“Kesey portrays his society’s definition of ‘madness’ as something used by an authoritarian culture to dehumanize the individual and replace it with an automaton that dwells in a safe, blind conformity. ” (Teglen 226).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about the corruption of society, and the importance of individualism. It is told from the perspective of a patient, Chief Bromden, who is ridiculed for being deaf and dumb, even though he fakes these two qualities.He is among other “mentally unstable” patients, who are all controlled by Nurse Ratched. To her dismay, a man named Randall McMurphy enters the hospital and disrupts her control over the other patients. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey uses characters and theme to criticize the structure of mental hospitals and flaws of society. One character that shows the negative influence of the mental hospital’s establishment is Chief Bromden. Bromden was a schizophrenic character who pretended to be deaf and dumb to avoid confrontation with other patients.He was convinced of the idea of something he called “the Combine”, which he believed to be the government and industrial groups that are trying to control people with machines (Kesey 6).
To Nurse Ratched, Bromden was thought to be unfixable. This just increased his hatred for her and her staff. He hallucinated that they created a constant, dense fog that hung over the ward (Kesey 7).
To McMurphy, Bromden was not crazy. He was “not exactly the everyday man on the street”, but he certainly was not crazy (Kesey 195).After McMurphy came into the ward and “took over”, Bromden started to feel comfortable with him as the authoritative figure and began to participate with the other patients. He even was the deciding vote which allowed the patients to watch the World Series (Kesey 142). His relationship with McMurphy developed, and he felt so comfortable with Randle that he finally spoke. McMurphy influenced the Chief so greatly that he soon felt happy with his life, something that hadn’t been true for the Chief in a very long time. McMurphy and eventually Chief Bromden both successfully overcame Nurse Ratched’s manipulative power.Nurse Ratched represents societal regularity and control.
She is a super-rigid disciplinarian who is obsessed with power. Although at first she seemed harmless to McMurphy and the other patients, she was discovered to actually be incredibly manipulative. The Nurse used tactics to make the patients feel helpless and out of control.
Administering unknown pills, talking to patients as if they were children, and group therapy sessions that openly ridicule patients are all examples of this. She also played loud, repetitious music and only gives patients privileges that she saw fit.Nurse Ratched had such great control over the patients that she seemed to have each of their moves planned out months in advance. She sits in her glassed-in office and constantly makes notes on her clipboard, obsessed with staying one step ahead of everyone. McMurphy was introduced into the ward and she realized that he was her greatest threat. She did everything in her power to stop him, and did not hold back on even the most drastic measures. When her cruel tactics led to the suicide of Billy Bibbit, McMurphy took matters into his own hands and strangled her (Kesey 319).She thought that the best thing for him was a lobotomy, and he quickly went into surgery.
Although this ultimately led to his death, the Nurse was really the one who was defeated as she returned to the ward, broken, to find that the majority of the patients had gone home. Kesey’s heroic portrayal of Randle McMurphy clearly shows his disapproval of a rigid, rule-based establishment. McMurphy was sent to the mental hospital because he refused to work in prison, and he saw that life in a psychiatric ward would be much easier.He immediately encountered conflict with the authoritative figures in the hospital though. While Nurse Ratched strived to keep the men on the ward quiet and obedient, McMurphy encouraged them to be themselves and to not let the Nurse tell them what to do.
The two characters did not get along from day one and they battled throughout the novel. The more he influenced the other patients, the more upset Nurse Ratched became. This was really only better for McMurphy, who kept his composure even with the Nurse’s threat of electroshock therapy and psychosurgery.McMurphy gave the patients a voice by forcing a democracy during group therapy meetings. Nurse Ratched was losing power quickly because of McMurphy, and she realized she had to stop him. Ultimately, she controlled his fate since she had the power to release him or give him any type of treatment that she saw fit.
It started with repeated sessions of electroshock therapy, which McMurphy easily shook off and stood taller than ever. After a night of partying and drinking on the ward though, a series of events led to him assaulting the Nurse and in turn undergoing a lobotomy.Before he returned to the ward from surgery, many of the patients had left the hospital and gone home, inspired by McMurphy’s bravery and individual mentality. The novel seems further skewed because it is told from the hallucinatory perspective of Chief Bromden. After McMurphy’s influence on the patients, it became clear to them that Nurse Ratched was the one with mental problems. Nurse Ratched, who represented control and order in the hospital, used group therapy and medication to stay in control of the patients.When McMurphy challenged her power, the other patients realized that their “problems” only existed in the eyes of the establishment. One popular control tactic used by Nurse Ratched and mental hospitals across the country was electroshock therapy.
Ugo Cerletti used electroshock therapy successfully in 1938, which inspired other professionals to use this method (Lawlor 228). It was abused, being used too often or at inappropriate times. It has been proven to work when used correctly, although it was used incorrectly by Nurse Ratched.Another tactic the Nurse used, which indirectly caused McMurphy’s death, is psychosurgery.
Psychosurgery, or lobotomies, became popular in 1938 when physician Egas Moniz applied the surgical procedure to twenty patients. It was popularized by “Time” and “Life” magazines after American doctors Walter Freeman and James Watts wrote the book Psychosurgery in 1942 which discussed the practice of lobotomies. By 1950, Freeman and Watts performed lobotomies on 1000 people. In 1949, Egas won a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and lobotomies became widely used (Lawlor 229).Since the novel is told from Chief Bromden’s schizophrenic point of view, there are constant references throughout the novel to cartoons.
“Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black…that might be real funny if it weren’t for the cartoon figures being real guys…” (Kesey 33). During a fight that one patient had with the attendants, cartoon imagery was used frequently. “They didn’t see the hand on the end of that arm pumping bigger and bigger as he clenched and unclenched it. ” (Kesey 53). Ken Kesey used characters to symbolize the issues that he saw were prominent in late 1950’s and early 1960’s.The main issue that he had a problem with was the structured establishment that existed. Throughout the novel, Kesey used satire and cartoon references to poke fun at the normalcy and blandness of controlled society. He wrote about a character that entered a rule-based environment where everyone was undignified, and brought them dignity by breaking the rules of the institution.
The character that represented a controlled society was exposed as the one person in the mental institution who had problems, and was ultimately defeated.The narrator, Chief Bromden, overcame his own uncertainties about society and learned to live his life as a free man, and not under the control of anyone but himself. In an environment controlled by unnecessary authority, one’s individuality is put to the test. Author Diane Teglen sums things up nicely in Novels for Students: Volume 2. “By having McMurphy question and ridicule Nurse Ratched’s ludicrous, controlling rules, Kesey portrays the individual’s struggle against a conformist society as a noble, meaningful task.