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Theme Analysis - One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Ms. Latasha Keith
HUMN401-1305B-01: Literature and Film
Professor Bonnie Ronson
January 19, 2014
Unit 2 Individual Project – Canonical Classics of Literature
Section 1- Introduction Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is set at an Oregon asylum in the 1950s ( The book is a study in the institutional process of the human mind, a critique of Behaviorism and a celebration of humanistic principles while exploring themes of individuality and rebellion against socially imposed repression (;; These themes and ideas were the topic of discussion during the publication of this novel because the world was introduced to communism and totalitarian regimes. The novel was published in 1962 and received with immediate success (
Section 2 – Biographical Information La Junta, Colorado is the birthplace of novelist Ken Kesey. He was born in 1935 and grew up on a small farm in Oregon and Colorado with his family. He married his high school sweetheart in 1956 and they had three children together (Lone Star College). He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon where he participated in wrestling and theater in 1957 (Lone Star College; In 1959, Kesey enrolled in a creative writing program at Stanford University, the same year where he began volunteering with the Stanford Psychology Department (; Lone Star College).
The Stanford Psychology Department was conducting experiments with the hallucinogenic drug, LSD. He became interested in how the drug gave him an alternative form of perception ( After his creative writing course and the Stanford experiments he became a volunteer in the U.S. government’s experiments with the psychotropic drug, LSD and hallucinogenic drugs psilocybin (mushrooms) and mescaline (peyote cactus) at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital. Kesey found LSD to be the better drug because of its perception-altering effect and his ability to transcend rational consciousness and attain a higher level of consciousness (
His interest in altered consciousness leads him to take a job at a mental hospital. He spoke extensively to patients while he was on LSD. He was also shocked by the treatment of the patients in the government hospitals. He saw treatments, therapies and surgeries that were torture-like and not at all acceptable by society’s standards. The job at the mental institution allowed Ken Kesey to write uninterrupted and provided him with several models for his characters in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ( He also convinced a friend to administer the electroshock therapy he had witnessed patients receive in the hospital (
Kesey published “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to great critical and commercial success. Some of the information Kesey used was taken from the hospital and used in his book. This became problematic when a Red Cross nurse from the hospital sued Kesey and the publisher, Viking Press, because she felt she was unfairly portrayed. Her character was revised and later published as the nameless Public Relations character.
He was financially stable after this and moved his family to a large estate in La Honda, California. The estate became the headquarters of his wildest parties. Parties at the estate soon lead to Kesey forming The Merry Pranksters, a group that included Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and other friends. This group became known for the Acid Tests they put on while traveling. The Acid Test was a live music performance featuring a psychedelic light show and the ingestion of LSD 25. The Merry Pranksters took this show on the road in an old bus named “Further” ( “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was so successful it became a literary and cult classic during and after its time. The story was made into a two-act Broadway play in 1974 starring Kirk Douglas. In 1975 director Milos Forman directed the film adaptation. Originally Kesey was involved in the making of the film, but after two weeks he left the production because he disagreed with cutting Chief Bromden’s narration in the film, his objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson as the lead and because he felt he was owed $20,000 in film rights. He claims to have never seen the movie. A 2001 Broadway revival of the play starred Gary Sinise and Amy Morton. The film was recently named one of the twenty greatest films by the American Film Institute (
Section 3- Historical Background
Civil Rights was an important movement making changes in the 1960s. African Americans were demanding better treatment as equal citizens of the country. Peaceful protests and demonstrations were encouraged by freedom fighters, Martin Luther King, a charismatic and gifted speaker and Stokely Carmichael, who influenced the formation of the Black Panther Party, after the death of Malcolm X. Many of the protests and sit ins were joined by whites, particularly Jews. These minorities succeeded in protecting their rights and lives with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Whitley and Goodwin;
Women began demanding a more permanent place in society, especially career-wise in the 1960s. The Presidential Commission of the Status of Women presented facts from a study regarding women’s place in society. Women’s Lib was born due to the fight against unequal treatment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave women protection within the law against unfair treatment based on gender. The birth control pill, abortion and artificial insemination all became legal in the 1960s and thus influenced feminism and the Women’s Lib movement for gender equality (Whitley and Goodwin).
As students became more educated they began to feel empowered and began to voice their opinion and demonstrate rebellions against oppression as a result of WWII. The youth rebelled against mainstream religion like Protestant and began to follow and practice mystic eastern religions like Transcendental Meditation and Buddhism. There was also a lack of respect and authority and crime rose to nine times the rate of the 1950s. Marijuana and LSD where the popular drugs for the anti-establishment crowd. LSD was particularly used as a way of achieving altered perception and mind state (Whitley and Goodwin). College students organized peaceful demonstrations on college campuses and at public building protesting issues such as human right, the draft and war (
Many of the conflicts during the 60s seemed to center around the issues of Communism and Capitalism which created a political war between the East and West. Both sides felt their ideology of government was valid and sought the opportunity to educate other nations though political influence instead of using nuclear capability ( The novel debut during a time of great tension in the world, especially between the United States, Russia and Cuba when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and declared himself a communist. At the time the United States only knew of Russia as its communist enemy and it was unthinkable that such a form of government could be so close to the power United States. The US government took aggressive action against Cuba when Castro seized American property within the country and the CIA planned the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mission. In 1962 a spy plane found long range missiles in Cuba. This prompted President Kennedy to ready troops to invade Cuba and the Russians prepared to fire on US cities if we did invade Cuba (Whitely and Goodwin).
The 1960s were a time of transition that changed the perception of the United States government on the people and the world. John F. Kennedy began the 1960s as the president of the United States. He focused on people issues during his short term like creating the Peace Corps to help underdeveloped nations in areas such as education, farming health care and construction. His term was dubbed Camelot ( After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became president. Johnson’s term was tarnished in history by the calling of a draft in 1965 for the Vietnam War. On assuming presidency Johnson found himself fighting a secret war against communism from North Vietnam spreading to South Vietnam. In 1965, Johnson ordered a massive troop buildup in order to end the conflict. The draft and anti-war protesting grew among college students and draft dodgers fled to Canada (Whitley and Goodwin).
Section 4 – Explanation McMurphy embodies the anti-war, anti-establishment movement that leads to the counter culture of the 1960s in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. He leads the rebellion by challenging the inmates to question arbitrary and repressive authority. Chief Bromden, the character providing the narration of the book, personifies the Combine as a machine, mechanizing society and robbing people of their freedom and individuality. Chief Bromden pretends to be a deaf mute in order to escape the mechanization (Houghton, Mifflin, and Harcourt; Kesey). Like the college students and draft dodgers of the 1960s, McMurphy staged demonstrations to protest the arbitrary subjugation of freedom and the unnecessary oppression. First McMurphy plans a fishing trip which aids the men in gaining confidence in their individuality and power as men. The other demonstration to authority was the party in the ward. The inmates are given the chance to flout the rules and do as they please (Kesey; Chief Bromden’s life and back story serve as a study in how conformity destroys the natural ability of man. The Indian tribe he was born into was very close to nature. He recalls memories of hunting and fishing with his father as a boy on their tribal lands but that life was destroyed by the greed of white society, which took their land and built a hydroelectric plant. The people of Bromden’s tribe where trained to manage the new facilities but in doing so lost their identities. They conformed to a standardized model of a cog and, in Chief Bromden’s view, half alive. Even the Chief’s psychological problem is indicative of the Combine’s robbery of nature and natural expression. He pretends to be deaf and dumb and loses his ability to lead a natural, individualized way of life (Kesey;
Nurse Ratched is the representative of repression, torture and authority. Her character demonstrates the fear America experienced with the thought that Communism was at its back porch. Nurse Ratched’s methods of control were strikingly similar to this form of government. An example of the way she imposes communistic class struggle is how she considers the Acutes just as sick as the Chronics or how she destroys McMurphy’s World Series vote by considering the voice of the invalid patients. The Communist characteristic of not allowing private ownership and means of productions is demonstrated by Nurse Ratched’s rule of not allowing the men to be in the dorm during day hours or the way she made them listen to that awful music so loudly (Kesey; Hooper). She psychologically dominated the men through a false sense of democracy (Houghton, Mifflin, and Harcourt). The methods she uses to contro; order, efficiency, repression, slavery and tyranny; all resemble the tactics of a cold, hard, sociopathic dictator (
The Civil Rights issue is embodied by the black orderlies of the ward. These men serve as Nurse Ratched’s goons. I can’t help but see how the demeanor and psychology of these men is savage and full of hatred and masochism. They were chosen, according to the book, because of the hatred they have accumulated through years of harsh treatment and threats by white society. I think this point of view is influenced by the Civil Rights movement and the attitudes and voices heard coming from the African American community. Not all freedom fighters expressed hatred and anger but there were incidents such as the 1965 Watts Riots and there was a need to tell their story so that understanding could be had (Houghton, Mifflin, and Harcourt). The orderlies were victims of Nurse Ratched just as the patients were. Chief Bromden’s recovery is indicative of the Civil Rights movement. He begins the novel feeling small and insignificant even though he is a huge man. As he shakes off his schizophrenic hallucinations he begins to regain his individuality and confidence to be treated equally and have his voice count as a person who matters. He eventually gains the strength to claim his freedom and his future (
The feminist and Women’s Lib movement of the 60s fought for gender equality. Women strove to be seen as just as good and efficient workers as their male counterparts and wanted to end discrimination of gender. Nurse Ratched’s character demonstrated a radical feminist. Her method of binding and concealing her large breast in order to maintain mechanical control over the inmates and the tone she uses to talk to the men is the type of feminism that hopes to dominate male power and suppress it. She has no room in her life for assertive men hence her friendship with Billy Bibbit’s mother. As a former Army nurse, Ratched’s evil toward men is understood but it gives her character a much more sinister direction ( The way she wears her uniform is an illustration of how she represents sexual repression, emasculation, and castration. Her femininity is literally released by McMurphy when he attacks her and rips the front of her uniform exposing her body (; Kesey).
The attitude toward world events in the 1960s was the start of anti movements like anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-traditional and anti-conformity. Nurse Ratched portrayed the ultimate “company man” or “pencil pusher”. Her role for the hospital, symbolic of society, is to weaken her patients so that they are able to be “fixed”. She is to destroy their self-esteem with psychological manipulation. She will “fix” them by draining all traces of humanity ( The hospital is society’s ruthless machine that makes people conform to its narrow rules and standards ( Nurse Ratched is the oppressive government that seeks to rule with fear and intimidation and conformity. McMurphy is the anecdote for social strain. McMurphy’s character serves as a Christ-like figure by challenging the dominating force of the establishment and a patron to victimized patients ( He represents freedom from repression. His actions and the consequences he suffers make him the sacrificial lamb for the sake of his fellow inmates’ enlightenment and awakening ( The events of 1960 are indicative of the transitions America was experiencing.
Section 5 – Conclusion “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s. The book tackled the issue of Communism through the symbolism of the hospital. Rebellion against conformity was explored through each patient’s journey towards individuality and confidence. Civil rights and attitudes toward race relations were introduced by the black orderlies’ characters. Feminism and femininity were defined and reassigned by Nurse Ratched’s character. Ken Kesey’s novel is a tutorial in finding individuality in a society obsessed with conformity.

Works Cited
Goodwin, Susan and Becky Bradley . "1960-1969." American Cultural History. Lone Star College-Kingwood Library, 1999. Web. 7 Feb. 2011.
Goodwin, Susan, and Peggy Whitley. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey." Lone Star College, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. <>.
Hooper, Charles. "What Are the Defining Characteristics of Communism?" N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. <>.
LitCharts Editors. "LitChart on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." LitCharts LLC. 2014. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.", n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2014. <>.
Ross, Jeremy. Soman Chainani, February 19, 2008, and Adam Kissel, ed. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Characters". GradeSaver, 16 June 2008 Web. 17 January 2014.
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Walker, Bruce Edward. CliffsNotes on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 17 Jan 2014
"1960s News, Events, Popular Culture and Prices." The People History Where People Memories and History Join, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. <>.

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