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Free Study Guide-One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey-Free Notes
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SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY

Religious Imagery

Throughout the novel, Kesey makes allusions to McMurphy as a Christ figure. The religious references increase in intensity and number as McMurphy's martyrdom becomes imminent. The first example of this is Ellis, the chronic patient, who stands "crucified" to the wall, held in place by nails. His position mimics the shape of the table in the shock shop, where patients are given shock therapy. They are strapped to the table with arms outspread, just like Christ was nailed to the cross.

The second religious reference comes just before the fishing expedition, when Ellis unhooks his arm, shakes Billy Bibbit's hand, and tells him to be a "fisher of men", which is the phrase Christ used while telling his disciples to win people over as converts. The fishing trip is the "salvation" of the patients, where they learn to fend for themselves. The patients are twelve in number, the same number as Christ's disciples. By sitting back and letting the others handle the storm on their own, McMurphy helps them prove their worth to themselves, just as Christ taught the disciples to be self-sufficient in preparation for his own death and departure.

When McMurphy and the Chief are taken to the Disturbed ward, they meet a patient who says, "I wash my hands of the whole deal", bringing to mind Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands of Christ's crucifixion. While the two patients await their turn at the Shock Shop, they hear a patient cry out, "It's my cross, thank you Lord". Before the treatment is administered to him, McMurphy "climbs on the table without any help and spreads his arms out to hit the shadow. A switch snaps the clasps on his wrists, ankles, clamping him into the shadow". When the graphite salve is put on his temples and he is told that it is conductant, he says "Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?". They also give him a rubber hose to bite on, just as Christ was given a sponge soaked in vinegar to suck on.


The most significant religious image is that both McMurphy and Christ die to save others and give them hope. McMurphy saves the patients from the repressive society and teaches them to have hope in themselves; Christ saves mankind from sin and teaches them to have hope in a life eternal.

The Combine

Combine is the term given to a threshing machine used for mowing down and harvesting wheat. This term is used by the Chief to represent the repressive forces of society that mows down the individual. Throughout the novel, references to the combine abound, starting from the very first page and continuing until the last one.

The Chief recognizes the potential of the Combine to mow down and mold a man into what it wishes him to be; he even tells McMurphy about its existence and power. He warns McMurphy that the Combine cannot let a man as big and as powerful as McMurphy exists unless he is on society's repressive side.

Since McMurphy is opposed to the Combine, it will try to cut him down to size, which it succeeds in doing through a lobotomy.

According to the Chief, the Combine starts to work on people when they are small, even resorting to the installation of devices that can control the individual. He explains how the Combine came and took away the land of his tribe and rendered his father useless. Although his father had been the respected Chief of the tribe and was a big man, the Combine took away his bigness and forced him into such misery that he became an alcoholic. When the patients go on a fishing trip, the Chief sees the Combine at work. It has made everything appear the same, like a "hatch of identical insects." Everyone looks alike, goes to the same school, and lives in identical houses.

Nurse Ratched is the perfect representative of the Combine. She is big, strong, and repressive, keeping the patients in fear and under control. When McMurphy fights Nurse Ratched, he is really striking about against the entire Combine. In retaliation to his individuality and out of fear of his largeness, the Combine performs a lobotomy on McMurphy to keep him repressed and under control.

Other Visual Images

Since the narrator of the novel is a paranoid schizophrenic, many of the images found in the novel seem magical and out of this world. Chief Bromden's perception of time is almost surreal. He believes that time is in the hands of the repressive society; it can either be speeded up or slowed to a dead stop by Nurse Ratched. The Chief also describes the air in the hospital environment as "thick plastic;" its repressive nature weighs heavy like a "ton of sand".

The fog is also another important visual image. When the Chief is upset, he is surrounded by a fog. The more upset he becomes, the heavier the fog grows, in order to hide and protect him. He believes that everyone else is trying to ignore the fog to torment him. After receiving shock treatment, the Chief's fog becomes especially thick; he also often sees a thick fog when he sleeps. This is probably due to the medication that he is forced to take at bedtime. As McMurphy teaches the Chief to be self reliant, the image of his fog decreases until it disappears entirely.

Another recurring visual image is that of size, which the Chief connects with power. He sees his father decrease in size as his power declines. By contrast, he sees his mother grow in stature as she controls her husband. The Chief tells McMurphy that his mother was huge even though she was an average size of five feet and nine inches. Every time Nurse Ratched gets angry at the patients, the Chief sees her growing bigger and bigger. Although McMurphy is a full head shorter than he, the Chief thinks that McMurphy is a giant, for he believes he has lots of power. McMurphy knows that the Chief sees himself as a small, weak man and promises the Chief to restore him to his full height, which he accomplishes by the end of the book. Chief Bromden once again feels his full height of six feet and seven inches when the Nurse's power over him subsides.

Machinery is also an image that often occurs in the novel. The Chief believes that the Combine installs tiny machines in people's brains to make them conform. He also believes that the Nurse runs the hospital with the help of many machines, all joined by a series of wires; he also believes that she has hidden tape recorders everywhere in the hospital to spy on the patients. The Nurse herself is compared to a diesel truck that smells of burning oil and runs wildly. The most important image of a machine is that of the Combine, the symbol of the repressive society. The Chief thinks that the Combine punches out people to be exactly alike and to live in identical houses reproduced by a machine. The Combine also controls the machinery in the Shock Shop, where patients are sent to receive shock therapy to bring them under control. Through the machine imagery, Kesey seems to be saying that everything that is mechanical and man made goes against all that is natural. McMurphy becomes the natural man, the pure savage, fighting against the Combine and all its machinery.

The Role of Women in the Novel

In the novel, Kesey has put women into two opposite categories. They are alluded to mostly in a sexual context of either depriving the patients of their manhood or helping them assert it. Women like Nurse Ratched, the Chief's mother, Billy's mother, and Harding's wife are the representatives of the repressive society who cause men to suffer and lose their masculinity. The other category of women are those like Candy, whose purpose is to serve men. Candy's role in the novel is to help Billy reach manhood.

Nurse Ratched is the perfect representative of the repressive society. She controls her patients with an "iron fist"; if one of them does not fear and respect her, she uses shock treatment to bring him under control. In a like manner, Mrs. Bromden, achieves total "castration" of her husband and son. The Chief even carries his mother's name instead of his father's, completing his virtual castration and showing that matriarchy triumphs. In the novel, Nurse Ratched becomes a surrogate mother to the Chief and to Billy; to Harding, she becomes a surrogate wife.

It is important to remember that the characters are described by Chief Bromden, who is a paranoid schizophrenic. His description of all the women characters are obviously colored by the perception that he has of his domineering and repressive mother.

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