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.