One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Study Guide

Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Symbols


The symbols in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest provide the reader with a stronger understanding of the main characters' points of view, influence, and personal struggles.


The machinery that runs the hospital symbolizes the pressure to conform to social standards. Many of Nurse Ratched's patients are in the hospital because of perceived flaws that make them different from everyone else. Nurse Ratched's stated goal is to help them adjust not only to life in the ward but also to life in the greater world. Bromden views these adjustments as mechanical in nature, a fine-tuning to repair unacceptable personality traits. The "machines" within the hospital—the doctors, technicians, nurses, and aides—fix the "machinery," or brains of the patients, to ensure that everyone is the same. The hospital churns out healthy, pleasant automatons, who, in turn, adjust their family members and friends. Conformity spreads like a virus.

Nurse Ratched runs the machinery in the ward, and its operational status reflects her mood. When she is in charge, the machines run smoothly, but when someone else is in control, even higher-ranked staff members, "the machinery goes to fumbling." A seismic shift in power, such as McMurphy's temporary upper hand, stops the machinery altogether. When the machinery is not running, conformity takes a backseat to the individual.


The fog is symbolic of Bromden's internal despair. The thick white clouds he imagines filling the ward are reminiscent of the artificial fogs he experienced during his army service, a time of great stress and anxiety. In the hospital, traumatic experiences for Bromden, such as electroshock therapy and getting a shave, are preceded and followed by the fog, often for weeks at a time. Though he was once terrified of the fog, it has started to become a comfort. The reality Bromden faces outside of the fog is so dismal that he debates whether he should lose himself in the haze and become completely insane.

Bromden's fog disappears upon McMurphy's admittance, signaling the arrival of change and hope. He still disappears into it every once in a while, when situations become too stressful for his brain to handle. More often than not, however, he makes the conscious decision to emerge. After his final visit to the Shock Shop, Bromden notices a slight mist and thinks, "I won't slip off and hide in it. No ... never again." He has hope for the future and no reason to hide.

Cross and Crucifixion

Kesey uses images of the cross and crucifixion to convey the idea of sacrifice. The Shock Shop table is shaped like a cross; patients lie with their arms out to the side, and a "crown of silver thorns" that conducts electricity is placed on their heads. Some patients change irrevocably after too many treatments. Ellis, for instance, stands against the wall in the day room as if he is being crucified, palms invisibly nailed into place. He is a visual reminder of what will happen to the men if they do not appease the self-appointed god of the ward, Nurse Ratched.

McMurphy's Boxer Shorts

The boxer shorts McMurphy wears on his second morning in the ward are symbolic of his ongoing feud with Nurse Ratched. The shorts, a gift from a literary major who once said McMurphy was "a symbol," showcase white whales on a backdrop of black satin. The whales are a reference to Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, which, incidentally, was Kesey's favorite book. In the novel, Captain Ahab spends the entire story chasing down the white whale that took his leg, only to be killed in the end. McMurphy's own course parallels that of the ill-fated captain. He goes after Nurse Ratched with fierce determination, and while the self-esteem and confidence of many of the men are bolstered by his actions, his efforts result in his own death.


The feeling of being cold symbolizes the fear Bromden and the other patients feel around Nurse Ratched. She is prone to "snow-white anger," her hate blasting "like a blizzard wind." The iciness and frost in her voice actually create a physical sensation of coldness. Fredrickson shivers after Nurse Ratched leaves the room, and Bromden routinely feels chilled in her presence. Even the doctors are not immune to her cold personality. Bromden imagines the doctors complaining that their "veins are running ammonia," causing family members to keep their distance as the doctors shiver through the night. These "unnatural chills" eventually chase the doctors away from the ward, and they relinquish the power that Nurse Ratched so desperately craves.

Questions for Symbols

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