One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest

This essay has a total of 2358 words and 13 pages.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest


Literature Essay: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by K. Kesey.
'Discuss how the world within the ward is mirrored in the world outside.';


It is suggested that Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest contains examples of
behaviour and attitudes displayed by characters within the clinical environment of the
psychiatric ward which can be compared to behaviour found within contemporary American
society. These include examples of leadership and hierarchy within a class or caste
system, sexism and crime and punishment.


In the text, the theme of leadership is very prominent and important to the story.
Arguably it is more important theme of the book, than the issue of mental illness, which
forms the setting and the core of the novel.


The leader figure in the ward is Big Nurse, who has complete control over the ward. Any
decisions that are made over a patient or with regards the running of the ward must go
through Big Nurse first. She is seen by the Chief as being almost mechanical in her
approach to her running of the ward:

She's got that bag full of a thousand parts she aims to use in her duties today-wheels and
gears, cogs polished to a hard glitter…(10)


The ward is run by her to a very strict daily routine, which is almost fanatically
neurotic in it's precision and dedication. Chief describes Big Nurse's devotion to her
daily routine:

'The slightest thing messy or out of kilter in any way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury' (27)

When McMurphy enters the ward, the delicate equilibrium which the nurse has created is
upset. This is because, like the nurse, McMurphy is a natural leader-figure. He takes over
the control of the ward by manipulating the patients; seemingly for their own good, but it
may be argued that he gets a feeling a control from being a leader over a large group of
people.

This may be a feeling of control and power which has previously been absent in his life for some reason.

We are told, early in the book, of McMurphy's admission to the ward doctor about his
conviction for raping a fifteen year old girl, and his unwillingness to acknowledge that
he had committed a crime:

'Said she was seventeen, Doc, and she was plenty willin'… so willin', in fact, I took to sowing my pants up' (40)

This could also be argued for Big Nurse; What is her motive for her total dedication to
the job? It is possible that she also relishes the feeling of control over the patients in
her care which her job allows.

She knows that she has absolute power over every patient in her 'care'; The power to
change any of her patient's lives immediately wherever she might see fit.


Such behaviour can also be seen in contemporary society in an environment such as a school;
The school is a good example because it has a central leader in the position of the head
teacher. The head teacher has full responsibility over every person within the school, and
also sets the rules and regulations which everyone in that particular school must obey.

If a member of the school breaks any of the rules, the head teacher will decide an
appropriate punishment. While the head teacher is answerable to the Governing Board of the
school, they still have the most 'power' and authority over the school.



It can also be shown within a large corporation with the position of a Managing Director.
All other staff in the company are directly answerable to him. The Managing Director has
the power to hire new staff, and also to make staff redundant. But, again, he is
answerable to the owner of the company and perhaps the shareholders; so he can never have
total power in his position


This can be contrasted with Big Nurse; She is, in theory, answerable to the Management
Board of the hospital, and even to the doctors who work on the ward. But she appears to
have the most control over the daily running of the ward, as if she were senior to the
doctors, even though, in fact, she is only a nurse. She seems to have total and complete
authority over every person in the ward.


The theme of leadership does not mirror the outside world very accurately, as in
contemporary society a leader of a society or an organisation is almost always accountable
to a person senior to him. This is not seen in the novel, as Big Nurse seems to be
answerable to no one, in fact, it is arguable that everyone answers to her.



A hierarchy or class system operates inside the ward which can be clearly seen throughout
the course of the novel. Patients living within the ward are 'classed' according to the
state of their mental health or to the condition of which they suffer from. Chief
describes the method of discriminating patients from one another:


'Across the room from the Acutes are the Chronics… Not in the hospital, these, to
get fixed, but to keep them walking the streets…' (17)


Patients are divided into two categories of Acutes & Chronics:

Chronics are those patients who have a condition which is untreatable, 'machines with
flaws which cannot be repaired' (17) and can only be controlled with medical methods. They
will spend the rest of their lives inside the ward of the hospital. Patients who are seen
as being likely to recover from their illness, and will return to society.


Acutes are those patients e.g. Harding, who are seen as being likely to recover from their
illness, and will return to society.


Chronics can either have full use of their bodies or can be again sub-categorised into
Wheelers and Vegetables; Those whose movement is impaired to such an extent, they can only
move by being pushed around in wheelchairs. Vegetables are patients who, through excessive
ECT 'Shock Shop' (18) or through the overperscription of tranquillising medications:


'Ellis is a chronic came in an Acute and got fouled up bad when they overloaded him in the Shock Shop…' (18)

When McMurphy enters the ward, he assumes the role of a leader over all of his fellow
patients in the ward. McMurphy has a strong, intelligent character and so he is able to
manipulate others who are more vulnerable than he is. An example of his manipulation is
when he shows some playing cards with pornographic photographs on them to Cheswick:

'I brought along my own deck…Fifty-two positions'. Cheswick is pop-eyed
already…those cards don't help his condition. (16)


Personality types which can be seen in contemporary society can also be seen very clearly
with regard to the characters in the ward setting:

McMurphy's character is a rebel character who hates authority and authoritative figures.
This is, perhaps, why he clashes so fiercely with Big Nurse.

Continues for 7 more pages >>




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