One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey Essay

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Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest offers an ironic portrayal of mental health and mental illness. The story of Randle McMurphy, told through the eyes and ears of Chief Bromden, shows how restrictive social norms and behavioral constraints are what cause mental illness. Mental illness and deviance are socially constructed. The men in the institution have been labeled as deviants, many of them as criminals too. Yet Kesey shows how the institution is the real problem, not mental illness. Nurse Ratched symbolizes oppression and social control, with Randle McMurphy as her foil. McMurphy is no angel, but he helps the institutional inmates to gain a broader understanding of both their own psyche and of the ways society has essentially made them insane. Furthermore, Kesey shows that of the main ways society and its institutions enforce social conformity is through the process of shaming. Shaming is a method of social control that either promotes conformity or pressures people to push back and rebel.



Shaming is a form of peer pressure, and can be meted out by parents, peers, or powerful social figures. Persons in positions of relative power have the ability and desire to enforce conformity in order to preserve existing social hierarchies. Bromden calls the system of conformity the Combine, as it is like a machine that churns out robots. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the character Billy exemplifies the problem inherent in persistent social shaming and peer pressure. Billy has succumbed to the pressure placed on him by his overbearing mother; sort of a parallel to Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho.

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Billy remains a virgin, as preserving his sexual purity is how he shows obedience to his mother. When McMurphy encourages Billy to have sex with a woman for the first time, Billy liberates himself from the constraints that drove him to insanity in the first place. However, Nurse Ratched knows exactly what buttons to push and understands that Billy's need to please his mother is his weakness. When she discovers his transgression, Nurse Ratched states, "What worries me, Billy . . . is how your mother is going to take this," (Kesey 264). Bromden notes also that he detected a "change in her voice," as if Ratched was actually invoking Billy's mother through her tone of voice to secure conformity. On the other hand, McMurphy resists shaming and peer pressure, which is why Bromden comes to admire him. "The Combine hasn't got to him in all these years; what makes the nurse think she's gonna be able to do it in a few weeks? He's not gonna let them twist him and manufacture him (Kesey139-140).



Kesey flips the concept of mental illness to show how society is the real instigator of psychological torment. As the Chief recognizes that McMurphy is not mentally ill at all but simply a genius outsmarting the system, he admires his new friend: "I can understand it with some of those old guys on the ward. They're nuts. But you, you're not exactly the everyday man on the street,….....

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Works Cited


Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: Penguin, 2002.

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