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“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (Individual VS society)

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“…With liberty and justice for all”. All across the United States, these final words of the pledge of allegiance are uttered daily, but to what extent are they really meaningful? Should they really be saying, “…With liberty and justice for all that are willing to conform”? Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is the by-product of many factors. Although there are many themes behind this novel, the key premise behind the novel is that the society that we call ‘liberated’ may not be as free as it is made out to be. Kesey establishes this theme through the manipulation of setting, and indirect characterization of McMurphy. Kesey uses the explicit setting of an imaginary, machine-like mental asylum to correspond to the non-specific realities of the real world; he uses the surroundings of the mental asylum to demonstrate just how hypocritical society can be, and by creating McMurphy to break these rules, the readers can sympathize with the characters trapped in the novel, thus further understanding Kesey’s perspective of humanity’s pressure to kowtow.

Kesey utilizes the ward to represent elements in the real world. The fact that the story takes place in a mental asylum is in itself a commentary on society. In the asylum, it becomes highly evident that a great deal of oppression takes place. Although a considerable amount of abuse is in the physical form, most of it manifests itself in subtle psychological torture. The abuse that specifically takes place is the suppression of individualism. When looking at the time period of Kesey’s novel, it’s apparent that the same suppression of individualism was being protested. An example being the hippies, and their desire to not be boxed in. In Kesey’s novel, the combine symbolizes society’s box. “Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren’t for the cartoon figures being real guys…”

Within the combine, the men are expected to not only act within strict guidelines, but to also suppress urges to express themselves. They are restricted to doing monotonous, menial tasks and are never given the opportunity to decide their own pathways for intellectual, emotional or physical advancement. “Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart…” If the patients do attempt to act other than how they are expected to, they are not only punished by a torrent of physical abuse, but by psychological torture as well.

In much the same way, this exists in society. Society forcefully encourages people to develop their potential only along certain accepted routes. The profession one chooses; education, lifestyle, opinions, economic status, and overall intentions in life – these are all variables in which society almost forces into predetermined guidelines. If people deviate too far from the accepted norms, they can expect some form of retribution and punishment in return. Although we often believe that we exist in a truly free society, there are certain controls on that freedom which can be instituted at any time. As a result, Kesey’s choice of the mental asylum for the setting clearly underlines the hypocrisies of society.

The impact that McMurphey has on the cold, lifeless operation of the asylum is visible right from his entrance into the story. Bromden remarks that he hears “the weight of his steps”, implying that McMurphey walks with confidence and emotion. He also mentions that McMurphey’s laughter “shakes the walls of the hospital”. This is exactly why the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphey is so prominent – his passionate and emotional nature is a threat to the mechanistic structure she has crafted. She has created a world in which she is supreme ruler, and thus McMurphy saw how the patients were willing to turn on each other in order to please her. “The flock gets sight of a spot of blood on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it, see, till they rip the chicken to shreds, blod and bones and feathers. But usually a couple of the flock gets spotted in the fracas, then it’s their turn. And a few more gets spots and gets pecked to death, and more and more. Oh, a peckin’ party can wipe out the whole flock in a matter of a few hours.”

The suppression of the individual in the asylum is machine-like; the men are dehumanized as much as possible. The ward literally squishes the men’s egos, “I was a whole lot bigger in those days”, condensing them to what society wants them to be. This underlines why McMurphey is such a threat to the structure of the ward; he’s unfavorable because he is the personification of all things fought in the combine. He is both dynamic and crude, both funny and contemptible, as he rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of the Big Nurse. He encourages gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women and openly defies authority whenever possible. He is the cauldron of emotions that is the human condition, and by simply being himself, he is the most valuable weapon against the mechanic workings of the Asylum, and slowly manages to conform others to his beliefs. “Harding… pulls him a chair alongside McMurphy…then Cheswick goes and gets him a chair, and then Billy Bibbit goes, and then Scanlon…”

The power of the mental asylum upon the characters is underlined when they go on a fishing trip. Symbolically, the fishing trip is a radical departure from their normal lives. They are alone in the water, devoid of outside influences. With intuition and judgment as their only tools, they are free from the control of the asylum, the Big Nurse, and society. The men slowly emerge from the shells of frailty that once smothered them, and learn to take control of their own destiny. Symbolically, the boat goes out of control during the trip. The patients obviously become frightened, as for the first time in their lives they are forced to fend for themselves.

Harding takes control of the helm and guides the boat back to safety. The magnitude of this event lies in the fact that he was previously looked down upon as being weak. They return to shore as changed men, and the local fishermen comment that “these weren’t the same bunch of weak-knees from a nuthouse that they’d watched take their insults on the dock this morning.” The emergence of their collective strength could only develop in the unreserved freedom of the boat trip. This event underlines just how influential the mental asylum was upon the men. “He’s shown us what a little bravado and courage could accomplish and we thought he’d taught us how to use it…” The difference in setting allowed the men to stand up for themselves; something that would have been impossible within the confines of the asylum.

The control panel in Nurse Ratched’s office was another important symbol in the setting, as it gave her control over the entire ward. She could dictate what the patients saw on TV, the lighting of rooms, everything. In many ways, this mirrors the “control panels” present in the real world. Certain people, through many forms; such as censors, editors, media executives, etc., moderate the media. All of these people influence what we think and what be believe by controlling what we perceive to be reality. In the same way, Ratched uses the control panels to moderate what the men can perceive and see, thus controlling what they believe. She even turns off a baseball game in an attempt to punish their desire for freedom and happiness. An important symbolic event involving the control panel takes place at the end of the story. “I heaved again and heard the wires and connections tearing out of the floor. I lurched it up to my knees and was able to get an arm around it and my other hand under it… the momentum carry the panel through the screen and window with a ripping crash.” When Chief Bromden escapes to freedom – he does so by ripping the control panel from Ratched’s office and throwing it through a window. His newfound freedom is not only represented by his escape into the real world but also in the destruction of the very object that limited his life. “I been away a long time.”

It’s evident that Kesey’s use of setting not only enhances the depth of the narrative, but also provides the reader with an incredible insight into the character’s minds, hearts and souls. The characters themselves are metaphors of society; McMurphy, like the hippies of the 60’s, challenged authority and brought about change by stirring others to rebel. The setting also plays a crucial role in the communication of Kesey’s viewpoints. The presence of the horrifying forces from the story in the real world leaves the reader with a significant decision. The reader can no longer look at society the same way, and thus the reader is left with two choices. They can become very skeptical and irate towards society, attempting to undermine it at every opportunity; this is a difficult battle. A more beneficial approach to make sure that they don’t allow themselves to fall into the traps that society has created, as well as to never suppress another person’s rights and freedoms. “We pledge allegiance- to ourselves.”

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