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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 31 - 40


What is the importance of Bromden's heritage in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Bromden is half Native American and half white. His background symbolizes the pressure on the individual to conform to the larger group. His father, the tribal chief, was strong-armed into selling his people's land to the U.S. government by none other than his own wife, a white woman. Mrs. Bromden looked down on the tribe's traditions, wanting her husband to be more like everyone else. Conforming to his wife's and the government's expectations stripped him of his identity, and he died a scared, unhappy drunk. Bromden has developed his own version of his father's inferiority and fears domineering women, such as his mother and Nurse Ratched. He struggles to shake free of their emasculation of him.

What internal struggle does McMurphy face in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy struggles with whether he should conform to Nurse Ratched's way of life (and be figuratively castrated) or remain true to himself and help his fellow patients. He thinks long and hard about the afflictions facing each of his new friends, and he can't understand why they don't do anything to help themselves. He sees them as people with unique quirks, not people who are "nuts." However, he is in the position of being dependent on the very woman who is holding everyone back. After learning that the length of his stay in the hospital is determined by Nurse Ratched, he tells Harding, "You got to swallow your pride sometimes and keep an eye out for old Number One." All of that changes when Billy attempts to explain just how hard it is in the real world for guys like him and the rest of the Acutes. Billy's breakdown activates McMurphy's instinct to protect his new friends, and he returns to the ward angry and looking for a fight. He knows he will be punished for standing up to Nurse Ratched, but his attachment to his fellow patients spurs him to put their needs ahead of his own.

What effects does McMurphy have on the lives of the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy has a marked effect on the patients in Nurse Ratched's ward. He shows them it is okay to be proud of who they are, and he gives them opportunities, such as the fishing trip, to build their confidence. He brings laughter back into the ward, a sound that was tacitly forbidden, by showing the patients that there is humor in even the worst situation. "He knows there's a painful side ... but he won't let the pain blot out the humor no more'n he'll let the humor blot out the pain," Bromden explains. The loss of laughter signals the loss of hope, and McMurphy brings both back to the ward. Thanks to him, many of the patients find the confidence to return to their previous lives or, in Bromden's case, start their lives anew.

In what ways is McMurphy the protagonist of Bromden's story in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

A protagonist is the leading character in a story, one who typically activates change. Bromden, McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched are the three main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but only one serves as a catalyst for change. Bromden is the narrator, but he doesn't do anything to alter his situation before McMurphy's arrival. Nurse Ratched is the story's antagonist, or the character who acts as the adversary. McMurphy becomes the protagonist because it is his arrival and subsequent actions that put the events of the story into motion. Bromden is the biggest beneficiary of the change that McMurphy incites within the ward.

In what ways is Nurse Ratched a symbol of a larger villain in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

It is easy to view Nurse Ratched as the lone villain of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She serves as McMurphy's adversary, and she is manipulative toward the men who are supposed to be getting well in her care. Yet she does not seem to be the only "bad guy" Ken Kesey had in mind when he wrote this book. Nurse Ratched is arguably a representative of the Combine, which is Bromden's way of explaining the forces of society that pressure individuals to conform. Men's and women's roles were clearly defined in the 1950s. Men were the breadwinners, and women worked in the home. If women worked outside of the home, it was only in caregiving roles, such as those of nurses, teachers, and waitresses. There was a strong emphasis on "family values," which basically meant no sex, no drugs, and none of that newfangled rock and roll. Music, movies, and sexual lifestyles were policed and restricted. Anyone who questioned authority was labeled a Communist (Communism was the looming threat of the 1950s). Those whose lifestyles didn't match the accepted norm were shunned. Nurse Ratched is merely a symbolic representation of the social forces Kesey so despised.

Why does Kesey make Bromden the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest rather than McMurphy?

Bromden is the perfect narrator for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Though his mental instability puts the reliability of his narration into question, no other character in the book has the same access to sensitive information. His deaf and dumb act enables him to eavesdrop on conversations otherwise closed to patients, such as the staff meeting following the World Series sit-in. He becomes the reader's eyes and ears, allowing a glimpse into the inner workings of Nurse Ratched's ward. McMurphy wouldn't have that type of access. Looking through Bromden's eyes also allows Kesey to present McMurphy as a Christ-like figure who seems almost too good to be true. McMurphy's relation of the tale would more likely make him seem like a regular guy trying to get out of a bad situation.

How is the fog symbolic in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Fog symbolizes the variations in Bromden's mental state. When the fog is present, he feels lost and hopeless. This state generally occurs before and after potentially negative situations, such as the daily therapy meeting. When the fog clears, he feels hopeful. Without the fog, he is able to clearly see the situations and people around him. Prior to McMurphy's arrival, Bromden would lose himself in the fog for days at a time. As soon as the sound of the lock announces the new presence in the ward, the fog disappears. As Bromden's confidence grows, the instances of fog decrease. By the time he breaks out of the hospital, it is gone for good.

How does the mood of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest change over the course of the story?

The mood at the beginning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of fear, starting right out of the gate with the ominous, "They're out there." Bromden is afraid of everything and everyone, hiding in closets and refusing to look Nurse Ratched in the eye. Fear is replaced with tension upon McMurphy's arrival. Kesey draws out conversations between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, detailing their facial expressions and body language. Fear returns after the World Series sit-in, followed by melancholy after McMurphy decides to halt his battle with Nurse Ratched. McMurphy is seen lagging behind the rest of the group "with his hands in the pockets of his greens ... brooding over a cold cigarette." The mood becomes positively manic when the fight between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched begins anew, and McMurphy runs through the halls shouting, "Drive, you puny mothers, drive!" at his fledgling basketball team. All is relaxed on the boat "while the boat rolled lazily around the swells." The mood is sorrowful after Billy's death but turns into hopefulness as Bromden sprints across the hospital grounds at the end of the novel, eager to "look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in [his] mind again."

In what ways does the motif of robotics pervade the setting in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The machinery in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest symbolizes the pressure that the men in the ward feel to conform to society's standards. Bromden's imagined machines repair faulty individuals into healthy members of society, an image that brings to mind robots rather than living, breathing humans. Additional machines run the hospital with clocklike precision, removing the possibility of human error. Kesey's use of machinery as metaphor shows a society in which people are secondary. It also points out the industrial nature of the mental health industry of the 1950s and 1960s. Bromden thinks of the hospital as a factory that serves the Combine, cranking out identical products to fulfill society's demands.

What is the significance of laughter in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Laughter and the lack of it is a common theme in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Each character's laugh is representative of his personality. McMurphy's "free and loud" laugh, the first true laugh the patients have heard in years, "spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it's lapping against the walls all over the ward." Harding's laugh, in contrast, is high and thin, almost painful to hear. McMurphy brings laughter back into the ward, but it takes a long time for anyone else to join him. The men are too self-conscious, too downtrodden, by their lots in life to see the humor in their situations. McMurphy teaches them that you can't let the pain blot out the humor in even the darkest times. For the Acutes, laughter becomes a symbol of hope. By the end of the book, even the Chronics attempt to chuckle at Bromden's stories.

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