Shockingly, abuse in psychiatric asylums has been a common occurrence until more recent times. Patients have been forced to undergo cruel procedures to treat their illnesses, which in many cases were proved to not be nearly as productive as they had originally thought. Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, gives a look at life on the ward from another perspective: the patient. Kesey himself has experienced psych ward life, as he institutionalized himself and even took several narcotics to get a truly accurate affect. His personal experiences of witnessing other illnesses allowed him to develop characters more accurately, and show what life is really like when someone is labelled as “different” in a society with its bar of expectations set exceedingly high. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey portrays society as a machine that destroys individuality and seeks conformity and uniformity.
One of the most important ways in which Kesey sets the stage for this novel is the way that he uses characters and their illnesses to accurately demonstrate life on that ward. There are more than thirty characters introduced to play both major and minor roles. They suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, phobias, depression, and a wide array of other more specific diagnoses. All patients are further divided into groupings to modulate a mini-society and create order and organization. The broadest groups are the Acutes and Chronics (Ryan). Chronics are further divided into subdivisions of Wheelers, Vegetables, and Walkers. According to the narrator, Chief Bromden, the Acutes are “Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking around the street giving the product a bad name” (Kesey 15). The Chronics, on the other hand, are on the ward for good and will most likely never be seen as fit enough to not be institutionalized. Overall, the patients lead seemingly humdrum lives without much spunk or spontaneity.
The patients on the ward do not lead normal lives in which they can do as they please or decide how they will spend their time. Strict scheduling is enacted to keep them on track. There are designated times for patients to shave, brush their teeth, bathe, get dressed, eat, etcetera (Kesey 32-40). The scheduling makes it tough for them to be normal or learn to make their own decisions. This is actually one of the major points that the main protagonist, McMurphy makes, considering he is a very stubborn person who goes to the beat of his own drum. He totally opposes this ideology, so the whole idea of someone making all of your decisions for you is not his forte . No matter what happens, the main goal is to keep everyone in the groove of things, even after something catastrophic. The narrator states, “Even after Billy Bibbit has killed himself, Nurse Ratched’s biggest concern is making sure the patients of the hospital stick to their daily routine,” which further exemplifies this radical plan (Kesey 317). Scheduling makes it impossible for the patients to be individuals and pursue anything that they are interested in . The asylum is like a prison, in a sense, where everyone must be uniform and alike (Themes).
Historically, mental institutions have a negative connotation associated with abuse. According to Moss, “it was not uncommon to find those persons afflicted with the illness to be chained to a wall or locked up in a cellar or attic.” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest exhibits many examples of malpractice. It is no secret that some of the patients on Big Nurse’s ward are victims of botched lobotomies and electroshock therapy (Munoz ). Nurse Ratched made their stays even less pleasant by scolding them if they disrupted her order (Moss). She is said to “grind the noses” in their mistakes (Ryan). Ruckly is one of the first characters introduced, evidently, he is not much of a character at all, rather the shell of a man, because he became a Chronic as a result of a botched lobotomy. He arrived at the institution as an Acute, but since he was disruptive and violent, they performed a lobotomy that quickly changed his entire demeanor (Porter). Chief says, “All day now he won’t do a thing, but hold an old photograph… turning it over and over in his cold fingers” (Kesey 17). The most important malpractice example involves none other than McMurphy. He too lost his personality as a result of a lobotomy after violently attacking Nurse Ratched following Billy Bibbit’s suicide. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this case, though, is the fact that McMurphy was not insane at all, he just had an electric personality, which conflicted with the order of the ward (Francis 55). Evidently, society has certain expectations, and if they are not met, the individual is seen as broken and in need of reparation and change (Themes).
Life on the ward is not really “life” at all. The overall atmosphere is miserable and drab. They lack of spunk and spontaneity combined with the need for uniformity drains the environment of realness. These patients live the same day, over and over again, which could definitely get boring. Imagine performing the same routine endlessly until your life ends, with nothing out of the ordinary every occurring. Their quality of life is seriously decreased. According to Chief Bromden, “the ward} is a world of precision, efficiency, and tidiness… the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who are not outside… are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor.” Needless to say, uniqueness and individualism is just not in the cards (Porter). The constant hum drum busy work that the men are given to do, is not exactly ideal and is most likely extremely boring and tedious.
Chief Bromden, the narrator, refers to the ward and society as The Combine. The Combine is a big machine that chews up the outcasts, such as the disabled, and transforms them to cohere with societal values (Ryan). Currie acknowledges the way that “individual needs and desires are becoming less individual” and how people lose their inner selves to blend in. The men do not live like men and their masculinity and desires are brushed under the mat coincide with the ward’s standards. If the men are to fall out of this conformity, they receive punishment. This consequently results in fear. Fear of not fitting in and being on the outside of society and humanity. Fear of being stripped of your humanity and personality. And if this happens, the individual(s) are deemed unfit to live independently and are forced to undergo different treatments from either their peers or medical personnel. That being said, The Combine does, in fact, dictate societal views, and ultimately forces all people to conform to its rigid standards. This is a fact of life, not only for the characters in the novel, but for people in the real world (Ryan). Kesey, himself, can attest to this. He 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.” Going against this crowd is thus seen as courageous and brave, because typically those who are different are just battered by the standards of normality (Themes).
By definition, a combine is a farming machine used to harvest and thresh. This is manipulated by Bromden to insist that Big Nurse and society thresh those on the ward and recompose them. He personifies The Combine and uses colorful verbiage of and relating to machinery to bring it to life. He claims to hear the grinding of gears and other mechanics behinds the walls and even states, “The Combine… They put things in! They install things. They start as quick as they see you’re gonna be big and go to working to installing their filthy machinery when you’re little, and keep on and on and on until you’re fixed! And if you fight they lock you someplace and make you stop” (Kesey 209) When discussing these mechanical sounds and on a broader scale, The Combine as a whole, Bromden most often associates Big Nurse with the machinery. He and McMurphy claim that she dehumanizes herself which is “clear from the mechanical and animalistic forms she assumes in the eyes of others.” (Ryan). She is also said to have machine-like tendencies, such as the way she keeps everything strictly organized.
Big Nurse is the main antagonist in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it appears that her sole purpose is spew hatred and make others miserable. She abuses her power to punish and control others, even her co-workers. She is highly compulsive and inhibitive that she actually prevents people from being normal and leading social lives (Porter). Her name, Big Nurse Ratched, is a play on words in itself and gives insight into the type of restraining personality she has. Ratched is a homonym of the word ratchet, which is a sharp tool that is used to hold or catch a pawl and prevent backward rotation. It is easy to see why her name is so fitting (Francis). Her demeanor completely opposes that of McMurphy, which is why they clash so often; however, no other patients dare to challenge her, because she has the ability to impair people so badly and ruin lives, which she has done in the past and even does at the end of the book. Big Nurse does not show any signs of weakness and puts up a very tough, and emotionless front. She is the enemy, and is the source of their “fears, frustrations, and angers” (Porter). She is incompetent in showing sympathy and is the epitome of rigidness. Her power makes it easy to maintain order and control, which is why the patients have no choice but to abide to her standards. Boys will be boys, but not on her watch. She is stone cold, which is ironic, because she is very figuresque, which might suggest that she would be capable of being “nurturing and comforting.” She resists the idea of being a woman, and Chief describes the way that she “was above him, and sex, and everything else that’s weak and flesh” (Kesey 138). To deny her sexuality is to deny her humanity. The bottom line is that she is the main advocate in making the men’s lives miserable and boring, because she refuses to let them be individuals, which is just one of her many character flaws.
Nurse Ratched as a reputation for being strict and tyrannical. No one really likes her, not even her co-workers. At one point in the novel when discussing her, McMurphy, after using a few choice words, eventually concludes that she is nothing more than a “ball-cutter” who is manipulative and prevents the men from being themselves. Big Nurse is very aware of her negative connotation, and actually puts this into consideration when selecting those who will work for her. She typically has three young African American boys working for her in the daytime. The process of finding this young men is more complex than it may sound. She tests them for years and rejects thousands annually. The most important part is that they must hate her. If they do not hate her enough, she lets them go. The few that pass this test devote their lives to cleaning, scrubbing and keeping the ward in order (Kesey 31). When on her quest to fill other positions, many doctors come in with their own ideas regarding improvement of the ward. They are turned away. No one can reevaluate the way everything is ran. One of her previous employees stated, “Since I started on that ward with that woman I feel like my veins are running ammonia… I insist on a transfer.” Everyone knows that if they get on her bad side, that she will make their lives miserable. According to Francis’ Literary Onomastics, Her workers are completely obedient and heed to all over her orders, sometimes sadistically. She ultimately has the last word in every case, and decides the fate of both her patients and employees.
In Kesey’s novel, there is constant clashing among characters, mainly between Randall McMurphy and Big Nurse. They are polar opposites and have contradicting personalities. Nurse is all about orderliness and conformity, whereas McMurphy believes in individualism and maintaining his inner self. McMurphy’s strong-headed and upbeat attitude resists Nurse’s hold, which makes him a symbol of independence to the ward (Ryan) Big Nurse knows that McMurphy is a potential threat and is aware that his goal is to change the atmosphere of the ward. She states, referring to McMurphy, “A manipulator can influence the other patients and disrupt them to such an extent that it may take months to get everything running smoothly once more” (Kesey 29). R.P. McMurphy is looking to break boundaries and Big Nurse is looking to build them. McMurphy wants her to relabel him and redefine his identity, which basically gives him the power she thinks that she deserves. Big Nurse bans gambling and stripping them all of their rights to use other facilities for their entertainment. Ultimately, McMurphy realizes that the best way to fight her is to be submissive and follow what she orders, because she decides who is to be institutionalized. He technically has the upper hand here, because he has figured out that there is more power in actions than there are in words. Not to mention, his mere presence threatens her, which is magnified in her language: “I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives– gambling with human lives– as if you thought yourself to be a god!” (Porter).
Randall P. McMurphy is perhaps the most influential character that Kesey introduces. He is spunky, unique, and not really crazy at all. He is a “drinking, brawling, re-headed, and much-tattooed drifter, which is in and out of jail for his nose-thumbing conduct on the periphery of proper society in the late 1950s” (Munoz). McMurphy comes into the ward like a breath of fresh air for the patients, and with time is actually able to get a rise out of them. He doesn’t hold back with his dirty jokes and always shows genuinity. When he reveals his true reasoning as to why he is on the ward, he does not even hold back for a minute. He says, “I got into a couple of hassles at the work farm… and the court ruled that I’m a psychopath… Now they tell me a psychopath’s a guy who fights too much and f**** too much, but they ain’t wholly right” (Kesey 14). McMurphy carries himself with a type of air that insinuates that he is the type of person whose motto might be “what you see is what you get” and that he finds the most joy in getting a reaction from the audience (Francis). All in all, McMurphy always shows his face value and refuses to allow others to change his personality, which makes him unique. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up for yourself and go against the current, which is why McMurphy is applauded by his peers. McMurphy’s name is a very fitting play on words. His initials are RPM, which is known to stand for “revolutions per minute.” Ironically, revolution is exactly what he was seeking (Francis).
McMurphy is the last person to come in from the Outside world and remembers what it is actually like to be a part of society. He is not used to the restrictions that Nurse holds over everyone, and tries to bring about change. At the end of each section of the novel, he is giving the authority figures a hard time. Upon admission, he realizes that the men within the ward are not even men at all. They do not have personalities or any unique qualities. They are all the same, and the only thing that sets them apart from one another are their illnesses. McMurphy challenges the system to bring some normality to the ward. He goes out of his way to try to make the men laugh and revive their inner selves. A few ways he attempts to do this is by coaching a basketball team, defending them from hostility, getting permission to use the sun room, going on a fishing trip, and even throwing a party (Porter). None of this would have ever happened had McMurphy not walked through that door. He pushes Nurse to her breaking point, which is eventually the cause of his demise. McMurphy is persistent and does not give up easily, which is why he devoted the remainder of his life to those men that he grows to call his friends. Considering that McMurphy has witnesses the brutality on the ward, he knows that the institution breaks people down, but never really builds them back up. He is disgusted with the way that these men are forced to conform, because they originally did not fit the protocol. The worst part is that McMurphy also discovers that most of the men do not even belong on the ward and actually institutionalized themselves, just because they feel that they cannot function in society. Only a small amount of them are actually mentally insane. The main point of this is to show that the members of society who are thought to be unsatisfactory. According to Themes and Construction, society perceives it to the outcasts’ responsibilities to guide themselves towards self-realization and reprogram themselves to fit better into the outside world.
McMurphy views the ward as an unnatural habitat for people who are just too weak to live. He acknowledges that each of the characters suffer from more than societal oppression. “Billy wants self-confidence, Harding wants manhood, Sefelt wants health, Cheswick wants toughness, and Bromden wants growth” (Porter). McMurphy pushes himself to the limit to help his friends acquire their desires. He gets to see their inner selves come out and he even witnesses their growth. When McMurphy enters the ward, no one even cracks a smile, but as time passes this soon changes. Bromden dramatically develops and escalates from the sickest man on the ward to the confident, resilient leader that remains after McMurphy’s passing. He makes the inmates want to rally with their growing desire to leave with their newfound confidence (Currie). The biggest lesson McMurphy teaches them is to be themselves, because they do not need to conform to anyone’s standards, not even Big Nurse’s.
The ending of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is very dramatic. Unfortunately, the law wins, and McMurphy is lobotomized. There is nothing left of him. His personality and energy is gone, and what remains is solely his body (Munoz). The positive effect, however, is that McMurphy left lasting impressions on every person that he met. He taught them to be strong and resilient and to fight for what they think they deserve. There is tremendous growth and development, and McMurphy’s legacy lives on. The men want to live in a way that McMurphy would have wanted them to. Chief Bromden does something especially brave, which was heart-wrenching to the audience. When his dear friend returns from the operation, he knows deep down that McMurphy has just become a symbol of Big Nurse’s power. He takes matters into his own hands and suffocates his friend to take him out of his misery. Nevertheless, this is the exact type of transformation that McMurphy was seeking. McMurphy brough zest to the ward, which was revitalizing to the men, which would dramatically change the atmosphere that they live in. He wants them to find themselves and not let the staff at the institution dictate their actions (Porter). In the end, McMurphy is more influential than he initially realizes, because the lightness and jovialness he brings the men is priceless.


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