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Symbolism in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest


Ken Kesey presents his masterpiece, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, with popular culture symbolism of the 1960s. This strategy helps paint a vivid picture in the reader's mind. Music and cartoons of the times are often referred to in the novel. These help to exaggerate the characters and the state of the mental institution.

Popular culture supplies the music which is used as a recurring theme in the novel. McMurphy dislikes the tape playing in the day room because it represents how the ward is run routinely and without change. McMurphy also uses music to obtain good relations with the patients. On his first morning in the hospital, McMurphy is heard singing several verses of "The Wagoner's Lad": "Hard livin's my pleasure, my money's my o-o-own, an' them that don't like me, they can leave me alone" (Kesey 93 ). In this scene, he sings to express his good spirits (Twayne). Later, in the hall, as one of the aides goes to talk to the angry Big Nurse, McMurphy whistles, with an illusion to the Globetrotters, "Sweet Georgia Brown" as " an amusing accompaniment to the aide's evasive shuffle" (Sherwood 399). After shocking Nurse Ratched with his whale shorts, he accompanies her retreat to the Nurses' Station with the song "The Roving Gambler" to establish his style, define his character, and show his indifference to policy: "She took me to her parlor, and coooo-ooled me with her fan'- I can hear the whack as he slaps his bare belly - whispered low in her mamma's ear, I lu-uhvve that gamblin' man" (Kesey 97).

The cartoon symbolism demonstrated in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest helps create dynamic features and traits in each character. Bromden indicates early that the ward is "Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren't for the cartoon figures being real guys..."( 31). Technicians in the hospital speak with voices that "are forced and too quick on the comeback to be real talk - more like cartoon comedy speech" (33). Kesey chooses to describe some of his characters as symbolic caricatures, and others as stock figures who outgrow their black outlines (Twayne). The Big Nurse remains a cartoon villain, funny in her excessive frustration and hateful in her manipulations towards the patients. She is never seen as a human; therefore she is never sympathized with.

In sharp contrast, McMurphy's character moves the opposite way. He goes from a caricature to credible, and finally, admirable human form. His status as a stock character of the west and defender of the weak ends at the ward party when Harding equates him with the Lone Ranger riding off into the sunset: "I'd like to stand there at the window with a silver bullet in my hand and ask Who wawz that'er masked man?'" (Kesey 295).

Popular culture symbolism provides a solid foundation for many of the characters and their actions in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It also provides comic relief to the reader.
 

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