Mother Knows Best: Examining Control, Oppression and Matriarchy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, during an era of change and certain disillusionment in the United States. It is a classic work of the countercultural movement and was inspired and influenced by some of Kesey’s own experiences. Kesey studied at Stanford University on a scholarship for creative writing. While in school, he volunteered for a government research program at a local Veteran’s Administration Hospital where he was given LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and AMT. During this time, Kesey also worked as a psychiatric attendant at the hospital, which provided inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his first published novel. Though it is a work of fiction, it has been noted that the novel is based largely upon Kesey’s experiences interacting with and interviewing the patients at the hospital where he worked.
Thematically the novel covers a broad spectrum, though perhaps most pervasive theme in the story is the oppressive nature of authority and the way in which total control deprives people of their individuality. In this way One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been regarded as a protest against the totalitarian regimes that were feared by Americans of the age. Also prevalent within the novel is a strong dichotomy between themes of matriarchy and of sexuality. Not only is there oppression in the novel, it is implemented by women, whom the men then sexualize in an attempt to reject the authority of the women. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that these themes are expertly intertwined throughout the progression of the events and their telling in the story. The story takes place in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, which is overseen by the harsh head nurse, Nurse Ratched. The novel is narrated by “Chief” Bromden, a long time resident of the facility. The story unfolds from his perspective, leading the reader deep inside medicated states to question the notions of reality and the requirements to define sanity. When a new patient arrives, Chief and the other patents are stirred by his boisterous nature that ultimately changes the atmosphere at the ward and exposes the extreme oppression implemented by the Head Nurse. One overarching oppressive force in the novel is what the narrator, Chief Bromden, names “The Combine.” It pervades the entire novel and is one of the manifestations of strict authority and its oppressive nature. Chief seems to be very aware of its presence, and mentions the Combine a multitude of times throughout his narration. He believes the goal of the hospital is to ‘fix’ patients so that they are acceptable and functioning members of a mechanical society run by the Combine. He explains early in the novel that the “Combine is a huge organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as [Nurse Ratched] has the Inside,” (Kesey 25). He views it as a multitude of things: it is oppression, it is perfection, it is society as a whole that acts as a crushing force against what it perceives to be different. Chief believes the Combine exists within the hospital and well as in the real world. He feels it in the very structure of the facility, heard through the walls and seen in streaming fog that surrounds him. Chief explains that in the fog, he “can’t see six inches in front of [him] through the fog and the only thing [he] can hear over the wail is the Big Nurse whoop and charge up the hall while she crashes patients outta her way with that wicker bag,” (Kesey 7). It becomes clear that though the Combine is an overall oppressive force in the world, it exists in its microcosmic form in the hospital with Nurse Ratched is its representative spearhead. For the Chief, the Combine is constantly at work, with Nurse Ratched as a driving force of its power, to control and fix him and the other patients. He describes the way she seems, stating that, “she blows up...
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