One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Symbols and Themes


Society’s oppression of the individual/forced conformity

The novel’s core conflict revolves around the battle of wills between Nurse Ratched, the embodiment of social oppression and control, and Randle McMurphy, who represents fierce individualism and the spirit of rebellion. Ratched’s oppressive tactics systematically dehumanize the men in her care, rendering them docile, meek, and unable to control their own destinies. In this way, the ward is a microcosm of society at large, which in Kesey’s view seeks to crush the individual so that he or she will conform to its will. This is most vividly expressed in the extended metaphor of the Combine, which Chief perceives as the world at large.

McMurphy’s presence on the ward is a constant, physical reminder of the power of the individual spirit and the necessity to fight against institutional forms of control in order to retain one’s humanity. Specifically, McMurphy encourages rebellion through intelligent humor, self-expression, and sexual liberation. These are the very qualities that Ratched most actively seeks to suppress in the patients by discouraging laughter, by having no sense of humor herself, by refusing to allow the men any time for self-reflection, and by shaming them sexually. The qualities of humor, self-expression and sexual liberation typify the tenets of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, which saw these qualities as deeply human and at risk in an increasingly controlling and repressive society.

Sanity versus insanity

McMurphy enters the novel as a sane man, as evidenced by his confidence and sense of humor. At first, his resistance to Nurse Ratched takes the form of intelligently undermining her authority, especially using humor to do so, but by the end of the novel he acts out violently, even psychopathically. He has been driven to this by the oppressive forces of the hospital, indicating that extended time in an insane atmosphere can drive a person insane. Conversely,...

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Essays About One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest