One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Nurse Ratched

The character of Nurse Ratched is extremely symbolic, and as such, she is a flat character who does not experience an internal transformation throughout the novel. Cold, robotic, vindictive and sadistic from the beginning, so she remains at the end. She embodies “the Combine”—the oppressive, institutional force of a society that enforces order and control by dehumanizing its members and stripping them of their individuality. One of the primary ways in which she achieves this objective is by emasculating her patients and suppressing their sexuality (a primary component of one’s humanity). She forces them to view their masculinity and their sexuality as shameful, ultimately driving Billy Bibbit to suicide with this tactic. She projects the blame for Billy’s suicide onto McMurphy in a powerful reversal of truth that highlights one of the novel’s central questions: Who is really the insane one here?

Ratched is ashamed of her own sexuality, as symbolized by her attempts to downplay her large breasts. This character detail can be seen as an expression of Kesey’s view that a sexually repressed society is a dangerous one, and that self-loathing and shame are often disastrously projected onto others. McMurphy’s open embrace of sexuality, and his belief that Billy’s path toward wellness necessarily involves sexual liberation, stand in stark contrast to the repression that Ratched embodies. The climax of this war between them is expressed in his ripping open her uniform at the end of the novel, exposing her breasts. He shames her as she has been shaming all of the men on the ward, thus stripping her of her power over them. In contrast, McMurphy is himself so full of personal power that the only way she can take him down is to have him lobotomized. No other manipulation will work and, like the oppressive society she represents, Ratched is so terrified of the liberated individual that she will stop at nothing to destroy him.

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