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.
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.