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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Conformity As a Threat to Freedom

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film with distinct political undercurrents, which are forcefully presented. When men conform to authoritarian rule, the film argues, they jeopardize not only their physical but also their mental freedom. McMurphy learns that the prison where he was held previously offered greater personal freedom than Nurse Ratched’s ward. In prison, he could have watched the World Series, served out his sixty-eight days, and then been free to go. Nurse Ratched’s authority, however, extends from the television to the term of McMurphy’s commitment, and her authority will not bear rebellion. Under her totalitarian control, McMurphy cannot even be sure what the rules are, for she rigs them to achieve the results she wants. When the men side unanimously with McMurphy the second time they vote on watching the World Series, Nurse Ratched announces calmly that the nine men with their hands up represent only half the ward and therefore are not a majority. The unresponsive patients, the “chronics,” do not threaten her control. When the Chief surprises everyone by raising his hand, she tells the jubilant McMurphy that his vote does not count, because the meeting is adjourned. Under authoritarian rule, even the appearance of democracy is subverted to maintain the status quo.

The Contradiction Between Tyranny and Sanity

As head nurse in a mental institution, Nurse Ratched should be promoting her patients’ sanity, but instead her tyranny directly subverts their mental health. She keeps the patients docile, medicated, dependent, and childlike. McMurphy tells the patients they are not loonies but men, and he encourages their manhood through fishing and basketball. The men then begin to ask reasonable questions about Nurse Ratched’s authority. Scanlon wants to know why the dormitory is locked during the day. She explains, insidiously, that time spent in the company of others is therapeutic. Cheswick demands the cigarettes she has confiscated and informs her that he is not a little child. Nurse Ratched’s oppression, however, causes Cheswick to lose control, and she keeps him in place with electroshock therapy. The men do not improve under her domination but rather disintegrate like Billy Bibbit. Nurse Ratched’s reason for keeping McMurphy on the ward, she tells the doctor, is to help him. Instead, she robs him of his vivacity and his sanity.

The Sacred Nature of the Individual

Unlike Nurse Ratched, McMurphy honors and loves the sanctity of individual human beings. He talks to the Chief, even though he thinks the Chief is deaf. He is patient with the babyish Martini, even though he cannot grasp the fundamentals of blackjack. He helps Taber catch a fish and teaches Cheswick to drive a boat. He encourages the Chief to grow through playing basketball. He intervenes on behalf of Cheswick by breaking the glass of the nurse’s station to get his cigarettes. He shows his affection for all the men, particularly Billy Bibbit, as he gives Billy the gift of his first sexual encounter, even as McMurphy realizes it will cost him his chance at freedom. In all these ways, McMurphy shows love for the unique, individual nature of each man. When McMurphy’s lobotomy robs him of the traits that made him an individual, the Chief returns his love through an act of death and resurrection. The Chief frees McMurphy, affirming that the spirit lives on after the body’s death in the minds and behaviors of the living.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Obstacles to Personal Freedom

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.

The Rebel As Savior

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.

Hearing As a Human Connection

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.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Over and over again, the camera focuses upon keys, and their metallic jingle echoes as the overriding symbol of authority. Nurse Ratched wears her keys on a loop over her arm like a decorative bracelet of power. She leads the men in stretches before group therapy, and her keys provide the only sound as she lifts and drops her arms. The orderlies wear their keys clipped to their belts like pistols at their sides. Orderlies control and discipline the men, and they use their keys to lock them down at night and release them in the morning. For McMurphy, keys are the means to escape. He is able to drive the men away for a fishing trip, because the keys to the bus are in the ignition. He gets Orderly Turkle drunk in order to liberate the keys from his pocket while he sleeps, then uses those keys to open the ward’s window, the portal to the world of freedom. As the orderlies drag Billy Bibbit away screaming the next morning, Washington flaunts his power by ordering McMurphy to drop the keys. McMurphy, realizing that Washington means to beat him senseless, slowly and carefully places the keys on the windowsill in admission of his failure to escape the institution’s control.


In contrast to keys, cigarettes represent freedom. The men use cigarettes as chips in blackjack, each cigarette representing a dime—their only money to spend as they wish. Cigarettes provide the men with a makeshift currency, giving them power to place bets, take risks, and feel like men instead of children. In a climactic scene, Cheswick demands to know why Nurse Ratched has confiscated his cigarettes. She blames McMurphy for running a casino in the tub room and winning all the men’s money—a form of personal initiative that defies her authority. She does not want the patients to have the powerful feeling of being in control of their own lives. When Cheswick explodes, he makes clear the importance of his cigarettes, yelling that he is not a little child to have his cigarettes doled out like cookies. His desperation leads McMurphy to shatter the glass of the nurse’s station in order to retrieve Cheswick’s cigarettes, a symbol of his capacity for individual dignity.

Pornographic Playing Cards

McMurphy’s deck of dirty playing cards appears at critical moments of the film to signify his rebellion against authority. He makes Martini his first disciple when he flashes the pictures of naked women in his face, leading him away from the sedate game of pinochle. In his first group therapy session, he shuffles the cards defiantly while Nurse Ratched is speaking. McMurphy uses the cards most effectively during his evaluation by the doctors. As they conclude, Dr. Spivey asks him if he has any questions, and he flashes a card at the doctors, thus undermining their authority over him, openly demonstrating his contempt, and privileging raw, sensual experience over the regular, ordered life in the hospital.

More main ideas from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest