Text & Context
McCarthyism and the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, the characters of Nurse Ratched and Bromden Chief both serve as social commentary of the government of the 1950s. Nurse Ratched represents the control and dominance of the government in the 50s, and Bromden Chief represents the oppression of non-white people by the government and McCarthyism. McCarthyism was a tool that was used by the government at that time in order to scare and manipulate citizens. Similarly, Nurse Ratched symbolizes McCarthyism because she instills fear and exerts control over the patients in the mental ward. Nurse Ratched’s character represents the famous senator, Joseph McCarthy. Specifically, Nurse Ratched’s practice of rewarding patients who spy on one another is just like the practice of McCarthyism. McCarthyism was the practice of arbitrarily accusing a person with any ties to the Soviet Union of being a communist. In the U.S., communists and some other popular liberals were marginalized in the 1950s. The government suspected that there were spies in the U.S. who sold the secret to the Soviet, resulting in the Red Scare. Moreover, people began to think that others around them might be Soviet spies, and there could be no trust among one another. Since the Soviet Union was communist party, the U.S. government suspected that people who supported communist belief or talked about communism would be considered spy, and they would be ostracized or even persecuted. This persecution was fueled primarily by Senator McCarthy and the practice of McCarthyism. McCarthyism rewarded those who were “loyal” to America, and those who spied on potential communist. In the same way, Nurse Ratched’s rewarding of patients who spy on another parallels this aspect of McCarthyism. In the story, Nurse Ratched is a coercive and manipulative character. She controls the people in the ward including the patients, her assistant’s nurse, assistant doctor, and the three black orderlies. She manipulates the people with subtle manner without them realizing that she is manipulating them. Chief Bromden, who is also a patient in the psychiatric hospital, is the narrator of the story. Through out the text, Chief refers to Nurse Ratched as “The Combine.” What he means is that Nurse Ratched is the oppressive force of society and authority. He says that Nurse Ratched awards the patients that “spy on each other” by writing anything on the logbook that Nurse Ratched will want to know about. In return, this patient can sleep late the next morning. This shows that she manipulates the patients in a way that give her control (Cuckoo’s Nest P.23). Another example of Nurse Ratched’s behavior is demonstrated when she mentions, “Good evening, boys. Behave yourselves” (Cuckoo’s Nest P.78) every time she leaves the mental ward. This illustrates that she treats the patients like children, which in a sense shows that she has control over them. Later in the story, when the doctors discuss about whether they should send McMurphy back to the work farm, Nurse Ratched becomes the decision maker of the whole meeting. She suggests that they should keep him in the ward for a while because she is “certain his brashness will subside, his self-made rebellion will dwindle to nothing, and (Cuckoo’s nest P.149)”. It seems that her suggestion is simply a demand, and that the doctors have to forcefully obey her even though they do not agree with her suggestion. What is important to understand about this concept is the fact that Nurse Ratched’s decisions override the decisions of her superiors. Nurse Ratched’s control over the doctors in many ways parallels Senator McCarthy’s control over higher government officials, despite the fact that he was a subordinate. He defeated his opponent, Maryland’s three-term conservative Senator Millard Tydings. After his victory, “the Republican Party took...
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