One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

by: Ken Kesey

Part II

Analysis

The staff meeting illustrates the unbelievable extent of Nurse Ratched’s power in the hospital, even in the face of disruptions by a clever, sharp-witted patient like McMurphy. After McMurphy learns of her true power—her responsibility for his release and her ability to administer inhumane treatments—no one dares deny her authority even after her hysterical fit. She quickly reconsolidates her power over the staff before they can doubt her. Ratched’s actions indicate her clear-thinking, premeditated approach to dealing with McMurphy. She chooses to keep McMurphy on the ward to prevent him from attaining the status of a martyr. Moreover, she realizes that sending him off the ward would be tantamount to declaring defeat. Ratched would rather confront McMurphy directly. She is comforted to know that she has complete control over his future, and that once he realizes it too, he will not dare to disobey her.

Up to this point, McMurphy’s rebellions have largely been self-motivated, although they have ended up benefiting others as well. Now the other men are discovering their own individual desires and begin to follow his lead: Cheswick demands that the rationing of cigarettes be ended, and Bromden stops taking his sleeping pill. Bromden’s transformation from a pretend deaf-mute into a man who can think for himself results from his observation and admiration of McMurphy. Although Bromden is physically much larger than McMurphy, he sees himself as weak and small, and he marvels at McMurphy’s strength. He realizes that McMurphy’s power comes from his ability to “be who he is,” to maintain his individuality within the Combine’s institutions. With this new knowledge, Bromden and the other patients slowly resurrect their suppressed individuality.

Bromden’s realization, upon looking out the window, that the hospital is in the countryside symbolizes the broadening of his perceptual abilities under McMurphy’s influence. He watches as animals interact with man-made creations. This scene of nature versus machine echoes the situation occurring within the hospital’s walls. The geese belong entirely to the wild, undomesticated world. The car represents the oppressive, mechanized modern society. The dog, as a domesticated creature, is situated in between. Bromden notes that the dog and the car are headed for “the same spot of pavement.” The implication is that the dog will run into the car and be killed by the overwhelmingly larger machine. This image signifies that when one tries to defy modern society’s mechanized, conventional imperatives, one runs the risk of experiencing annihilation rather than victory.

After McMurphy learns that Ratched will determine when he can leave the hospital, he chooses to conform to the hospital’s set of norms and rules. McMurphy doesn’t yet understand the responsibility that he has assumed by serving as the ward’s most effective teacher of resistance. This responsibility becomes apparent when Cheswick dies. McMurphy realizes that by ending his rebellion and conforming to Ratched’s ways to save himself, he has become complicit with the destructive Combine.

The knowledge of his own complacency with the Combine strikes McMurphy strongly and influences him to resume his rebellion, although with a new sense of the ramifications of rebellion. He now acts with the full knowledge of his situation and the punishments that Ratched may inflict on him in response to his continued opposition. He now knowingly assumes the role of leader that he naively assumed earlier. Rather than being a selfish action, his resumed rebellion is calculated to benefit the other patients. In addition, McMurphy no longer relies on humorous nettling as his weapon in this rebellion. McMurphy’s strength becomes less mental and more corporeal. Breaking the window is his first act of violence—far more serious than his humorous jabs. Moreover, the glass, which is kept so spotless that it is almost invisible, represents the control Nurse Ratched has over the patients; it is so deviously subtle that they sometimes forget it is there. By breaking the glass, McMurphy reminds the other patients that her power over them is always present, while simultaneously suggesting that their knowledge of her power renders that power breakable.