Main Themes


Women as Castrators

"Bromden, the narrator, and McMurphy, the protagonist, both tend to describe the suffering of the mental patients as a matter of emasculation or castration at the hands of Nurse Ratched and the hospital supervisor, who is also a woman. The fear of women is one of the novel’s most central features. The male characters seem to agree with Harding, who complains, “We are victims of a matriarchy here.”"

Society’s Destruction of Natural Impulses

Kesey uses mechanical imagery to represent modern society and biological imagery to represent nature. By means of mechanisms and machines, society gains control of and suppresses individuality and natural impulses. The hospital, representative of society at large, is decidedly unnatural: the aides and Nurse Ratched are described as being made of motley machine parts.

McMurphy represents unbridled individuality and free expression—both intellectual and sexual. One idea presented in this novel is that a man’s virility is equated with a state of nature, and the state of civilized society requires that he be desexualized. But McMurphy battles against letting the oppressive society make him into a machinelike drone, and he manages to maintain his individuality until his ultimate objective—bringing this individuality to the others—is complete. However, when his wildness is provoked one too many times by Nurse Ratched, he ends up being destroyed by modern society’s machines of oppression.

The Importance of Expressing Sexuality
  McMurphy’s refusal to conform to society mirrors his refusal to desexualize himself, and the sexuality exuding from his personality is like a dress waving in the wind like a flag.

McMurphy attempts to cure Billy Bibbit of his stutter by arranging for him to lose his virginity with Candy. Instead, Billy gets shamed into suicide by the puritanical Ratched. By the end of the novel, McMurphy has been beaten into the ground to the point that he resorts to sexual violence—which had never been a part of his persona previous to being committed, despite Nurse Pilbow’s fears—by ripping open Ratched’s uniform.

False Diagnoses of Insanity

McMurphy’s sanity, symbolized by his free laughter, open sexuality, strength, size, and confidence, stands in contrast to what Kesey implies, ironically and tragically, is an insane institution. Nurse Ratched tells another nurse that McMurphy seems to be a manipulator, just like a former patient, Maxwell Taber. Taber, Bromden explains, was a “big, griping Acute” who once asked a nurse what kind of medication he was being given. He was subjected to electroshock treatments and possibly brain work, which left him docile and unable to think. The insanity of the institution is foregrounded when a man who asks a simple question is tortured and rendered inhuman. It is a Catch-22: only a sane man would question an irrational system, but the act of questioning means his sanity will inevitably be compromised. 



Many important elements in the novel are either hidden from view or invisible. For example, Bromden tries to be as invisible as possible. He has achieved this invisibility by pretending not to understand what is going on around him, so people notice him less and less. Moreover, he imagines a fog surrounding him that hides him and keeps him safe. He keeps both his body and his mind hidden.

When McMurphy smashes through the glass window of the Nurses’ Station, his excuse is that the glass was so clean he could not see it. By smashing it, he reminds the patients that although they cannot always see Ratched’s or society’s manipulation, it still operates on them.

The Power of Laughter

The power of laughter resonates throughout the novel. McMurphy’s laughter is the first genuine laughter heard on the ward in years. McMurphy’s first inkling that things are strange among the patients is that none of them are able to laugh; they can only smile and snicker behind their hands. For McMurphy, laughter is a potent defense against society’s insanity, and anyone who cannot laugh properly has no chance of surviving. By the end of the fishing trip, Harding, Scanlon, Doctor Spivey, and Sefelt are all finally able to participate in real, thunderous laughter, a sign of their physical and psychological recovery.

Real Versus Imagined Size

Bromden describes people by their true size, not merely their physical size. Kesey implies that when people allow others, such as governments and institutions, to define their worth, they can end up far from their natural state. Nurse Ratched’s true size, for example, is “big as a tractor,” because she is powerful and unstoppable. Bromden, though he is six feet seven inches tall, feels much smaller and weaker. He tells McMurphy, “I used to be big, but not no more.” As for McMurphy, Bromden says he is “broad as Papa was tall,” and his father was named The Pine That Stands Tallest on the Mountain. Bromden says his mother was twice the size of he and his father put together, because she belittled them both so much. With McMurphy’s help, Bromden is gradually “blown back up to full size” as he regains his self-esteem, sexuality, and individuality.


The Electroshock Therapy Table

The electroshock therapy table is explicitly associated with crucifixion. It is shaped like a cross, with straps across the wrists and over the head. Moreover, the table performs a function similar to the public crucifixions of Roman times. Ellis, Ruckly, and Taber—Acutes whose lives were destroyed by electroshock therapy—serve as public examples of what happens to those who rebel against the ruling powers. Ellis makes the reference explicit: he is actually nailed to the wall. This foreshadows that McMurphy, who is associated with Christ images, will be sacrificed.

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