A Individual vs. Society
The main action of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest consists of McMurphy’s struggles against the strict rules of Big Nurse Ratched. Her ward at the hospital is a society in itself, for it has its own laws and punishments, both for the inmates and for the orderlies and nurses who watch over them. McMurphy challenges the rules from the time he arrives, from upsetting the supposedly “democratic” procedure of group therapy to brushing his teeth before the appointed time. By having McMurphy question and ridicule Nurse Ratched’s ludicrous, controlling rules, Kesey portrays the individual’s struggle against a conformist society as a noble, meaningful task. McMurphy’s fight within the small world of the hospital can also be extended to the outside world, which, during the time Kesey was writing the novel, emphasized conformity as a means of upholding law and order. Through the portrayal of one individual’s meaningful fight against a small society, Kesey brought into question the standards of his own society at large.
B Sanity and Insanity
One of society’s standards provides the most pervasive theme in the book: What is sane-and what is insane? Is sanity conformance with society and its norms? Or is sanity a sense of self as separate from society? These are questions that psychiatrists have wrestled with for over a century. Is it their job to reprogram a person to fit better into what may be an unsatisfactory life or a flawed society? Or is it their responsibility to guide a person toward self-realization, no matter how that differs from the norm of the patient’s environment?
In portraying McMurphy’s struggles on the Acute/Chronic Ward, Kesey questions his society’s definitions of sanity, which seem to ask all people to conform to the same standards of behavior. When McMurphy discovers that many of the Acutes are at the hospital voluntarily, he wants to know why: “You, you’re not exactly the everyday man on the street, but you’re not nuts.” Billy Bibbit replies that they don’t have the “guts” to get along in outside society, but ironically, Nurse Ratched’s methods are designed to undermine the men’s confidence, not encourage it. In this way, Kesey portrays his society’s definition of “madness” as something used by an authoritarian culture to dehumanize the individual and replace it with an automaton that dwells in a safe, blind conformity. His hero, McMurphy, is the person who sees through this sham. By showing his fellow patients how to create their own standards of sanity, McMurphy leads a bunch of institutionalized robots back towards their humanity. In the process, he suffers greatly and in fact lays down his life.
McMurphy’s struggle against Nurse Ratched, although eventually lost, is shown to be a sacrifice which liberates his fellow inmates. As Scanlon encourages Chief Bromden to escape at the end of the novel, he says that McMurphy “showed you how one time, if you think back.” Reinforcing this theme of sacrifice are the recurring images of crucifixion that appear throughout the book. Consider the pathetic character of the mind-destroyed Chronic Ellis, “nailed” in Chief’s eyes to the wall behind which sinister wires and machinery hum. Or the cross-shaped table on which the victims of electroshock therapy lie. The image of the cross is repeated in Chief’s description of the position in which Sefelt lies after he suffers an epileptic episode: “His hands are nailed out to each side with the palms up and the fingers jerking open and shut, just the way I’ve watched men jerk at the Shock Shop strapped to the crossed table, smoke curling up out of the palms from the current.”