In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, there are many different themes. The novel tells of one man’s journey back to sanity, another’s refusal to conform to the normal, and the authoritarianism used to try and keep people in line. The three main characters Chief Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched develop within these three themes, respectively. The character of Chief Bromden is a very interesting one. He serves as the narrator of the novel, which is written as a flashback; The events that we see transpire have already occured. Bromden says he’s only “finally telling about all this, about the hospital, and her, and the guys- and about McMurphy” (Kesey 8), but he is also telling his own story about his journey back to sanity. At the beginning of the novel, we read about Bromden being bullied at the hospital.
The workers there refer to him as “Chief Broom” because they make him clean the halls. Everyone, including the hospital workers, believes that Bromden is deaf and mute, so the workers talk openly amongst themselves about “hospital secrets.” He refers to the workers as machines “Hum of black machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets”(Kesey 3). He is paranoid and constantly surrounded by fog, a hallucination of Bromden’s “When the fog clears to where I can see, I’m sitting in the day room” (Kesey 9).
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The fog serves as a metaphor for two things; his heavily medicated state, and his desire to hide from the world, from what he perceives as a cruel reality. We see very early on that Bromden is not quite there mentally. He screams while he is being shaved “It’s a..
.button, pushed, says Air Raid Air Raid, turns me on so loud it’s like no sound” (Kesey 7). Bromden has immense physical strength, but he believes that he is very weak, therefore he is. He is very tall, 6’7″ or 6’8″, the novel is not consistent, but he has been bullied and belittled for such a long period of time that he says he “used to be big, but not no more.” As the novel progresses, the fog surrounding Chief Bromden begins to clear up.
It is revealed that Bromden is not actually deaf and mute; he put on the facade of being deaf and mute because it was what others around him thought “But I remembered one thing: it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all” (Kesey 210). Bromden remembers the exact moment he started being ignored; it happened when he was ten years old and living on a Native American reservation. Workers from the government had shown up to talk to Chief Bromden’s father about buying tribal land from him. The government agents ridiculed the Native Americans’ way of life “Can you imagine people wanting to live this way? Tell me, John, can you?” (Kesey 211). Bromden is angered by the government agents’ demeanor “What he said makes me madder the more I think about it. He and John go ahead talking about our house and village and property and what they are worth, and I get the notion they’re talking about these things around me because they don’t know I speak English….
I think how ashamed they’re going to be when they find out I know what they are saying” (Kesey 212). Bromden tries to talk to the agents, but they just completely ignore him “The other two, John and the woman, are just standing. Not a one of the three acts like they heard a thing I said; in fact they’re all looking off from me like they’d as soon I wasn’t there at all” (Kesey 213). This development of Bromden’s sanity helps him at the end of the novel, when he kills a lobotomized McMurphy out of mercy “I lifted the pillow, and in the moonlight I saw the expression hadn’t changed from the blank, dead-end look the least bit, even under suffocation” (Kesey 323). As a child, Bromden may not have realized that racial discrimination against Native Americans was rampant. Native Americans were moved to reservations, which made up four percent of United States territory, and were not treated equally with Caucasian people under the law; they were generally treated as wards of the state (Churchill). Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were forced to attend schools whose purpose was to teach them how to assimilate into white American culture and economy. In fact, Adolf Hitler praised the U.
S. for the way they treated Native Americans. He appreciated the fact that America “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now kept the modest remnant in a cage” (Whitman). Native Americans were dehumanized and viewed as subhuman compared to Caucasians, and some of that belief of superiority has bled into the present day. Randle Patrick McMurphy serves as the protagonist of the novel. His character serves as a foil to both Bromden and Ratched; He is loud, big, confident, dirty, and sexual, compared to the more reserved Chief Bromden and the mechanical Nurse Ratched. The patients at the hospital have grown accustomed to being quiet and repressed, so when McMurphy laughs loudly during his introduction, no one laughs along with him due to their surprise “He stands there waiting, and when nobody makes a move to say anything to him he commences to laugh. But it’s not the way that Public Relation laughs, it’s free and loud and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it’s lapping against the walls all over the ward” (Kesey 12).
We find that McMurphy is not actually insane; he is trying to manipulate the system to his advantage. He believes that spending time at the hospital would be preferable compared to Pendleton Work Farm, where he was in the process of serving a six month long sentence. McMurphy’s character is a symbol for rebellion. He likes to clash with the authority figures at the hospital. He makes a bet with the other patients that he can make Nurse Ratched lose her temper within one week “Any of you sharpies here willing to take my five bucks that says I can get the best of that woman-before the week’s up-without her getting the best of me? One week, and if I don’t have her to where she don’t know whether to shit or go blind, the bet is yours” (Kesey 73). McMurphy eventually does win this bet. He wants to watch the World Series on television, so he takes a vote to see who is in favor of having their daily schedule changed. He convinces Chief Bromden to raise his hand in favor, but Nurse Ratched had already declared that the voting was closed.
McMurphy decides to watch the game anyway, but Nurse Ratched shuts off the television. McMurphy and several other patients just sat there in front of the television and acted like nothing had happened. He broke Ratched’s schedule, and she rants at him, but he won the bet. McMurphy’s character also has many similarities to Jesus Christ. He sacrifices himself for the sake of his fellow ward-mates just like Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for his disciples; He takes the other patients on a fishing trip, like when Christ led his twelve disciples to the sea to test their faith. But McMurphy’s ultimate, final sacrifice was attacking Nurse Ratched. These events combined with an electric shock table shaped like a cross and McMurphy requesting a “crown of thorns” (Kesey 283) cement the Christ-like martyrdom that McMurphy has accomplished at the cost of his sanity and life. Nurse Ratched is the obvious antagonist of the novel.
She represents the dehumanization and oppression in modern society. The patients call her “Big Nurse,” which sounds very similar to “Big Brother,” the all-knowing entity in George Orwell’s “1984.” The line “Who controls the past controls the future” (Orwell) is a line that can summarize her power over the patients. Chief Bromden compares her to a machine, and her behavior fits that description almost perfectly. Even her name sounds like a mechanical tool. She has control over all aspects of the ward and its patients, and has almost complete control of her emotions. She had a few moments where she snapped at Bromden, McMurphy, and her aides but she maintains a complete calm composure for everyone else.
Ratched has the ability to maintain a false self, with a thin veil of compassion. She maintains her power not with physical abuse, but with emotional abuse. She knows every patient’s weak spot and what to say and how to say it. Towards the end of the novel, the patients, led by McMurphy throw a party in the ward, inviting prostitutes in and drinking lots of alcohol. Billy Bibbit was a very shy man who was known for having a stutter and being afraid of his mother, who was a friend of Nurse Ratched’s. The morning after the party, one of Ratched’s aides finds Billy in bed with a prostitute named Candy. He seems very proud of himself at first, and he stops stuttering for a short time, but Ratched quickly reduced him to a nervous, terrified, stuttering wreck “We watched Billy folding into the floor, head going back, knees coming forward.
He rubbed his hand up and down that green pant leg. He was shaking his head in panic like a kid that’s been promised a whipping” (Kesey 315). Ratched does have one weakness; She has very large breasts, which do not help her with her image of being an unshakable machine. When McMurphy is admitted into the ward, he manages to anger her at every turn.
He uses his open sexuality to throw her off her machine-like, methodical track. He also isn’t pulled in by her facade of compassion. At the end of the novel, McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched, ripping her shirt open and exposing her breasts. He also exposes her deceit and hypocrisy, and strips her of the one thing that helped her maintain her control over the ward: speech. When she comes back one week after the attack, she is unable to speak.
After the attack against her, she has no way to regain the power she had before the attack. This has been an in-depth analysis of the three main characters in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” While staying mainly to the content of the novel, other information is drawn in, such as the racism towards Native Americans and the similarities to a dystopian world in another literary classic.