Subjugation of Freedom in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1 January 2017

The Subjugation of Freedom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey’s book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is a multi-faceted work incorporating many thematic elements. One of the most easily addressable themes is that of freedom and its limitations placed upon the characters in the novel. Many types of freedoms are addressed ranging from the tangible and real to the perceived and implied. The setting primarily takes place in a mental hospital on a locked ward which limits the characters’ physical freedoms. The characters are constantly coerced and demeaned by the antagonist Ms.

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Ratched which limits their mental freedoms. Beneath all is a subtext of sexual repression which is constantly fought against by McMurphy. Individually, each of these subjugations might be tolerated given exclusions to the others, but together they weigh down the men to the point where their complete lack of freedom almost becomes a comfort. Mental hospitals are typically secure facilities intended to provide a place for patients, whose symptoms range from minor to severe, to be secured and not be a danger to the rest of society while treatment is applied.

The manner in which the patients are described in the story indicates that they are not severe mental cases but are those who are unable to function in society at large due to idiosyncrasies and minor hang-ups, yet they are housed in a ward where they are kept under lock and key, their movement is restricted to one day-room, and their activities are on a strictly regulated time-table. Most of the men have given up their physical freedom voluntarily with the expectation of treatment, mental healing and the eventual release back into society.

McMurphy, on the other hand, was committed by the state and his sentence depends on the opinion of the Big Nurse, though he doesn’t realize this right away. Nurse Ratched does not resort to physical touch herself and instead uses the three ward aides to perform her physical brutality for her. McMurphy’s eventual goal is to get the other men out of the ward as much as possible because they have become too accustom to it. To do so all at once would likely be too great a shock so McMurphy starts inside the hospital with simply moving the group to another day room.

Gradually, they are able to spend more time out of the ward with activities like basketball and the pool. The culmination of their unconventional therapy is the fishing trip where the men re-learn what real life outside the hospital can be like. Nurse Ratched doesn’t resort to physicality with the patients. She much prefers mental control and the main focus for her efforts of control. She has become a master of subtlety and misdirection. Before McMurphy arrives she has the men eager and willing to tattle on each other for tiny rewards.

This information is then used in group therapy sessions where the idea is that the men can rely on each other for strength and the group will help lift them up, grow stronger and heal. What actually happens is each man takes it in turn to be attacked by the others for their faults. This is all orchestrated masterfully by Nurse Ratched who has but to ask a few simple pointed questions to get the fire burning. When she isn’t using the men’s own minds against them she drugs them to keep their thoughts slow, to keep them unmotivated and to keep them calm.

Also in her arsenal is the threat of maximum mental punishment through shock therapy and lobotomy. Her technique is so perfectly insidious that the men work their hardest to please her to the detriment of each other and ultimately their own selves. She is able to perpetually keep the men in a state where they believe they need her and the hospitals help. Sex is used in the novel as a representation of total freedom. Its exercise is almost always portrayed by McMurphy who, through his general demeanor and newness to the hospital, is the most free, sexually, of any of the men.

He is so free, that it has gotten him into trouble as he only seems to be able to act on impulse. Society is not able to deal with his complete abandon and he is eventually punished for it by having a piece of his brain removed. The rest of the men are all repressed mostly due to some problem they’ve had with the women in their lives. In fact, it is their inability to deal with women that brought them to the hospital in the first place. Women are portrayed throughout the book as the root of all men’s problems. Nurse Ratched is the penultimate figure of sexual repression.

She does not acknowledge her femininity but hides it successfully, but for her bosom, beneath her sterile, pressed uniform. She is cold toward the men offering no real compassion and serves only to aggravate the men’s issues with women in general. Her power is finally stripped from her, quite literally, when McMurphy rips open her uniform revealing her breasts, the symbol of femininity; she is a woman after all. Limiting or removing freedom boils down to control. Those who restrict freedoms wish to exercise control upon those whose freedoms have been infringed.

In the story, the restriction of all freedoms is personified and executed by the “Big Nurse,” Ms. Ratched. She symbolizes all forms of repression and is the face of the societal machine, whose purpose is to remove individuality and replace self-restraint with group shame. The implication Kesey suggests is that when a person isn’t free to move, free to think, or free to love then they cannot be a valuable, functioning member of society. Works Cited Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Novel. New York: Viking, 1962. Print.

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