One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.


Ken Kesey (1935 – 2001) published One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 – a crucial point in American social history. The McCarthyism of the 1950’s was receding and Kesey’s novel seems, in retrospect to foreshadow or to anticipate the enormous social changes that were to come to in the 1960’s – from the Civil Rights movement to the explosion of rock music, from hippies to experimentation with drugs, from alternative lifestyles to Woodstock. Kesey had worked in a mental hospital while he was a student and was partly drawing on his own experiences of what he he saw and heard during his work. The novel is set in a mental hospital on the north west coast of the United States., but this paper will argue that Kesey uses the hospital as s symbol for the American way of life, and, furthermore, that the great theme of the novel is the clash between the conformist tyranny of Nurse Retched and what Chief Bromden calls the machine and the novels’ tragic, larger than life hero – Randall P McMurphy – who symbolizes a rebellious individualism.One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.


The Cold war setting of the novel adds a further sense of irony to the novel’s presentation of the individual rebelling against tyranny. America’s enemies during the Cold War were the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellite states, which were tyrannies and were often accused of manipulating their citizens through propaganda. It is a mark of Kesey’s radical and critical look at American society that he portrays America as a land of conformity where rebels like Mc Murphy are given terrible punishments for not conforming. Olderman’s description (42) of the inmates of the mental asylum – The waste land of the asylum is characterized by mechanization and efficiency, but by sterility, hopelessness, fear and guilt. The inmates are aimless, alienated and bored; they long for escape… they are enervated and emasculated; their dignity is reduced to something less than human. – Could be the description of a cowed and manipulated population under a tyrannical government. Nurse Ratched’s regime of ‘care’ for her patients removes their individuality and identity, and McMurphy is used by Kesey to challenge and rebel against that authority.One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.

Nurse Ratched runs the ward like a dictator. Many of the men are there voluntarily and, instead of trying to cure them so that they can leave she presides over a system which makes them more and more dependent on her. Like a dictatorial government, she has various mean of control: the drugs which she administers daily to blunt their mental perceptions and make them docile; the physical force meted out by the black orderlies ; the traumatizing effects of electric shock treatment and, ultimately, for those who refuse to conform, lobotomy. Towards the end of the novel, after the harrowing experience of Billy’s suicide, she says, “Now calm down. The best thing we can do is get on with our daily routine.” (Kesey 294) Everyone else on the ward is reacting to Bibbitt’s suicide with shock and grief, but Nurse Ratched demonstrates an almost unnatural detachment and emotional reserve. Her desire to control all aspects of life on the wards extends it seems to wanting to control the feelings of the patients. By denying the simple human st of grieving she attempts to destroy ‘negative’ emotions with routine and conformity, but this reaction to Billy’s shocking act of suicide borders on the insane itself – it leaves the men no natural outlet for their sorrow. In contrast, and with a full knowledge of the consequences for himself, Mc Murphy gets angrier and angrier, and his attempt to strangle her can be seen as an attempt to stand up for emotional sanity, for loyalty and for rebellion against conformity. Under the guise of caring for her patients she actually makes them more submissive and more likely to submit to her rules. She plays loud music which prevents conversation; she denies them the simple pleasure of listening to the World Series; her therapy sessions – which are designed to allow the men to openly and freely discuss their problems – are actually a calculated way of humiliating the men in public and instead of being therapeutic, they manage to stir up antagonisms between the men themselves. She is using classic ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, so that her own position of authority remains unquestioned and intact. The main plot of the story revolved around her increasingly hostile reactions to Mc Murphy’s behaviour. Tanner sums her up well: She is the servant, or rather the high priestess, of what is referred to as the ‘Combine’ or ‘system’, another version of the notion that society is run by some secret force which controls and manipulates all its members… Big Nurse keeps the patients cowed and docile, either by subtle humiliations or by punitive electric shock treatment. In a crude way she embodies the principles of Behaviourism, believing that people can and must be adjusted to the social norms.One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.

Big Chief sums her up like this:

So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman’s clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in=n the rear of the Nurses’ Station. (Kesey 32)
However, by the end of the novel, inspired by McMurphy’s rebellion, several of the patients have checked themselves out, diminishing her power.

The story is narrated a Chief Bromden, a deaf and dumb schizophrenic. If the novel as a whole presents the combat and conflict and authority (Nurse Ratched) against individuality, then it can also be said to show Big Chief gradual return to sanity and strength. We are never sure why Chief Bromden is in the hospital. He has served in World War Two and may have been traumatized by that. What is more important is how he sees the world of the hospital and American society. Tanner (375-376) sums is up thus: Big Chief’s vision of the hospital as a great night mare of of hidden machinery, wires, magnets, pushbuttons, and so on, is so completely convincing. He is sure that the powers in the institution have fabricated a completely false environment: ‘they’ can accelerate or decelerate time, the windows are screens on which they can show whatever movie they want to impose as reality, they have fog machines which fill the air with dense scummy medium in which Big Chief gets utterly cut off from everything and lost.

McMurphy’s influence on Big Chief is immense. Mc Murphy quickly discovers that Big Chief can see and hear, but has pretended he cannot as a defence mechanism and as a way of conforming to the assumptions other people have of him. He tells McMuphy: “ it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (Kesey 112) As the ‘fog’ starts to lift under the influence of Mc Murphy, Big Chief reflects: “ I noticed vaguely I was getting so’s I could see some good in the life around me. Mc Murphy was teaching me. I was feeling better than I’d remembered feeling sine I was a kid, when everything was so good and land still singing kids’ poetry to me.” (Kesey 153) Right at the end f the novel Big Chief reveals the significance of the title of the novel and foreshadows his act of individual rebellion of breaking out of the hospital, after smothering the lobotomized Mc Murphy as an act of mercy. “One flew east, one flew east, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest… O U T spells out… goose swoops down and plucks you out.” And out of the ‘Combine’ is where the Chief is heading – a triumph for the novel’s values of individuality over conformity.

Randall P McMurphy is the catalyst for change at the mental hospital and he represents the spirit of individuality and non-conformity which Nurse Ratched within the hospital and American society in the early 1960’s was so hostile. As Tanner (373) writes:
Big Nurse speaks for the fixed pattern, the unbreakable routine, the submission off individual will to mechanical, humorless control. McMurphy speaks an older American language of freedom, unhindered movement, self-reliance, anarchic humor and a trust in the more animal instincts.One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.

McMurphy loses his fight against the system when Nurse Ratched has him lobotomized, but his real legacy within the novel is that he teaches the inmates to be men again, to be individuals, not just tools of the system, not just “loonies.” As this essay has shown his biggest effect is on Big Chief: “I still had my own notions – how Mc Murphy was a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine that was net-working the land with copper wire and crystal.” (Kesey 201) Early on Chief Bromden predicts McMurphy’s defeat when he tells us how Big Nurse deals with any challenge to her authority: “The big nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine…. And she don’t relax a hair until she gets the nuisance attended to – what she calls ‘adjusted to surroundings,’” (Kesey 28) What McMurphy does is to remind the men of their lost individuality: the fishing expedition reminds them of the outside world and their success at fishing boosts their self-esteem in ways that Nurse Ratched’s conformist society cannot: Billy Bibbitt loses his virginity; Big Chief starts to talk and rediscovers his own strength; and the scene where the men ‘watch’ the World Series on a blank television set with McMurphy’s impassioned and invented commentary is a triumph of the imagination over conformity. The inmates need Mc Murphy to show them how to be human and individuals again. Tanner argues that the men in the ward are “driving Mc Murphy to play out the role of heroic rebel” (374) because they need an example to follow. Big Chief concurs with this view:
We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was… pushing him up, riding and standing like one of those motion-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty different masters. (Kesey 151)One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.

This comment by Big Chief is important in our interpretation of the novel. McMurphy, in the eyes of the patients, is the archetypal American hero who stands for individuality and freedom against the constraints of conformity and the shackles of society: he is the man the patients want to be. Malcolm Bradbury (200) wrote that “Ken Kesey portrayed American society as a madhouse, controlling and repressing the anarchistic energies of the self.” Mc Murphy is the anarchist saviour of the novel.One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest A Literary Analysis Essay.