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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 41 - 50


What do clocks symbolize in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Clocks represent order, structure, and control in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Bromden thinks that Nurse Ratched controls the clocks on the ward, making time move faster or slower as she sees fit. She runs her ward efficiently, "like a watchman's clock" that McMurphy is forever trying to break. McMurphy literally tries to deface the clock on the wall in the mess hall on his second day in the hospital, an action that foreshadows his destructive behavior to come. Clocks also provide foreshadowing. When McMurphy lies down on the table in the Shock Shop, his wristwatch is carelessly dropped and "springs open, cogs and wheels ... jumping against the side of the panel and sticking fast." The destruction of the watch parallels the effects of electroshock therapy on McMurphy's brain.

What is the role of music in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Music is used as a weapon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nurse Ratched keeps the volume of the music in the ward turned up loud so patients are unable to have meaningful conversations. Prolonged conversations would encourage bonds between patients, which stands in direct contrast to her unspoken policy of making every man feel isolated. McMurphy also uses music as a weapon, but his songs are more like the warning shot of a gun. He breaks into song at inappropriate times, such as early in the morning before anyone else is out of bed. His songs are folksy, but his message is clear: I will do what I want, when I want, and nobody is going to stop me.

What are the depictions of masculinity and femininity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Ken Kesey depicts masculinity as a virtue and femininity as a weakness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. McMurphy is as manly as they come, swashbuckling his way through the ward with calloused hands, a broken nose, and tattooed arms. He is virile, touting his sexual prowess at every chance he gets. He controls every room he enters and automatically looks for the most powerful man in the room when making a point. The other patients on the ward suffer because of a lack of masculinity. Many are embarrassed that they'll never fit into the stereotypical role of the strong, domineering husband. Nurse Ratched preys on this insecurity, attacking their self-esteem even further by making humiliating observations about their sexuality. Her power is fueled by the emasculation of those entrusted into her care. If a hint of femininity is undesirable in a man, it is ten times worse in a woman. Women are perceived as the weaker sex in the time period of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Nurse Ratched has to erase every aspect of her femininity to maintain her control in the ward. Bromden notes that she is bitter about the size of her large breasts and goes to great lengths to conceal them. When McMurphy attacks her at the end of the book, he exposes those perceived feminine weaknesses for everyone to see.

What role does war play in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Several of the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are shaped by their experiences of war. Nurse Ratched, a former army nurse, runs her ward as if she is on the front lines of a battle. McMurphy, a Korean War veteran, spent time in a prisoner of war camp, which shows just how much adversity he is able to handle. Bromden, a veteran of World War II, hallucinates air raids when his brain is overloaded with panic. All of these characters have seen the dark side of human nature, and they have all reacted differently. McMurphy withstands it, Bromden hides from it, and Nurse Ratched revels in it. Yet the mental health of all three is affected by their experiences in war.

How are women portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can be divided into two categories, both with unfavorable connotations. There are the man-hating control freaks such as Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Bibbit, and Mrs. Bromden, each better than the next at emasculating the men in their lives in order to gain the upper hand. They are icy, manipulative, and calculating. Then there are Candy and Sandy, who fall into the group of women referred to as "whores." Their only purpose is to bring pleasure to the men in their lives, and they do it without a complaint. For example, it is automatically assumed that Candy will want to sleep with Billy, even though she clearly has feelings for McMurphy. None of the women in Kesey's novel are portrayed with any nuance or depth. They are two-dimensional characters designed to play the angel or devil depending on the needs of the man in front of them. This depiction is representative of women's second-class status in 1950s society as a whole and perhaps mirrors Kesey's own feelings about women. The only women he writes about with any favor are the two prostitutes, whose role in the book is to serve men. Candy is described in glowing terms—"jouncing up and down with every step like copper springs in the sun"—while the women in positions of power are described as unattractive. Much is made of McMurphy's inability to "get it up" over Nurse Ratched—he isn't even attracted to Harding's beautiful wife due to her domineering personality. To Kesey, women are good for two things: sex and nurturing. Anything beyond that is a man's job.

How is McMurphy depicted as a Christ figure in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy's actions and struggles parallel those of Jesus, positioning him as the Christ-like savior of the men in Nurse Ratched's ward. There is the obvious connection between the cross-shaped table in the Shock Shop, complete with a "crown of silver thorns" to conduct electricity, but Kesey drops subtler hints throughout the text. McMurphy takes 12 men on the fishing trip with him, the same number as Christ's disciples. He has the ability to heal others, most notably those who don't speak (Bromden). He is betrayed by one of his most fervent followers—Billy, in the role of Judas—who then turns around and commits suicide. Finally, McMurphy's own death, like Christ's, serves as inspiration to those he left behind.

What role does fear play in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Fear is what brings patients to the hospital and what keeps them in Nurse Ratched's ward for years to come. Many of the characters, including Harding, Bromden, and Billy, are afraid of how they're perceived by the outside world. They are ashamed of who they are and afraid that they will never fit into "normal" society, so they check into the hospital in search of a cure. Once there, they're afraid to leave. The hospital feels safe, and, as Billy says, they don't have the guts to leave. Fear is also the primary weapon Nurse Ratched uses to control her ward. Her disappointed looks and pursed lips are intimidating, to be sure, but it is her choice of therapies that really scares the men. They have all seen relatively normal men, such as Taber, turned into mindless Vegetables after turns in the Shock Shop and on the lobotomy table.

What is the role of hatred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Nurse Ratched and her aides are fueled by hatred, which enables them to carry out unpleasant therapies without second thoughts. The aides' hatred most likely stems from society's reaction to their own physical appearances. Nurse Ratched purposefully selects African American aides who hate "her and her chalk doll whiteness from the first look they get." As a woman, Nurse Ratched's hatred springs from the same well of oppression. She despises masculinity and makes the lives of the men on her ward a living hell in return. The aides and Nurse Ratched have legitimate reasons for their anger, but Kesey does not cut them any slack. They are positioned as the enemies of the patients on the ward, and not much is done to humanize them in the eyes of the reader. This unsympathetic portrayal is symbolic of and calls attention to the feelings many white Americans had about minorities and women in the 1950s. Kesey never says whether those feelings are right or wrong, but he wants the reader to examine their own beliefs through the lens of the book.

What is the main theme of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The main theme of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the struggle between the individual and the masses. The men in Nurse Ratched's ward have all come to the hospital because they are somehow different from the regular person on the street, which makes them feel worthless. As the men stand back while Candy is harassed on the dock, Bromden notes, "We weren't fit to be out here with people." The purpose of the hospital's Therapeutic Community is to teach individuals to become part of the group so they can learn how to "function in a normal society." They attack one another's personality flaws during the daily therapy meetings, enforcing the idea that being different is bad. Until McMurphy's arrival, Nurse Ratched's patients have seen only the negative sides of being different. They are attracted to McMurphy's unabashed individualism; one by one, they decide to try it out for themselves.

In what ways is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a reflection of the problematic ideals of the 1950s and 1960s?

At the time of the novel's writing, the Civil Rights and feminist movements were just gaining momentum; homosexuality was taboo. Kesey's exploration of these topics shows what was acceptable at the end of the 1950s and what was strictly forbidden. McMurphy, for example, is the hero of the story, but he's also a racist. He spits out slurs at the aides, to which they know better than to respond. None of the other patients ever question his racist slurs—it's accepted, as if he were asking them about the weather. McMurphy is also a misogynist, someone who dislikes or mistrusts women. He believes that women are good only for sex, and even then, the women don't really get a choice. Their career options, as portrayed in the book, are limited to mother, nurse, or prostitute. Again, this mistreatment isn't portrayed as being out of the ordinary or unacceptable. Until the 1970s (and often beyond), women were treated like second-class citizens. Homosexuals are treated as second-class citizens as well. Harding is in the hospital because of his suspected homosexuality."I indulged in certain practices that our society regards as shameful," he tells McMurphy. Nurse Ratched uses veiled comments about homosexuality to strike fear into her patients. "I've never understood what went on between you and your friend that made you get so defensive!" she scolds Fredrickson, alluding to the idea that he and Sefelt have romantic feelings for one another. Nurse Ratched's comment is an insult, and she knows it. Kesey's purpose for writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was not only to highlight the problems within such a conformist society but also to show how individuals can and should break out of their proverbial straightjackets. Overt attempts at change, such as McMurphy's, are not the answer. Rather, it is up to a small group of silent subversives to change the world. Harding leaves the hospital more confident in his masculinity, and Fredrickson and Sefelt actually leave the hospital together. Bromden abandons the silent Indian stereotype and starts his life anew.

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