Rold of Women in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Till about half a century ago, society perceived a man's role at work and a woman’s role as homemaker. Men were expected to exercise authority and power and women, on the other hand, were to be subservient and docile. These stereotypes extended beyond the family into public life and manifested in areas such as politics, education and occupations. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey reverses these archetypal gender roles to demonstrate the disorganized and sometimes tragically comic world of a mental hospital. In the novel, Kesey portrays women as powerful oppressors who manipulate the patients on the ward, as shown by the characters of Nurse Ratched, the mothers of Billy and Chief and of Vera Harding. Nurse Ratched takes advantage of her position to gain power; maintains her power by emasculating and dehumanizing the patients; and, succeeds in suppressing their laughter. When McMurphy enters the hospital, he is struck by the fact that nobody is laughing. He says, “I haven't heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing…” (65). Nurse Ratched also takes advantage of the patients’ vulnerability and instability. She is unethical in deploying all means to make them conform and do things the way she wants. After the first group therapy session, McMurphy calls her a “ball-cutter.”(57) She has power over both her subordinates and her superiors, like Dr Spivey. Mr. Harding calls him “a frightened, desperate, ineffectual little rabbit, totally incapable of running this ward without our Miss Ratched’s help and he knows it. And, worse, she knows he knows it and reminds him every chance she gets.” (60) Nurse Ratched destroys and weakens her patients through a careful, manipulative program aimed at destroying their self-esteem and crushing their hopes. She also uses outside influences to help her control her patients: As seen in her friendship with Billy Bibbit’s mother with whom she plots to...
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