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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 | Themes


Conformity and the Individual

At its core, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is about social standards and the struggle against them. Each of the men admitted to the psychiatric hospital is afflicted with something that prevents him from being considered "normal." These men have been laughed at and ridiculed their entire lives, which, as the character of Dale Harding explains, is "society's way of dealing with someone different." They hide inside the hospital to avoid the pain of being individuals. Once there, they are forced to conform to Nurse Ratched's high standards, which do not leave any room for the individual.

McMurphy is the poster boy for individuality. He has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and he continues doing so even after he is sent to the hospital. He relishes the chance to stand up for his ideas and beliefs and does not bother hiding what makes him different. He is equally as comfortable painting freehand as he is playing poker with roughnecks. The only time he seems truly unhappy is when he decides to fall in line with Nurse Ratched's way of doing things. That is not him, and he soon sheds his cloak of conformity.

Kesey asserts that maintaining one's individuality is not easy. External forces, emblemized as the Combine, pressure individuals to become unremarkable cogs in the social machine. Maintaining and accepting individuality takes strength, and even those who succeed, such as McMurphy, can be destroyed in the end.

Power and Sexuality

The power dynamics in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are directly related to the characters' sexuality. The men who have no power are seen as unmasculine. They fear the feminine form, most notably breasts. Women make them feel insecure and weak. Nurse Ratched maintains control in her ward by emasculating the men in her care, pointing out their sexual inadequacies and placing the blame on their own shoulders.

Nurse Ratched distances herself from her own femininity, which she seems to perceive as a weakness. She adopts an unattractive personality and hides her physical form. At one point, Harding theorizes that "man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy"—by which he means the penis and, by extension, the ability to rape. Nurse Ratched, by emasculating the patients and thus symbolically "castrating" them, has taken away their primary means of control.

Though he feels no attraction to her, McMurphy is still able to use his masculinity as a weapon against Nurse Ratched. She becomes speechless when confronted with his nude torso and can do no more than squeak when he pinches her bottom. He needles her relentlessly in an effort to expose her weaknesses, constantly asking questions about the size of her breasts. This clash between Nurse Ratched's carefully constructed lack of femininity and McMurphy's overwhelming masculine presence results in a hate- and power-filled sexual act that destroys them both.


Bromden is afraid of everything in the hospital, including the Shock Shop (the room where electroshock therapy takes place), the swimming pool, and, of course, Nurse Ratched. As he hides in the closet to avoid being shaved, he is certain that one of the aides can smell his fear: "He opens out his nostrils like black funnels ... and he sucks in fear from all over the ward." Yet even scarier to Bromden are the things that only he can see: the invisible machines that run the ward and the fog.

Fear is not unique to Bromden—many of the patients in Nurse Ratched's ward end up in the hospital because of their fear. Harding is afraid of his own sexuality. Billy fears his social inadequacies. Fredrickson is afraid of having a seizure. However, McMurphy does not have these types of fears, which is what makes it so difficult for Nurse Ratched to control him. She preys on her patients' anxieties, highlighting their faults to humiliate them even further. They fear her insinuations and her condescension, but most of all they fear the therapies she has in store for them if they question her authority or become hostile. Everyone sees what happens to Taber, a fully functioning man who is turned into little more than a robot simply because Nurse Ratched did not like the questions he was asking. They all know she would not hesitate to do the same to them.

Sanity versus Insanity

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest brings up the questions of what constitutes insanity and who fits into that category. A man with feminine mannerisms is considered crazy, but a man who constantly laughs and twirls through the ward is sane enough to serve as the public face of the hospital. This dichotomy shows that sanity is often subjective, depending on the point of view of the beholder.

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