After reading the novel and watching the film of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I realized how much this story tells us about ourselves and our society.
For those who haven’t been exposed to the story, here’s a short summary:
Randle McMurphy gets admitted to the hospital/asylum, pretending to be insane to get out of the prison work farm punishment for rape.
The other main character is a half Indian named Chief Bromden, an inmate who pretends to be deaf and dumb so no one will bother him. He is a mountain of a man, 6 feet, 8 inches tall.
McMurphy is a larger than life character who stirs up the inmates so as to challenge the head nurse Ratched’s authority. He does this by upsetting the routine that the nurse enforces. Nurse Ratched takes away the men’s individuality and will by her strict rules. She punishes them by electro shock treatment and lobotomy.
In the end, McMurphy gets so aggravated with Ratched’s controlling tactics, that he starts choking her. For this he is sent for a lobotomy and returns as a vegtable. The Chief, who McMurphy has instilled with self-confidence, smothers him to death, knowing he wouldn’t want to be a prisoner in his body. Then the Chief escapes out into the world.
The conflict between the authoritarian nurse and the free spirit McMurphy, investigates the theme of individuality and rebellion against conformity.
McMurphy symbolizes individuality, free expression and self-determination. These attributes are everything an oppressive society wants to stifle. McMurphy wants to bring individuality and self-worth to the other inmates. In the case of Chiet Bromden and a few others, he succeeds.
Throughout the story, you wonder if McMurphy is really insane or is he completely sane and just has a problem with authority. The hospital has complete control through nurse Ratched just like society has social control over the people.
What is the difference between sanity and insanity?
Sanity is about being aware of yourself, your surroundings and circumstances and coping with reality.
Insanity is the distorting of reality and being out of touch with reality.
There is a gray area in between these extremes, it’s called, “losing the plot.” This means losing one’s ability to cope and understand what’s happening.
The risk-taking, self-reliant individual was once celebrated, not now, society keeps individualism down. The government and society (the hospital in the film) wants to exercise willpower on our behalf and make choices for us. Horrors!
The individual according to Sartre and Nietzsche, has to create their own values and meaning in life, rather than rely on external socially imposed codes.
But, in the end, we have to obey the rules of society to maintain some order.
So, society restricts individual actions and choices because it believes the individual will make the wrong choice, for themselves, for others, or both!
So, the hospital/asylum is society in microcosm. The inmates represent the problems of coping with the pressures that society puts on them to conform to the “norm.”
Some inmates are definitely not crazy, they are just having difficulty coping with society’s pressures!
There is a lot of existentialism in the story. This is the philosophy that says individual existence, freedom of choice is mandatory. Humans should define their own meaning in life and make rational decisions despite living in an absurd world.
McMurphy shows the inmates that living an authentic life is more important than being accepted by society. He teaches them that their lives are in their control, not society’s.
Nurse Ratched symbolizes the methodical, oppressive, and indifferent nature of modern society.
McMurphy represents individualism.
The inmates represent the majority of people that conform to society and it’s “normal” rules.
McMurphy tries to teach the men to live an authentic life, which is wearing no masks and being true to yourself. You make choices and you take responsibility for them. He tells them to have courage and challenge society(nurse Ratched). He makes the men feel unique and important.
Chief Bromden pretended to be deaf and dumb because society acted that way toward him.
Authentic living is the essence of life and if you are forced to conform entirely, than authentic living is impossible and life isn’t worth living.
So, to sum up existentialism: Be an individual and think for yourself. Society wants to guide you through life, the “must” follow path, but your life will only be meaningful if you strive to create your own meaning in life.
I will conclude this article by a comparison of the book to the movie.
It’s all down to character and mood development. Here the book and the movie differ.
The book gives you more feeling and moods than the film because of deeper character development in the novel.
When a movie is made from a book, the makers have to please the audience’s need for fast pace. What gets lost can sometimes be the real deep meaning behind the story.
So, as far as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is concerned, the film is good but the book is excellent!
Also published on Medium.