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Themes in One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest

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                “One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest” was a story originally published in 1962 by Ken Kesey.  The story was based on his unique experiences working with wounded soldiers in California.  Many of story’s characters were the coupling of real life people he met at the Veterans Hospital and LSD inspired hallucinations.  After the initial read, it is clear that Kesey is not just disappointed at the treatment of Veterans and surprised by irony which pervades the treatment of mental imbalanced patients and this becomes one of the many themes found within the text.  In reality, mental institutions systematically destroy what they are claim there are trying to preserve – the human spirit.  However, there are several themes which are subtle but present themselves after a close reading of the story.   These themes include the importance of sexuality and the male emotional castration by women.

                The destruction of individuality can be seen through Kesey use of imagery.  He articulately details the “machines” which are used to crush the human spirit.  By eliminating an individual’s will, the individual can be easily controlled and manipulated.  The vivid image of the electric shock table is ever present.  In addition, Bromden believes his hallucinated fog is created by a machine within the hospital.  Kesey uses the hospital environment to represent society in general.  The staff and Nurse Ratched are described as being built out of machine parts and appear ‘robotic’.  In a particularly intense scene, Bromden’s dream is recounted.  In which Blastic is sliced opened.  Metallic rust, not blood, flows from his wide wound.  Bromden’s life also shows ways in which humans have had their souls stolen and turned in cold machines.  The government mistreats Bromden’s tribe and replaces the forest with an electric dam.  The people of his tribe are forced to work at the dam and their lives are control exclusively by routines and rules.  Bromden spends a great deal of time in the story in a coma state.  He walks around without emotion and going through the motions of life.  It is McMurphy which actively works to preserve his soul and his humanness.  In the end he is destroyed by the machinery within the hospital and symbolizes the fate of all people within a civilized society where conformity is valued above all else.  Kesey, in chapter 29, explains what happens to patients in the hospital, “A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn’t care any more about anything but himself and his dying” (267).

                Sexuality is a strong theme within this story.  All patients and staff within the ward are described as having a faulted and, in some cases, deviant sexuality.  Kesey asserts through his characters that the repression of sexuality, especially in the case of men, leads to insanity.  Many of the patients exhibit deviant sexual needs and acts.  It is implied that the staff engages in sexual activity with the patients.  These sex acts are almost always acts of rape, domination, and are encouraged by people with authority.  This is clearly seen when Nurse Ratched leaves a jar of vaseline behind for Taber to use on the hospital’s patients.  It is McMurphy who expresses a healthy sexual attitude symbolized by his young girlfriends, his playing cards, and his flashy whale underwear.  He acts as a stark contrast to Nurse Ratched frigidness.  McMurphy’s transformation in the hospital demonstrates how the repression of sexual desires leads to deviant behavior.  Even McMurphy is not strong enough to stand against the iron machinery of the hospital and it’s drones.  He violently lashes out, rips open Nurse Ratched’s uniform which symbolizes his transformation from a healthy and sexually open male to a deviant mental patient.

                All women in this story are evil.  They are described as terrible, demeaning, dangerous, and aggressively violent.  The role of women in the story and society in general is summed up by Harding.  He states:

    Man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been conquerors. (200)

    The two main characters of the story, Bromden and McMurphy, believe that the patients within the metal institution are victims of castration.  The staff at the hospital is almost exclusively women.  Therefore, it is women that hold the power, specifically Nurse Ratched, and abuse the power.  Many of the male patients are mental imbalance because of a negative relationship they had with a female.  Bromden’s mother was a dominating woman who forced Bromden’s father to take her last name.  This emasculated Bromden’s father and Bromden suffered the consequences.  Bromden’s mother constantly put down both father and son until each was broken and offered not opposite to to her wishes, wants, and whims.  The same can be seen in Bibbit’s situation.  His mother is overbearing and treats him like a child even though he is an adult.  Bibbit regains his manhood briefly by having sex with the stripper.  However, he is again emotionally castrated by Nurse Ratched who is going to tell his mother about the sex.  Bibbit can not handle the pain and kills himself.  Another example of castration is  when Rawler literally cuts off his testicles and bleeds to death.  The patients are quick to remark that “all he had to do was wait”.  This implied that the institution regularly emasculated and castrated men.  Kesey makes a clear connection between lobotomy and castration.  McMurphy points out that both take away manhood by depleting the want and ability to have sex.

                “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Kesely is a story rich in themes that include the act of male emasculation within society by women, the removal of the human soul, and need for the expression of sexuality for a healthy life.  This story is vividly written and contains equally parts tragedy and comedy.  McMurphy’s fate is devastating but it was not surprising.  McMurphy explains in chapter 4, “”Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart” (40).  Kesey aggressively produces a text which has multiple layers.  He fleshes out characters which are real and absurd in the same breathe which makes the story entertaining while still maintaining a good grasp on the hard hitting themes.  Kesey and his words do justice to the human experience and the themes are explored with depth, and sympathy.

    Works Cited

    Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Viking, 1962.

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