One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Themes

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson introduces and analyzes important themes in Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' The narrative is about a group of patients in a mental asylum, who revolt against the staff.

Overview of the Novel

Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is set in a mental asylum, where male patients rebel against an oppressive hospital staff. The story was later made into a movie, starring Jack Nicholson. The novel emphasizes the importance of individuality, and the dignity of personhood, among other themes.

The Stigma of Disability

The novel explores the stigma of mental disability. Most of the main characters are patients in a sanitarium. But rather than focus on the characters' symptoms, the narrative emphasizes their complexity as human beings. The novel invests in each character by showing his emotional side, as well as his unique gifts and talents.

Despite this, some critics challenge the novel for its association of disability and emasculation. The main protagonist, McMurphy, is championed as a liberator of the disabled, even though he has been committed to the asylum for rape.

The Blur Between Disability and Ability

The novel blurs the distinction between disability and ability by presenting many patients who, despite having been declared insane, are remarkably gifted and talented. Their actions are characterized as 'insane' by hospital staff, but their motivations for acting out are often very rational. Furthermore, the novel shows how the institutional staff--the 'sane' people--often behave irrationally. For instance, Nurse Ratched goes ballistic when the patients protest to watch the World Series. Her over-reaction can be compared to the crazed behaviors of the patients.

The Threat of Women

Generally, the female characters in the novel are portrayed as threatening. The narrator, Bromden, describes the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, as a terrifying figure, who emasculates her patients. He and McMurphy both try to plot against the matriarchal power, which they blame for their suffering. Furthermore, a number of the male patients have been psychologically damaged by assertive women. The narrator's mother, for instance, abused him and his father. Billy Babbit's mother inhibited her son from developing sexually. One patient, Rawler, kills himself by cutting off his own testicles. The narrator reflects, 'all the guy had to do was wait,' which suggests that he would eventually be stripped of his manhood by the females in charge.

The Assertion of Masculinity

Many male characters try to overcome the threat of women by asserting their masculinity. For instance, Billy regains his confidence as a man by having sex with Candy. He dominates her, and this allows him to feel in control in a way that his mother never authorized. McMurphy also acts out against women in order to assert his independence. He mistreats the female staff, and the narrator praises him for this.

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