One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the story is a critique of psychiatry and, in a larger context, of all tendencies to impose social control.
It was adapted into a Broadway and off-Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy, with Gene Wilder playing Billy Bibbit. Danny DeVito, who played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway play, would reprise his role for the 1975 film, which starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.
I’ll be focusing on the novel and the film, which–though following the novel fairly closely–was actually based on the play. The supporting cast of the film, which was co-produced by Douglas’s son Michael and directed by Miloš Forman, includes Louise Fletcher as the manipulative and subtly domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, named the fifth greatest villain in movie history according to the AFI), Will Sampson, William Redfield, DeVito as mentioned above, Sydney Lassick, and Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their film debuts.
The film won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), the second film to achieve this (after It Happened One Night in 1934), and the third to do so not until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and in 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress. AFI lists it #20 on its list of the greatest films of all time in 1998, demoted to #33 in 2007.
Here is a link to quotes from the film, here are some quotes from the novel, and here is a link to a performance of the play.
II: Background to the Novel
To get back to the novel, it’s useful to know some of the historical context and background to its creation. It was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was already a growing sense of antiestablishment thinking in the collective consciousness of the US at the time. There was also a controversial move towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, something that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel.
Kesey worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California, an experience that, through his interactions with the patients and the staff there, obviously inspired his novel. He also experimented with such psychoactive drugs as LSD and mescaline there, as part of Project MKUltra. These mind-expanding experiences led not only to his advocacy of using the drugs recreationally, but also freed his mind in a way that influenced the antiestablishment attitude championed in his novel.
III: A ‘Mute’ Narrator
The arrangement of the main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is strikingly contrary to what one would assume them to be normally, in terms of who wields authority and who cows under it, and who is central versus who is marginalized. Almost all of the patients–except for “Chief” Bromden (Sampson in the film), a half-Native American–are white men who are dominated, bullied, and controlled by, most of the time, women and blacks: Ratched and Nurse Pilbow, and the “black boys,” aides Washington (played by Nathan George), Williams (Miller in the film), and Warren. Though McMurphy’s the protagonist, Bromden narrates.
Bromden fakes being deaf and dumb in the hospital, which allows him to be privy to many of the machinations of the staff, who chat around him while assuming he can’t hear what they’re saying. His muteness is also symbolic of how the aboriginals of North America have been silenced by the establishment, the white settler colonial state that is embodied in, for example, the US and Canada.
…and yet, ironically, this ‘mute’ is the narrator of the novel.
His narrative style is noteworthy in itself, often switching back and forth between present and past tenses, as well as expressing himself ungrammatically in such ways as saying, “They should of knew better’n to…” (Kesey, page 4). This informal, non-standard English gives us a vivid sense of how Bromden is, in spite of having been a college student, just an ordinary, common man, as opposed to being a higher-ranking member of society. This proletarian-like commonness will be important in how he will eventually rise up and free himself, in a quasi-revolutionary way, from the societal prison that the mental hospital represents.
IV: An Upside-down World
That the white men are bullied by “the Big Nurse” (Ratched, of course) and the other nurses reflects another issue Kesey was concerned with: the emasculation of modern men in society. I see something broader than that in this, if you will, ‘matriarchal’ hospital with its “black boys” also pushing around the white male patients: as a reversal of the normal social hierarchy, life in the mental hospital, the ‘loony bin,’ “the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a fittingly upside-down world, comparable in a sense to that of King Lear, in which a king is reduced to a mad beggar. Such an inversion of the normal…and equally deplorable…state of affairs in our society can be seen as a way to let our white male rulers know how it feels to be ruled by others. Both the normal and inverted worlds are mad worlds.
The nature of the hospital’s ‘matriarchal’ rule is aptly given in the maternal form of nurses telling the male patients what to do (Dale Harding–played by Redfield in the film–literally calls it a matriarchy–page 63). These men, in their afflicted mental states that are even further afflicted by the nurses’ manipulations, are thus reduced to the role of children. This is best seen in the whining and temper tantrums of Charlie Cheswick (Lassick), in his noisy demands for his precious cigarettes.
V: When ‘Helping’ is Harming
Psychiatry and psychotherapy are supposed to serve in healing patients so they can return to society in a healthy state and become happy, productive contributors to that society. The critique of this novel, however, is that far too often, the psychiatric profession is used rather to control the patients. Far too often, confronting the mentally ill is about treating them with contempt and condescension instead of with empathy and compassion.
I know from personal experience in my life how people in the role of ‘nurse’ can speak of one as ‘ill,’ pretending to be concerned about that person’s well-being, but really using the label of ‘ill’ to justify treating the person as an inferior to be controlled. Instead of giving the person the help he or she needs, as is the stated intention of the ‘nurse,’ this ‘nurse’ causes the patient’s sense of worth and autonomy to be gradually eroded.
Now, the bogus treatment of illness as a guise for social control can be of mental illness, as dealt with in this story, or it can be of physical illness, as many have suspected of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s social control, disguised as ‘treatment,’ on the individual or local level, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there’s such social control on the national and even international, imperialist level, of which the novel and film can be seen to be an allegory.
Having Bromden as the novel’s narrator is thus useful for the purpose of such an allegory. In some ways, such an allegory works in the film, too, even without Bromden as a voiceover narrator (an omission Kesey was most unhappy about in the film adaptation), as I’ll try to show.
VI: Beginning of the Film
The film begins with a shot of a scene in nature, with mountains, grass, and a car going down the road (presumably McMurphy being taken to the mental hospital) during a sunrise. The film will end with Bromden having escaped the hospital and going off into a similar natural background–with trees, mountains, and the sunset.
Throughout the middle, of course, has been life in the prison of the hospital, a metaphor for our sick civilization. We start out in the beauty of nature, whose life is interrupted by our oppressive, man-made civilization, and we’ll ultimately liberate ourselves and return to the beauty of nature.
That Bromden, our half-Native American, half-white narrator, is doing the liberating from that civilization is significant; for that very civilization is the white settler colonial state that robbed the North American aboriginals of their natural home, and it must be returned to them if full liberation for all–white, black, Latino, Asian, and aboriginal–is to be achieved.
VII: McMurphy, the Bad-but-good Guy
To achieve that liberation, though, a revolutionary agent needs to be introduced…and this is where McMurphy comes in. He may be a criminal, someone who “fights too much and fucks too much” (page 14), but it’s his gregarious, free-spirited, and rebellious nature that is just what the intimidated other men need to inspire them to fight for their own freedom.
The fact that our hero is deemed a psychopath and a statutory rapist, one who’s faking insanity to escape the prison work farm and, as he hopes, coast his way through his sentence in the mental hospital, is yet another example of the upside-down world of this story. A violent bad guy is actually the good guy.
One manifestation of this bad-but-good guy is when he meets Bromden. In the film, McMurphy mocks Bromden with an aping of the stereotypical greeting of “How,” then with the hand-over-mouth war cry stereotype. On the surface, McMurphy is indulging in childish, tasteless racist ‘humour,’ but he and Bromden will soon develop a close friendship.
Similarly, there’s ambivalence in calling Bromden “Chief.” On the one hand, it’s a racial slur; on the other, his father was the leader of his tribe, so handing down the title of “Chief” is perfectly legitimate (page 24), as explained by Harding. Yet another upside-down ambivalence is in how Bromden, weeping over McMurphy’s lobotomy at the end, lovingly smothers him to death with a pillow to free him from his wretched fate.
Now, in the novel, it’s towards the “black boys” that McMurphy at one moment shows a racist attitude, calling one of them a “goddamned coon” and a “motherfucking nigger.” He’s mad at them for forcibly delousing George Sorensen, one of the “acute” patients who has mysophobia and is visibly upset over the forced delousing (page 273). Even in this scene, McMurphy’s surface nastiness is obscuring a deeper compassion for the disadvantaged.
So, with every bad thing about McMurphy, there’s also something good; and the good things about him are far more noteworthy. As I said above, he is the one who will inspire the others, waking them all up from their psychological torpor–even Bromden–with his defiant, oppositional example.
VIII: The Combine
To repeat another point I made above, the mental hospital is a metaphor for the whole sick society we all have to live in. In the novel, Bromden has a special name for this repressive world exemplified by the hospital: he calls it the Combine. “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nationwide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.” (page 192)
Yet another example of the upside-down world of the novel is how Bromden is in full realization of the evil of “the Combine”–which combines capitalism, white-settler colonialism, imperialism, and social repression–yet he has been diagnosed with clinical depression and schizophrenia, this latter involving psychotic breaks from reality. As with King Lear‘s “poor Tom” o’Bedlam, a homeless madman (as Edgar pretends to be) whom Lear, in the depths of his own madness, regards as a “Noble philosopher.” It’s the mad who are truly wise in this kind of world.
IX: McMurphy vs the Nurse
McMurphy takes an immediate disliking to “the Big Nurse” and her subtly domineering ways. He bets with the other patients that in a week, he “can get the best of that woman…without her getting the best of [him]” (page 73).
Getting the best of her won’t be easy, for part of how she maintains control over the ward is by exercising her authority through a near-perfect control of her own emotions, which we see fully in Fletcher’s brilliantly understated performance in the film. She rarely loses her temper, and in her self-control we see her confidence, a narcissistic False Self which in turn commands respect. With this command of respect for her as “the Big Nurse,” Ratched is able to effect a mother transference on all the male patients (on Bibbit in particular), which infantilizes them, ensuring her control over them.
Her power over them is so complete that McMurphy can’t even get the obnoxiously ‘peaceful’ music on the record player turned down a little bit, so he and the others can hear each other talking as they play cards. When he tries to get a majority vote so they can watch the World Series on the ward TV, she manipulates matters to include all the ward patients who know nothing of the vote; and by the time he gets Bromden to raise his hand and secure a ten-to-eighteen majority, Ratched has already adjourned the meeting and invalidated the majority. Ratched thus personifies the fake democracy of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
One of McMurphy’s more successful ways of getting to her is by taking note of her figure and large breasts. He is thus defying that maternal transference that she uses to subordinate the other men, defying the Non! du père that reconciles most boys with society’s rules.
Now, this defiance of le Non! du père is also understood, through Lacan‘s pun, as les non-dupes errent. That is, those people who are non-dupes err because, paradoxically, by not being duped by society’s phoney rules (represented by Ratched’s rules of the ward), the non-dupes go astray and mess things up (as McMurphy will for everyone during the drunken party at the story’s climax).
X: The Tub Room Scene
McMurphy’s determination to watch the baseball game is seen in the tub room scene, with the control panel that he foolishly imagines he’ll lift up and throw crashing through the window, then he’ll leave the hospital with Cheswick and watch the game on a TV in “any bar downtown.”
Significantly, during the tub room scene, we see Harding playing, of all games, Monopoly with some of the others (in the novel, the game is mentioned on page 114). Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, and both games essentially teach the players, if they’re paying attention, about the evils of private property, of capitalism, and of the suffering involved in paying up every time you land on someone else’s property. So symbolically, we see the connection of the hospital and capitalism with Bromden’s idea of the Combine.
…and if the hospital, capitalism, and the Combine are the prisons from which these men (and, by extension, all of us) need to be freed, then McMurphy’s attempt, however doomed to failure, to lift the control panel and bash it through the window, to liberate everyone, is representative of socialist revolution. This brief and failed attempt is thus like that of, say, the Paris Commune. Well, McMurphy tried, didn’t he? As with the Communards, at least he did that. Of course, at the end of the story, Bromden tries and succeeds, as the Soviets would succeed…for at least several decades, anyway, before the post-Stalin revisionists began the USSR’s decline.
XI: McMurphy, Therapist
Now, I’ve described McMurphy as liberator on the socialist revolutionary level of symbolic interpretation. There’s also him as liberator in terms of, if you will, psychotherapy. He inspires the others to defy Nurse Ratched’s authority, and he helps them to be more social, through card games, basketball, the push to watch the World Series on TV, the fishing trip, and getting timid Billy Bibbit (Dourif) laid with the help of Candy (played by Marya Small), one of McMurphy’s prostitute friends.
Getting Bromden to speak, to ditch his deaf-and-mute act, is perhaps McMurphy’s greatest therapeutic achievement, one that makes his racist mocking of Bromden, near the beginning of the film, fade into insignificance. As I said above, Bromden’s deaf/mute act symbolizes the silencing of the aboriginals by the white settler colonial state, which for him would be the most significant aspect of “the Combine.” McMurphy’s goading him to speak is thus a revolutionary helping of Bromden to regain his voice and his sense of self, a therapeutic cure as well as a remedy for anti-aboriginal racism. McMurphy is, in effect, achieving the ‘talking cure.’
XII: Bromden’s Silencing
From pages 210 to 215 of the novel, Bromden explains how he came into his habit of acting like a deaf mute: “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (page 210)
His act, this silencing of him, began long before the hospital. It was already happening when he was in the Army. It happened in grade school. It happened when he, ten years old, saw a car with white people arrive at his home, then inform his family of the government’s plan to put up a hydroelectric dam there, putting an end to their fishing. The white people would force it on the aboriginals one way or another. The Combine would force it.
My connection of the Combine with capitalism may seen tenuous or even made up to some readers, but what must be understood is that there’s a lot more to capitalism than just markets, as right-wing libertarians ingenuously (or rather disingenuously) try to reduce it to. As Marx explained, the social relations between the owners of the means of production, of capital, or private property, and the workers, who have only their labour as a commodity to sell, these relations are but the base. On top of this base is the superstructure: the capitalist state, the arts, the media, science (of which psychiatry can be seen as a part), religion, culture, the law, and education. The mental hospital can be seen as a part of, or as symbolic of, that superstructure. The Combine combines both the base and the superstructure.
An essential part of maintaining this Combine, the ideology of the base and superstructure, is racism, which keeps the proletariat divided and hating each other instead of working together in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class. Presenting “the black boys” and the nurses as bullying the mostly white male patients (granted, there are also the male psychiatrists, like Dr. Spivey [played by Dean Brooks], and the white male attendants, but these men intervene more occasionally in the story; in fact, Spivey seems to be ruled over by Ratched, too) is an ironic twist that nonetheless maintains the divide-and-rule aspect of the Combine.
Capitalism also expresses itself in the form of white settler-colonialism, an internal form of imperialism (i.e., within the territorial limits of the United States) that has affected Bromden his whole life, as mentioned above. Colonialism and imperialism, like religion, media manipulation, the law, the state, and education, are all forms of social control. The worst aspects of psychiatry, such as its use of drugs, are also forms of social control rather than of therapy. Anyone who tries to defy authoritarian psychiatry is looked down on as “ill” in order to deny him a voice, to deny him power.
XIII: Ratched’s Gaslighting
Hence, when Taber (Lloyd) doubts the validity of the medication he’s given by the nurses, Ratched says he’s chosen “to act like a child” (page 34) rather than listen to him, show him empathy, or validate his legitimate concerns (the film’s approximate equivalent of this scene substitutes McMurphy for Taber). Accordingly, Miss Ratched is “just like a mother,” according to a Public Relations man (page 37). Small wonder, as Bromden observes, “The ward is a factory for the Combine.” (page 40)
Part of Nurse Ratched’s way of dealing with rebellious McMurphy is to call him “McMurry,” something she does a number of times early on in the novel, and as I suspect, this isn’t a mistake. Her changing of his name sounds like a manipulative form of control, a gaslighting comparable to Petruchio‘s renaming of Katherina as “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew. Ratched would tame McMurphy in a similar way.
Since capitalism breeds alienation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the ward, as symbolic of the superstructure, the Combine, also breeding alienation. We can see it in Taber’s taunting and antagonizing of Harding. Indeed, the discussion of Harding’s sexual problems with his beautiful wife, implying his repressed homosexuality, is more of a ganging-up on him and a bullying of him than any kind of therapy (page 56). Taber’s bullying of Harding, significantly, is resumed in the tub room scene, during the Monopoly game.
There’s alienation between people, and there’s also alienation within, the psychological fragmentation of people with psychotic mental states, people like Martini and Bromden, with their many hallucinations. During the basketball game, for example, when Martini has the ball, he tosses it to nobody, thinking he sees a teammate receiving it. Then there’s Bromden with his notion of the fog machine.
He imagines that the fog machine, “bought from Army Surplus and hid in the vents” (page 131), is controlled by the hospital staff. Sometimes Bromden finds the fog to be frightening: “I’d wander for days in the fog, scared I’d never see another thing” (page 131). Such a fear sounds like an extension of his faked deaf/muteness, since this fog-induced blindness is something he’s mentally imposed on himself.
Actually, this fog is just a symbol of the bullying authority of the nurses and “black boys.” Just as his deaf/mute act is a result of the Combine silencing him, so is the fog machine a result of the Combine blinding him to his own worth, size, and strength.
The fog, like the deaf/mute act, isn’t a completely bad thing, though. Just as the deaf/mute act allows him to hide and listen to the staff’s secret schemes, so does the fog give him a safe place to hide from painful reality. And just as one might dismiss his fog machine and the Combine as loony conspiracy theories, they actually represent how perceptive he is of the power structures all around him.
XVI: Unity of Opposites
Remember that in the upside-down world of the mental hospital, opposites are united, so loony conspiracy theories are actually perceptive assessments of reality. Bromden is muted, weakened, and shrunken to insignificance, yet he’s also the narrator, a towering giant, and strong enough to lift that control panel in the tub room.
Similar paradoxes, as noted above, include bad boy McMurphy, who is ultimately the story’s hero, even Christ-like (more on that below). White male patients are dominated primarily by nurses and “the black boys,” when we know how things really are outside the mental hospital. And of course the hospital itself, though ostensibly a place to be cured of one’s mental demons, is actually a kind of prison–a worse one, in fact, than the work farm McMurphy came here to escape, for as he’ll find out, far from being released at the end of his original sentence, he’ll be kept here for as long as Ratched deems fit.
He is truly trapped in the mental hospital…potentially for the rest of his life, while he’s mentally the freest of everyone here. Most of the other patients–except for Bromden, Taber, and some of the Chronics–are voluntary, free to leave the hospital whenever they wish…yet mentally, they’re all too afraid to leave and face the real world outside, since Ratched is manipulating that fear.
XVII: Jesus McMurphy!
McMurphy therefore is, in many ways, a Christ figure in spite of his sinfulness. Just as Christ was crucified when he, as Pilate observed (Luke 23), had done nothing wrong, so is McMurphy trapped in this hell of a mental hospital when he’s the only healthy, if badly-behaved, one here.
In keeping with the theme of the unity of opposites in this story, we’ll explore other ways in which McMurphy is a bad-boy Christ. One obvious way is in his blatant, open sexuality, as contrasted with Christ’s saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 27-28)
Now, McMurphy looks on women lustfully all the time…including at Ratched, whose breasts he appraises by wondering, “did she wear a B cup…or a C cup, or any ol’ cup at all?” (page 208) In fact, his very effective therapy for Bibbit, in curing the boy–if only temporarily–of his mother-induced gynophobia, is to have him lose his virginity with Candy.
And just as Jesus suffered, so does McMurphy, first with the electroshock therapy, which he endures (lying on a “table shaped like a cross”–pages 131-132) as bravely as Christ endures the flagellation and the crown of thorns. And though McMurphy, in attacking Ratched in revenge for her having driven Bibbet to suicide, is doing the opposite of Christ’s loving His enemies and turning the other cheek, his ‘death,’ as it were, by lobotomy ends up being a sacrificial death that drives Bromden to pick up the control panel, smash it through the window, and show the way to freedom for all the patients.
McMurphy has the patients go fishing with him, an event that happens far later in the novel than in the film (Part 3, pages 208-256). This event, too, has far greater therapeutic value for the patients than all of Ratched’s manipulative efforts. In keeping with the Christ analogy, recall Matthew 4:18-20. ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him.’ Remember also the ichthys, the fish symbol of Christ.
Just as the historical Jesus, as a number of modern scholars have argued, was a political revolutionary trying to free the Jews of Roman imperialism (not the watered-down peace-lover meant to appease the Romans), so is McMurphy a revolutionary trying to free Bromden et al of the Combine. Furthermore, some Christian leftists believe “Jesus was a socialist”: I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly there are passages in the New Testament that are anti-rich. Consider Mark 10:25, Matthew 25:41-46, and 1 Timothy 6:10. So if McMurphy is like Jesus, his anti-establishment antics can be, in these ways, likened to socialist agitation.
XVIII: White Whale Underpants
McMurphy’s Moby-Dick shorts (page 84), a literary friend’s gift that he displays after undressing, are full of symbolism related to all I’ve said above about him as a sexual, bad-boy Christ. As I (and others) have pointed out, the white whale is a huge phallic symbol, a fact emphasized by its appearance on McMurphy’s underwear.
McMurphy’s link with Moby-Dick manifests itself in other ways. The whale represents wild, untamed nature, as McMurphy does. Indeed, as one uncorrupted by the mind-numbing social conformity that Ratched is imposing on the other patients, white McMurphy is more of a noble savage than Bromden could ever be stereotyped as–another example of the subverting of expectations of the novel’s upside-down world.
As a result of McMurphy’s unwillingness to be tamed, Ratched’s Ahab-like attempts to catch him ultimately bring violence on herself, as Ahab’s quest brings on his own self-destruction. In my Moby-Dick analysis (link above), I wrote of Ahab’s narcissism, his overweening pride and its mad refusal to accept how unconquerable the whale is; Ratched’s wish to control the patients and turn them against each other is similarly narcissistic in nature…malignantly so.
McMurphy is also like the whale in that he represents, as I argued in my analysis of Melville‘s book, the beyond-good-and-evil nature of ultimate reality, an ever-elusive, deep knowledge one can never decisively grasp. As such a personification of this ultimate reality, McMurphy is, like the white whale, God-like, and therefore Christ-like. Now, this God-like whale embodies evil as well as divinity, just like McMurphy as a bad-boy Christ. In these ways, we see again the unity of opposites in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
XIX: McMurphy–Socialist or Capitalist?
Now, when I associate McMurphy with socialist revolution, I’m sure I’ll get objections from readers who will cite the passage when Harding defends McMurphy’s “capitalistic talent” (page 266) at “making a little profit” from his gambling and the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched brings up McMurphy’s profiting as one of her many schemes to divide the patients and thus control them better.
It’s best to understand Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ by emphasizing that it’s only the former’s interpretation of the latter’s intentions. In that passage, Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American” capitalism is based on his not yet having been fully liberated psychologically from the prison of the hospital; he is still experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as a result of the ongoing influence of, as he (ironically?) describes her, their “Miss Angel of Mercy Ratched”, who “is absolutely correct in every assumption she made…about McMurphy.” (page 266)
Furthermore, to use McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ to debunk his socialism fails to think dialectically about the two opposing economic systems, as such assumptions mean forgetting about the upside-down nature of this story. McMurphy, recall, does bad things to promote good. He’s a bad-boy Christ figure, so it should be predictable that he’d promote socialist liberation through capitalism. As Harding notes, “We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we?” (page 266) Recall that McMurphy’s efforts have all been far more therapeutic than anything Ratched has done for the patients, regardless of the money he’s made off of it.
The promotion of socialism through capitalism is far from unheard of: the USSR did it through the NEP in the 1920s, and China and Vietnam brought back the market in the 1980s; indeed, China’s state-regulated use of capitalism, intended to boost the productive forces of the country, has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, a feat achieved far quicker than the economic development of the “free market” has done for the global poor elsewhere. And the only meaningful liberation is the kind that ensures people are all fed, sheltered, employed, educated, and given healthcare.
XX: Menial Work
Remember that the mental hospital, with its staff’s subtle manipulations, bullying, and enforced conformity, is a metaphor for society in general. A part of this prison of a society is the menial jobs given to the patients, a proletarianizing of them, such as Bromden with his mopping of the floors (page 3), and McMurphy’s cleaning of the toilets (pages 159-160). He’s escaped the work farm only to end up doing latrine duty.
As a punishment for McMurphy’s gambling and ‘profiteering’ as discussed above, Ratched rations the patients’ cigarettes, which can be seen to symbolize low wages. So Cheswick’s protests about his cigarettes, escalating to McMurphy breaking the glass to the nurses’ station, taking a box of them, and giving it to Cheswick, is like a workers’ strike. The “black boys” taking the two men and Bromden to get electroshock therapy is thus like the police rounding up the strikers.
XXI: A Fog of Words
When Bromden hears, during a therapeutic meeting, talk “about Bibbit’s stutter and how it came about” (page 133), the words come out like a fog as thick as water. Normally, therapy is supposed to heal a psychiatric patient through the talking cure, as noted above; and Bibbit’s stutter is a symptom of his psychiatric problems, his inability to talk, with its origins in his relationship with his mother. As Bibbit tells Ratched, “The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mamma.”
Ratched’s therapy, of course, is the opposite of a talking cure; instead, it’s a talking infection. Small wonder Bromden experiences the discussion as a fog. It’s just another manipulation of the Combine.
XXII: The Oedipal Basis of Ratched’s Matriarchal Rule
Within all patriarchy, including the patriarchal family, there’s a small nucleus of matriarchy. I don’t mean to promote MRA thinking here; I’m just discussing the dialectical nature of sex roles and the power systems revolving around them. The father bosses around the family, while the mother more directly bosses around the kids. A transference of such a relationship has occurred between the nurses and the patients.
Such a transference has been most potently achieved in Billy Bibbit, a thirty-something with the psychological development of a little boy. As part of McMurphy’s therapy for the young man, it’s been arranged for him, during their naughty party at the story’s climax, to lose his virginity with Candy and thus ‘make a man of him.’
When he’s been discovered in bed with Candy and he has to explain himself to Ratched, he briefly loses his stutter: a temporary cure of his gynophobia–brought on by his domineering mother, who’s presumably as narcissistic as Ratched–has become his talking cure.
…but that fog of words comes back as soon as Ratched brings up how much the boy’s mother will disapprove of his little sexual indiscretion, which the Big Nurse, his mother’s close friend, will assuredly tell her about.
The power Bibbit’s mother has over him–extended by transference over to Ratched–is based on his Oedipal need for her to love him back. Normally, a mother’s authority over her children is expressed in a benign, loving way…not so if she has pathologically narcissistic traits.
The boy, already prone to suicide and hence his being in the hospital, is so fearful of losing his mother’s love that, knowing Ratched will never refrain from telling her of what he’s done with Candy, he slits his throat in Dr. Spivey’s office.
XXIII: Conclusion–Big vs Small
In the upside-down world of this story, physically big people are often psychologically small, and vice versa. Bromden is, of course, the primary example of this paradox. As he explains to McMurphy, whom he regards as psychologically huge despite his smaller physical size, Bromden speaks of his physically big father who was shrunken down to size by Bromden’s white mother and the Combine. They worked on his father, they’ve worked on him…and now they’re working on McMurphy (page 220).
Why do some people have confidence (i.e., are big), and others lack it (are small)? Not so much because of innate abilities, or lack of them, but because as I argued here, there are people (emotional abusers, white supremacists, the bourgeoisie, colonialists, imperialists, etc.) who work on the small. Such working on is what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about.
Sometimes we fight back, as when McMurphy chokes Ratched for driving small Bibbit to suicide. McMurphy’s violent act is a revolutionary one, since revolution is of necessity a violent act. When revolutions fail, though, the insurrectionists are sternly punished, as is McMurphy.
Ratched isn’t left unscathed: her injury from the choking leaves her unable to speak; instead, she communicates by writing on a pad, which of course is far less effective for manipulating the patients (page 321). Most of the voluntary patients have left the hospital; of those who went on the fishing trip, only Martini, Scanlon (played by Delos V Smith Jr in the film), and Bromden remain. The others left because Ratched no longer has power over them. She has been silenced, as Bromden was; she has shrunken from big to small.
As I said above, though, her reduction to smallness hasn’t been left unpunished. For his scurrilous behaviour, McMurphy has been lobotomized, a punishment compared by Harding to castration: “Frontal lobe castration.” (page 191)
Since the Lacanian phallus is a signifier, McMurphy’s symbolic castration is a silencing of him, too. As a new ‘vegetable,’ he no longer speaks. He’s forever in the fog.
He’s been made small, but Bromden, touched by his Christ-like sacrificial act, is inspired to “feel big as a damn mountain.” Bromden can’t bear to see his friend in a state of living death, so he smothers McMurphy to death with his pillow. McMurphy must come with him out to freedom, if not in body, then in spirit.
Bromden’s picking up of the control panel and smashing it through the window is his revolutionary act of liberation. He’s breaking free not just of the hospital, this metaphor for conformist society, but also of the Combine. At the end of the film, we see him going off into a background of nature. He’s freed himself of the white settler colonial state, and so the world around him looks as it did when the aboriginals were the only ones living there.
Now, this symbolic liberation is not just for the Native Americans, but for all of us together. Recall that McMurphy is coming with Bromden in spirit; also, Bromden is white on his mother’s side. The true liberation of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc., is a liberation from capitalism, imperialism, and white settler colonialism…the Combine, the combination of all of these. To fly over the cuckoo’s nest, we must replace the Combine with federations of post-colonial states that, while allowing equal civil rights for people of all colours, are also acknowledged as belonging to the indigenous peoples of those places.
To be big, we must sometimes let others be big, and let ourselves be smaller.
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New York, Berkley, 1962