Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
With the exception of the prostitutes, who are portrayed as good, the women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are uniformly threatening and terrifying figures. Bromden, the narrator, and McMurphy, the protagonist, both tend to describe the suffering of the mental patients as a matter of emasculation or castration at the hands of Nurse Ratched and the hospital supervisor, who is also a woman. The fear of women is one of the novel’s most central features. The male characters seem to agree with Harding, who complains, “We are victims of a matriarchy here.”
Indeed, most of the male patients have been damaged by relationships with overpowering women. For instance, Bromden’s mother is portrayed as a castrating woman; her husband took her last name, and she turned a big, strong chief into a small, weak alcoholic. According to Bromden, she built herself up emotionally, becoming bigger than either he or his father, by constantly putting them down. Similarly, Billy Bibbit’s mother treats him like an infant and does not allow him to develop sexually. Through sex with Candy, Billy briefly regains his confidence. It is no coincidence that this act, which symbolically resurrects his manhood, also literally introduces his penis to sexual activity. Thus, his manhood—in both senses—returns until Ratched takes it away by threatening to tell his mother and driving him to commit suicide.
More explicit images of and references to castration appear later in the novel, cementing Kesey’s idea of emasculation by the frigid nurse. When Rawler, a patient in the Disturbed ward, commits suicide by cutting off his own testicles, Bromden remarks that “all the guy had to do was wait,” implying that the institution itself would have castrated him in the long run. The hospital, run by women, treats only male patients, showing how women have the ability to emasculate even the most masculine of men. Finally, near the end of the novel, after McMurphy has already received three shock treatments that do not seem to have had an effect on him, Nurse Ratched suggests taking more drastic measures: “an operation.” She means, of course, a lobotomy, but McMurphy beats her to the punch by joking about castration. Both operations remove a man’s individuality, freedom, and ability for sexual expression. Kesey portrays the two operations as symbolically the same.
Kesey uses mechanical imagery to represent modern society and biological imagery to represent nature. By means of mechanisms and machines, society gains control of and suppresses individuality and natural impulses. The hospital, representative of society at large, is decidedly unnatural: the aides and Nurse Ratched are described as being made of motley machine parts. In Chief Bromden’s dream, when Blastic is disemboweled, rust, not blood, spills out, revealing that the hospital destroyed not only his life but his humanity as well. Bromden’s realization that the hospital treats human beings in an unnatural fashion, and his concomitant growing self-awareness, occur as a surrounding fog dissipates. It is no surprise that Bromden believes this fog is a construction of machines controlled by the hospital and by Nurse Ratched.
Bromden, as the son of an Indian chief, is a combination of pure, natural individuality and a spirit almost completely subverted by mechanized society. Early on, he had free will, and he can remember and describe going hunting in the woods with his relatives and the way they spear salmon. The government, however, eventually succeeds in paying off the tribe so their fishing area can be converted into a profitable hydroelectric dam. The tribe members are banished into the technological workforce, where they become “hypnotized by routine,” like the “half-life things” that Bromden witnesses coming out of the train while he is on fishing excursions. In the novel’s present time, Bromden himself ends up semi-catatonic and paranoid, a mechanical drone who is still able to think and conjecture to some extent on his own.
McMurphy represents unbridled individuality and free expression—both intellectual and sexual. One idea presented in this novel is that a man’s virility is equated with a state of nature, and the state of civilized society requires that he be desexualized. But McMurphy battles against letting the oppressive society make him into a machinelike drone, and he manages to maintain his individuality until his ultimate objective—bringing this individuality to the others—is complete. However, when his wildness is provoked one too many times by Nurse Ratched, he ends up being destroyed by modern society’s machines of oppression.