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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Study Guide

Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Nurse Ratched select her staff members in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Part 1, Chapter 4?

Nurse Ratched has two criteria for selecting staff members: how much they hate, and how easy they are to control. Her three daytime aides were carefully selected from hundreds. Those who don't hate enough are let go after a month or so. Those who "hate enough to be capable" are her men. It is not a coincidence that she chooses African Americans. The Civil Rights Movement was just in its infancy when Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and there was an undercurrent of anger and frustration reverberating throughout the black community. Nurse Ratched selects the angriest men and places them in a situation where they are forced to take care of and report to white men and women, which makes them even more angry; she grooms her aides to be heartless and lethal. The doctors on Nurse Ratched's ward go through a similar process, despite the fact that they outrank her. Those who have "backbone enough to stand behind their ideas" are frozen by her "dry-ice eyes," until they get so cold that they demand a transfer. This process goes on for years, until she finds a doctor who lacks the confidence and strength necessary to stand up for himself. His absence of masculinity serves to make her stronger.

What is Bromden's theory about the Combine in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The Combine is a "huge organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as [Nurse Ratched] has the Inside." Its ultimate goal is to destroy individuality and create a society in which everyone acts and thinks the same, or at least within an acceptable framework for "normal." In some cases, operatives such as Nurse Ratched are assigned to facilities that rehabilitate those who are different. Rehabilitation includes the installation of machinery into the patient's brain that the Combine can then remotely control. Once released, a rehabilitated patient is expected to return to his home and adjust friends and family accordingly. In other instances, such as with Bromden's father, the Combine systematically destroys everything the subject holds dear until he eventually self-destructs. Bromden is much more perceptive than anyone in the hospital realizes. What he refers to as the Combine is actually a social shift toward the celebration of conformity. People who don't fit into the mold of the white, masculine American man are shunned by society. Some, like Taber, change themselves to fit in. Others, like Bromden's father, are pushed aside and fade away. Bromden tries to make sense of these patterns through the lens of his schizophrenia. He is comfortable around machinery and electronics, and interpreting the changes he sees as the work of a machine helps him feel somewhat safe.

How do Bromden's recollections about the cotton mill in Part 1, Chapter 4 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest apply to his current situation?

Bromden copes with his unhappy lot in life by losing himself in childhood memories. Unsurprisingly, the first thing Bromden remembers about his trip to the California cotton mill is the machinery. It lulls him into "a kind of dream, all the humming and clicking and rattling of people and machinery." He hears similar noises and rhythms in the hospital, which is why he interprets his current situation as the by-product of a machine. At the cotton mill, the tufts of cotton floating in the air dim his vision; in the hospital, he imagines fog clouding the ward. Bromden's memories of the mill spur him to think of the ward as a factory for the Combine, with its "technicians" and robotic patients. And just like the cotton factory, some of the people on the inside are desperate to get out, even if it is their choice to be there in the first place. Bromden's theories about the Combine aren't a marker of insanity—he's just reframing his current situation through memories of happier times.

How do Dr. Spivey's and Nurse Ratched's interpretations of the Therapeutic Community in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest compare and contrast?

Dr. Spivey explains that the purpose of the Therapeutic Community is to teach patients how to get along in a group before reentering society. The group is a democracy where the patients vote on policies, punishments, and even treatments. All thoughts, feelings, and secrets are shared with the group for discussion and analysis. Working together ensures the release of happy, healthy patients into society. Nurse Ratched follows the rules of the Therapeutic Community but manipulates its structure for her own gain. Her version is not a democracy but rather an oppressive dictatorship. Patients' ideas and suggestions are solicited as outlined by Dr. Spivey, but Nurse Ratched uses intimidation to obtain the answers and results that she wants. She then pits the patients against one another, encouraging spying and tattling as a means of fostering isolation. A lack of trust among patients means that there is less chance of an organized uprising, which ensures her ultimate control.

What is the meaning of the metaphor Harding uses in Part 1, Chapter 5 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to describe the power dynamics on the ward?

Harding tells McMurphy that the world belongs to the strong, who gain their power by "devouring the weak." In the case of Nurse Ratched's ward, the patients are the "scared rabbits," and the Big Nurse is the wolf. Harding explains, "In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive. ... He endures, he goes on. He knows his place." Harding suggests to McMurphy that there is no point in rebelling against Nurse Ratched's tyranny; she will conquer in all situations. The patients accept that they will never be happy or in control. It is not their role, which is something that Nurse Ratched uses to her advantage and does not allow them to forget.

In Chapter 7, Part 1 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, what does Bromden mean by the line, "But if they don't exist, how can a man see them?"

Bromden is referring to his terrifying dream about the factory in the hospital basement. He thinks the events of the dream are real, but he knows that nobody will believe him. On some level, Bromden knows that what he saw was just a dream, but he also understands that his nighttime hallucinations are based in fact. The specific acts of evil he imagines may not actually exist, but there are unspeakable acts that do happen in the hospital. Something in the back of his mind prompted the images supplied by his subconscious. Evil does exist, which is why Bromden sees these things in his dreams.

Why does Nurse Ratched remember Taber so fondly in Part 1, Chapter 4 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Taber, a former patient of Nurse Ratched's, represents a successful conquest. He, like McMurphy, started out as an "intolerable Ward Manipulator." He complained all the time and wanted to know the reasons for everything that happened in the ward. His meddling negatively affected the smoothness of Nurse Ratched's operation, and she punished him with a spinal tap followed by a trip to the Shock Shop. After that, he underwent the harshest punishment of all—a lobotomy. Taber returned to the ward as docile as a lamb. Having lost part of his brain and his individuality, he no longer gave Nurse Ratched any trouble, and she was able to add another successful patient dismissal to her record.

What is the symbolic meaning of McMurphy's boxer shorts in Part 1, Chapter 8 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

On his second day in the ward, McMurphy wears black satin boxer shorts (and very little else) decorated with white whales. The white whales, a reference to Herman Melville's Moby Dick, symbolize the epic battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. In Melville's novel, Moby Dick is an albino sperm whale, an overtly masculine symbol for the overtly masculine McMurphy. In Melville's classic story of good versus evil, Captain Ahab dedicates himself to killing Moby Dick, the great white whale that took his leg. Most sailors spend their lives avoiding the deadly whale, but not Ahab; he chases the whale across the ocean, only to be killed at the very end. This quest parallels the story of McMurphy, who goes to great lengths to defeat a monster (Nurse Ratched) whom others avoid at all costs. This results in the loss of his individuality and, ultimately, of his life.

What role does the hospital's public relations man play in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The character of the hospital's public relations man—or, as Bromden refers to him, Public Relation—illustrates the extremely thin dividing line between those who are considered sane and those who are labeled insane. Public Relation acts crazier than many of the patients on Nurse Ratched's ward, constantly laughing and spinning around the room "like a rubber toy." Despite his familiarity with Nurse Ratched's ward—he brings tours through because Nurse Ratched is "just like a mother"—he refuses to look at the patients' faces. He seems to understand on some level that, if circumstances were different, he could be the one wearing hospital greens and enduring daily therapy meetings, possibly explaining his nervous, sweaty hands.

What is the significance of Rawler's death in Part 1, Chapter 14 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Rawler, a patient in the Disturbed ward, bleeds to death after cutting off his own testicles while sitting on the toilet. This action reflects the theme of emasculation that is present throughout the book. Nurse Ratched, described by McMurphy as a "ball-cutter," systematically emasculates the men in her care via manipulative words and medications with sexual side effects. She insinuates that the men have no sexual prowess and offers medications that diminish their sexual function, taking away their manhood and, in effect, their self-confidence. Bromden wonders why Rawler killed himself this way, saying, "All the guy had to do was wait." Rawler does literally what Nurse Ratched does figuratively and obtains the same result—a miserable life followed by a miserable death.

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