One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The tables are turned in the ward as everyone watches Ratched in the glassed-in Nurses’ Station after her outburst. She cannot escape the patients’ stares, just as they can never escape hers. Ratched strains to regain composure for the staff meeting she called. Bromden says the fog is completely gone now. He always cleans the staff room during meetings, but after his vote, he fears that everyone will realize that he is not really deaf. He goes anyway, knowing that Ratched is suspicious of him. Doctor Spivey attempts to get the meeting started while Ratched uses silence to assert her power. The staff, misreading Ratched’s silence as approval, decides that McMurphy is potentially violent and should be sent to the Disturbed ward. Ratched disagrees; she declares instead that McMurphy is an ordinary man, subject to the same fears and timidity as the others. Since McMurphy is committed, Ratched knows she can control how long he spends in the hospital, and she decides to take her time with him.
Ratched assigns McMurphy the chore of cleaning the latrines, but he continues to nettle her in every way possible. Bromden marvels that the Combine has not broken him. One night, he wakes up and looks out the window and gazes in wonder at the countryside. Bromden observes a dog sniffing around the building and a flock of geese flying overhead. He watches as the dog runs toward the highway, where the headlights of an oncoming car are visible. During the Group Meetings, the patients begin to air their long-silent complaints about the rules.
The ward is taken to the hospital’s pool to swim. McMurphy learns from the patient serving as the lifeguard that someone who is committed to the hospital is released only at the discretion of the staff. McMurphy had believed he could leave as soon as he served the time remaining on his work farm sentence. Cowed by his new knowledge, he behaves more conservatively around Ratched. During the next Group Meeting, Cheswick brings up the problem of cigarette rationing, but McMurphy does not support him. Ratched sends Cheswick to Disturbed for a while. After he returns, on the way to the pool, Cheswick tells McMurphy that he understands why McMurphy no longer rebels against Ratched. That day, Cheswick’s fingers get stuck in the pool’s drain and he drowns in what is possibly a suicide.
Sefelt, who has epilepsy, has a seizure on the floor. Fredrickson, also an epileptic, always takes Sefelt’s medication. Ratched takes the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of following her advice and not “acting foolish.” McMurphy, who has never seen an epileptic seizure, is very disturbed by the whole scenario. Bromden notes that McMurphy is beginning to get a “haggard, puzzled look of pressure” on his face.
Harding’s wife comes for a brief visit. Harding mocks her poor grammar, and she says she wishes his limp-wristed friends would stop coming to their house to ask about him. After she leaves, McMurphy angrily erupts when Harding asks for his opinion of her, saying, “I’ve got worries of my own without getting hooked with yours. So just quit!” The patients are then taken to get chest X rays for TB, and McMurphy learns that Ratched can send anyone she wants for electroshock therapy and even a lobotomy in some cases, despite the fact that both practices are outdated. McMurphy tells the other patients that he knows now why they encouraged his rebellion without informing him about the consequences. He now understands that they submit to her not only because she is able to authorize these treatments, but also because she determines when they can leave the hospital. Harding informs him that, to the contrary, Scanlon is the only Acute aside from McMurphy who is committed. The rest of the Acutes are in the hospital voluntarily and could leave whenever they chose. McMurphy, completely perplexed, asks Billy Bibbit why he chooses to stay when he could be outside driving a convertible and romancing pretty girls. Billy Bibbit begins to cry and shouts that he and the others are not as big, strong, and brave as McMurphy.
McMurphy buys three cartons of cigarettes at the canteen. After the Group Meeting, Ratched announces that she and Doctor Spivey think the patients should be punished for their insubordination against the cleaning schedule a few weeks before. Since they did not apologize or show any remorse, she and Spivey have decided to take away the second game room. Everyone, including the Chronics, turns to see how McMurphy reacts. McMurphy smiles and tips his hat. Ratched thinks that she has regained control, but, after the meeting, McMurphy calmly walks to the glass-enclosed Nurses’ Station where she is sitting. He says that he wants some of his cigarettes and punches his hand through the glass. He claims that the glass was so spotless that he forgot it was even there.
The staff meeting illustrates the unbelievable extent of Nurse Ratched’s power in the hospital, even in the face of disruptions by a clever, sharp-witted patient like McMurphy. After McMurphy learns of her true power—her responsibility for his release and her ability to administer inhumane treatments—no one dares deny her authority even after her hysterical fit. She quickly reconsolidates her power over the staff before they can doubt her. Ratched’s actions indicate her clear-thinking, premeditated approach to dealing with McMurphy. She chooses to keep McMurphy on the ward to prevent him from attaining the status of a martyr. Moreover, she realizes that sending him off the ward would be tantamount to declaring defeat. Ratched would rather confront McMurphy directly. She is comforted to know that she has complete control over his future, and that once he realizes it too, he will not dare to disobey her.
Up to this point, McMurphy’s rebellions have largely been self-motivated, although they have ended up benefiting others as well. Now the other men are discovering their own individual desires and begin to follow his lead: Cheswick demands that the rationing of cigarettes be ended, and Bromden stops taking his sleeping pill. Bromden’s transformation from a pretend deaf-mute into a man who can think for himself results from his observation and admiration of McMurphy. Although Bromden is physically much larger than McMurphy, he sees himself as weak and small, and he marvels at McMurphy’s strength. He realizes that McMurphy’s power comes from his ability to “be who he is,” to maintain his individuality within the Combine’s institutions. With this new knowledge, Bromden and the other patients slowly resurrect their suppressed individuality.
Bromden’s realization, upon looking out the window, that the hospital is in the countryside symbolizes the broadening of his perceptual abilities under McMurphy’s influence. He watches as animals interact with man-made creations. This scene of nature versus machine echoes the situation occurring within the hospital’s walls. The geese belong entirely to the wild, undomesticated world. The car represents the oppressive, mechanized modern society. The dog, as a domesticated creature, is situated in between. Bromden notes that the dog and the car are headed for “the same spot of pavement.” The implication is that the dog will run into the car and be killed by the overwhelmingly larger machine. This image signifies that when one tries to defy modern society’s mechanized, conventional imperatives, one runs the risk of experiencing annihilation rather than victory.
After McMurphy learns that Ratched will determine when he can leave the hospital, he chooses to conform to the hospital’s set of norms and rules. McMurphy doesn’t yet understand the responsibility that he has assumed by serving as the ward’s most effective teacher of resistance. This responsibility becomes apparent when Cheswick dies. McMurphy realizes that by ending his rebellion and conforming to Ratched’s ways to save himself, he has become complicit with the destructive Combine.
The knowledge of his own complacency with the Combine strikes McMurphy strongly and influences him to resume his rebellion, although with a new sense of the ramifications of rebellion. He now acts with the full knowledge of his situation and the punishments that Ratched may inflict on him in response to his continued opposition. He now knowingly assumes the role of leader that he naively assumed earlier. Rather than being a selfish action, his resumed rebellion is calculated to benefit the other patients. In addition, McMurphy no longer relies on humorous nettling as his weapon in this rebellion. McMurphy’s strength becomes less mental and more corporeal. Breaking the window is his first act of violence—far more serious than his humorous jabs. Moreover, the glass, which is kept so spotless that it is almost invisible, represents the control Nurse Ratched has over the patients; it is so deviously subtle that they sometimes forget it is there. By breaking the glass, McMurphy reminds the other patients that her power over them is always present, while simultaneously suggesting that their knowledge of her power renders that power breakable.
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