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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is set mainly in a mental hospital tucked away in the forests of Oregon. During a sustained portion of the novel though, the patients from the mental hospital go on a deep-sea fishing trip and the setting shifts to the open sea. Every character involved in the novel is either a patient or a doctor at the hospital, leaving little room for the setting to alter to anything outside of the institute.
In this novel, every individual is pushed around by one person or another making the main theme of the novel suppression of an individual. Men like Harding, Billy Bibbit, Seefeld, Frederickson, and McMurphy are not really crazy. The only reason McMurphy is in the hospital is because he faked insanity to get out of prison. They are here because they cannot cope with society. They have been beaten into submission, and their individuality has been taken over by Nurse Ratched. They believe that living in society is too hard. They feel they are unable to fend for themselves, so they need someone like the demanding Nurse to control them. Unfortunately, they cannot live with their cowardly ways and will remain cowards for the rest of their lives. Every man in the institute has some type of deformity or problem with things such as speak showing through as their weaknesses. Even the staff workers have suffered at the hands of society, and the Nurse uses their hatred to help control the members of the hospital. They, in a sense, have been "trained" to take insults and, therefore, nothing affects them.
The Chief, an Indian, has been treated like he hasnt existed his entire life.
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Another theme in the novel reveals that women have power over men and what this power can do if it is allowed to become abundant. Harding is not man enough for his wife, and she accuses him of being a homosexual. His problem is further complicated by his feminine white hands and cause him to dislike them. Billy is not good enough for his mother. She dominates him and treats him like a child. Towards the end of the novel, Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother that Billy has slept with a prostitute. He is so scared and ashamed that he slits his own throat and kills himself.
Nurse Ratched also tries to scare the patients into ordinance. She threatens them and controls them through fear. When she is not successful in gaining control over a patient, she orders shock treatments to accomplish her goal. When she cannot keep McMurphy down, she has him lobotomized so that she can now control him and use him as an example to other patients.
There are many characters throughout the novel, but three of them really live the story of the book.
McMurphy is a gambling Irishman and convict, who loves women. Throughout the novel, he battle Nurse Ratched and tries to show the other patients they are just as normal as any other person. At one point in the novel, he backs down after learning that he won't be able to get out until the Nurse says he can. After his friend drowns himself, he comes back with a bang by smashing a window and reasserts himself as the pain in the butt he started out as. McMurphy's whole goal is to make sure the men know they are men and they're aren't special or anything of that sort. The one thing standing between him and this accomplishment is Nurse Ratched. In turn, McMurphy has to bring her down and is intentionally disobedient and constantly a smart aleck to her comments. He wants to show the patients she is only human and can be brought down, easily.
McMurphy accomplishes his goal at the very end of the novel. The Chief kills him, due to the fact he is a vegetable now, and runs out through a broken window. The Chief has realized McMurphy's plan and uses it to escape to freedom from the Nurse's grips for himself.
On the other hand, Nurse Ratched is a very manly female. She is constantly trying to dominate the patients and finds herself very successful until the day McMurphy shows up. Once McMurphy is introduced to the institute, she has to work extra hard to even force the most deprived patients to obey her. She continually must put up with McMurphy's stunts and finds that her dominating presence is no longer. With no power left to feed her needs, she soon realizes she must take McMurphy down. She gets this done by using her brute force of being able to use the shock treatments and eventually uses a frontal lobotomy to get rid of McMurphy. The one thing she doesn't realize is that McMurphy has already left his mark on the ward and his presence and actions live on in every patient in the hospital. In a sense, McMurphy has died, but his feelings live on.
The Chief is the one character that really shows McMurphy is still alive in spirit. Chief Bromden, as he goes by towards the end of the story, aids McMurphy in his last scheme and goes through the shock treatments right by his side. Bromden is scared, but looks at McMurphy's dominating presence and is somewhat soothed. He knows he can be the man McMurphy is and wants this bad. After the shock treatments, Bromden begs McMurphy to keep his mouth shut to stop the treatments. McMurphy refuses and continues on his mischievous ways. After McMurphy is lobotomized, Bromden finds that he cannot look at him the same. McMurphy just lays there with no fire in his eyes and is slowly dying away. Bromden kills him, symbolizing that McMurphy's views live on in the patients and that he himself is a direct recipient of McMurphy's actions. He soon breaks a window and flees the ward, repeating everything McMurphy told him.
Nearly everyone has been bullied a day in their life. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the novel shows that one man can make a difference when he shows others the truth behind the bully. It also shows how people admire others and soon want to be similar to them and help the process of overthrowing the dominating being. The story teaches that one may learn and become more powerful than he or she thinks.