One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel written by Ken Kesey during a time in our society when pressures of our modern world seemed at their greatest. Many people were, at this time, deemed by society’s standards to be insane and institutionalized. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a ward of a mental institution. The major conflict in the novel is that of power. Power is a recurring and overwhelming theme throughout the novel. Kesey shows the power of women who are associated with the patients, the power Nurse Ratched has, and also the power McMurphy fights to win.
By default, he also shows how little power the patients have. When discussing the theme of power in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy can’t be ignored. McMurphy’s power begins with the fact of his mental stability. He comes to the mental institution to escape the stress and difficulties of a prison work farm. He is not insane in the way society describes insanity. He tells the patients in the ward “…the court ruled that I’m a psychopath. And do you think I’m gonna argue with the court? Shoo, you can bet your bottom dollar I don’t. If it gets me outta those damned pea fields I’ll be whatever their little heart desires…” (13).
McMurphy is also a con man for most of the novel (Foster 2). He is constantly gambling and winning money from the other patients. When first introduced to McMurphy, he claims “[he’s] a gambling fool” (11). McMurphy being a gambler is powerful because it gives the patients a goal or activity and is a form of entertainment. The monotony being reduced gives McMurphy power. The most important aspect of McMurphy’s power is in laughter. McMurphy is trying to explain the power of laughter to the patients when he says, “…that’s the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing.
I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing. A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him till he can’t laugh any more, and he loses one of the biggest edges he’s got on his side ” (68). Laughter makes the patients feel good, and, specifically, Bromden feels good and begins to remember other things that made him feel good (Tanner 4). McMurphy’s power in laughter is intensified by Nurse Ratched’s lack of laughter. McMurphy’s laughter and humor are genuine while Nurse Ratched’s humor is forced and smiles are chiseled like in plastic (Wallace 3, 5).
Power enables McMurphy to make changes on the ward and to survive in the institution. His sanity compared to the other patients, his manipulations, and his ability to laugh give him the power. He, in turn, gives patients a sense of power by teaching them to laugh at themselves, Nurse Ratched, and the world (Magill 1533). Second in a discussion of power are the women associated with the patients. The supervisor at the hospital is associated with the patients by controlling who is employed to take care of the patients. Nurse Ratched and the supervisor served in the Army together as nurses. They are still very close and have a good relationship.
Because of this relationship, Nurse Ratched’s employment is secured and others won’t stand up to her for fear of losing their own jobs. Harding states “In this hospital, the doctor doesn’t hold the power of hiring and firing. That power goes to the supervisor and the supervisor is a woman, a dear old friend of Miss Ratched’s” (61). The receptionist on the ward is Nurse Ratched’s neighbor and also mother to the patient Billy Bibbit. Kelsey makes numerous statements about wives and mothers of the patients. Harding is a self-committed patient whose wife enjoys power over him by insulting and belittling him at every opportunity.
She also exerts power over him by being feminine and overtly sexual and recriminating him for not being masculine (Alvarado 3). Ruckly is another patient, a former Acute turned to Chronic after electroshock treatments. Ruckly’s only verbalization throughout the novel is an epithet towards his wife. She continues to possess power after he is virtually turned into a vegetable. Billy Bibbit is yet another self-committed Acute patient. He is terrorized by his mother to the point that he stutters. She retains so much power over him that he commits suicide when Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother he was with a prostitute.
In addition to Billy’s mother, Bromden’s mother clasps her power and controls the men in her life. She was responsible for selling her son’s Indian land heritage and forcing him to conform to society’s standards of “civilization”. This led to Bromden’s father becoming an alcoholic and Bromden’s institutionalization. The women associated with the patients held power that affected their lives to such a degree that it changed their level of sanity. Nurse Ratched is the final character to be discussed in the topic of power. Nurse Ratched’s name is in fact a play on the word “‘ratchet’ (a mechanism consisting of a notched heel, the teeth of which engage with a pawl, permitting motion of the wheel in one direction only)” (Tanner 2). This is a perfect metaphor depicting her power. In the novel, Bromden states “…she wields a sure power that extends in all directions…” (26). Nurse Ratched controls the clocks and televisions on the ward. Bromden believes her to be in control of time by maneuvering the clocks as she sees fit. She also has control over the television. Even when the patients won the vote to watch the World Series and delay housekeeping duties, Nurse Ratched exerted her power and shut off the television.
She uses food and medication for punishment and power. She lets Sefelt give his medication to Fredrickson just to teach a lesson. She states “Even if you take into consideration the harmful effects of the medicine, don’t you think it’s better than that? ” (69). She has the power of their health in her hands by using medication this way. Nurse Ratched also manipulates a compelling power over McMurphy in that she is the one who will decide when his confinement is over. It is when McMurphy realizes this that he first begins to follow rules and ceases to bait Nurse Ratched.
She has complete and total power in the ward and thus over the patients (Sassoon 2). Nurse Ratched has the power over Dr. Spivey as well. She knows that he has a drug addiction and she uses this information to manipulate and control him. In staff meetings, she leads the discussions to determine which ward a patient is sent to. Nurse Ratched frequently sends patients to “Disturbed” for being what she decides is disorderly. She also is powerful by her ability to send patients for electroshock therapy when she determines them to be out of control. Nurse Ratched has further power in the ward by controlling the orderlies.
Bromden believes that because of years of training, they are able to “disconnect the wires and operate on beams” (29). The orderlies do what she says in regard to the treatment and mistreatment of the patients. They are “…out there performing her bidding before she even thinks it” (29). By having control in so many areas, Nurse Ratached is able to wield her power with patients and employees in the ward. Kesey demonstrates the struggle for power remarkably. Nurse Ratched and McMurphy battle for power throughout the novel while the women associated with the patients also hold significant power.
When power is won by one person, another then has to lose the power he held. Nurse Ratched has the power of controlling the orderlies. They make McMurphy clean bathrooms, yet McMurphy wins the power back by leaving notes and laughing at Nurse Ratched. The ones who never hold the power seem to be the actual patients. Yet, most patients on the ward are voluntarily committed and have the ultimate power over their fate. It took McMurphy being powerful enough to give up his power so that the patients could find theirs.