One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest

1 January 2017

But McMurphy’s revolution against Big Nurse and everything she stands for quickly turns from sport to a fierce power struggle with shattering results. With One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey created a work without precedent in American literature, a novel at once comic and tragic that probes the nature of madness and sanity, authority and vitality. Greeted by unanimous acclaim when it was first published, the book has become and enduring favourite of readers. Throughout the Novel it becomes apparent that the ward is actually a microcosm for 950s society. Through this Kesey displays a variety of his opinions through themes.

These themes allow Kesey to show the reader the inadequacies and misdirection of the then societies ideologies and how our filtered society has made every citizen a slave to authority. The themes displayed by Kesey include Sexual freedom versus sexual repression, independence versus acquiescence and finally selfishness versus selflessness. One theme presented in one flew over the Cuckoos nest is that of Sexual Repression vs. Sexual Freedom. One of the prevailing motifs of Kesey’s novel involves the metaphorical contrast between clamped-down sexual mores and freewheeling, instinctive, “natural” sexual freedom.

The conflict is represented by the war between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The “Big Nurse” represents a frigid, controlled sexuality, an attempt to button up natural instincts and resist impulse through conscious order. She cannot, however, disguise her huge breasts, which show through her uniform no matter how much she covers up. McMurphy, the symbol of total sexual abandon juxtaposes her. An example of sexual freedom versus sexual repression is seen through the presentation of the two types of females throughout the novel. Females are presented in two groups, either as prostitutes or nurses.

The prostitutes who are sexually open are presented as the trustworthy and admirable females, whilst the nurses, who subdue their sexuality represented as the villainous tyrants. At the end of the novel, McMurphy frees nearly all the main characters sexually–bringing a prostitute for fellow inmates, encouraging the men to rediscover the emasculated souls they’ve surrendered to Nurse Ratched–he must pay for his free sexuality by losing a part of his brain. Kesey suggests that fully unfettered sexuality is too dangerous for modern society to tolerate.

Another theme presented in One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is Independence vs. Acquiescence. Throughout the novel, we consistently root for the inmates to find freedom, either through a mass escape or by overthrowing the regime and winning a new order in the institution. This is all subverted, however, when McMurphy discovers that he and Scanlon are the only two involuntarily committed inmates. The rest of the inmates are there by choice. They would rather be quiescent followers, surrendering themselves to institutional oppression, than independent in a society where they do not quite fit and may not be able to function.

McMurphy sees emasculation as the prime reason for the choice to stay. The Nurse has found a way to mentally castrate each and every one of the inmates–including Rawlins, who commits suicide by physical emasculation. McMurphy may perceive that the best way to free the other men is to expose Nurse Ratched as flesh and blood rather than an inevitable oppressor–someone with her own flaws and pains. McMurphy attempts to work within the Nurse’s system, trying to out manipulate and outfox her with his various schemes. But ultimately, the only way to change the acquiescence of his fellow inmates is to lead by example.

He feels presure to acquiesce and avoid pain, but he choose to follow his independent spirit, which explodes in brute force when he rips the Nurse’s clothes open. This act prevents the rest of the inmates from ever seeing her as merely the robotic hand of authority. She has a body now, and they can no longer follow her blindly, understanding that she is just as mortal as they are. A third theme presented in one flew over the Cuckoos nest is Selfishness versus selflessness. McMurphy’s character is worth considering in comparing the drives for selflessness and selfishness.

When McMurphy enters the hospital, he has the goal of causing chaos in order to disrupt Nurse Ratched’s carefully designed schemes, which quash the inmates’ spirits. At first it seems that he does so primarily for amusement, or in order to establish himself as Top Dog and ensure that he has the power in the ward. He also consistently fleeces the other inmates in gambling games. Over time, however, we suspect that money, power, and amusement are not—or are no longer—his primary motivation for taking on Ratched. He develops a sincere desire to resuscitate these fallen, empty, drained souls.

In one of the most significant moments of the novel, when he is frustrated that the men are not trying to get out, he throws all their money back at them, in a demonstration that he cares more about them than self-interest alone would dictate. Once McMurphy realizes that he might never get out, being involuntarily committed subject to Ratched’s will, he for a while follows his self-interest. But this is temporary, for he ultimately sacrifices himself in order to allow the inmates to see their chance for escape from the ward in both body and soul.

In conclusion, the novel One flew over the cuckoos nest by Ken Kesey displays a variety of themes. Often most shown in the ward – a microcosm for society – are Kesey’s analysis and personal opinion of the 1950s community misdirection of it’s priorities and his struggle to conform to their ideologies. These include sexual repression versus sexual freedom, independence versus acquiescence, and finally selfishness versus selflessness. All these themes display Kesey’s personal beliefs but also how our perception of right and wrong may not always be accurate.

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