In the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey criticizes the expectations to conform to society during the time of the Cold War through the rebellion of many of his characters. In the early 1950's, America entered into a Cold War with the Soviet Union. The situation in the United States was very hostile and many citizens did not approve of military and political decisions made by our nation leaders. One of these citizens was Jack Kerouac. Kerouac became the leader of the Beat Movement. Kerouac led many young Americans to rebel against conformity in the 1950's (Halberstam). Randal P. McMurphy is the main character in Kesey's novel and his actions parallel those of Kerouac's. Both men lead rebellions against conformity. McMurphy enters a mental institution and is instantly intrigued by the patients' willingness to adhere to all the harsh rules set by Nurse Ratched. Through both men's stories come ups and downs and inevitably, victory and defeat.
Throughout the 1950's, people who acted or appeared to be outside the mainstream were viewed with great suspicion. The United States was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. This meant that while no open warfare was declared, "relations were tense and hostile" (Telgen 227). The men and women viewed with suspicion were often accused of being communists. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the nation in uncovering these communists and persecuting them for their supposed beliefs. While McCarthy's accusations were vague and inaccurate, he developed quite a support group. McCarthy made a speech at a Lincoln day celebration in West Virginia and claimed that 205 members of the State Department were communist. It was later proven that no more than 4 members were actually associated with communism. McCarthy proved to be a failure and lost his political stature (Halberstam).
In many ways life in the mental institution depicted throughout Kesey's novel parallels that of society in the 1950's. Chief Bromden, the narrator, tells the readers about the "Combine" which controls the institution. The Combine
acts as "a central agency for that society's suppression of individuality" (Leeds 14). The Combine is made up of everyone working in the institution to keep the patients in order using any means necessary. Bromden says, "the ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches" (Kesey 40). The Combine "extends its influence by dehumanizing men and making them machines" (Leeds 20). The highest-ranking official in the Combine is the Big Nurse, Nurse Ratched.
Nurse Ratched is the head nurse on the ward. She is the most hated and yet most respected official in the institution. All inmates fear her because she has the power to make their lives a living hell by doing something as simple as taking away their television privileges or something as serious as having them lobotomized. Nurse Ratched shows a constant need for control and is never willing to give up her power. She "tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision made machine" (Kesey 30). Nurse Ratched's many years of working on the ward have taught her how to completely control her patients' lives and to eliminate all threats that get in her way. Bromden says, "I've watched her get more and more skillful over the years. Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions" (Kesey 30). In the beginning of the novel, it seems as though nothing can stop Nurse Ratched from controlling all aspects of the patients' lives.
In late 1955, a movement of young, rebellious college students began to sweep the nation. The Beat movement, as would come to be called, began with a small group of students at Columbia University. "Their protest would have significant political implications, but its content was essentially social and cultural"...
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