Harding: “I’m not just talking about my wife, I’m talking about my life. I can’t seem to get that through to you. I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody, I’m talking about form, I’m talking about content, I’m talking about interrelationships. I’m talking about God, the devil, hell, heaven.”
Early in the film, during the first group therapy session, Nurse Ratched presses Harding about his relationship with his wife until he becomes frustrated and blurts out this clear summary of the film. Harding wants the men in his group to understand he is speaking of issues larger than himself, just as the film’s story is meant to transcend the screen. With this speech, particularly since it comes so close to the beginning, the filmmaker signals that the film deals with these same issues. Harding says he is not speaking only of his own life but also of form, the outer appearance of things, and content, their inner meaning; he says that he is talking about everyone and their interrelationships. Both Harding and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest address the battle between competing forces—God and the devil, good and evil, heaven and hell, sanity and insanity—within the human soul. In this way, the mental institution stands not just for larger society but for the universe, and the men in the film represent the potential for submission and celebration inherent in everyone.
The ideas in Harding’s lines recur throughout the film. The fates of the patients are interconnected, particularly those of Billy Bibbit, McMurphy, and the Chief, who frees McMurphy’s spirit. Outward appearances within the film often are deceptive: the Chief, for example, appears to be deaf and mute, but in fact he hears and sees the underlying content and meaning of people’s actions on the ward more clearly than the others. In her nurse’s uniform and with her calm voice, Nurse Ratched appears to be an instrument of health and sanity, but in fact she prefers weakness and madness. She is a force of destruction who drives Billy Bibbit to commit suicide. The film aligns her with evil by repeatedly linking her with locks, keys, shackles, gates, and other forms of constraint. McMurphy, the former prison inmate, initially appears to be a social misfit, but instead he forms connections with the patients, leading them toward health and sanity. The film aligns him with Jesus and the idea of salvation. The repression of the mental institution refers to hell, particularly as McMurphy is shocked on the electroshock table. McMurphy’s spirit escapes with the Chief to an afterlife, a heaven, beyond the hospital’s bars. This key speech sets up the film’s intention to treat universal issues of human significance.
McMurphy: “You let me go on hassling Nurse Ratched here, knowing how much I had to lose, and you never told me nothing.”
In this session of group therapy, McMurphy accuses the men of betraying him by not telling him how much he was risking with his rebellious behavior. What started as a prank has taken a dire turn. This quote is the only time McMurphy comes close to expressing regret for his choices and actions. It is a moment of pause and reflection in the film as both we as viewers and McMurphy assess whether he can afford to continue his opposition to Nurse Ratched’s repression. These lines introduce the concept of betrayal and the fact that McMurphy clearly is saddened by the men’s failure to provide him with critical information about the hospital’s policies, particularly Nurse Ratched’s ability to decide the length of McMurphy’s stay. The film suggests that for McMurphy and for humanity, ignorance has devastating consequences. It further suggests that, as interconnected human beings, we have responsibilities to protect one another. With this line, McMurphy publicly acknowledges that he has pitted himself in opposition to Nurse Ratched and admits that he has gone too far to change the outcome. His friends have failed to warn him, and he has lost his physical freedom to Nurse Ratched. An unstated question seems to hang in the air, heightening the tension of the scene. Might there yet be more for him to lose if he continues to fight her? As the scene unfolds, McMurphy must decide whether or not to escalate their conflict despite the magnitude of the risks.
McMurphy: “Jesus, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are for Christ sake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets.”
After McMurphy accuses the men of betrayal, they explain that they are almost all “voluntary” rather than “committed” like him. McMurphy is filled with disbelief that any man would choose repression over freedom, particularly a young man in his prime like Billy Bibbit. By exhorting Billy to be out in a convertible, chasing girls, McMurphy extols the virtues of living life to its fullest potential. In these lines, McMurphy expresses three pivotal concepts: courage, free will, and the definition of sanity. When he tells the men they don’t have the guts to walk out when they can, he challenges their courage—a characteristic often associated with manhood.
McMurphy himself displays courage every time he opposes Nurse Ratched’s authority. Physical courage enables him to jump the fence and hijack a bus to take the men fishing. Mental courage empowers him to invent a World Series game in defiance of Nurse Ratched. His actions consistently demonstrate the importance of courage in the fight against tyranny. By choosing to oppose repression, McMurphy also demonstrates freedom of choice, or free will—a concept important in Christian belief. Free will allows humans to choose between good and evil. When McMurphy discovers that the patients have elected to subject themselves to the institution voluntarily, he reminds them that they have a choice. For emphasis, he invokes “Christ’s sake.” McMurphy implies that the choice to stay in subjugation is immoral—an act against the free will that God has granted humankind.
He goes on to assert that these men are no more insane than the average man, and indeed the question of sanity is central to the film. This line sets up the quirky individualism of the patients against the rigid conformity of Nurse Ratched. When McMurphy tells the men they are no crazier than the average man on the street, he denies Nurse Ratched’s version of normality. Hers is confined to a narrow range of behavior carefully conscripted by rules—her rules. A docile and sedated patient is her ideal. She employs drugs, nighttime restraints, and lullaby-like music to keep her charges in that state. To ensure their compliance, she uses the orderlies to discipline and subdue them. In contrast, McMurphy’s definition of normality is as broad as the world and allows for great variation. He makes fun of society’s labels for the insane, affectionately referring to the patients as “lunatics” or “mental defectives” and to himself as the “bull goose loony.” When they act like men, however, he gives them new labels, as when he tells Martini he’s no longer a loony but a fisherman. By denying that the men are crazy, McMurphy refutes Nurse Ratched’s definition of sanity. He challenges the men directly to exercise their free will to live fully and with courage, and he dares them to reject the institution’s oppression of those aims.
Chief: “My papa was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father he was blind in the cities from drinking and every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he don’t suck out of it, it sucks out of him. . . . I’m not saying they killed him. The just worked on him, the way they’re working on you.”
The Chief’s warning occurs late at night following McMurphy’s electroshock treatments, as McMurphy kneels beside the Chief’s bed and confesses that he can’t take the institution anymore. The Chief, a physical giant, whispers, making himself small to emphasize his inability to escape with McMurphy. The Chief introduces size as a measure of inner rather than outer reality. By asserting that McMurphy is much bigger than he is, he measures with a different yardstick—that of the heart. The Chief, who speaks very little in the film, says a great deal in these few words. By comparing McMurphy to his father, he makes clear his love and respect. To the Chief, the size of both men he admires is in their ability to do as they please. They behave as men, as individuals, as rebels against institutions of authority.
The Chief implies that society represses such big men when he says that everybody “worked on” his father. His father coped with society’s repression by escaping into alcohol. He drank until he was blind, until he no longer had to see the injustice of his situation. Both the cities and the mental institution stand for crowding and oppression, and neither leaves room for such a big man. Alcohol steals more from his father than it gives him: it robs him of his dignity and vision and sucks the soul from his body. Like Nurse Ratched’s sedatives, alcohol provides only the illusion of killing the pain. McMurphy assumes that drinking killed the Chief’s father, but the Chief suggests that something far worse can happen to a man than the death of his body. Repression works on a man and makes him smaller, blinding him and draining the manhood from him. This is what happened to the Chief’s father, and it is what the Chief sees happening to McMurphy. The Chief speaks near the end of the film with the voice of prophecy and doom so that McMurphy—and viewers—will heed his lesson.
Nurse Ratched: “Now calm down. The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.”
Nurse Ratched ushers the men into the corridor after Billy Bibbit’s suicide to deliver this brief line, which encapsulates her entire character and belief system. While the others, including the shrieking Nurse Pilbow and the gasping patients, react with horror to Billy’s bloody corpse, Nurse Ratched projects an unnatural discipline. Her cold control betrays her heartlessness. No matter how genuinely appalling the event, Nurse Ratched insists upon quiet, order, and routine. Her need to control every aspect of behavior on the ward extends to a need to direct even how the men should feel. In her tyranny, she tries to strip them of their natural emotions and deaden their sensitivity with routine. In light of the men’s affection for Billy, her demand for calm and order is not only grossly inappropriate but also a mad distortion of human nature. With these words, the film portrays her as more insane than the mental patients.
In contrast, McMurphy’s selfless rage, which wells up as she delivers this directive, comes from his emotional sanity. He grips her throat with his bare hands as if to choke off the evil of her words. Without regard for himself, McMurphy grapples her to the floor as if wrestling the devil. While he shakes her neck, her carefully arranged hair comes undone, marking her loss of authority and control. The film suggests that McMurphy’s attack on Nurse Ratched is far more than revenge for Billy Bibbit’s death: he is fighting for humanity, for the individual’s right to be loved, respected, and mourned.