Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.