Ken Kesey’s masterpiece novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest uses many themes, symbols, and imagery to illustrate the reality of the lives of a group of mental patients. The element of control is a central, arguably the largest, and the most important theme in the novel. The element of control revolves around the two main characters of the novel, Randle P. McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched. These two characters are the exact antithesis of each other, and they both seek to get their own way. They both realize that in order to get their own way, they must gain control over their rival and the ward. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched have different methods of attaining and using what control they have. They have different motives for seeking control over others. They also have different perceptions of the amount of control they possess. Throughout the novel, these two characters engulf themselves in an epic struggle for the most control. This struggle for control proves to be futile for both characters as they watch what control they thought had collapse like a house of cards.
The element of control in Cuckoo’s Nest contains a certain definition. Control as it applies to the characters in Cuckoo’s Nest means that one character has substantial influence over the actions of another character. This control can influence another character’s attitudes, emotions, reactions, or even how they live their day-to-day life. The character of Chief Bromden provides an excellent example of how strong an influence control has over a character in Cuckoo’s Nest. The Chief has multiple delusions in which he imagines society as a dreadful machine he calls ‘The Combine’. The Chief believes The Combine uses several machines (Nurse Ratched being one of the most powerful) to make people conform to its idea of order. One machine that The Chief mentions frequently is the ‘Fog Machine’, which creates fog that confuses and controls his perception of reality. The Chief does not mind this fog all the time, because it provides him with an escape from interaction with other people, particularly those who would make life worse for him. Sometimes, the Chief actually welcomes the thick fog. “And I’m glad when it gets thick enough you’re lost in it and can let go, and be safe again.” (Kesey, 101) By welcoming the fog, The Chief is allowing The Combine to control his conception of safety and security.
Randle Patrick McMurphy
Characters with the ability to influence others through control in Cuckoo’s Nest do not always abuse their control for undignified reasons like Nurse Ratched. There are characters that use their ability to control for noble purposes, which sometimes provide a great deal of benefit to other characters. Randle Patrick McMurphy, the rebellious main character of Cuckoo’s Nest, provides the best example of a character using his control for noble purposes.
R.P. McMurphy is one of the most memorable and heroic characters in modern fiction. The most basic description of him is a rebellious and noble con man. His goals during his stay at the mental ward are to serve out his time while making a little money on the side. His quest for control begins on his first day in the ward. His initial motive for his desire of control is quite selfish. He recognizes Nurse Ratched’s control by observing how she influences all of the Acutes to work against each other during a group meeting. He remarks to the other patients, “Is this the usual pro-cedure for these group ther’py shindigs? Bunch a chickens at a peckin’ party?” (Kesey, 55) Afterwards, McMurphy places a bet with some of the Acutes that he can “get her (Nurse Ratched’s) goat” which is an allegory for aggravating her and they by controlling how she handles her temper. He feels that if he can control Nurse Ratched, he can also influence (control) other patients to gamble with him.
McMurphy then begins his epic battle with Nurse Ratched. He defies ward polices by taking an early morning shower and brushing his teeth before Nurse Ratched arrives at the ward. When she does arrive, she is angered with him, but does not let it show to anyone. Nurse Ratched even keeps her cool when McMurphy deliberately tries to set her off when he removes his towel only to reveal his flashy boxer shorts.
“She can’t have them (the patients) see her face like this, white and warped with fury. She uses all the power of control that’s in her, and gradually the lips gather together again under her little white nose.” (Kesey, 90)
McMurphy continues his relentless pursuit of control over Nurse Ratched. He manages to influence Dr. Spivey, into opening the tub room for the patients during the daytime. McMurphy influencing Spivey, who is regularly under The Big Nurses’ control, sparks her temper again but again she regains herself before she expresses anger. The dam finally breaks when and McMurphy gains control over Nurse Ratched’s temper, when he rebels against ward policy of watching the World Series. He narrowly falls one vote shy of changing the policy, and he responds to the vote by sitting down and pretending to watch the World Series when he is actually watching a blank screen. When other patients join in on McMurphy’s rebellion, Nurse Ratched explodes in anger. She tries to use her control over the other patients to get them to stop ‘watching’ the game, but it does not work because the patients ignore her. Her temper detonates: “You’re committed, you realize. You are under the jurisdiction of me … the staff. Under jurisdiction and control – ” (Kesey, 128) McMurphy clearly wins the control battle over Nurse Ratched. His influence and control over the patients is stronger than hers, thus believes that he has control of the ward.
McMurphy realizes soon after the incident that his victory and control over Nurse Ratched are an illusion. McMurphy discovers that he is committed to the ward and his release is dependent on when only Nurse Ratched decides to release him. McMurphy then begins to fall in line with the others. He does not speak up at any more meetings and does not cause any more problems for Nurse Ratched, who has regained her control. She realized that she is once again the main influence in the patient’s life. She tries to make use of her regained control, by shutting down the tub room as a punishment for the World Series incident. McMurphy has an epiphany after he hears this. He realizes that he must regain control over the nurse. He realizes he must do this not just to spite her, but because no one else ever has stood up to her, because they are too afraid of her. He sees that if does not stand up for the other patients, they will never stand up for themselves and as a result, they will live the rest of their lives under Nurse Ratched’s control. McMurphy’s motive for taking control changes from self-benefit to self and group benefit. His first act after his epiphany renews the intense war for control between Nurse Ratched and himself. McMurphy takes a stand for the rights of the patients while risking the possibility of his release from the institution. McMurphy, much to the astonishment of the Big Nurse, rejuvenates their battle by smashing the window to the Nurses’ Station to retrieve his confiscated cigarettes. He sarcastically justifies his actions by saying that the glass was so clean that he completely forgot it was there.
McMurphy’s conclusion that the patients never have stood up for themselves because they are terribly frightened of the Big Nurse is correct. Nurse Ratched’s control over the patients is so strong that she tears down the manhood of all of the men, puts fear in them, and totally controls their lives. Through his strength, McMurphy single handedly makes the men realize that they are not too weak to take control over their lives and to stand up to Nurse Ratched. “He reminds the lost souls of their humanity and restores their belief in the possession of joy.” (Buchanan and Hofman, 2000) McMurphy inspires the men to the point where they can take control back in their lives. He starts to recover their control by influencing more of the patients to take part in his rebellion. He uses his control over the men to give them back control over their lives. His actions influence others to do the same. A couple of the patients break the new window in the Nurse’s Station with a basketball. McMurphy creates a basketball team, and before Nurse Ratched can dissolve the team, Dr. Spivey acts to keep the team. McMurphy organizes a fishing trip for the patients. Nurse Ratched again tries to influence the patients so that they will reverse decision, but again she fails to win the small battles of control. McMurphy even throws an after hours party for the patients. During the party, McMurphy and Candy Starr make a break through with Billy who discovers that he is in control of his own life. Through all these events, McMurphy reminds the patients that the people on the outside world are free of Nurse Ratched’s control and they all could be free of her control as well.
McMurphy does not teach the patients to take a stand for purely unselfish reasons. He has other ulterior motives, such as making a profit out the fishing trip, but these other motives do not outweigh his main motive of helping the other patients. This is the reason he does not make his escape during the party, because he worries Nurse Ratched will regain control if he escapes. The climax of the novel, the final battle for control between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched is the ultimate testimony to McMurphy’s noble motive for controlling the Ratched and the others.
Nurse Ratched arrives in the morning after the party to find her patients hung over and her most controllable patient, Billy Bibbit, in bed with Candy Starr. Nurse Ratched tries to use her control over Billy against him by threatening to expose the events to his mother. This plan disastrously backfires as Billy commits suicide. Nurse Ratched sees an opportunity to win the control battle by blaming McMurphy for Billy’s death and she makes her move. “I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives – gambling with human lives – as if you thought yourself to be a God!” (Kesey, 266) This is the last straw for a furious McMurphy. He believes that he controls Nurse Ratched and he must make a final stand for all the patients. He does not realize that he lost control over the ward when Billy died. He attacks her and succeeds in literally exposing what she really is to the other men, which permanently takes away what little control over the others that the Nurse still possessed. McMurphy believes that his control over Nurse Ratched is now absolute. This drastically distorted perception of his control falls apart, as his victory does not come without a tremendous price. He is taken away and lobotomized. McMurphy loses as much, if not more control than Nurse Ratched lost. When he returns to ward, Nurse Ratched puts him on display in a hopeless attempt to reinstall her control and fear into the hearts of the patients. “The men are not at all influenced by this, for they all are now influenced and controlled by only themselves.” (Semino and Swindlehurst, 1996) The Chief suffocates and kills McMurphy to put him out of his misery just before he takes control of his own destiny and escapes from the ward.
After McMurphy’s lobotomy and death, the patients eventually begin to work together; some leave the ward while others stand up to the no longer so powerful and controlling Nurse Ratched. Although he received the harshest punishment imaginable, McMurphy showed the other patients that it was possible to beat the seemingly invincible Big Nurse. McMurphy helped change the lives of most of the men on the ward, when it seemed they were in a situation were change was not possible. “The story casts its central character as a Christ-like figure who is sacrificed on the cross of conformity and control.” (Isherwood, 2001) He gave the men back the ability to control their own lives, which Nurse Ratched had taken away from them. McMurphy is a character, which uses his control for noble purposes by rebelling against a controlling authority system, so that others can regain control over their lives.
Nurse Ratched (The Big Nurse)
The ultimate (and my all time favorite) antagonist is the dominating character of Nurse Ratched. The patients, the black boys, the other nurses, and even the doctors are completely submissive to Nurse Ratched’s authority. Charles Isherwood gives the perfect description of her character: “This castrating mother figure is a combination of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Mengele, and Joan Crawford encased in starch.” She is a woman who has transformed herself from a human being into a machine that demands complete control and order of everyone. This demand for controlling others is so great in her mind that she believes that her corrupt and malicious use of her control over the men is justified.
At the beginning of Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched perceives that she has complete control and order over the ward. Her perceptions of her amount of control at this point in the novel are accurate. Her patients are terrified of her. The Chief describes The Big Nurse as, a mechanism of terror, able to control the hospital with her “beams of hate,” which shows the Nurse as the embodiment of pure evil. She is a force that influences all her patients to accept her control. The other men in the ward accept Nurse Ratched’s control because she has conditioned them to believe it to be necessary. This demonstrates the major problem that most of the patients face: they believe themselves to be weak and in need of an authority to control them, but in fact are capable of independent action.
She exploits their ‘need for authority’ by using her authority and control to shred the men’s courage, pride and eventually all of their manhood down to nothing. She is able to this because of the fear she has installed in the patients. In the simplest terms, Ratched controls through fear. They know that if they do not let Nurse Ratched control their lives, there will be consequences. They all fear that she will retaliate by giving them an Electro-shock therapy (EST) treatment. Other characters like Billy Bibbit fear to defy Nurse Ratched because she would give bad reports of Billy’s progress to his mother who has the same dominance over Billy as Nurse Ratched. Her other effective method of controlling the men is through the group therapy meetings. These meetings begin with Nurse Ratched selecting a patient and humiliating him by describing his personal, sexual, and psychological problems. As a further embarrassment, Nurse Ratched asks the other patients to comment on the problems she has described. “She derives her power from her ability to humiliate and cow a vulnerable constituency.” (Buchanan and Hoffman, 2000) She uses these meetings to pit the patients against one another, thus fostering a sense of strife among the patients so that they remain submissive to her. This method is effective and works like clockwork until McMurphy begins to question her methods.
Nurse Ratched recognizes McMurphy as a threat after the first time they meet. He disobeys his first orders from the black boys to have his temperature taken. Other incidents such as the World Series prove to her that he is dangerous to the domineering control she exerts over the others. After the World Series incident, she realizes that her control over McMurphy may not currently exist, but she knows that she holds all the cards. She remains confident that she will break his spirit eventually. She continues to fight McMurphy by posting newspaper clippings of boating accidents when he proposes the fishing trip. She also uses her best methods to get control over McMurphy. She relocates him to The Disturbed ward after he gets into a fight with the black boys. She subjects him to EST and tries to turn the ward against McMurphy after the fishing trip. She posts the patients’ financial statements so that they can see how much money McMurphy has won from them. McMurphy does not submit to the EST, and he is able to explain and justify his winnings to the other patients. Even after her attempts to break McMurphy’s spirit fail, she remains confident that she will win control over him and the other patients. She thinks she has control because she has always had it and had never been without it. She makes the same mistake that McMurphy makes during the climax. She does not realize that she has already lost her control over the ward. This does not become clear to her until after she sees Billy’s dead body and after the patients actually see, what she thinks is her only true weakness, her actual female figure.
Nurse Ratched thought that by giving McMurphy a lobotomy and by taking away a man who was like a god to the Acutes she would regain all of her control and put fear back into the men. What she did not realize was all of McMurphy’s strength; courage and spirit would stay with the men. McMurphy, even after he was gone, still gave the men the strength to stand up for themselves and not let the Big Nurse regain her control of the ward. She also never realized that she could not maintain her control of the ward through manipulation emasculation and authority, even if those methods had worked with precision in the past.
McMurphy and Nurse Ratched both desire the element of control so that they may influence the patients on the ward. They also know that only one of them can truly possess it. McMurphy wants control so that he can overthrow Nurse Ratched, which would give the men back their ability to control their lives. Nurse Ratched wants control because she wants the power to run the ward her way. They both gain control at some point during the novel. McMurphy gains control through rebellion and spite, and Nurse Ratched gains control through power, authority, and fear. In the end, they believe they have control over the other, but they do not realize that they both have lost control until it is too late. They both pay a harsh penalty for their struggle to gain control over the ward. Nurse Ratched forever loses her precious power status and authority over the institution, while McMurphy loses the friends he tired to help, his personality, and eventually his life. Throughout the novel, these two characters relentlessly fight to control each other. They both realize that control can never be absolute. This idea does not occur to either of them until after they have lost everything they sought to control. This is what makes the element of control such an important theme in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.