It is suggested that Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest contains examples of behaviour and attitudes displayed by characters within the clinical environment of the psychiatric ward which can be compared to behaviour found within contemporary American society. These include examples of leadership and hierarchy within a class or caste system, sexism and crime and punishment.
In the text, the theme of leadership is very prominent and important to the story. Arguably it is more important theme of the book, than the issue of mental illness, which forms the setting and the core of the novel.
The leader figure in the ward is Big Nurse, who has complete control over the ward. Any decisions that are made over a patient or with regards the running of the ward must go through Big Nurse first. She is seen by the Chief as being almost mechanical in her approach to her running of the ward: She’s got that bag full of a thousand parts she aims to use in her duties today-wheels and gears, cogs polished to a hard glitter…(10)
The ward is run by her to a very strict daily routine, which is almost fanatically neurotic in it’s precision and dedication. Chief describes Big Nurse’s devotion to her daily routine: ‘The slightest thing messy or out of kilter in any way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury’ (27)
When McMurphy enters the ward, the delicate equilibrium which the nurse has created is upset. This is because, like the nurse, McMurphy is a natural leader-figure. He takes over the control of the ward by manipulating the patients; seemingly for their own good, but it may be argued that he gets a feeling a control from being a leader over a large group of people. This may be a feeling of control and power which has previously been absent in his life for some reason.
We are told, early in the book, of McMurphy’s admission to the ward doctor about his conviction for raping a fifteen year old girl, and his unwillingness to acknowledge that he had committed a crime: ‘Said she was seventeen, Doc, and she was plenty willin’… so willin’, in fact, I took to sowing my pants up’ (40)
This could also be argued for Big Nurse; What is her motive for her total dedication to the job? It is possible that she also relishes the feeling of control over the patients in her care which her job allows. She knows that she has absolute power over every patient in her ‘care’; The power to change any of her patient’s lives immediately wherever she might see fit.
Such behaviour can also be seen in contemporary society in an environment such as a school; The school is a good example because it has a central leader in the position of the head teacher. The head teacher has full responsibility over every person within the school, and also sets the rules and regulations which everyone in that particular school must obey. If a member of the school breaks any of the rules, the head teacher will decide an appropriate punishment. While the head teacher is answerable to the Governing Board of the school, they still have the most ‘power’ and authority over the school.
It can also be shown within a large corporation with the position of a Managing Director. All other staff in the company are directly answerable to him. The Managing Director has the power to hire new staff, and also to make staff redundant. But, again, he is answerable to the owner of the company and perhaps the shareholders; so he can never have total power in his position
This can be contrasted with Big Nurse; She is, in theory, answerable to the Management Board of the hospital, and even to the doctors who work on the ward. But she appears to have the most...