Are Chief Bromden’s visions real?

Chief Bromden is prone to visions of the world that are beyond reality. He sees Nurse Ratched turn into a vicious creature, a patient disemboweled in the dead of night by scalpel-wielding workers, and a mysterious fog that obscures both time and space. These visions suggest that Bromden experiences the world in a heightened state, possibly due to a mental disorder. While Bromden’s diagnosis is never explicitly stated, it’s implied that he experienced some sort of mental breakdown or decline due to his traumatic experiences in childhood and in WWII, and that he may suffer from paranoid schizophrenia or a similar condition.

However, Bromden’s visions, while technically impossible, expose a greater truth about the ward and the world at large. Bromden’s understanding of the oppressive Combine is based on what he sees in his visions; his unique perception of the world allows him to see insidious horrors that others can’t. Perhaps Bromden didn’t actually observe hospital aides cut open a Chronic patient whose innards are filled with rust – but he certainly has perceived, in a metaphorical sense, that the ward dehumanizes its patients and leaves them to rot in the hospital until they eventually die. So, while Bromden could logically be categorized as mentally ill, and his disturbing visions could be defined as hallucinations, these visions do serve a critical rhetorical purpose: to manifest into reality the novel’s central metaphors and themes.

How did McMurphy end up at the hospital?

Before arriving at the hospital, McMurphy had been serving time at the Pendleton Work Farm on a charge of statutory rape. However, McMurphy found the conditions at the farm, including the abysmal food and back-breaking labor, difficult, and concocted a plan that would land him in the hospital instead. He pretended to be clinically insane, performing increasingly erratic and violent behavior until he was eventually diagnosed with psychopathy and sent to Nurse Ratched’s ward. At first, McMurphy’s plan works in his favor – he receives better food and far more leisure time at the hospital than he did on the farm. But he never imagined he would need to contend with the malicious Nurse Ratched. McMurphy had mistakenly assumed that he could finish his sentence on the ward and be released without hassle. He did not realize that the hospital workers, like Nurse Ratched, had the power to keep him in the ward indefinitely.

How does McMurphy help Bromden?

Since he was first admitted to the hospital, Chief Bromden has pretended that he is deaf and mute in order to avoid trouble and move around the ward inconspicuously, but his years of pretense take a toll on his confidence and spirit. Bromden sees himself as silent and small, despite the fact that he’s actually an incredibly strong, tall man who was once an excellent athlete. Bromden’s experiences – from his father’s slow death by alcohol and the traumas of WWII, to the electroshock therapy he’s subjected to on the ward – have effectively made him feel powerless, weak, and paranoid. McMurphy is confused by Bromden’s timidity, considering his impressive size. When McMurphy realizes that Bromden’s self-perception doesn’t match his actual physicality, McMurphy sets out to restore Bromden’s confidence. After the men go fishing, McMurphy tells Bromden that he’s grown in size since the trip, and that he’s only continuing to get bigger. The more that McMurphy mentions Bromden’s increasing size and strength, the more Bromden sees himself as growing physically larger. McMurphy helps Bromden believe in his own power again. Although McMurphy meets a tragic end, he helps Bromden to finally escape the ward – both physically, by preparing him to lift the panel, and emotionally, by rebuilding the courage Bromden needed in order to set himself free.

What does the title mean?

The phrase “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” is taken from a children’s folk rhyme, which is quoted in the novel’s epigraph: “One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” Flying over the cuckoo’s nest implies that someone has gone insane, as the slang word “cuckoo” has long been synonymous with “crazy.” In the context of the novel’s title, the cuckoo’s nest may be the ward, which is filled with people who suffer from mental conditions. Chief Bromden, Harding, and other ward members eventually escape the hospital – they may be the ones who fly east and west, far away into different and better lives. But McMurphy is ultimately destroyed by the ward. Although he isn’t insane when he arrives, in the end, his mind is broken beyond repair by a lobotomy. McMurphy may be the one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Considering that he’s the novel’s central character, it seems fitting that the title refers to him. 

However, the title may also be referring to all members of society who don’t fit in or follow mainstream rules. These people may be seen as “insane” by their peers, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest suggests that they might simply be freethinkers like McMurphy who refuse to give up their power and individuality. In the novel, these people – like McMurphy and Chief Bromden’s father – are often crushed by the oppressive system that seeks to control everyone’s behavior, thoughts, and opportunities. The novel’s title may be an ode to anyone who has been labeled as unfit by a tyrannical society. 

What does Nurse Ratched represent?

Nurse Ratched is one of the agents of the Combine, which, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is Bromden’s personal term for an oppressive system that keeps its people weak, confused, and dominated. The ward is a microcosm of an authoritarian state or any other variation of a corrupt society – it subjects its citizens to constant surveillance, enforces strict regulations on their activities and lifestyles, and punishes severely any deviations from societal norms. Nurse Ratched mirrors the sorts of tyrannical figures who often hold power within these authoritarian systems, such as political leaders who are able to exert immense physical and mental control over their subjects by disenfranchising and brainwashing them. While she isn’t a fictional version of a specific, real-life figure, she represents the many tyrants who have created or thrived in systems in which they are free to exert unchecked power over anyone they deem dangerous to the system’s ultimate authority.

Nurse Ratched also represents the fear that the advancement of women’s rights, and an increase in women holding power in government or the workplace, will result in emasculated, submissive men and the destruction of free society. Nurse Ratched’s embarrassment concerning her large breasts – a signifier of her gender – and her attempts to cover them as best she can, belies her ambition to reach traditionally male levels of power and influence. In order to keep her male patients under her control, she emotionally castrates them, denying them their masculine identities. When McMurphy rips open Ratched’s uniform in his final rebellion against the Combine, his exposure of Ratched’s breasts serves to remind the men of the ward that underneath Ratched’s carefully constructed veneer of power, she is still a woman. In this sense, Ratched signifies the perceived dangers of allowing women to hold political power, as well as their perceived natural inferiority to men.