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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
Table of Contents

THEMES

Here are the major themes that Kesey treats in One Flew Over
the Cuckoo's Nest. They're explained in greater detail in the
scene-by-scene discussion of the novel.

1. FREEDOM VS. CONTROL

With McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, Kesey presents two ways
of living in the world. McMurphy stands for the individual, the
frontier hero who goes his own way no matter what the rest of
society thinks. Nurse Ratched represents a desire for efficiency,
order, control at all costs. While a case can be made for her
view-mental patients undoubtedly need some control of their
lives-it's clear that Kesey is on McMurphy's side.

2. THE POWER OF LAUGHTER

McMurphy's greatest strength comes from the way he can
laugh at the world and at himself. Like Chief Bromden's father,
he knows that the best way to defeat your enemies is by
laughing at them. And the degree of sanity of nearly all of the
characters in the novel is indicated by their ability to laugh. In
the opening scenes no one can; later, the Chief's return to the
real world is signalled by his laugh; when, on the fishing boat,
the entire ward breaks into laughter, it's a powerful sign of the
cure that McMurphy has worked in them.

3. THE IMPORTANCE OF SEXUALITY

Uninhibited sexuality is a big part of McMurphy's-and
Kesey's-idea of sanity. Where sane men and women are
unafraid of sex, many of the patients-notably Harding and
Billy-are in the hospital at least in part because their sexuality
has been thwarted. One of Nurse Ratched's greatest crimes is
that she represses and denies the sexuality of her patients-and
even, with her heavy white uniform, her own sexuality.



4. THE NEED TO FIGHT FEAR

Many of the patients believe that a single outside enemy-Nurse
Ratched, or the Combine, or a society that disapproves of
homosexuality-has brought them to the hospital. McMurphy
comes to understand that the enemy lies not outside the
patients, but within them-in the fear that makes them easy
victims of Nurse Ratched and her allies.

5. THE POWER OF THE MATRIARCHY

When Harding announces that he and the other patients are
victims of the matriarchy, he touches on one of the most
controversial themes in the book. The repressive power the
Chief calls the Combine seems to be represented mostly by
women-Nurse Ratched, Vera Harding, Mrs. Bibbit, Mary
Louise Bromden-who force men to obey society's rules and
deny men's sexuality. However, McMurphy admits that not all
"ball-cutters" are female, and other women, notably the black
girl in the cotton mill, are shown to be victims of the Combine
in the same way as are men.

6. WHAT IS CRAZY? WHAT IS SANE?

The patients in the ward have been decreed mentally ill by
society, and in some cases, by themselves. Certainly many of
them show symptoms that cause us to label them crazy. But the
diagnosis of McMurphy as psychotic makes us wonder about
the validity of such labels, and when, at the staff meeting, Dr.
Spivey and the residents display no more courage or rationality
than do their patients, our doubts increase. Even Nurse
Ratched's devotion to rules above all else can be seen as a kind
of illness, one she shares with much of society.

7. SELF-SACRIFICE

McMurphy enters the ward as a man who, despite his
friendliness, thinks of no one but himself. The Chief feels that
only by not having anyone to care about has McMurphy been
able to escape the Combine. The Chief fully agrees with
McMurphy's attitude; he, too thinks it's useless to fight for
anyone because the Combine will always win. Gradually,
however, McMurphy sees that he's become a hero to the other
patients and must act like one even at the risk of his own life.
Parallels are drawn between him and Christ: both sacrificed
themselves for others. Similarly, the Chief sees that he can't
stand completely alone, and he fights alongside McMurphy.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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