One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

by: Ken Kesey

Sanity

Quotes Sanity
If somebody’d of come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year-old woman hollering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they’d of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons.

McMurphy and the men have decided to abide by their democratic vote and watch the World Series, but Nurse Ratched cuts the power, so they watch the blank screen instead. Chaos breaks out. Here, Bromden correctly notes that at a casual glance, the men’s actions would seem to be nonsensical, but McMurphy actually has orchestrated a situation in which he wins his bet by causing Nurse Ratched to lose her temper. His victory reflects his cunning and rationality. By contrast, Nurse Ratched now shrieks and yells like a mental patient on her own ward.

Of course, the very nature of this plan could indicate that he is simply a shrewd con man, and not mentally ill at all.

At a meeting, one staff member correctly entertains the possibility that McMurphy could be faking his mental illness and calculating his every move to achieve a specific end. This suggestion raises the question of who gets to define sanity and how they do so. The staff consider the inmates “crazy” even when they make rational requests, like changing their work schedule to watch the World Series; meanwhile, they regard Nurse Ratched as “sane” even though her hatred of McMurphy leads her to make irrational decisions based on emotion. Since Nurse Ratched can only control McMurphy if he is deemed mentally ill, she has a vested interest in his diagnosis.

But you, you’re not exactly the everyday man on the street, but you’re not nuts.

Like most men on the ward, Billy has checked himself in voluntarily, and when McMurphy finds out, he feels dumbfounded. Here, McMurphy recognizes that Billy, cowed into subjugation by his mother and afraid of other women, isn’t normal but isn’t insane either. Billy’s inability to live comfortably within mainstream society, however, renders him so far outside accepted norms that he feels like a failure and chooses life in a mental institution. McMurphy’s presence serves to make all the men question their own ideas of sanity and where they truly belong.

The foolish lenience on the part of your parents may have been the germ that grew into your present illness.

While lecturing the men about their unruly and unrepentant behavior, Nurse Ratched unwittingly reveals that she believes a connection exists between mental illness and disobedience. This conflation has dangerous implications for the men: They all receive mind-altering medications, and if they express their opinions or attempt to reform the ward, they receive electric shock therapy and even lobotomies. Many of the men have difficulty adjusting to societal norms, so treating them as mentally ill fails to help them and will ensure they remain labeled as insane.

Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become.

On the fishing trip, the men stop at a gas station, and Harding realizes that their behavior reflecting their mental status can make people fear them. This incident becomes eye opening for Harding, who has always felt shame over his sexual differences. He never fit into society and could only find peace in the mental institution. Seeing McMurphy manipulate the idea of insanity to intimidate the gas station attendant makes Harding realize that insanity, real or perceived, can be powerful because of the uncertainty it implies. Mentally ill people can act differently from everybody else so others will never know what to expect.