Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Societal repression over the individual is the main theme of the novel. In the mental hospital, the patients (representing the individual) are subjected to all kinds of cruelty at the hands of the repressive hospital administration (representing the State). If they refuse to be controlled, the patients are given shock treatments, against their will, to bring them in line. If a patient still refuses to follow the repressive orders of the staff, the patient is lobotomized, as evidenced by McMurphy.
Through the novel, Kesey has shown that any individual who rebels against the State must be very strong or else he will be destroyed. Conformity is the key word. As long as one conforms to society's rules, life runs smoothly; if one refuses to conform, the non-conformist will pay the price unless he is very strong. The Chief's father acted with non-conformity, but was not strong enough; as a result, he was destroyed.
The patients in the hospital that have voluntarily committed themselves are there because they are not strong enough to fight society. Billy was not strong enough to fight the repression and kills himself. McMurphy was strong enough to oppose the repression; but in the end, he still loses.
The minor theme of the novel is the destructive power women wield over men. The Chief's father and Harding are both emasculated by their wives. Billy is dominated by his mother and kills himself when the Nurse threatens to tell her he has been with a prostitute. Nurse Ratched terrifies the men in the ward. McMurphy tries to breaks the Nurse's hold over the patients by exposing her breasts and rendering her helpless. She retaliates by having a lobotomy performed on McMurphy, turning him into a docile vegetable.
The mood of the book, set in a repressive mental institution, is gloomy. There is also an under current of fear and constraint constantly present. McMurphy tries to break the gloominess and get the patients to laugh, but the predominant mood is never broken for long.
There is also a feeling of great sadness created in the novel by Kesey. He successfully gains the reader's sympathy for the repressed patients who are treated so shabbily and deprived of their human dignity. Heightened sadness is developed by the needless string of deaths portrayed in the story, including Cheswick, Ruckly, Billy, and McMurphy. The only thing that breaks the sadness is the happiness that the reader is made to feel when Chief Bromden gets better and escapes from the hospital.