One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest Analysis

In Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a psychiatric ward becomes a metaphor for the oppressive nature of American society.

In Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a psychiatric ward becomes a metaphor for the oppressive nature of American society. This symbolic novel relays the story of an inmate standing up against the powerful forces that operate a mental institution, but it represents much more than just a classic case of "man versus the establishment". The questions raised by Kesey are almost as chilling as his descriptive tales of inmate abuse. Kesey compels us to think about just how thin the line is that separates insanity from sanity, and treatment from control. Representing a heroic struggle of personality against an institution of mindless conformity, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is one powerful piece of literature.

Kesey's disturbing insights also make us wonder whether certain types of mental disorders are not actually based on some sort of illness or disease, but on outside factors such as upbringing and social pressures. The manner in which the inmates are treated is reprehensible, yet it mirrors the way in which many less fortunate members of society are treated.

While we can view "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest", from a literal perspective, as a classic story of rebellion and deliverance, we must also view it as a metaphor for one man's triumph over of "the establishment." The old saying, "You can't fight city hall" is challenged, which is represented by the patients rebelling against the hospital staff.

The characters themselves can be viewed as metaphors of society as well. R.P. McMurphy, for example represents the rebellious faction of society that was so loudly expressing itself during the sixties and seventies. He, like the hippies, challenges authority and brings about change by inciting others to rebel as well. He is both dynamic and crude, both funny and pitiable, as he rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Big Nurse. He encourages gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women and openly defies authority whenever possible. In the end, Nurse Ratched teaches him the ultimate lesson on authority, which could be seen as a warning against rebellion. His lobotomy is "the establishment's" way of quieting the unruly protests of those brave enough to speak their minds. The character of Billy is also meant to show us that disobedience can have disastrous consequences, when the evil Nurse Ratched drives him to suicide.

Speaking of Nurse Ratched, it is interesting to note how much her name resembles the words "wretched" and "hatchet", both of which have very negative connotations. Nurse Ratched represents the establishment, and is described by Kesey as "enormous, capable of swelling up bigger and bigger to monstrous proportions. She is the ward superintendent, the ultimate authority demanding obedience and perfect order from everyone". This is the author's way of conveying that she is powerful like the establishment, and like the government, she makes and enforces the rules.

The Chief, who acts as the narrator, is a tall and strong Native American who pretends to be mute and deaf in order to protect himself from pain. His character is representative of the way society was very silent in the fifties until people finally couldn't take it anymore and let their feelings be known with a vengeance. McMurphy rescues the Chief from his silence, and he returns the favor by rescuing McMurphy from life as a vegetable.

The most educated man on the ward, Dale Harding is president of the Patients' Council when McMurphy is admitted to the hospital. Harding is symbolic of the ideal politician, in that he provides the kind of rational explanations and direct honesty that citizens rebelling against society are seeking. It is Harding who tells McMurphy how Nurse Ratched is capable of maintaining her power, how electroshock therapy works, and what a lobotomy really does to people. It is Harding who gives the new patients, as well as the reader, the insight to comprehend the dangerous effects of Nurse Ratched's matriarchal control. It is just this sort of candor that society was clamoring for during this undeniably volatile era.

On an even broader scale, the metaphor could be expanded to encompass the battle of good vs. evil. The patients evoke warm, human emotions while the hospital workers are portrayed as cruel and cold hearted. Therefore the battle between these two groups is representative of not only the good and evil that exists between human beings, but within them.

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