Imagery in One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest

The Image of Insanity In a world of technology and cities of massive population, in which strangers abound and close relationships are limited, society itself appears to be one large, emotionless machine, chi guying along with no care whatsoever for the individuals that make up the huge entity. A proponent of rebellion against conformity himself, Ken Keyes expresses his views on the demutualization of society in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest through vivid imagery.

More than a novel about the struggles of the individual characters or a representation of the dilemma of insane versus sane, One Flew is a statement about the cause f insanity.

Through the imagery in Chief Bromide’s narration, Keyes reveals that the demutualization and conformity Of society is the true cause Of insanity. The patients of the mental hospital are constantly seen as an entity separate from the rest of society. The ward is isolated, and initially the only mention of the “outside” world is in a figurative sense.

The Public Relation man and the women who he takes on tours of the hospital and the entrance of Big Nurse from the outside both reveal that the world continues moving outside, but Chief can see out the windows for the first half of the novel. Because Nurse Ratchet must unlock the door to enter, it gives the ward a further feeling of separation from the rest of society. This distinct difference marks the reason that these men are in the ward to begin with: they do not fit in to their roles in society.

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As Harding says to McCarthy at one point, “All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees, hippy-hopping through our Walt Disney world. Oh, don’t misunderstand me, iv?re not in here because we’re rabbits… We’re all here because we can adjust to our arbitrator” (Keyes 61 Here Harding is revealing both the separation between the ward and the rest f the world, and that the reason the patients are in the ward to begin with is that they can’t integrate With society properly.

A common vein of Keyes”s works is the “alienated and nonconformist individuals, who attempt… To overcome their limitations and to retain their sanity” (“Ken Keyes”). In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the nonconformists are already labeled “insane” and are struggling to find a place and retain some sense of individuality while the “Combine” attempts to turn them into effective parts of society.

Nurse Ratchet is the face of the Combine in this endeavor, a “perfect representative f a standardized, conformist, correct outside world, whose elemental desire is to protect itself against non-conformity or incorrectness… ” (Wieldier). In this strictly regimented world of the ward the “nonconformist” patients have already given up for the most part, and the only thing preventing them from becoming just another part Of society is their own personalities, which are seemingly out of control.

Into this attempt to make the patients fit into conventional society, where Ratchet is trying to build “… A little world Inside that is a made-to-scale prototype of the big world Outside” (Keyes 48-49), tepees McCarthy, the embodiment of individuality and nonconformity. McCarthy is the architect of the patients’ rebellion against Big Nurse Ratchet and the obedient and unquestioning society she represents. He begins the fight against Big Nurses mechanized world. McCarthy represents individuality and self-reliance.

He is the wild-west good guy who is a figure of the untamed natural world itself (Swallowing 124-125). In contrast, the Combine and society are euthanized, described in very mechanical terms. The term Combine itself implies the mechanical nature. The unification of society as one, the combining every person into one mass, without any identification of the individual, and also a combine, or a harvester, a machine that gathers crops, or in this case, people. According to Broaden, “the bastards who work for the Combine… Slip one of their machines in on you… (Keyes 12). He also describes a nighttime scene in which the dorm sinks down into the basement where robot-like workers move in repetitive motions in a furnace-like room, and a patient named Plastic is hooked by his heel and treated like a side of meat (78-81 In these Ways the Combine harvests the people who cannot fit in with the structure and rules of society. Everything about the ward is described in a mechanical way. The imagery reveals that this “made-to-scale” copy of the Outside has become completely euthanized.

All of the workers, and especially Big Nurse, appear robotic. She carries wheels and gears, needles, pliers and copper wire (10) and makes precise, always calculated movements and gestures. Even her facial expressions are calculated and cold. The imagery of the “black boys” is slightly more humankind, as they are described as having emotions, but the “Hum of lack machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets” (10) still provides mechanical imagery. Even the ward itself is managed in a strict manner, with a very repetitive routine.

As Tanner describes, “… The phantom machines Broaden describes in the walls and in the people are part of a significant pattern of imagery used to develop the central theme concerning technological manipulation” (22). Titles like ‘Vegetables”, “Wheelers”, “Chronics”, “Acutest”, and even “the black boys” are another sign of how the ward suppresses individuality and dehumidifies the patients in order to mold hem into proper members of society, because society itself is euthanized. Therefore, Macarthur first acts of rebellion occur when he first enters the ward.

He goes against “procedure” by refusing to shower, and then he crosses the line between the segregated groups. Despite “[knowing] right away he’s not a Chronic” (Keyes 22), he goes around the room and shakes the hands of not only the Acutest, but also the Chronics and even the Vegetables. As unconsciously as this he begins his rebellion against the ward, against the Combine, and against accepted society. As the representative Of individuality, McCarthy is the key fighter in the small scale war.

Far from being euthanized, the imagery Keyes uses to portray McCarthy is very natural, rough and untamed. Beat up and rough, with a palm that “was callused, and the calluses were cracked, and dirt was worked into the cracks. A road map of his travels up and down the West” (27), McCarthy held the spirit of untamed nature and the West, the very epitome of individual work and self-reliance. Once the Keeps imagery set the stage in the reader’s mind, “the contrasting imagery of Machine and Nature is identified, [and] the battle lines for the entrap conflict are readily apparent” (Tanner 28).

The patients’ rebellion progresses the conflict between nature and euthanized society. “[T]he symbolic rebellion of these characters is transformed into a full-scale political protest directed specifically at the existing power structure… ” (Lieberman). This existing structure being the mechanized, technological society represented by the Combine. Keyes was using the attitude of his time period to add to the realization that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a parallel to the events of the real world.

He gave he readers something more to think about, critiquing “an American society that was portrayed in the serious media of the sass as consisting of a lonely crowd Of organization men, Offered affluence only if willing to pay the price Of conformity’ (Tanner 18). It was the distressed and tense feelings that were prevalent in this style of society that led to the activism and rebellion of the sis (“Ken Kef’). As a representation of that rebellious attitude, One Flew utilizes the same tensions and mind-sets to promote the patients’ rebellion.

Although the rebellion starts off with a somewhat political appearance, including the “sit-down strike” that the men go on when Ratchet, despite us poised encouraging a democratic-style ward, refuses to let them watch the World Series despite having voted to be able to (Keyes 127-128), as it continues, it becomes associated with nature in some ways as well. As the exact opposite of machinery and technology, nature became the sign of the patients’ successes in the covert war. As the rebellion scene most associated with nature, the fishing trip that McCarthy organized for the patients’ represented the peak of their success.

In fighting standardized society, the men are fighting the very thing which isolated them and cast them aside. Because they could not or would not conform, they were sometimes driven or sometimes simply labeled as insane. The machines and other images he sees “are the product of [his] fear- distorted imagination… Fear, paranoia, weakness, and disorientation from nature” (Tanner 27). In some ways the patients of the mental hospital are no less sane than the people out of it, but they are unable to adjust to the “reality”‘ of society.

Lieberman interprets the patients’ insanity in a similar way, stating that “many of them are not mad at all, unless they have been unhinged by the craziness in the world at large. ” This logic is supported by the fact that most of the men were voluntarily committed, and it is revealed that many of them got worse within the hospital. Chief Broaden is such a character. Harding implies that it was the treatments the doctors used that actually did the most damage. He says, “I’ve heard that the Chief, years ago, received more than two hundred shock treatments….

Imagine what this could do to a mind that was already slipping’ (Keyes 65). In the past, mental illnesses were often wrongly diagnosed or completely ignored, and treatment id little more than chain or cage the patient, while actual “treatments” often comprised of medication, electroshock therapy, or cryosurgery that could do more damage than good (“Historical Context”). In addition, it has been questioned whether mental hospitals don’t actually cause people to appear insane or act insane in response to a “bizarre setting’ (Hornlike 113).

Keyes, along with many other modern writers, presents madness more as a “moral condition that stands as an indictment of modern society,” simply a product of social corruption” (Lieberman). As McCarthy says, “You boys don’t kook so crazy to me'” (Keyes 22). Although a large percentage of the patients clearly have some mental problems, he sees some issues as being simply a part of being human, and therefore imperfect. To him “insanity is not an explanation of anything… A dead-end label, an excuse. To be crazy is not to be without sense… ” (Hornlike 114).

Even some Of the more “insane” men seem to have a deep meaning behind their insanity. During a dream-like sequence, Broaden comes across Colonel Matters, a Chronic patient who makes bizarre metaphors such as “Mexico is… The wall-nut,” and Broaden alkalizes “He’s been saying this sort of thing for the whole six years he’s been here, but never paid him any mind, figured he… Didn’t make a lick of sense. Now, at last, I see what he’s saying’ (Keyes 120). As Broaden explains, the man was making his own sort of sense, even if no one else understood.

McCarthy also understands this type of logic, and “teaches the inmates of the insane asylum to create their own truths… ” (Pick), which is, in a way, what Broaden has done in his creation of the mechanical underworld that no one else can see. The relationship between nature and machinery in the conflict f the rebellion also reveals the affects that the demutualization of society has on people. There is a correlation throughout the novel between the imagery used (mechanical or natural) and the mental health of the patients, and especially the Chief.

Although it is hard to pinpoint a time where Chief can be declared completely sane, his perception of reality definitely improves throughout the novel. He continues to think of things in terms of the Combine and the machines, but he no longer sees things that aren’t really there, he is just interpreting what he sees in strange ways. His improvement can be edged by the imagery he presents in his narration. The first event that reveals his improvement is when the “fog machine” supposedly breaks. Before this the fog was almost a defense mechanism for Broaden, one he used to shield himself from other people and from reality.

When McCarthy argues with Big Nurse about watching the World Series, the fog rolls in heavy and surrounds Broaden, but one of the things he sees in the fog is his father, who he tends to associate with nature because his childhood was surrounded by the natural world. After this, Chief continues through a dream-sequence tit the fog all around, but when McCarthy calls for a vote, he manages to push through the fog and raise his hand, connecting him back to reality. This meeting supposedly causes the fog machine to break, and Broaden remains in touch with his own version of reality for quite some time after this.

The next big step for Broaden is when he wakes up to reality in the middle of the night, walks to the window, and is actually able to see outside. “Here he begins to recapture some of his former feelings about nature” (Madden 1 55), but the power of the machine is reinforced when a dog he sees is run over by car in the same scene. Despite this reminder, the Chief continues to “regain” his sanity. He begins to remember more of his childhood memories, most of which are associated with nature (Madden 155-156).

In this way, the more he sees and remembers nature, and the more vivid his imagery of nature is, the more “sane” he is, as well. In contrast to Broaden, McCarthy begins to lose touch with nature and, eventually, with sanity. He enters the novel and the hospital “bigger than life and restores the inmates’ power, [but] ends as a clockwork version Of his former self*’ (Pick). At the end of the novel, just before Broaden executes him and then escapes, McCarthy is described as a “crummy sideshow fake” (270), by the patients who don’t believe he could ever become less than the Wild West style hero he was to them.

His face is empty, like a dummy. He has finally been caught and euthanized by the Combine. After killing the “fake” McCarthy, Broaden escapes from the hospital by tearing out a control panel and tossing it through the safety-glass window. He “heard the wires and connections tearing out of the floor…. The glass splashed out in the moon, like a bright cold water baptizing the sleeping art” (Keyes 271-272). This imagery shows nature escaping from the machine, just as Broaden is finally escaping from the control of the Combine.

He is finally able to get away and reaffirm his connection with nature, and by doing so he IS able to reinforce his recovered sanity. The fact that his escape from depredations and euthanized society is so closely linked with his sanity confirms Keyes belief that society causes insanity. Keyes uses imagery through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to present to the reader the idea that the focus on technology, machinery and diversification in our society s associated with insanity, while nature is, in contrast, connected to sanity.

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Imagery in One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest. (2018, Mar 28). Retrieved from

Imagery in One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest
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