In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched represents the virtues of self-repression and conformity, of obeying society’s rules without question or complaint. By contrast, McMurphy stands for the ideals of individuality and self-expression. He represents the importance of asserting one’s thoughts and eccentricities without fear of upsetting a status quo. Several of Kesey’s secondary characters, such as Harding, Pete, and Chief Bromden, experience conflicts between their terror of Nurse Ratched and their admiration for McMurphy. The competing philosophies of nurse and disobedient patient thus reinforce Kesey’s idea that many people are unsure when to rebel and when to conform, dissatisfied with the world they inhabit yet afraid to state their wishes and advocate change.
Nurse Ratched’s statements and actions suggest that individuality is wrong and that the noblest goal is to fit into society’s mainstream. Bromden likens Ratched to an engineer, altering the gears of her patients until they are fully robotic, compliant, and able to function in the world without causing a scene. Nobody dares laugh on Ratched’s watch, because such an assertion of personality would lead to questioning and a harsh reprimand from the Big Nurse. Ratched has hung a “plaque of cooperation” in her ward, suggesting that her patients’ zombie-like placidity is worthy of a reward. She repeatedly misstates McMurphy’s name, calling him “McMurry,” as if to imply that names and other markers of individuality are unimportant and negligible. She punishes the patient Taber simply for asking what medications he is being given, and she authorizes surgery to reduce him to an unquestioning drone. Each of these deeds confirms that Nurse Ratched stands for utter compliance, self-effacement, and an almost totalitarian emphasis on fitting into a thoughtless, well-ordered world.
On the other hand, McMurphy represents the allure of personal expression, making known one’s thoughts and desires, and refusing to worry about societal norms. McMurphy asserts his vitality by passing out lewd playing cards on his first day on the ward: He does not care if Ratched or the authorities are disturbed by his exuberant sense of humor and sexual energy. McMurphy breaks down the accepted barrier between Chronics and Acutes, addressing each Chronic as if he has a robust inner life and well-developed personality, refusing to see another human being as a vegetable without a soul. He ignores Bromden’s status as a deaf-mute and speaks to him at length, becoming the only man in the building to notice that Bromden really can hear and comprehend other people. He laughs and sings loudly in the shower, upsetting the deadly silence of the ward, refusing to fall prey to Ratched’s expectations of quiet, fearful, and self-denying behavior. His actions and attitudes demonstrate the virtues of individuality, pushing aside the urge to conform and acknowledging that every human being has eccentric wishes, thoughts, and idiosyncrasies.
Kesey suggests that the conflict between McMurphy and Ratched is a universal phenomenon by pointing out that it occurs daily within the minds of his minor characters. Harding understands the allure of conformity, accepting Ratched’s cruel schedule of “analytic” sessions and trying to pin down his own freely-moving, expressive hands, but he also succumbs to McMurphy’s rallying cry, muttering that Ratched is cruel and oppressive and allowing his hands to wave “beautifully” in the air. Likewise, Bromden feels torn between the desire to conform and to rebel, silencing his own voice yet admiring McMurphy and men such as his father, who turned away opportunistic government officials from his reservation when Bromden was a child. Pete suppresses most of what is going on in his head, in a way that pleases Ratched, but he also has a moment of self-expression when he attacks an orderly who has tried to pin him down. Each of these characters enacts on a private level the battle that rages between Ratched and McMurphy—the urge to comply versus the desire to be fully and unapologetically unique.
By emphasizing the conflict between nurse and free-spirited patient, Kesey thus reinforces his idea that people often fall victim to a tug-of-war between societal expectations and personal needs. Ratched demands an unquestioning acceptance of societal standards, punishing patients who challenge the daily flow of activities on her ward. By contrast, McMurphy reminds his peers that they all have personalities and inner lives, encouraging them to laugh in the face of authority whenever possible. Caught between the poles of Ratched’s demands and McMurphy’s free-spirited philosophy, Kesey’s minor characters show how difficult it is to be oneself in a harsh, homogenous world. McMurphy’s spirit rejuvenates them, but Ratched’s looming presence repeatedly crushes their hopes.