One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Nurse Ratched

If McMurphy serves as a Christ figure, Nurse Ratched is the Antichrist. She represents authority, conformity, bureaucracy, repression, evil, and death. She enters the ward in the morning wearing a black cape reminiscent of a vampire, as if to suck the lifeblood from the patients. She manages to suck out their spirits by medicating them, numbing them with routine, reminding them of their problems, and denying their individual dignity. McMurphy opposes Nurse Ratched’s dark power. When she tries to control him, her methods fail: he willfully spits out her medication and violates the sanctity of her nurse’s station. He ignores her version of reality in the dispute over the World Series and riles her enough to raise, uncharacteristically, her carefully modulated voice.

As the film progresses, McMurphy rallies the patients to rebel against Nurse Ratched’s authority and question the therapeutic value of her rules. In response, and true to her name, she ratchets up the battle between them with increasing viciousness. Hoping to turn the men against McMurphy, she blames him for taking away the patients’ privileges and cigarettes. When that tactic fails, she retaliates with electric shock treatments to deaden his mind and break his spirit. Nurse Ratched fights more furiously after McMurphy’s party when she finds her starched white cap—the symbol of her authority—dirty and trampled on the floor. In desperation over the ward’s defiance and in an attempt to vanquish McMurphy, she shames Billy Bibbit into committing suicide. Having goaded McMurphy to violence, she justifies the surgical removal of the frontal lobes of his brain, which she assumes to be the source not only of his emotions and reasoning but also of his force and power. Yet even after McMurphy is physically subdued, his influence lives on in defiance of Nurse Ratched. The men now play his games, use his deceptions, speak his language, adopt his nicknames, and whisper legends about him. At the end of the film, Nurse Ratched’s insidious control is as damaged as her neck in its brace.