Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Fog Machine

Fog is a phenomenon that clouds our vision of the world. In this novel, fogs symbolize a lack of insight and an escape from reality. When Bromden starts to slip away from reality, because of his medication or out of fear, he hallucinates fog drifting into the ward. He imagines that there are hidden fog machines in the vents and that they are controlled by the staff. Although it can be frightening at times, Bromden considers the fog to be a safe place; he can hide in it and ignore reality. Beyond what it means for Bromden, the fog represents the state of mind that Ratched imposes on the patients with her strict, mind-numbing routines and humiliating treatment. When McMurphy arrives, he drags all the patients out of the fog.

McMurphy’s Boxer Shorts

McMurphy’s boxer shorts are black satin with a pattern of white whales with red eyes. A literature major gave them to him, saying that McMurphy is himself a symbol. The shorts, of course, are also highly symbolic. First, the white whales call to mind Moby Dick, one of the most potent symbols in American literature. One common interpretation of Moby Dick is that the whale is a phallic symbol, which obviously suggests McMurphy’s blatant sexuality—the little white whales cover McMurphy’s underwear, which he gleefully reveals to Nurse Ratched. Moby Dick also represents the pervasive evil that inspires Ahab’s obsessive, futile pursuit. Here, the implication is that McMurphy is to Ratched as Moby Dick is to Ahab. A third interpretation is that Moby Dick stands for the power of nature, signifying McMurphy’s untamed nature that conflicts with the controlled institution. Also, in Melville’s novel Moby Dick is associated with God, which resonates with McMurphy’s role as a Christ figure. Finally, the whale boxer shorts poke fun at academia and its elaborate interpretations of symbols.

Read more about Moby Dick as a symbol in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The Electroshock Therapy Table

The electroshock therapy table is explicitly associated with crucifixion. It is shaped like a cross, with straps across the wrists and over the head. Moreover, the table performs a function similar to the public crucifixions of Roman times. Ellis, Ruckly, and Taber—Acutes whose lives were destroyed by electroshock therapy—serve as public examples of what happens to those who rebel against the ruling powers. Ellis makes the reference explicit: he is actually nailed to the wall. This foreshadows that McMurphy, who is associated with Christ images, will be sacrificed.