Analysis of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Essay
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Conformity has been the target of many works of literature even before Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye spewed angst about everyone around him being a “phony.” To many people, there are forces in the social order that shape others to fit a certain mold, and one who does not fit the mold will be considered an outcast by society. During the 1960’s, rebellion was a shared act among the majority, including authors and artists; this was due to the conflict in the East as well as the Civil Rights movement. To these people, the government was a criminal, even a machine perhaps, which threatened one’s individuality. This provides some historical context on the background of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey, the author, worked in…show more content…
Most of the characters are truly plagued by the government, as it rejects any sort of nonconformity in society. Patients such as McMurphy are forced into the ward because they refuse to conform to the normal standards of civilization, and thus they must be fixed. The Combine’s machines of oppression cause many to conform, and eventually leads to the fall of many, including McMurphy.
Personified as Nurse Ratched, the Combine’s tyranny causes a major conflict with McMurphy throughout the novel and much of the persecution that he endures. McMurphy rejects compromise and constantly fights the Big Nurse as she tries to emasculate him and the other patients. McMurphy, as the representative of the individual, fights against the grip of the mechanized civilization that has forced him into the ward. He tries to enrage Ratched to cause disorder and thus destroy the foundation of regularity and consistency; he succeeds in this when he and the other patients pretend to watch the World Series and Ratched explodes in anger.
When McMurphy finds out that he is one of two patients that are involuntarily committed to the hospital, it makes him realize that he alone is fighting for his freedom, and the others have been repressed by Ratched to the point of being afraid to rebel against her or simply leave. McMurphy fights until the end to free these men of their emasculation even if it
Intended for a general audience, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been popular with high school and college students because of its vivid prose, its sharply drawn and readily comprehensible characters, and its theme of self-reliance and self-respect.
This theme can be clearly seen in Kesey’s presentation of McMurphy as a Christ figure. McMurphy is crucified on a cross-shaped table when he undergoes electroshock therapy. The party that he and the others have on the ward is a kind of Last Supper, with pills and codeine-laced punch taking the place of bread and wine. Candy is a Magdalene, Billy Bibbit is a Judas, Nurse Ratched and her staff are Pharisees, and the twelve people whom McMurphy takes on the fishing trip are Disciples. Yet, there is a significant difference between McMurphy’s story and the Christian Gospels. According to the Gospels, when a storm blew up on the sea of Galilee, the Disciples awakened Jesus, who miraculously calmed the waters. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when McMurphy’s followers on the fishing trip ask for help, he stands in the doorway and laughs. In the Christian worldview, salvation comes by the grace of God; in McMurphy’s worldview, salvation can only come from within each individual.
A gambler, brawler, ladies’ man, and drifter, McMurphy also resembles figures from folklore such as the Roving Gambler and the Wagoner’s Lad, about whom he sings his first morning on the ward. He reminds Harding of the Lone Ranger. In an era when even the West has been settled and civilized, McMurphy makes Nurse Ratched’s ward a last frontier. The great American Dream that he pursues is the existential authenticity of nonconformity, or even of madness. (True madness, unlike neurosis, has its own authenticity, at least in this novel.) The worldview that presents nonconformity as such an unquestioned ideal divides the world and the people in it absolutely. Individualists are “good guys,” and representatives of restraining or civilizing forces are oppressive “bad guys.” Readers must decide whether such an antithetical worldview is a simplification that clarifies important truths or an oversimplification that distorts reality.
Paradoxically, this novel, which so clearly challenges oppression, uses sexist and racist language. Even more significant is that the novel generally characterizes women and African Americans unsympathetically. While the little Japanese nurse on the Disturbed Ward might provide an attractive role model for young female readers, the novel’s most vivid characterizations of women are all negative: McMurphy’s nymphomaniac, underage lover; the stereotypical prostitutes with hearts of gold and minds of plastic; and overwhelming, mechanistic, hypocritical, and emasculating figures such as Billy Bibbit’s mother, Chief Bromden’s mother, and, above all, Nurse Ratched. Similarly, although the African American night orderly, Mr. Turkle, is presented as relatively benign, he is also shown to be an incompetent substance abuser; and although Nurse Ratched’s day orderlies—Washington, Williams, and Geever—are presented as victims of oppression themselves, they are also characterized much more emphatically as hate-filled, perverted, sadistic instruments of oppression in their turn. While the novel’s language referring to minorities and women surely may be taken as representative of the American society in the late 1950’s, the pattern of these characterizations is unfortunate and not in keeping with the novel’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment of Chief Bromden’s problems with cultural assimilation and its championship of oppressed persons in general.