Have you ever felt that you were being manipulated by someone in power? Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest features corrupt and manipulative Nurse Ratched, the head administrative nurse of a psychiatric ward. She is able to impose a distorting and controlling fog over her patients, especially Indian Chief Bromden, through her commanding persona and nearly absolute control of all elements of the ward. Meanwhile, as newcomer Randle McMurphy begins to observe the normal operations of the ward, he becomes inspired to disrupt Nurse Ratched’s demeaning and overbearing treatment of the patients. Therefore, the ward provides McMurphy, a risk-taker and rebel, with the opportunity to challenge authority and to free Bromden of Nurse Ratched’s fog; this is how he becomes a hero.
After McMurphy has lived in the ward for a few weeks, he begins to learn that Nurse Ratched’s power is based off of her ability to manipulatively emasculate the male patients who are not able to easily understand that they are being excessively controlled. While Bromden describes the environment of the ward and discusses how a typical day progresses, he mentions how “everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day” (31). Bromden explains how practically every moment of the patients’ lives are already organized into a detailed schedule by Nurse Ratched. She does not give the patients a chance to decide for themselves how they would like to spend their time. This act of predetermining all of the patients’ schedules and actions puts them in a mindless fog because they no longer have to think for themselves. Nurse Ratched’s creation of a precise daily routine significantly contributes to her goal of maintaining order and keeping complete control of all parts of the ward. A few days later, while McMurphy and Harding begin discussing how Nurse Ratched is able to easily control all of the patients, Harding explains how “she merely needs to insinuate, insinuate anything, don’t you see? … And [a man]’ll feel like he’s lying to her, whatever answer he gives” (63). He tells McMurphy that Nurse Ratched is able to make any of the men feel guilty simply by her tone of voice and choice of words, even if they have nothing to be guilty about. Her ability to give the patients guilty consciences allows her to influence their actions and feelings. Even though Nurse Ratched rarely accuses the men of doing something wrong, she consistently plays with their emotions and leads them into the depths of the fog. This creates an environment of vulnerable, weak men that she can easily maneuver and control. Nurse Ratched’s capability to have absolute authority over the way the men live their lives gives her the ability to gradually destroy their confidence.
As soon as McMurphy has familiarized himself with the ward and its usual operations, he makes it his mission to reveal Nurse Ratched’s subtle manipulations of the men by explaining to them her controlling and devious actions. During the first group meeting that McMurphy witnesses, Nurse Ratched shames the patients into confessing acts that they have never before admitted to. The men try to outdo each other by claiming that they have done something worse than the last man. After it ends, McMurphy asks Harding, “Is this the usual pro-cedure for these Group Therapy shindigs? Bunch of chickens at a peckin’ party?” (57). After reflecting on what he watched, McMurphy likens the patients to a flock of chickens who peck at each other until they kill themselves. He uses this analogy to explain to Harding that Nurse Ratched organizes these meetings to encourage the men to turn on each other and as a result weaken themselves. She deliberately creates this environment so that she can more easily attack the dignity and manhood of each patient. This allows her to gain more power and authority over each of the men. After McMurphy has repeatedly disrupted several of Nurse Ratched’s routines, she organizes another group meeting. She explains to all of the patients that as a result of the rebellion led by McMurphy, she and the staff have decided to no longer allow the men to use the tub room to play cards. As soon as McMurphy hears this, “he stopped in front of her window and he said … how he figured he could use one of the smokes he bought this mornin’, then ran his hand through the glass. The glass came apart like water splashing …” (201). McMurphy is so angered by what Nurse Ratched says that he punches straight through the glass window that is placed between her and the patients. Since the glass represents Ratched’s power and influence over the men, his breaking of the glass symbolizes his defiance towards her authority. In the same way that a glass window is translucent and hard to notice, Nurse Ratched’s manipulative actions are subtle and almost undetectable because of the fog that she has inflicted upon the men. As a result, McMurphy takes it upon himself to make this transparent barrier much more noticeable by transforming it into clearly seen broken shards of glass. While McMurphy is responsible for the exposing of Nurse Ratched’s unfair and overbearing approach to managing the ward, he also helps some of the patients on a more personal level.
Though Chief Bromden lives most of his life in the ward absorbed by the fog, McMurphy is able to drag him out of his hazy state of mind and reaffirm him that he matters as a person. While Bromden discusses his thoughts and feelings about the fog, he remarks that “as bad as it is, you can slip back in it and feel safe. That’s what McMurphy can’t understand, us wanting to be safe” (128). Bromden says that he sometimes prefers being in the fog because he feels safe and comfortable when he allows himself to be enveloped by it. This fog that Bromden imagines represents the clouded state of mind that Nurse Ratched intentionally imposes on the patients by forcing them to participate in embarrassing practices and repetitive routines. This mental blur keeps them satisfied with their lives in the ward and prevents them from rebelling against Nurse Ratched and her rules. Since Bromden has lived with this fog of the mind for so long, he embraces it because it allows him to ignore the harsh reality of his life. Later on, while McMurphy is talking to Bromden in the middle of the night, he gives him a piece of gum. In response, without even noticing, Bromden says “thank you”. While reflecting on what had happened, he says that “it didn’t sound like much because my throat was rusty and my tongue creaked. He told me I sounded a little out of practice and laughed at that. I tried to laugh with him, but it was a squawking sound, like a pullet trying to crow” (217-218). Bromden is so caught off guard by McMurphy’s kindness that he instinctively speaks back to him. His simple offering makes Bromden completely forget that he has been pretending to be deaf and dumb for his entire life in the ward. Also, McMurphy’s simple interaction with Bromden makes him laugh for the first time in years. This moment is significant because it marks the beginning of a new life for Bromden where he is removed from the fog and from Nurse Ratched’s control. McMurphy’s ability to reinvigorate Bromden by encouraging him to speak for the first time and gain back his voice shows that he truly wanted to help Bromden come out from his place of hiding.
McMurphy is able to become a hero figure within the ward because he challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority and releases Bromden from her controlling fog. McMurphy studies how Nurse Ratched is able to attain order and perfection by manipulating her staff and patients to achieve outcomes that she desires. He quickly understands Ratched’s subtle tactics and devotes his time in the ward to exposing her nasty techniques of controlling the patients. At the same time, McMurphy works with Bromden to remove him from the fog so that he can stand up against Ratched’s extreme power. Nurse Ratched’s manipulation of the men can be similar to how the world today is subtly manipulated by what is posted and uploaded to the internet. Today’s technology-driven society, which is filled with unnecessary social media, news, and entertainment, can fog individuals’ minds and prevent people from living in and experiencing reality in the same way that Ratched’s control of the patients prevented them from living a true life.
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