Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The film underscores the loss of personal freedom with recurring patterns of barriers, gates, fences, bars, locks, and shackles. We hear the ward door slam ominously behind Nurse Ratched as the first sound of the movie. We see Bancini locked in overnight restraints. McMurphy first appears in manacles. Throughout the film, faces are filmed behind wire mesh and bars to emphasize the hopelessness of captivity. The glass of the nurse’s station represents the barrier between the individual and power—a barrier the patients are forbidden to cross, even though it appears more transparent than bars. McMurphy first crosses the barrier when he attempts it to turn down the music so he can think, but Nurse Ratched escorts him out, unwilling to tolerate independent thought. Later he shoves his hand through the glass, shattering the boundaries maintained by the authoritative state, with dire consequences.
Games feature prominently in the film, not solely as a simple pastime but also as an affirmation of life, health, and enjoyment. McMurphy teaches blackjack and basketball, games he sees as manlier than the pinochle and Monopoly the patients play prior to his arrival. Under his coaching, the patients have the empowering experience of beating the orderlies in basketball. Enjoyment is important to McMurphy: for him, driving a boat is fun, fishing is fun, sex is fun, and games of all kinds help the patients feel alive. He tells Martini when he teaches him to fish that he is not a loony but a fisherman. In addition, the World Series take on pivotal importance in McMurphy’s battle for life against Nurse Ratched: the baseball games symbolize unity, as the ball players work as a team, and also, as a distinctly American pastime, echo the antiauthoritarian strain in American history.
Repeated references to Jesus draw attention to McMurphy’s role as a life-giving savior. The men follow him as disciples. When he is exasperated, McMurphy frequently invokes Jesus. He takes the patients fishing on the sea, in a literal representation of Jesus with his followers. He performs the “miracles” of getting the Chief to speak and Billy Bibbit to stop stuttering. He joins the men in the pool, dunking as if baptized. Because of his rebellion against authority, he suffers for them on the electroshock table. Finally, he sacrifices his own flight to freedom to help Billy Bibbit. Sefelt tells legends about McMurphy’s mythic escape just as the disciples spread word of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible. When the Chief kills McMurphy out of mercy, the scene echoes the death, the tomb, and the resurrection that leads to eternal life.
Many of the film’s scenes reflect upon the sense of hearing as a means of understanding and connection among the characters. The Chief pretends to be deaf in order to withdraw from his surroundings, but McMurphy talks to him anyway as a means of establishing a human connection. His affectionate chatter begins to engage the Chief in life once again. On the other hand, the numbing music that Nurse Ratched plays is so loud that McMurphy complains he can’t hear himself think. He tells her the men wouldn’t have to shout if she would turn the volume down. Nurse Ratched, however, opposes thinking, understanding, and any other activity that would lead to healthy human relationships between the patients.