One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey

Part I, continued

Summary Part I, continued


Bromden’s reliability as a narrator becomes clear as we realize how incredibly observant he is. Unlike the other patients, Bromden notices how carefully McMurphy sets them up to lose their cigarettes. Moreover, Bromden’s bizarre dream about Old Blastic turns out to be prophetic, demonstrating that his altered states of perception are significant rather than simply crazy. Bromden perceives the hospital not as a place promoting health but as a mechanized slaughterhouse where not only humans, but also humanity, is murdered. Old Blastic is hung on a meat hook and disemboweled, but rust and ash pour from his wound rather than flesh and blood. Bromden’s dreams metaphorically reveal his profound insight into the dehumanizing and mechanizing forces of the hospital.

Bromden’s hallucination that he is surrounded by fog extends to the other patients—he thinks that they are lost in fog too. This is clearly a delusion, but metaphorically it is true. The status quo enforced by Nurse Ratched functions to dull the patients’ senses. Her tight routine makes everything seem to move either too slow or too fast. The too-loud music makes conversation difficult and frustrating. In response to the ever-extending fog, or a clouding of one’s unique thoughts and needs, Bromden describes McMurphy’s actions as dragging the patients out of the fog. By resisting Ratched, McMurphy awakens the patients to their own ability to resist her, and thereby helps them see beyond the fog. Bromden at first does not attribute his rebellious vote to his own willpower, but rather to some mysterious power on McMurphy’s part. Then he later realizes, “No. That’s not the truth. I lifted [my hand] myself.” Bromden is very slowly beginning to see himself as an individual with free will; his recognition that the fog blankets the entire ward is an ironic indication that his own fog is beginning to lift.

McMurphy’s small but continual infractions of the rules are assertions of his own individuality. McMurphy’s defiance encourages the other patients to defy Ratched by gambling for cigarettes. He succeeds in drawing the other patients into rebellion against Ratched’s authority, because she forbids gambling for anything but matches. Furthermore, the incident with the towel reflects McMurphy’s faith in humor as a means to resist Ratched’s authority. Earlier, when McMurphy suggests that the patients laugh at Ratched, Harding scoffs at the idea. Harding asserts that the only effective tool of resistance against Ratched is the penis, the instrument of male violence against dominant femininity. Although McMurphy’s resistance to Ratched’s authority does include a sexual element, McMurphy combines sexuality with humor, not violence. The symbolism of the encounter is heightened by McMurphy’s boxers, a gift from a college student who said that McMurphy was himself a literary symbol. White whales evoke the famous Moby-Dick, a beast associated in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick with a variety of symbolic meanings, including masculinity, unseen power, insanity, and freedom. When McMurphy flaunts these symbolic boxers before Nurse Ratched, he is connected to each of these interpretations, reminding the reader that he serves as a prominent symbol within the novel.

McMurphy’s display of his whale boxer shorts affirms his belief that men should not be ashamed of their sexuality, whereas making the patients ashamed of their sexuality is one of Ratched’s major ways of dominating them. Ratched’s strategy is evident in her treatment of Billy Bibbit, a thirty-one-year-old virgin dominated into celibacy by his mother. Though it is obvious to us that Billy needs to find a way out from under his mother’s shadow, Ratched does the opposite of helping him do this, defining his sexuality in terms of inadequacy and shame. Rather than attempting to cure the patients of their problems, Ratched increases their discomfort as a way of building her own power.

McMurphy’s personal rebellion against Ratched’s authority expands and becomes the patients’ collective rebellion, with McMurphy as their unofficial leader. When McMurphy wins his bet, he does so with the other patients’ help as they all join him in protest. Meanwhile, Bromden’s perceptions of the situation develop and change. When Ratched begins screaming hysterically, Bromden states that anyone who walked into the room at the moment would think they were all crazy. Insanity is no longer a characteristic of the patients alone. Before, Bromden saw the patients as defective. Now, with the help of a unified force against the mechanistic Combine, he is beginning to see the established order as defective as well.