One of the prevailing motifs of Kesey's novel involves the metaphorical contrast between clamped-down sexual mores and freewheeling, instinctive, "natural" sexual freedom. The conflict is represented by the war between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The "Big Nurse" represents a frigid, controlled sexuality, an attempt to button up natural instincts and resist impulse through conscious order. She cannot, however, disguise her huge breasts, which show through her uniform no matter how much she covers up. McMurphy, the symbol of total sexual abandon, ultimately tears the Nurse's clothes from her body to "unleash" her breasts in a final climax of the battle. McMurphy himself is almost animalistic in his sexuality, which is a main reason he has been institutionalized by a repressive society. He is considered dangerous and hostile because he acts on his urges. His primary crime is statutory rape, an offense he defends by arguing that the young girl pressed him to have sex rather than the other way around. At the end of the novel, though McMurphy frees nearly all the main characters sexually--bringing a prostitute for fellow inmates, encouraging the men to rediscover the emasculated souls they've surrendered to Nurse Ratched--he must pay for his free sexuality by losing a part of his brain. Kesey suggests that fully unfettered sexuality is too dangerous for modern society to tolerate.
Independence vs. Acquiescence
Throughout the novel, we consistently root for the inmates to find freedom, either through a mass escape or by overthrowing the regime and winning a new order in the institution. This is all subverted, however, when McMurphy discovers that he and Scanlon are the only two involuntarily committed inmates. The rest of the inmates are there by choice. They would rather be quiescent followers, surrendering themselves to institutional oppression, than independent in a society where they do not quite fit and may not be able to function. McMurphy sees emasculation as the prime reason for the choice to stay. The Nurse has found a way to mentally castrate each and every one of the inmates--including Rawlins, who commits suicide by physical emasculation. McMurphy may perceive that the best way to free the other men is to expose Nurse Ratched as flesh and blood rather than an inevitable oppressor--someone with her own flaws and pains. McMurphy attempts to work within the Nurse's system, trying to outmanipulate and outfox her with his various schemes. But ultimately, the only way to change the acquiescence of his fellow inmates is to lead by example. He feels presure to acquiesce and avoid pain, but he choose to follow his independent spirit, which explodes in brute force when he rips the Nurse's clothes open. This act prevents the rest of the inmates from ever seeing her as merely the robotic hand of authority. She has a body now, and they can no longer follow her blindly, understanding that she is just as mortal as they are. They are likely to continue choosing the institution to the outside world, but they will remain with a greater degree of independence than before.
Self-Interest vs. Altruism
McMurphy’s character is worth considering in comparing the drives for altruism and self-interest. When McMurphy enters the hospital, he has the goal of causing chaos in order to disrupt Nurse Ratched's carefully designed schemes, which quash the inmates' spirits. At first it seems that he does so primarily for amusement, or in order to establish himself as Top Dog and ensure that he has the power in the ward. He also consistently fleeces the other inmates in gambling games. Over time, however, we suspect that money, power, and amusement are not—or are no longer—his primary motivation for taking on Ratched. He develops a sincere desire to resuscitate these fallen, empty, drained souls. In one of the most significant moments of the novel, when he is frustrated that the men are not trying to get out, he throws all their money back at them, in a demonstration that he cares more about them than self-interest alone would dictate. Once McMurphy realizes that he might never get out, being involuntarily committed subject to Ratched's will, he for a while follows his self-interest. But this is temporary, for he ultimately sacrifices himself in order to allow the inmates to see their chance for escape from the ward in both body and soul.
Mind vs. Matter
Kesey’s novel elucidates some ways that people imprison themselves psychosomatically, using the mind to trap the body. In the case of Chief Bromden, for instance, the Indian has convinced others—maybe even himself—that he is deaf and dumb. This chosen handicap dictates the conditions of even the most mundane moments of his life. Meanwhile, for the rest of the inmates, in group therapy sessions Nurse Ratched uses the power of suggestion to expose their deepest insecurities. We see over and over that belief in a particular ailment seems to induce it. Specifically, in the case of electroshock therapy (EST), given to disturbed patients whenever they misbehave, most of them succumb and find themselves changed negatively by the experience. Chief Bromden, in particular, says that fighting EST was not an option: the fog simply envelops you and warps your brain. But McMurphy teaches him that fighting EST requires willpower, and through focus of mind it can be resisted like much else. Again and again, McMurphy uses his strength to fight the effect of EST, allowing Bromden to follow him and finally escape. There are natural limits—namely, nature itself—to the use of mind over matter. Some people have genuine medical conditions. Ratched herself cannot wish away her large bosom. As for McMurphy, he cannot withstand Ratched's final tool of punishment, the actual removal of part of his brain.
Fear vs. Experience
The inmates tend to be prisoners of their own fear. Kesey suggests that modern society, figured by Nurse Ratched’s institution, preys on fear, that authoritarian, repressive regimes, whether in the government, the home, or the workplace, rely on fear to control individuals. Ratched's methods of manipulation include using public embarrassment to make the inmates turn on each other, then the power of suggestion to make the inmates afraid of her potential to expose each one of their unique flaws to the group. She uses a carrot-and-stick approach to make the inmates afraid of physical punishment for the slightest disobedience. What McMurphy finds upon entering the ward is a group of sniveling, whipped animals who have lost the sense of their own capacity for learning from everyday experience. They have given up sex, alcohol, and even living voluntarily because of their fear of indulging in everyday life. Whatever fear of life brought most of them into the institution in the first place has been magnified many times by Ratched’s regime, and McMurphy takes up the challenge of helping the others again want to experience more out of life.
Origins of Violence
Many critics have mistakenly cried racism against Kesey in the novel’s depiction of the three black boys who serve Nurse Ratched. They certainly are portrayed as dumb, sniveling brutes who follow the Nurse's orders as perverse henchmen. They are intent on destruction. Why did Kesey choose to make these characters black? Kesey’s choice is not racist but is a critique of racism in society or at least racism in Ratched’s mind. This is because the novel provides a very clear etiology for each of these boys early in the novel. The Nurse carefully sorts through potential boys for the job, looking for the ones who have the most hate within them, those who have learned to internalize their rage so that they have every reason to be completely obedient to her will and to act brutally when they get the chance. Nurse Ratched has chosen boys who already express the internalized anger she feels, the fury and pain she has repressed under the facade of calm, serene order. If the boys who fit the bill are black, it is because in a racist society they already have experienced (more than others) the hurt in their lives that has made them so angry, and if anyone is racist in this regard, it is Ratched for thinking the black boys are most likely to be the kind of boys she wants. If one's environment is largely to blame for a person becoming angry and violent, it is worth examining the causes of anger and violence in other characters from the same perspective.
Group Mentality vs. Individualism
Perhaps Nurse Ratched's most sinister tool is preying on the group mentality of the inmates to instill fear and self-loathing. She makes it very clear that the inmates are not allowed to be on their own; they must form groups of eight in order to request access to even the most mundane activity. There is method to this seeming draconian order. The Nurse knows that as long as the men can reflect, mirror, and expose each other's pain, they will have enough to occupy themselves with rather than rebelling against her. Only in the solitude of one’s own room can one of them look inside and develop the strength of will and character to begin questioning her authority. Such questioning of the hospital, its leadership, the role of the hospital in their convalescence, or broadly questioning authority or society is a mark of individualism that Nurse Ratched will not allow. In a group of disturbed people, the group identity is going nowhere, and that is the way she wants it. She controls the inmates by controlling the questions asked, and as long as she prevents them from being alone for very long, she knows that she will have the upper hand.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.