One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary and Analysis
by Ken Kesey
Part Two, Chapters 16-18
Everyone keeps his eyes on Nurse Ratched, who occupies the Nurses' Station. For Chief Bromden, the fog has dissipated. One of the boys prods Chief Bromden to continue with his duties, but Bromden will not move until he is physically prodded to clean the staff room.
He goes to the staff room, where Nurse Ratched is holding a meeting. One doctor discusses the “revolution” that occurred minutes before and says that McMurphy is no ordinary man they are dealing with. Another doctor suggests that McMurphy may be simply a shrewd con man and not mentally ill, but another says that McMurphy is sick and definitely a “Potential Assaultive.” The doctor worries that McMurphy may attack him during Individual Therapy. One of the doctors, Gideon, finally decides that they are not dealing with an ordinary man, but Nurse Ratched tells him that he is absolutely wrong. She says that McMurphy is not extraordinary, simply a man and just as subject to all the fears and cowardice and timidity as any other man, such that he ultimately can be controlled. One doctor worries that this could take weeks, but Ratched reminds them that they have all the time in the world. McMurphy is committed involuntarily, so he must remain in the hospital as long as they want.
The patients love knowing that McMurphy "got the nurse's goat the way he said he would." McMurphy becomes more bold and aggressive. He asks Nurse Ratched for the measurements of her breasts, which she tries so hard to conceal. But Nurse Ratched does not lose control again. Bromden thinks that McMurphy may be strong enough to resist the Combine, suggesting at least a stalemate between hero and villain.
Bromden wakes one night to find the ward clean and silent. He gets up and walks over to the window. He looks outside, and for the first time, he seems to really see the outside world. He can see that the hospital is surrounded by countryside. He watches a dog sniffing around outside until Geever, one of the boys, and the Catholic nurse put Chief Bromden back in bed. Bromden dreams about how the nurse goes home and tries to scrub away her birthmarks, aghast that a good Catholic girl has such stains.
In the group meetings, the other patients bring up longstanding gripes which they had kept buried. They complain that the dorms are locked on the weekends, that they are not allowed to go various places alone, and that they do not have the right to have their own cigarettes. McMurphy notes that Nurse Ratched acts as if she still holds all of the cards up her sleeve.
When the patients make their weekly trip to the pool, McMurphy learns that she really does have insurmountable power over them. The realization comes in a single moment, when McMurphy discusses with a lifeguard how the hospital is better than a jail. The lifeguard points out to him that, at least in jail, a person has a definite release date. The lifeguard, who is also a patient, tells McMurphy that he was picked up for drunkenness and disorderly conduct and has now been in the institution for nearly nine years. McMurphy will be there as long as Nurse Ratched intends to keep him.
The next day, McMurphy surprises everyone by behaving well. That afternoon, in the group meeting, Cheswick complains that he wants something done about the cigarettes and whines that they are treating him like a child. Two of the black boys drag him away to the Disturbed Ward. McMurphy does not say a thing during the meeting. He has chosen to give in because it is the smart thing to do. The next time that the inmates go to the pool, Cheswick immediately dives into the pool after telling McMurphy that he wishes something had been done. He gets his fingers stuck in the grate at the bottom of the pool and drowns.
In Chapter Sixteen, the fog that Chief Bromden claims to see symbolizes his lack of lucidity and his inability to assert himself. But once Bromden makes the decision to join the other men in protest of Nurse Ratched, the fog disappears. This decision comes at a cost. By making choices to resist authority, Chief Bromden becomes vulnerable once again to his long-buried feelings. He loses the safety of the fog and embraces the risks and rewards of personal choice and freedom.
Chief Bromden's choice to continue presenting himself as deaf and dumb is a tactic to deflect harassment by Nurse Ratched's henchmen. This deception also enables Chief Bromden to access staff meetings. In comparison with others, Chief Bromden's purported handicap renders him innocuous, allowing him to be the most omniscient narrator because of his access to places others cannot go. McMurphy himself would be a more lucid narrator, but his self-interest in telling his own story would be likely to distort the narrative. It seems better this way, to have McMurphy’s character loom large in an observer’s mind as almost a mythological hero. It is up to Chief Bromden to take McMurphy's story out of the institution and into the world. Besides, Bromden will end up being in the clichéd situation of being the one survivor able to tell the tale.
The staff meeting is at once ironic and ridiculous because it reveals the outright absurdity of the doctors' diagnoses. The various doctors use tortured doublespeak. They believe his behavior indicates the presence of a sane man, but he also seems potentially explosive precisely because of his sanity in an environment meant for the insane. Nurse Ratched seems almost desperately afraid that McMurphy might be normal, pushing her further towards a diagnosis of him as a psychotic. Indeed, the Nurse believes that his ordinariness in the context of the ward proves he is insane. His kind of relative insanity in the ward proves him more likely to be sane in normal society.
Ratched wants to win this battle. Whether the sexual subtext is still here or this is simply a matter of pride and power, Nurse Ratched insists to the doctors that McMurphy stay in her department. She intends to break McMurphy down by any means and no matter how long it may take. In this, she is a good totalitarian re-educator.
In Chapter Seventeen, sexuality is again a tactic of McMurphy. He questions Nurse Ratched about her breasts. The theme is continued in some sense by Chief Bromden later when he wonders about the birthmarks of the Catholic nurse in relation to the desire for purity. His observations about the Catholic nurse suggest the detrimental effects of sexual repression; unlike the tightly corseted Nurse Ratched, this nurse seems to demonstrate intense guilt and shame about her sexuality. The narrator describes this situation almost entirely in metaphorical terms of "stains," with obvious sexual connotations.
Although McMurphy becomes more bold and authoritative in this chapter, Nurse Ratched remains calm and reassured. She has regained composure because she knows she has control over the situation in the long run. She can determine what happens to McMurphy and whether or not he is ever released from the asylum, so she can tolerate any short-term challenges to her power, even if occasionally he can draw others to his cause.
The changes in Chief Bromden are particular important in this chapter. We awakens, literally and figuratively, and watches the dog outside the window. For the first time in ages, he is truly aware of the outside world. He is acknowledging it and feels in some way a part of it; he is not simply ignoring it or afraid of it. He can conceive of existence outside of the institution in ways that he could not imagine before. No doubt, McMurphy is the primary facilitator of this change.
Chapter Eighteen emphasizes the effects that McMurphy has had on the other men in the institution. Because of McMurphy, these men begin to reassert their rights against Nurse Ratched. But there is a critical difference between Cheswick's complaints and McMurphy's conscious rebellion, for Cheswick cannot modulate his complaints. He refuses to cease his complaints even after they place him in corporeal danger. Although the actual chronology of the events is unclear, it seems that the black boys take Cheswick to Disturbed to administer shock treatment because of his rebellion. This treatment in turn may have rendered Cheswick incoherent, with the subsequent effect that he makes the foolish error of getting his hands stuck in the grate in the swimming pool. But there is a strong possibility that Cheswick's action is suicidal, for his death occurs almost immediately after he jumps in the pool. Cheswick may feel let down by McMurphy, who has started to play along just when Cheswick has taken the bold step of initiating his own rebellion. Cheswick's death demonstrates the more disturbing consequences of the clarity that McMurphy instills in the other patients: they sense that they can progress beyond their supposed insanity but might not actually be able to handle their progress or the new awakening they are experiencing. As the patients regain the ability to assert themselves and make choices, they also must face the effects of these decisions, and if their past is any indication, they are generally not very able to face the real world.
As for McMurphy, he shows himself to be pragmatic in acquiescing to Nurse Ratched and following her orders. McMurphy rebelled against Nurse Ratched partially because he did not realize her power to control his dismissal from the institution. This power, as earlier established, has given Nurse Ratched the confidence that she will ultimately break McMurphy. McMurphy's change in behavior in this chapter demonstrates that her confidence is well-founded. Moreover, she also has punishments at her disposal, so the next round is likely to lead to another win by Nurse Ratched.
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