Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Ken Kesey's use of symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest transforms the novel and the hospital within the novel a microcosm of society, a battle between the sane and insane, the conformist and the non-conformist. Randle McMurphy's arrival influenced the lives of almost every person, whether patient or employee. Whether or not his motives and actions were moral or good-hearted is difficult to conclude, however. On one hand, he undoubtedly saved the patients from losing their souls, so to speak, to Nurse Ratched and her ward. Without him, they would not have been able to stand up for themselves or grow a sense of self-appreciation and competence. On the other hand, there was a price to pay for these freedoms. McMurphy's and Billy Bibbit's deaths showed just how much control The Big Nurse had on her patients. The role each character plays in this showdown symbolizes the realistic confrontations between the mentally unstable and the rest of society that has been going on for centuries.

Randle Patrick McMurphy is a powerful, intelligent man, a true non-conformist. He comes to the mental institution to avoid the tedious work forced upon him at the prison he was assigned to. His playful, jolly attitude towards the patients surprises them since they have not seen such contention since they came to the ward. It is obvious from the beginning of the novel as to McMurphy?s most superficial motives. He is a con man, constantly making bets with naïve, mentally ill men. The fact that he never tries to outsmart or cheat them, however, makes him respected and admired by the patients. McMurphy?s tattoo, a poker hand with ace?s and eight?s, the ?dead man?s hand?, symbolizes both his obsession with gambling and his eventual death. Despite his consistent attempts to make a profit, McMurphy?s main concern is the welfare of his new friends in the hospital. He sees how they can no longer think for themselves or demand their civil rights. Even beyond that, he cannot fathom the fact that many of the patients voluntarily checked themselves into the ward, and may leave at any time. McMurphy starts out as somewhat conceited and self-absorbed. As the novel progresses, he becomes a role model for the other patients, showing them how to take control of their own destinies and rebelling against the overwhelming power of the ?Combin...

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...ever, Ratched seems to accept it and sets out to beat him. In the end, Ratched does win by giving McMurphy a lobotomy. This perhaps symbolizes the thousands of deaths of men and women rebelling against the system, doing whatever it takes to win their freedom.

Nurse Ratched symbolizes several different things. First and foremost, she portrays the control of society over what is normal and acceptable. Any resistance to this order will be ?fixed?, using any means necessary to force him to concede. She also represents the views of the author on women. A consistent theme of misogyny exists throughout the novel. Women are seen as either submissive prostitutes or controlling ogres. Whether it be Chief Bromden?s cutthroat mother, the Big Nurse, or Candy, women are never seen as equals to men or even remotely affable.

McMurphy and Nurse Ratched go through a finely crafted and strategic battle of good against evil, man against woman, the individual against society. Although it seems that the individual will never beat society, the sacrifices made by brave people like McMurphy are never forgotten.

Works Cited:

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. London: Pan, 1973.
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