides would be punished. We see she is getting frustrated with McMurphy because he is manipulating them. McMurphy begins annoying her and calling her a name Good morning, Miss Rat-shed! Readers know that these little things are irritating the nurse because she is respected by all of her patients. Mcmurphy wants to annoying to get under her skin. Many of the patients were blindsided by the Nurse Ratched. She was controlling that the patients were fearful because they knew what would happen if they disrespected her.
The patients wanted to escape tyranny so it led to disobeying her. Nurse Ratched losing her control with her patients causing them to get shock therapy. He starts asking her if he can watch the world cup and in the afternoon he can clean and she said no and he disobeyed her. The inmates notified her what will happen if he on goes. He could get shock therapy for it. This results in the change of Big Nurse. She was always in charge but if any of them got to the point where they disobeyed her they will receive shock therapy or by chance have a lobotomy. In the beginning it is shown that she is calm but towards the end she is annoyed of McMurphy. Kesey wants the reader to know that Nurse Ratched is slowly losing her patience with McMurphy. He is not following the rules as he should like the other inmates. In the end McMurphy does get the lobotomy and is a vegetable.
The Big Nurse runs a mental institution. On page I’m afraid That is exactly what the new patient is planning: to take over. He is what we call a manipulator,’ she exclaimed. She is being ironic because she says Mcmurphy is also being very controlling to the other inmates but she is also controlling them. The big nurse is basically saying he is ill because he is a manipulator which sounds like her. She wants to have him removed for his act which she should be removed to for her foolishness.
Moving Towards Misogyny in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
“Hell yes, we have a quota…We do keep women out, when we can. We don’t want them here — and they don’t want them elsewhere, either, whether or not they’ll admit it.” This statement, issued by an unnamed dean of a medical school in 1960, generated an uproar within the feminist community. Two years later, author Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a novel that sparked second wave feminism, a political movement focused on women’s right to work and break out of the domestic sphere. These ideals, however, were not without backlash. Many men felt that women would push them out of the workplace and firmly believed in the role of a housewife. The same year The Feminine Mystique was written, Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel which shows the author’s misogyny through his portrayal of women. The antagonist, Nurse Ratched, is a women in a powerful position who uses her power to belittle and control the patients in the psychiatric ward, thus earning her the nickname “ball cutter.” The rest of the novel is scattered with female characters that overpower the men in the psychiatric ward. Kesey uses the sexuality and movement of female characters within the novel to suggest that women in power are unnatural, by depicting powerful women as stiff and tight, and subordinate women as loose and sexual.
Through Nurse Ratched’s hidden sexuality and stiff movement, Kesey shows that women in power are unnatural because women must change their natural tendencies in order to have power. Kesey illustrates that women must cover their sexuality for power, because men dominate women through sex. At the beginning of the novel, Miss Ratched covers her body in order to have full power over the ward. However, Kesey establishes Miss Ratched as a sexually appealing person by emphasizing her very large breasts, “In spite of all her attempts to conceal them in that sexless get-up, you can still make out the evidence of some rather extraordinary breasts” (159). Even though Miss Ratched has appealing physical features, Kesey shows how the men cannot overpower her because her “sexless get-up” gets in the way of his vision of the natural order of power. Then, towards the end of the novel, McMurphy, who is portrayed as the savior, rips open Miss Ratched’s uniform. When she returns to the ward after the attack, the narrator, Chief Bromden, describes her appearance, “In spite of its being smaller and tighter and more starched than her old uniforms, it could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman” (268). When McMurphy violently assaults Nurse Ratched, he is asserting his physical dominance over hers. Kesey sees this as the natural order; women are subordinate to men just because of their bodies. After the attack she can “no longer conceal the fact” that she is a woman because her masculine facade generated by her “starched uniform” has been assaulted. Nurse Ratched came to be subordinate as her sexuality became uncovered because she no longer possessed the masculinity Kesey claims is needed for power. To further his ideology that women with power are unnatural, Kesey not only uses Nurse Ratched’s hidden sexuality, but also her mechanical, unnatural movement.
To deepen his argument against women in power, Kesey uses several minor characters to compliment Mrs. Ratched by also portraying them as stiff. Because the Combine, or societies institutions, is such as vast concept, Kesey must show other women in positions of power throughout the Combine to strengthen his argument. Kesey first uses a memory of Chief Bromden’s to further illustrate his disillusionment with women unnaturally in the workplace. When a woman comes to Chief Bromden’s home to evaluate the land, Kesey immediately sets up this woman as an antagonist. She is a leader within the Combine set out to destroy the natural lands of the Indian Reservation. Kesey then draws connections between this woman and Miss Ratched through the woman’s outfit when he writes, “an old white-haired woman in an outfit so stiff and heavy it must be armor plate” (179). Kesey compares Miss Ratched’s nurse attire and this woman’s “armored plate” as both stiff and nonsexual. However, this woman’s outfit is more exaggerated having been compared to a knight’s breastplate to ward off sexual attacks from men. The outfit not only hides the women’s sexuality but confines movement and is unnaturally “heavy” for such a hot day. The woman also wants to destroy the natural landscape of the reservation, making her go against nature both literally and figuratively. Kesey uses stiff, unnatural, and restrictive clothing to again illustrate that women in power are unnatural.
Finally, stiffness is also portrayed through Billy’s mother, a woman who is close friends with Miss Ratched and abuses her power as a mother, “…lead [her son] out outside to sit near where I was on the grass. She sat stiff there on the grass” (246). Kesey places her in a natural setting being unnaturally stiff, just like the woman at the reservation. Usually when people sit outside in the grass, they lay carelessly at ease, but not Billy’s mother whose stiffness seems uncomfortable. Kesey uses her connection to Miss Ratched through to show Billy’s mother’s ultimate power over her son’s life as she holds him back from recovery. After Billy makes his “recovery” by sleeping with Candy, he kills himself because he cannot face his mother, giving her ultimate power over him. A mother is someone who is supposed to be “the cure” for their sons or daughters, not the death of them. So not only is her stiffness unnatural, but so is her position as a mother who killed her son. Through Billy’s mother’s stiffness and her position of power in an antagonistic role, Kesey asserts that women shouldn’t hold positions of power because it is clearly unnatural. Throughout minor female characters within the novel, Kesey asserts their unnatural positions of power through covered sexuality and stiff movements that compare to Miss Ratchets’ own.
To further his position on women in power, Kesey portrays a prostitute, Candy, with blatant sexuality and loose movement to highlight the natural female position of subordination. Kesey makes it obvious that Candy is the very opposite of Mrs. Ratched when Chief Bromden describes Candy’s clothes, “…it didn’t look like that was near enough material to go around considering what it had to cover” (197). If Nurse Ratched covers herself through her clothing, Candy is just the opposite as she doesn’t even have “near enough material” to cover her body. Nurse Ratched is used to show Kesey’s belief that it is unnatural for women to be in power, while Candy serves to show the position that Kesey sees as natural for women: subordination. To show his appeal to Candy’s character, Kesey makes Candy the only reason the men can go on the fishing trip. Only one car comes to pick them up, and McMurphy needs a second car to get all the men to the pier. The doctor is so attracted to Candy; he agrees to drive another vehicle. Because of Candy’s body and her revealing clothing, the patients are able to go on the fishing trip that makes them more confident. Through this interaction between the doctor and Candy, Kesey is putting a positive connotation around subordinate and sexual women. Then on the trip, when Candy is on the boat, she insists on having her turn to fish. When she gets a large fish hooked on her line and struggles with holding onto the rod, Chief Bromden describes, “the reel and the reel cranks knocking against her as the reel line spins out… the T-shirt she had on is gone- everybody gawking… with the crank of that reel fluttering her breast at such a speech the nipple’s just a red blur! Billy jumps to help” (211). The moment Candy loses power control of her fishing pole, she is seen as sexually desirable by the men who are “gawking” at her as her shirt flies up. Billy jumps in and exerts his physical dominance over hers, showing her subordination in her natural sexual state. Kesey uses the fishing boat situation to show how it is natural for women to be subordinate to men. Kesey creates a natural, light feeling to the way Candy moves because, as a prostitute, she willingly shows off her body to men. By juxtaposing her occupation and her natural movement, Kesey illustrates the natural position of women as subordinate to men. Through both her movements and sexuality, Kesey uses Candy, a prostitute, as the cure for the patients in the psychiatric ward to show the natural subordination of women.
Throughout the novel, Kesey condemns women in power as unnatural through movement and sexuality. The issue of discrimination of women in the workplace started in the 1960s, but still continues today. Although feminism and misogyny had shaky definitions throughout history, Rebecca West, an influential feminist writer in the mid 20th century, clearly depicted the struggle for women when she wrote, “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
Treatment Of The Theme Of Sexuality In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
Sexuality has always been a powerful tool for writers: it can make heroes or break them, forge relationships or destroy them, suggest utter misery or heavenly bliss. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest offers a unique take on this theme: there is no single long-standing relationship in the whole of the novel, and yet sexuality is one of the most important themes in terms of plot development.
Before examining the details, one must first concentrate on the larger issues at play in this work. The Oregon State Mental Hospital, where the novel is set, immediately suggests the importance of this theme to the plot. The institute is run almost entirely by women, and all of the patients are men. The radical division of the two sexes asserts the role of each gender in the story from the start. Women are the ones in charge, the ones who dictate the rules and enforce them (if they choose to do so). Men, on the other hand, must be quiet, submissive, and obedient. As Harding puts it in one of the book’s most memorable quotes, “We are victims of a matriarchy here.” Given that the book was written in the 1950s, during a time when decidedly concrete gender roles were commonly endorsed, it is likely that this inversion was intended to shock readers. Much of the scandal caused by the book originated from the silent implication that women could control men.
The novel’s matriarch is Nurse Ratched: a once-attractive woman of 50 and the head of the ward. She wields her power over the patients and other staff members with a total lack of remorse. The metaphors used in her initial description are decidedly unnatural: “Precise, automatic gestures. Her face is smooth, calculated and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh coloured enamel.” The implication is that she is the tool of a machine-like society, and as such, has assumed its features. She is devoid of feelings such as compassion, empathy, and regret: all that remains is a plastic smile of practiced sympathy that hides wholly opposite intentions. The dehumanization of her character extends beyond her personality. The “Big Nurse” wears an overly-starched, tight-fitting uniform in order to hide her large breasts – a symbol of her womanhood, and therefore of a carnal weakness. “A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would have otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.” The result is a ruler as impenetrable as a fortress: simply put, she has no weakness to exploit. Insinuation and guilt are her main weapons, used to crush any rebellious behavior and make patients believe that they are doing wrong. “She doesn’t need to accuse. She has a genius for insinuation.”
The intentions behind Nurse Ratched’s sexless, cold attire are explained by Harding: “man has but one weapon against [women] but it is certainly not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this…society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless.” Harding is talking about the male phallus – a tool that men use to subvert women. Nurse Ratched’s composed attire and frigid attitude, however, repulse the human feelings a man would feel towards a beautiful (though old) woman such as she. In doing so, she is able to undermine men, reversing the situation. McMurphy is forced to agree: “I couldn’t get it up over old frozen face in there if she had the beauty of Marilyn Monroe.”
Nurse Ratched’s nemesis is Randle McMurphy. He is the newest admission on the ward, and different from anyone that Nurse Ratched and the other patients have seen. He is a con-man, a joker, a gambler, and – most importantly – a playboy, so much so in fact that his sexual relations are one of the reasons he has been sent to the hospital: “‘psychopath’ means I fight and fuh – pardon me, ladies – means I am overzealous in my sexual relations.” The novel depicts him as emotionally strong because he possesses two qualities that no one else on the ward has: sexual freedom and the ability to laugh. For these reasons, he is also the only truly “sane” character in the novel. McMurphy can, in a way, be seen as a beacon of light in a world of darkness: amidst the madness of the patients and the institution, he reminds the reader what true sanity looks like.
McMurphy is the most sexually accomplished of the patients, but does not brag about his conquests openly because he knows that to do so would only discourage his comrades. Rather, he puts his skills to use against Nurse Ratched. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched are opposites, and must inevitably clash. One loves controlled order, while the other revels in utter chaos. One is a remorseless megalomaniac, while the other is a fun-loving trickster. One is sexless, while the other cannot get enough of it. This last difference is the strongest weapon in McMurphy’s arsenal: by alienating herself from sex, Nurse Ratched has forgotten that she herself can be subject to sexual scrutiny and humiliation.
Throughout the book, McMurphy and Nurse Ratched remain locked in a power struggle over the patients. However, McMurphy is fighting for the patients’ physical and mental freedom, while Nurse Ratched seeks their imprisonment for the purposes of her own ego. The weapons they wield are as different as their goals. Nurse Ratched uses insinuation and a divide-and-conquer tactic to subvert McMurphy, while he uses what comes most naturally to him: his sexuality.
The patients see Nurse Ratched as more than a woman, more than a human, even. Her sexless nature helps create this illusion, but by distancing herself from her own sexual instincts she makes herself vulnerable. McMurphy constantly harangues Nurse Ratched, asking “if she didn’t mind tellin’, just what was the actual inch-by-inch measurement on those big ol’ breasts that she did her best to conceal but never could.” Later, “through the back of her uniform, [he] gave her a pinch that turned her face red as his hair.” As a consequence of McMurphy’s jokes, the patients’ notion of Nurse Ratched as an impregnable being ceases to exist, and with every one of McMurphy’s sly comments the power structure shifts slightly. At the end of the novel, this power is completely dispelled through McMurphy’s last, desperate sacrifice for the sake of his friends: “he grabbed for [Nurse Ratched] and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out.” This gesture not only exposes Nurse Ratched as a human being, but also nullifies her power – never again will the patients see her as the superhuman being they once thought she was.
Much of the evidence for this theme is hidden in symbolism. One clear symbol of sexuality in the novel is McMurphy’s boxer shorts. In one of their many confrontations, McMurphy meets Nurse Ratched wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, “coal black satin covered with big, white whales with red eyes” and curiously similar to the figure of Moby Dick. This is important because Moby Dick was often interpreted as a phallic symbol, and here it is representative of McMurphy’s sexuality. The Moby Dick shorts are also symbolic of McMurphy’s struggle with Nurse Ratched, which mirrors Ahab’s struggle with the whale. Finally, many have interpreted Moby Dick as a holy figure, much as McMurphy mimics Christ in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The shorts were originally given to McMurphy as a present “from a co-ed at Oregon State, a Literary major…She gave them to me because she said I was a symbol.”
Another important symbol is the pack of cards McMurphy plays with throughout the novel. The pack is the first object he presents the patients with, and the cards depict “fifty-two positions.” Exactly what these cards depict is made clear by Cheswick’s reaction: he is “pop-eyed already…what he sees on those cards don’t help his condition.” Apart from being an obvious representation of McMurphy’s open sexuality, the cards also reveal something about his character. This is no normal pack of cards; the pack thus reveals McMurphy’s non-conformist nature and need to shock, to be the center of attention.
McMurphy’s association with symbols does not end there. While he and the patients are returning from their fishing trip, he notices a small dress hanging from a tree, “a rag, yellow and black.” The dress inspires him to tell the story of how he first lost his virginity to a girl of nine, whose dress ended up in the boughs of a tree after McMurphy cast it into the wind. McMurphy wears his sexuality like a dress in the wind, waving it proudly for everyone to see. Symbolism aside, this part of the novel is extremely important to both the theme of sexuality and to the development of McMurphy’s character. This insight into McMurphy’s youth helps the reader understand where his unique personality originated, as famously stated by McMurphy himself: “[she] taught me to love, bless her sweet ass.” It reminds the reader how important a healthy sexuality is to the growth of a man: the other patients had troubled sex lives, and are now deemed mad. The situation is thus infused with a heavy dose of irony: the other patients have been institutionalized because of an under-active or unhealthy sex life, while McMurphy because of his over-active sexuality.
Billy Bibbit is an insecure 34-year-old virgin with a speech impediment. The root of his problems is his non-existent sex life, which left him unable to mature into a man. The blame for this falls not on Billy, but on his mother. Having been treated like an infant all his life caused Billy to be overwhelmed by the world’s complexities, creating the foundation for his insecurity. In the one scene where his mother comes to visit, it becomes obvious that Billy’s mental condition was borne from his mother’s oppressiveness: “Billy was talking about looking for a wife and going to college someday. His mother laughed…at such foolishness.” Were Billy younger such a conversation might have sounded rational, but Billy is “th-th-thirty-one years old,” and is clearly no longer college-bound.
Later in the novel, McMurphy helps Billy lose his virginity with Candy, a prostitute who breaks into the hospital, thereby eradicating his life-long stutter and insecurity. The beautiful moment, however, is short-lived: after Nurse Ratched discovers what has taken place, she threatens to tell Billy’s mother, sending Billy into a nervous breakdown: “He was shaking his head like a kid that’s been promised a whipping just as soon as a willow is cut.” Soon after he is taken away, the others receive news that he has “cut his throat.” Billy’s suicide is not entirely surprising. He behaves much like a child facing punishment, blindly attempting to escape the guilt and the fear.
Indeed, all patients in the hospital have had a powerful, emasculating female figure in their lives. In Harding’s case, this was his wife. Harding has been institutionalized because he is a homosexual. While no one explicitly reveals this information, the reader can deduce this both from his first conversation with McMurphy (“I have been accused…of having relations with male friends of mine, of holding my cigarette in an affected manner…” ) and the description of his wife’s visit (“She talks of some of Harding’s friends who she wishes would quit dropping around the house looking for him…The hoity-toity with the nice, long hair combed so perfectly and the limp little wrists that flip so nice”). What isn’t known is whether he was a homosexual before or after he married, though there is strong evidence to suggest the latter. Harding claims to have been intimidated by his wife, who is indeed a very beautiful woman who attracts a great deal of attention. Harding also states that he was afraid he would not be able to satisfy her. Evidently his fears swamped any love he might have had for her or any other woman, causing his interests to wander elsewhere. For Harding, there is no quick solution as there was with Billy, but he states in the final pages of the novel that he wants to come to terms with his sexuality before confronting society again.
The narrator of the novel, Chief Bromden, has also had a traumatizing experience with a woman: his mother. She was able to slowly sap any confidence and power from both him and his proud father and tribal leader, Tee-Ah-Millatoona (“The-Pine-That-Stands-Tallest-On-The-Mountain”). Only her surname is mentioned in the book, Bromden, an indication that the Chief is trying to forget her stifling presence. She imposes her surname on the Chief’s father and himself: a symbol of the permanent influence she has on their lives and a direct usurpation of Tee-Ah-Millatoona’s role as head of the family. His downfall into the sorry drunkard he becomes is a consequence of the mother’s oppressive nagging, which the Chief says “made him too little to fight any more” and ultimately persuaded him to sell the valley that was home to him and his ancestors. The Chief’s mother can be seen as a tool of a mechanistic society, infiltrating one of nature’s last havens in an effort to conquer and exploit it.
We know that the Chief finally became insane while fighting in World War Two because he was committed shortly after the war ended, but his perceptive abilities had already been significantly stunted by his mother. When McMurphy asks the Chief how big his mother was, he replies that although a carnival worker once told him she was “five feet nine and a hundred and thirty pounds,” he imagines her to be bigger than his father, “twice his size.”
Sexual violence is yet another theme present in the book. When Nurse Ratched pretends to get McMurphy’s name wrong and calls him “McMurry,” he delves into a story about “an uncle whose name was Hallahan…he went with a woman once who kept acting like she couldn’t remember his name right and kept calling him Hooligan just to get his goat. It went on for months before he stopped her.” When the doctor asks how he stopped her, McMurphy replies, “I keep Unk Hallahan’s method a strict secret, you see, in case I need to use it myself someday.” He is, of course, referring to rape. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, rape is portrayed as the last resort for men who wish to assert their “natural” authority over women.
The first time this theme appears in the novel is during Chief Bromden’s recollections about Taber. Without warning, Nurse Ratched’s cronies “catch Taber in the latrine and drag him to the mattress room,” where Nurse Ratched is waiting, “smearing Vaseline on a long needle.” Shortly afterwards, she reappears, “wiping the needle on a shred of Taber’s pants.” Significantly, she “[leaves] the Vaseline jar in the room” for the wardens to use on Maxwell. Symbolically, it is as if she has raped him. Not only is Nurse Ratched able to nullify men’s last weapon over women, but she is even capable of using it against them.
The last time this theme appears in the novel is during McMurphy’s final sacrifice. Prior to being committed to the hospital, he was never violent in his sexual relationships – contrary to what the hospital believed. The atmosphere of the hospital, however, with its twisted absence of sexuality and horribly cruel psychological ordeals, forces McMurphy to turn to sexual violence as a last resort. He rebels against the cruel matriarch, tearing off Nurse Ratched’s uniform. In a way, McMurphy has to resort to “Unk Hallahan’s” method to bring about change – ultimately, the uncanny prophecy proves to be true.
Yet another major theme in the novel is castration. The most memorable usage of this theme occurs during Rawler’s suicide: he bleeds to death after cutting off his own testicles. Particularly striking is the phrase with which the Chief concludes the anecdote: “What makes people so impatient is what I can’t figure, all the guy had to do was wait.” The sentence can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Firstly, the Chief might be suggesting that the institution itself would have killed him in the long run: being classified as “Disturbed,” Rawler would have been subjected to electroshock therapy and other operations that would most likely have brought about his demise. However, the Chief might also have meant that Rawler would have eventually been castrated by the institution. The sexless nature of the hospital would drive any man to a mental – if not physical – castration.
This theme becomes even more important towards the end of the novel, after McMurphy has been subjected to three electroshock treatments. Nurse Ratched, seeing no change in McMurphy’s behavior, suggests “that we consider an operation” – by which she means a lobotomy. Before she can continue, however, McMurphy retorts that “it wouldn’t be any use to lop’em off; I got another pair in my nightstand.” As usual, he makes a joke out of the nurse’s grave announcement, pretending to believe that they want to castrate him. Both operations, however, rid a man of his individuality, his freedom to choose, and his pride. Kesey’s implication is that the two operations are symbolically identical.
There is much debate over the function of this theme in the novel. Many have simply labeled the novel as offensive towards women, but the truth of the matter is in fact far more complex. Kesey’s negative portrayal of women is not intended to undermine the female sex. In order to effectively convey the extreme differences between the nurses and the patients, Kesey not only had to separate them not only morally, but also physically. By dividing them by gender, Kesey creates a world in which females can immediately be identified as “evil” and male characters as “good.” The notion of a society completely governed by women is extremely alien to us (and would have been even more unimaginable to Kesey’s contemporaries), thereby emphasizing that the hospital environment is twisted and unnatural.
Possibly foreseeing the reaction to his novel, Kesey included a character intended to discredit the theory that he was blatantly misogynistic. The Japanese nurse who treats McMurphy and the Chief’s wounds is the only truly “normal” woman in the novel: she has a little of the prostitutes’ goodness and a little of the nurses’ authority and status – in other words, she is a true neutral. Her kindness and thoughtfulness come through when she “[gives] McMurphy a cigarette and me a stick of gum,” but her lesser authority prevents her from being able to protect the men by keeping them in her ward. Her remark that “It’s not all like [Nurse Ratched’s] ward. The Army nurses…are a little sick themselves” strengthens the theory that Kesey did not want to portray women negatively: the hospital nurses are exceptions, and not indicators of women as a whole. The criticism that women are portrayed as little more than sexual playthings is also countered by the Japanese nurse. McMurphy attempts to flirt with her, asking “how long [they] could have the pleasure of her hospitality” and spinning her response around: “Not very long, you’re afraid?” but her indifference to McMurphy’s advances clearly indicates that Kesey did not want women to be merely objectified.
Similarly, some have called the novel racist because of the decidedly negative portrayal of the black wardens. This accusation is likewise unfounded because of the presence of the Negro night warden Mr. Turkle, who “unties the sheet from across [the Chief] if it’s so tight I squirm around” and participates in McMurphy’s midnight party.
The theme of sexuality in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is central to the novel. It is McMurphy’s primary weapon against Nurse Ratched’s cold rule, culminating in the successful toppling of the evil matriarch and the subsequent liberation of the patients. On the other side of the spectrum, it has the power to render men insane when wrongly used, as is the case with many of the hospital’s patients. Sexuality can even cause men to do horrific things, as when Billy Bibbit ends his own life. The novel is woven with intricate sub-plots: castration and the subsequent dehumanization, the emasculation of men, and sexual violence as a solution. Many have criticized Ken Kesey as offensive and misogynistic, but I believe that he is a visionary able to infuse inflammatory themes with elements of pure truth.
Comparison of the authors’ presentation of alienation and isolation in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
The themes of alienation and isolation in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ are highly prominent, as the authors seek to portray the journey of an individual (or indeed group) that exists outside of mainstream society. In both novels we see the story told through the persona of an alienated first person narrator, a viewpoint that profoundly affects our comprehension and interpretation of the stories told, whether it be Bromden’s hallucinatory description of “the fog” and its effects or Holden’s quasi-reliable description of the events that lead to his being in a mental asylum. It is important to illustrate the subtle difference between alienation and isolation: Although the two terms are closely linked and often seen to be synonymous, I understand ‘alienation’ to be a more passive term; an alienated character has been alienated by the society around them. I understand isolation, however, to be a conscious – or at least intentional on some level – move by a character to exist outside of society. Society alienates a character, whereas a character isolates himself – naturally, there is some overlap between the two. Both of these phenomena are presented in, and are key to understanding ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. There is no doubt that the narrators of both novels assert their individuality, and in doing so isolate themselves, through their idiosyncratic use of language and lack of adherence to narrative conventions. From the moment that we meet Holden, we see him using the slang (“lousy”, “all that kind of crap”) and standoffish direct address (“don’t even mention them to me”) that characterise his narration throughout the novel. Similarly, the opening line of the narrative of Bromden in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is “they’re out there” – a completely subjective and paranoid statement that instantly creates distance between him and the reader due to its seeming implausibility. Kesey also punctuates Bromden’s narrative with long and bizarre hallucinations, of manipulative machinery and robotics for example, which too initially create distance between himself and the reader. However, as the novels progress, we grow to accept the strange and somewhat difficult narrative, and it becomes personable and likeable. The language and narrative styles of the novel serve to force the reader to go through a journey regarding their proximity to the narrator: at first, we are alienated by their unconventionality, but as the novels develop we find ourselves very much on the side of the narrator. In my opinion, this journey of the alienation of the reader is of just as much importance as the alienation of the characters themselves. For Holden, isolation is a means of self-protection. In his interactions with other people – especially girls, such as Sally and Faith – he seems ill-at-ease and confused as to what he should say, trying forcibly to sound “suave as hell” and adult in place of actually making any connection with anyone he talks to. He isolates himself, therefore, both intentionally (his journey around New York City) and unintentionally (through his odd behaviour in an attempt to be adult) as a way of avoiding having to face the clear confusion and inner conflict that he possesses. This illustrates the irony of Holden’s character and actions; he isolates himself as a result of an unfulfilled desire to fit in with the society around him. His famous red hunting hat, for example, is a clear and intentional physical symbol of difference. His assertion – however jocular – that it is a “people-shooting hat” is suggestive of his explicit desire to stand out by wearing it, but his numerous mentions of Allie and Phoebe’s red hair suggest that he wears it simply as a subconscious attempt to fit in to his family. At the same time, Holden seems both proud and self-conscious of the hat (often not wearing it when meeting friends, or taking it off when it is commented on), a clear symbol of this conflict between isolation and fitting in. In many respects, Bromden (and indeed many of the minor characters such as Harding in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) uses isolation as a means of self-protection, much in the way that Holden does. Bromden’s pretence that he is deaf and dumb could, in some respects, be compared with Holden’s pretence of adulthood and maturity – both are used because the perpetrator believes that it is the only way to get by and fit in with a society that they do not fully understand. However, whilst Holden seems unaware of his use of isolation as a means of protection, Bromden does so intentionally. He believes that he is “cagey enough to fool” everyone else in the ward – and in doing so, makes himself less of a target than the other patients. Indeed, he only lets this guard down much later on for McMurphy, once he is certain of his trustworthiness. In this respect, Bromden’s self-imposed isolation is an effective tool – he avoids the vicious and destructive sessions of group therapy, through which “the Big Nurse” is able to maintain a stranglehold over the ward through psychological manipulation. However, this isolation alone is not enough for Bromden to regain his confidence and sanity – it requires a character like McMurphy to catalyse this process. The fog is the ideal symbol of Bromden’s isolation – it appears at emotional points in the story, and creates a veil – symbolic for the reader, but physical for Bromden – behind which he “feels safe”. Although he knows that the fog – his isolation – is wrong, “as bad as it is”, slipping back into it allows him to distance himself from the situation. Kesey therefore seems to suggest that although isolation is an effective shield, simply withdrawing from society is not enough in itself to bring about change. The active struggle, although often sisyphean, is portrayed as more heroic and effective than simple passive withdrawal; Bromden’s struggle against “the combine” is only really escaped by his breaking out of the institution, and McMurphy’s struggle, although not bringing him freedom, is enough to mentally liberate the other ‘inmates’ of the ward, from both mental imprisonment, and in Bromden’s case physical imprisonment too. Loss of identity is prominent in both novels, both as cause and effect of isolation and alienation, and both Bromden and Holden have a perception of identity that shifts greatly during the course of their respective stories. Kesey manifests Bromden’s changing identity, like much of his mental state, through physical symbolism in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. As a result of societal alienation in the form of the government’s destruction of his heritage and his subsequent institutionalisation, Bromden feels that he physically shrinks – despite being “six foot eight”, he sees McMurphy to be “twice the size” of him. As he is pushed out from the society he knows, he loses all sense of power and confidence, and sees his depression manifest itself physically. As with his ‘deafness’, it is only when he regains acceptance into society – albeit the counter-culture society embodied by McMurphy – that he returns to his normal size. We also see a reflection of this in the narrative itself, namely in that although Bromden is the narrator, he does not tell his own story, rather centring on McMurphy’s story, and including his own as almost subsidiary. The fact that Bromden is almost a passive eyewitness to his own life, focusing instead on McMurphy’s, illustrates the powerlessness and loss of identity that he feels as a result of alienation. Holden too suffers from loss of identity, or at least uncertainty. However, contrary to Bromden, for whom loss of identity is result of alienation, for Holden we see changing identity to be a root cause of his isolation. Much like Bromden, there is a duality in Holden’s identity. However, unlike Bromden, who clearly develops from one identity into the other (powerless to powerful), both sides of Holden’s identity seem to be ever-present, and in direct juxtaposition with one another. For Holden, this duality is between adult and child identity. It is this conflict in identity that is the foundation of the novel, and one of the reasons that it is considered the archetypal Bildungsroman in English literature. It is even alluded to in the title of the book – Holden misinterprets the lyrics of a folk song about a sexual affair to be “can a body, catch a body, comin’ through the rye” – an idea which then reoccurs as what Holden wants to be when he is older, a ‘catcher in the rye’ – someone who catches children before they fall off a cliff. The cliff can be seen to represent adulthood, and that Holden wants to ensure that children (himself included, perhaps) can remain young and innocent, without falling off the “cliff” of adulthood and responsibility. The fact that Holden derived this naive and innocent image from a song about sex is indicative of the duality in his identity – simultaneously, Holden wants to be immersed in the adult world, as represented by his constant emphasis on smoking and drinking, and desire to act ‘adult’. However, at the same time, he is clearly unsure and afraid of the adult world, as seen by his paying a prostitute to just talk, as he did not feel comfortable with the idea of sex. It is, incidentally, interesting that both novels feature prostitutes as relatively important characters – Candy in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and Sunny in ‘Catcher in the Rye’. As perhaps the most alienated and isolated group of people in society, the fact that the prostitutes in the novels are portrayed as the norm in comparison to the isolated characters illustrates the extent to which they (the members of the ward and Holden respectively) are socially estranged. This conflict between adult and child, and its resultant confusion, is present in almost all of Holden’s actions throughout the novel. His great interest in the museum, for example, could be seen to represent his desire to understand and compartmentalise the complexity of the world, as in a museum. It is ultimately this duality that leads both to Holden’s alienation and his isolation – he is alienated by both the adult world that he is too immature to take part in, and the childish innocent world that he is seen as too old for. As a result, we see him isolate himself not only from his family but also from himself, by becoming a parody of an adult, going through the motions of adulthood so as to avoid having to confront the complex duality that exists within his character. In many ways, this is the absolute antithesis to Bromden; the psychological problems that cause Bromden to isolate himself are manifested physically – in his changing size and perception of “the fog” and “the combine”. Conversely, Holden internalises his problems to the extent that he seems almost oblivious to them, only beginning to express them by childishly accusing everything and everyone but himself as “phony” – when ironically, it is Holden’s persona that seems to us the most fake. The hugely different backgrounds of the two isolated characters – Holden and Bromden respectively – should be taken into account when comparing them. I believe that the backgrounds of both characters, although hugely different, are relevant in examining their alienation and isolation: Holden’s wealthy upper-middle class white background makes him seem like the perfect all-American aspirational figure, making his isolation and views on society all the more ironic. Holden has no obvious motive to feel distaste for American society or those within it – he is very much a part of the society that he sees as “phony”. His isolation is all the more striking considering his everyman status – he is not the ‘typical’ outsider by any means. In contradistinction, Bromden is a Native American, a fact which, although not seen as hugely important, I believe to be crucial to the portrayal of alienation and isolation in the novel. As a subjugated people, effectively driven out from their land and culture – a fact seen in the novel – Native Americans are an excellent symbol of the alienating effects of society. Furthermore, the connection of Native Americans to nature (a fact that is again seen in Bromden’s recollections of his youth) makes the alienation of the ward even more poignant as Bromden is alienated from his natural roots by the cold and artificial world of “the combine”, with its disturbing mechanical parts. The metaphor of a “combine” – a combine harvester machine – is a brilliant image of this; a combine being a mechanised device that cuts down and harvests the land’s products – representative both of the loss of the Native American people and the alienation of Bromden by an emotionless society. In conclusion, I believe that isolated and alienated characters are effectively used as a statement against mainstream society in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’, as we see the alienating effects of society and the attempts of the protagonists to (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) counter them through isolation. Indeed, the link between the two concepts is often blurred, and we often see one causing the other – as Bromden says, “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear”. However, it is Bromden’s journey of freedom from the alienating world of the ward that is more optimistic than Holden’s downward spiral of isolation and resultant alienation. This is not to say that the two books convey a greatly different message regarding the isolated individual; in both novels we see isolation as an ineffective tool against the inequalities and “phoniness” of society – it is through fighting the system of alienation that freedom is achieved by Bromden. The two books are, in my opinion, simply mirrors of each other – Bromden begins as a powerless mental patient, and is liberated through rebellion, whereas Holden begins by rebelling and, we discover at the end, is eventually institutionalised. Although Kesey and Salinger therefore would seem to disagree in their presentation of alienation and isolation on many fronts, they are, in my opinion, two sides of the same coin.
Women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey portrays women as overwhelmingly negative, either dominating or submissive. Nurse Ratched, Vera Harding, and Billy’s mother are controlling women who use fear to reign over men and mask their feminine qualities. Candy Starr and Sandy Gilfilliam, on the other hand, are prostitutes who submit to objectification by men. Nurse Ratched masks her feminine qualities while the other women emphasize their sexual availability. Aside from one balanced female, the unnamed Japanese nurse from the Disturbed ward, Kesey’s women are extreme and negative characters. Nurse Ratched defeminizes herself and subdues the men’s masculinity. Her attempts to defeat the men are ironic because she herself tries to embody masculine characteristics. Illustrating her effect on the men is McMurphy’s observation: “No, the nurse ain’t some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter” (57). Symbolic language like “ball-cutter” is a metaphor because men know the degree of pain that is associated with groin injuries. Though the nurse does not physically harm the men; her actions damage their mentality. This destruction is shown by Harding’s comment: “She’s unselfish as the wind, toiling thanklessly for the good of all, day after day, five long days a week” (58). This quote represents the devastation of the men’s ability to decipher manipulative activities. The men on the ward have become accustomed to Nurse Ratched and dismiss her tyrannical attitude as caring management. However, McMurphy is perceptive to Nurse Ratched due to his life adventures of working and gambling. He also is a fresh member of the ward and fakes mental illness in order to escape a work farm sentence. Even patients recognize that Nurse Ratched makes men feel inadequate; Harding, for instance, states: “Doctor Spivey is exactly like the rest of us, McMurphy, completely conscious of his inadequacy” (59). She belittles men by initially using peaceful words and ending with hurtful intentions: “Good morning, Mr. Harding – why, look, your fingertips are red and raw. Have you been chewing your fingernails again?” (90). She further proves her maliciousness towards the men when she displays Chronics as a reminder of what can happen to the Acutes.Vera Harding, Dale Harding’s wife, differs from Nurse Ratched in that she uses her physical appearance and sexuality to intimidate Harding. When coming to visit, she flirts and blows a kiss to the black boy. This behavior leaves Harding feeling sexually insecure and vulnerable. When he does show happiness, she remarks, “Dale, when are you going to learn to laugh instead of making that mousy little squeak?” (158). This direct insult cracks his ego because it tears away at his personality and humor. She continues her insults by saying, “Oh Dale, you never do have enough, do you?” (158). Harding understands that this is a reference to his sexual inadequacy, and he becomes a pitied figure. By provoking her husband, Vera has restrained him into a nervous state. Vera shows her domineering attitude in a way unlike the cold Big Nurse. Vera Harding also exploits her husband’s homosexuality. The novel gives good reason to believe that Harding is a closeted gay, in part through what Vera says about him – for instance, declaring that she wishes Harding’s friends would quit dropping around the house. She continues by saying, “The hoity-toity boys with the nice long hair combed so perfectly and the limp little wrists that flip so nice” (159). Vera’s attempts to “out” her husband are demeaning, potentially lowering his status among among his peers. Vera is clearly another vicious woman whose actions are intended to dominate men. Billy Bibbit’s mother has authority over him, something Nurse Ratched uses to emasculate Billy and entrench his dependence on women. Nurse Ratched reacts to finding Billy with a prostitute by saying, “You know how [your mother] is when she gets disturbed, Billy; you know how ill the poor woman can become” (264). The thought of inducing illness in one’s mother is unthinkable, especially to a “mama’s boy” like Billy. After the nurse shames him, Billy’s stutter – a symbol of his fear and self-doubt – reappears. As neighbors and friends, Billy’s mother and Nurse Ratched work together to dominate the young man.Candy Star and Sandy Gilfilliam are submissive women, in constrast to those just described, but are no more positively portrayed than Kesey’s other female characters. The women depend on men for financial reasons, not for love. Candy scoffs at marriage in saying, “To tell the truth ol’ Sandy got married” (196); Sandy revels in sexual gratification when describing her experience with Sefelt: “I have never experienced anything to come even close to it” (254). With their dependence on men, lack of commitment, and illegal profession, the prostitutes are another example of Kesey’s negative portrayal of women in this novel.The strong-minded Japanese nurse who makes a brief appearance does not compensate for the negativity towards females that prevails in the rest of the book. She insults Army nurses by saying, “Army nurses, trying to run an Army hospital. They are a little sick themselves. I sometimes think all single nurses should be fired after they reach thirty-five” (234). She opposes conformity, which suggests that Kesey thinks of her as a female of substance, but lacks a name and any power in the ward – she works, after all, under Nurse Ratched. The Japanese nurse therefore does little to counter the novel’s general negativity towards women.Dominant or submissive, malicious or shallow, the women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are stereotypical and flat. The single female with gumption, the Japanese nurse, lacks the power or presence to counter these characters. Kesey’s novel is hailed as a great one, and for good reason, but his depiction of women is far less than laudable.
Defense Mechanisms in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, mainly takes place in an Oregon psychiatric hospital ward controlled by Nurse Ratched according to a precise schedule and strict rules. The narrator, Chief Bromden, describes many patients in this ward, all of which have different problems and reasons for being there. Among the characteristics of the patients, each person has a unique defense mechanism, which they used to shield themselves from their problems in outside society. Each individual’s way of protection can be viewed as intentional or subconscious. Three characters that play an important role in this story, Chief Bromden, Dale Harding, and Billy Bibbit, each make their defense mechanisms apparent while they are in the ward. At many points in the story, Chief Bromden tells the reader that the ward is “fogged” to some extent. Chief, a paranoid schizophrenic patient, believes that his hallucinations of the clouded ward are real, and doesn’t understand how something that he can see might be in his imagination. According to Chief, the fog is created by a machine and clouds the ward by coming in through the vents. We learn from Bromden that the images of fog that he generates originate from his days in the army during WWII. Machines similar to the one that is supposedly kept in the ward had been used while Chief was in Europe to produce a fog over Allied airfields so that German bombers would have trouble seeing their targets. The comparison is made that Chief’s fog shields him from reality, as it had shielded him from enemies and danger during the war. Chief recognizes that if he stays still and keeps quiet when the ward is “fogged,” he can be protected from the outside world, which has treated him cruelly in the past. This is evident when McMurphy is admitted into the ward, and begins to demand reforms and changes within the Big Nurse’s schedule and rules. At this point, Chief is disturbed by the thought of reality, and describes the fog as being thicker. “The last few days they been doing it more and more. It’s my idea they’re doing it on account of McMurphy” (118), says Chief. As Chief becomes more comfortable with McMurphy’s presence, the thickness of the fog and the frequency at which it appears decreases. We see this in the chapter after McMurphy has rallied the men to watch the blank TV set during the World Series, “we let McMurphy lure us out of the fog” (130), says Chief. Finally, when McMurphy has helped Chief regain his confidence and “return to his old size,” Chief knows that he no longer needs to be protected from outside society, and the fog leaves him for good. Dale Harding, another patient who plays an important role in this story, uses his intellect as a defense mechanism. When McMurphy enters the ward, Chief describes the conversation between Harding and McMurphy, in which Harding provides some important information about the ward and its patients. By this conversation, and the fact that Harding is the president of the Patients’ Counsel, we learn that Harding takes leadership among the other patients. The reader soon learns that Harding cannot take such leadership outside of the ward, where his dominating wife, Vera, leads him to believe that he is incompetent. He is troubled and confused with other men taking interest in his wife, who responds to the men with the same attitude that they show her. Harding needs the ward, and voluntarily resides there because he is aware of his lack of leadership and control living with his wife in the outside world. When Vera comes to the ward to visit Harding, they immediately begin to act bitter towards each other and put one another down. While they exchange words, Harding shows that Vera degrades him and makes him feel incompetent by telling McMurphy, “You don’t have to apologize for my inadequacies, my friend” (159). Thanks to McMurphy’s inspiration, Harding checks out of the ward on his own late in the book, just as he had planned. “I want my wife to be here in a car at a certain time to pick me up. I want them to know I was able to do it that way” (257), says Harding when he is sure that he has overcome what had been keeping him inside the ward.When Billy Bibbit is described speaking to someone, it is obvious that he cannot form a sentence without stuttering. Although Billy cannot help speaking with a stutter, this speech impediment serves as his defense mechanism. This problem allows Billy to voluntarily check into the ward, where he is not forced to interact with other people in normal society. Coming into the ward has been good for Billy, who was having problems with functioning in normal social situations, and possessed little to no self-confidence. Billy is able to express his desire for a normal life, and his belief that he is unable to achieve one when he says, “You think I wuh-wuh-wuh-want to stay in here? You think I wouldn’t like a con-con-vertible and a guh-guh-girl friend? But did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you?” (168). The reader can soon trace Bibbit’s problem back to his overbearing mother, and the way that she has treated him throughout his whole life. We see the extent to which Billy is affected by his mother’s childlike treatment when Chief tells a story of Billy’s mother taking her son by the hand and bringing him outside on the grass, where he lay next to her with his head on her lap. Chief says that when Billy mentioned he would like to go to college and get a wife someday, his mother simply “laughed at such foolishness” (247). Chief tells the reader that a moment like this involving Billy’s mother “embarrassed the rest of us as much as it did Billy” (246). After Billy has sex with Candy, he gains confidence, and speaks clearly without stuttering. His stutter quickly returns though, at the very mention of Nurse Ratched calling his mother to tell her what Billy has done. Billy becomes frantic, and is so afraid of his mother’s disapproval that he kills himself by slitting his throat with an instrument from the doctor’s desk. At that point it had become obvious that the ward would no longer protect him from his mother, from whom he had come there to escape. Patients in the ward are shielded from the outside world and society in different ways. While Bromden has hallucinations of the fogged ward, Harding uses his intellect and Billy Bibbit speaks with a stutter. By the time Chief has escaped the ward, it is not necessary for any of these characters to continue to protect themselves with their defense mechanisms. Bromden and Harding are both able to return to normal society by the end of the story, and no longer worry about life in the outside world as they did before McMurphy arrived at the ward.
Ken Kesey and the Eisenhower Administration
The late 1950s and ’60s saw a merging of government and corporation. For the most part, this took place during the Eisenhower administration. This new political climate seemed to be too powerful to many in the beatnik generation. One of these is Ken Kesey, whose views on the “new government” are reflected in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dubbed the “Combine,” this idea acts as a ruling power in an insane asylum. The hero’s (or anti-hero’s) struggles against the Combine parallel the struggles of Kesey and his peers against the policies of the Eisenhower administration. One of the Eisenhower administration’s most powerful platforms was the fight against communism, which is reflected in the Combine. The foremost concern of the administration was to contain communism. This is clearly reflected in the setting: a mental institution. Just as the United States (and other countries) labored to keep communism restricted to the Soviet Union and surrounding countries, as a society we try to keep the ill separated from the healthy, equipping our institutions with window screens such as that “a technician picked up a chair…and beat the screen till the chair was no more than kindling wood” (108). Also visible in the novel is the clash between idealism and practicality. Recalling the differences between democracy and communism, the nurse tries to serve the majority despite the patients’ wishes that she serve all. After a vote to let the Acutes watch a baseball game, she remarks that it may not be done because “Forty patients, and only twenty voted. You must have a majority to change the ward policy” (124). It may also be noted that Nurse Ratched’s group meetings are distinctly suggestive of McCarthyism. During the McCarthy era, people registered as Communists were asked to give the names of all the others they knew to be Communists. Ratched fosters the same disloyal tendencies in her ward by asking men to write in a book when someone says something revealing, and rewarding them accordingly. McMurphy presents the analogy of a pecking party, where “the flock gets sight of a spot of blood on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it…till they rip the chicken to shreds” (55). It’s is easy to find similarities between the workings of the Combine and the Eisenhower administration’s domestic and fiscal policies. When Eisenhower, a celebrated World War II general, was elected, a large portion of previously domestic funds were diverted to the military. The military is like the Combine in that the institution depends on having clean-cut rules and a pyramidal authority structure (it can be noted, also, that Eisenhower used this method to organize his cabinet and departments). Like the diverting of funds, the institution is drawn away from a personal approach to solving the patients’ problems, preferring to remain methodical and cold. The Combine’s inhumane practices are explicitly detailed in a conversation between Harding and McMurphy in which Harding explains that “if she [Ratched] can’t cut below the belt, she’ll do it above the eyes” (165). It can be said that Eisenhower was somewhat of a “lame-duck” president; he proposed very few bills to Congress. Like Eisenhower, the Combine encourages its patients to leave policy be, creating an atmosphere in which change is dreaded. This attitude is asserted by an aide who denies McMurphy toothpaste, “It’s ward policy, Mr. McMurphy, tha’s the reason” (85). The policies aren’t questioned simply because they are established. Another of Eisenhower’s main initiatives was to return many federal powers to the states. It is for this same reason that McMurphy is stuck at the institution: the state has given the Combine the power to decide when he can leave. The theme of leaving large powers to smaller governmental factions is apparent in the actions of Nurse Ratched. Toward the beginning of his stay, McMurphy pleads with the men to try and reduce her power: “Don’t you see you have to do something to show you still got some guts? Don’t you see you can’t let her take over completely?” (65). The men are afraid of her because she has too much power for being so “local.” Despite their many similarities, Kesey’s Combine departs from the idea of corporation that was integral to the Eisenhower administration. American corporation is tied directly to the free market and our emphasis on capitalism, but the Combine does not espouse these ideals. When the men seem to be using up too many cigarettes, they are rationed, thus taking away the sense of ownership the men once possessed. During a meeting, Cheswick shows his discontent at this policy by saying, “I ain’t no little kid to have cigarettes kept from me like cookies!” (149). Nurse Ratched, in an attempt to alienate the patients from McMurphy, notes that many men on the ward have lost considerable amounts of money since he arrived. She even mentions the recent fishing trip and, in order to further spread doubt, asks, “What do you suppose Mr. McMurphy’s profit was on this venture?” (223). In this action, she shows that she disapproves of McMurphy’s ability to make money off the others, which is the primary idea behind capitalism. Also, in staff meetings, she dominates and gives final judgement on all matters. When they are discussing what to do with McMurphy, Kesey explicitly shows that the others are only there to please her: “They figured they were proposing just what she’d want, just what she was planning to propose in the meeting herself” (135). This again flies in the face of corporation, as the first requirement of corporations is that they are led by a board as opposed to by a singular boss. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can be read as an overt opposition to the Eisenhower administration. Given this, it is somewhat surprising that he did not choose to model the Combine after a corporation. Otherwise, he paralleled the domestic, fiscal, and foreign policies held by the administration perfectly. Kesey obviously intended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to model the beatnik opposition to the government by comparing the Eisenhower administration to the all-powerful Combine.
McMurphy v. Ratched: Not So Different After All
Aragorn Louis most probably perfectly captured the relationship between McMurphy and Ratched in saying, “Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.” In relation, if McMurphy is the light, and Ratched the dark, then we see that we can understand both only in relation to one another. In a sense, what makes these two characters so great, so appealing to the readers is the fact that they are taken in context with one another. Neither McMurphy nor Ratched on their own portray the message that Kesey wants to send-but together they do so perfectly. McMurphy’s philosophy of life is contingent upon sexuality, freedom, and determining his own fate. In a sense-he serves as the foil and true antithesis of Nurse Ratched and her personality. One of the major clashes that occurs with Nurse Ratched happens in their confrontation after his shower and when he has his bath robe on. In first arriving at the hospital, he never received a uniform, and so when Ratched tells him to take off his robe-we see a moment of tenseness as Ratched thinks he is going to strip nude. This poses a setback for Ratched because of her sexual repression. She’s always shied away from the sexual aspects of life. She’s felt that her breasts were too large and that they made her too womanly. A former Army nurse, Ratched represents the Combine-the mechanization and automation of society. She represents all that is and should be perfect. Her uniform is always neat and kept properly. Her glass is perfectly clear. But in this, McMurphy’s sexuality finds a hitting point. Sexuality involves passion, grace, lust, and love. Ratched’s automation is the opposite-it is monotony. Here we see a major conflict that lasts throughout the novel. The final showing of this lies in McMurphy’s ripping of Ratched’s shirt. In exposing her and ruining her perfect uniform, he wins the ultimate battle. She has been violated beyond what she could control sexually, and she has lost control she’ll never be able to regain. But in some sense, the two can never coexist because they are so much alike. Both have an egotistical and controlling personality. Nurse Ratched walks into the room ‘with a gust of cold’ and from then on all we see is her complete automation and control of the ward. Even in her manner of speech we see her level of control. For example when people speak out in the meetings she does not ask them to wait their turn or be quiet but instead tells them to do so. Just in these subtle maneuvers she has maintains a hold on them. The members of the ward feel as if they need Nurse Ratched to make decisions for them, despite their constant complaining about how they hate it there. McMurphy cannot coincide with Ratched exactly because of this reasoning-he cannot stand to be controlled by another. McMurphy has a naturally domineering personality. He values freedom and self-determination above all, and Ratched finds power in taking that away from the patients. Throughout the novel, we see a slow progression in the shift of power from Ratched to McMurphy. Because of the nature of McMurphy’s actions, he is able to rouse the patients into what he wants done. He convinces them that they are ‘no crazier than the average asshole on the street’ and in doing so empowers them. But no matter how they feel, they do not act until McMurphy makes the first move, and psychologically this makes McMurphy an enabler. He allows others to express their true selves. But like Ratched, McMurphy wants to control the fates of the patients. Whose method is right in trying to improve the lives of the patients is for the reader to decide. Is Ratched trying to do what’s best for her patients-or is she just feeding her ego by taking control? Is McMurphy really trying to better the lives of the patients-or is he just trying to get out and boost his ego? In the end, it appears that McMurphy wins. Yes, Ratched’s shirt does get torn and she does get her retaliation, but McMurphy will be a part of the patients’ lives forever. He serves as a martyr for their cause and they will never forget him.
Masculinity and Femininity: Analysis of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Text and Movie
Throughout modern and historic literature alike, the battle of the sexes has waged on. From Greek dramas to modern stream-of-consciousness novels, the struggle among men and women has been commonplace. In this way, within his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey pits the contrasting characteristics of Nurse Ratched and Candy Starr to put forward a concept of duality. However, as it appears in the movie interpretation of the novel, such a theme is present, albeit much less so.
From the outset of the novel, Kesey develops a generalization of women as cold and manipulative, focusing on Nurse Ratched as the center of power. For instance, to depict the head nurse as distant and controlling, Kesey describes her as more mechanical than human. The nurse’s smile is said to twist and stretch “into an open snarl” as she “blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor” and barrels toward the black boys (5). Here, the nurse’s female characteristics like a “compact or lipstick or woman stuff” are hidden in favor for the “thousands of parts that she aims to use in her duties today” (4). The effect of such literal objectification through reverse personification serves to paint the nurse as a potent force whose feminine characteristics are replaced by means to control the men around her. Moreover, as McMurphy complains of the Nurse’s absolute rule over the ward, she is called an “old buzzard … going down for your vitals,” a “strong wolf” among rabbits, and the ruler of a system in which the men “are victims of the matriarchy” (62-65). With such an explicit description of a woman with a veritable vendetta for men, Kesey crafts the female antagonist as an omnipotent force whose sole motive in life is to debilitate the male patients. However, this vengeful portrayal of the nurse is less apparent within the movie interpretation. For instance, during the staff meeting that occurs in the movie, the nurse does not employ the same manipulative tactics of silence and condescending glare that were constant in the text version. Moreover, in the movie the chief is not present in the staff meeting. This has the effect of lessening the nurse’s appearance of power since the Chief’s fear of the woman cannot be shown. Because of this, the recurring descriptions of the nurse as omnipotent and manipulative that are common in the novel are lessened in the movie. Nevertheless, as Kesey manifests the controlling and passive aggressive characteristics that some men, including McMurphy, see as characteristics of women, the inclusion of Candy Starr tempers such a generalization.
By including the prostitute Candy in his novel, Kesey adds an important qualifier on his emerging stereotype of women. For example, in direct contrast to how the nurse attempts to hide her feminine features and controls the men on the ward, Kesey describes Candy’s first encounter with the male patients as eye opening. For instance, when Candy meets the men, Kesey explains how the patients were enthralled by her body to the point of describing the scene with the vulgar hyperbole “it was so quiet … all along the Chronic row [you] could hear catheters popping off” (232). More so, not even the righteous doctor could avert his gaze. Instead, Dr. Spivey is observed “eyeing the blond girl’s T-shirt like nothing else existed” (233). Here, the nature of Candy’s personality is on display as she is objectified by the men as they gawk at her femininity. However, more importantly, such an exploitation of the prostitute serves to form a foil between her and the nurse since by fondling over Candy, the men assert their dominance rather than lose it when Ratched undergoes reverse personification to belittle the men. Nevertheless, this stark contrast of dominance of and by women is much less clear within the movie. For instance, when the patients in the novel prepare to board the fishing boat, they are confronted by a group of misogynistic men, and, although they fail to act in defense of Candy, the patients begin to understand their mistake in doing so as the Chief declares “all our crew… got to feeling ashamed we didn’t do something” and “I could feel my feet getting wet as the dock sank with shame into the bay” (242). Because of this, the male patients confront their shortcoming in respect to self-confidence and begin along their path to recovery through the fishing trip, yet this scene is completely omitted from the movie adaptation of the novel. In this way, the movie fails to address Candy’s role in the betterment of the patients which the Nurse was unable to achieve and lessens the dichotomy of the two characters that Kesey aimed for.
With the addition of Candy Starr, Kesey indirectly forms an antithesis between the two women on the ward. Nevertheless, a direct juxtaposition emerges when Candy sleeps with Billy Bibbit and Nurse Ratched guilts him into suicide. For example, after being caught in bed with the courtesan, Bibbit is described as looking “pleased with his success” in reference to his conquest of the woman (314). Here, by sleeping with Bibbit, Candy has allowed him to recover a sense of power that has habitually been stolen by the nurse. Conversely, after berating the man, Nurse Ratched succeeds in guilting him toward suicide by asking “how is your poor mother going to take this” with Bibbit’s reaction being as if “he’d been burned with acid” (314). Along these lines, this dichotomy between Candy empowering the men and the Nurse demeaning them is one of the few similarities among the novel and the movie in regard to the power struggle of the genders. Specifically, the scene in which Bibbit slits his throat has the same effect of displaying the nurse’s manipulation since McMurphy immediately proceeds to strangle the passive aggressive woman to seek revenge for Bibbit’s death. Furthermore, such contrasting images of women serve Kesey’s intent of commenting on the nature of duality as he describes that McMurphy “won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain” (250). Here, Kesey poignantly represents the common adage of ‘taking the good with the bad’ and that the nature of circumstance is as two-sided as the women on the ward.
Throughout his novel, Ken Kesey employs a battle of the sexes to further his meaning. By manifesting a controlling and manipulative women, he presents one possible description of femininity. However, with Candy Starr, a stark contrast is formed by a female character ready and willing to please the men and allow them to assert their dominance in the most basic of ways. Because of this, Kesey’s overarching theme of duality emerges based on McMurphy’s life view. To this end, Kesey comments that, along with the merriment of laugher, there will be pain; much like the presence of the two foiling women.