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“Hierarchy means there are the dominators, and there are the dominated.” Social hierarchies can be pinpointed in a variety of environments, and a man’s place in this predetermined structure is chosen based on his occupation in the area. This concept of a microcosm with a hierarchy of power can be seen throughout Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Nurse Ratched stands above all. Through his implications of animal imagery, Kesey stresses the importance of challenging the ideals of those of a higher power in order to free oneself from a strict system and escape the conformities they enforce. The men are portrayed as weak animals, who are preyed upon by Nurse Ratched and the aids, or in this case, the predators.
Kesey portrays the men as the prey of the ward to imply their weakness and lack of manhood. The patients possess virtually no power while, on the other hand, Nurse Ratched has an abundance of power over the events and the people. The patients are aware of their position in this microcosm and have even come to accept that they are, infact, similar to rabbits. Harding even states that “…rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf as the strong” (Kesey 64), referring to him and the other men as the rabbits. Harding also explains how a rabbit becomes “sly and frightened and elusive” (Kesey 64) and “hides when the wolf is about” (Kesey 64). This imagery exhibits how the men are forced to suppress their voices and themselves to avoid the wrath of the wolf, or Nurse Ratched. As the men begin to gain their independence, they evolve from rabbits to birds. Kesey implicates the birds to symbolize freedom and their new-found confidence to escape from the ward. The men experience this freedom during the fishing trip, when Chief imagines he is “off the boat, blown up off the water and skating the wind with those black birds, high above…” (Kesey 250) himself. The fishing trip is a way for the men to escape and separate themselves from their conformed nature, and it gives them a chance to let go and regain some of their confidence and manliness. Nurse Ratched is unapproving of this confidence and works to demean them once again. When McMurphy and Chief are sent to EST, McMurphy confidently offers to go first. He assures Chief that they can’t hurt him. Before, while they were waiting for their turn, Chief illustrates the “puffy sparrows strung up on a wire like brown beads” (Kesey 282), and after McMurphy receives EST, Chief notices “out the window the sparrows drop smoking off the wire” (Kesey 283). The birds being burned and falling demonstrates Nurse Ratched demolishing their new freedom and independence. Later, McMurphy receives a lobotomy and Nurse Ratched “could use it as an example of what could happen if you buck the system” (Kesey 322). Not only does this highlight Nurse Ratched’s power and ability to abuse the system, but the application of the word ‘buck’ reinforces this idea of the men becoming independent and strong. Typically, animals who buck something are strong, hard to control, and independent. The men recognize McMurphy as an idol and are finally able to become somewhat independent and assured in their own ability, and they are able to detach themselves from her system.
Kesey contrasts the roles of the men with that of Nurse Ratched to further illustrate his concept of a hierarchy of power within the ward. His vision of the men as prey influenced his view of Nurse Ratched and the aids as the predators. Nurse Ratched is described as rather beastly when Chief was observing the feud between her and the aids, her “painted smile twists, stretches into an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger” (Kesey 5). This imagery represents what Nurse Ratched is really like, a vicious and wild animal, although on the outside she appears calm and kind. Her becoming larger also symbolizes her power over everyone. Another time, Chief is having a flashback of watching a dog hunting down a bird, and he believes that “the bird safe as long as he keeps still” (Kesey 7), and Chief, like the bird, “hid” (Kesey 7) in the broom closet and tries to “keep still…” (Kesey 7) when the aids are searching for him. Nurse Ratched (the dog) scares Chief (the bird) into silence and hiding, and this fear the Nurse and the aids trigger in the men helps them to maintain her dominance in the ward. She also utilizes this fear to conform the patients. McMurphy helps the men to open up about how Nurse Ratched is a “bitch” (Kesey 62), which also means female dog. Harding, along with the other men, all understand that Nurse Ratched is like a dog, an animal who preys upon others. When placed in this hierarchy of power, it was predetermined that Nurse Ratched would always be above them, and the only way to evade these constrictions would be to disengage themselves from the ward.
McMurphy is unable to ultimately defeat Nurse Ratched, but he is able to inspire the other men. The men learn to accept that Nurse Ratched will always be like a dog, and as rabbits they must hide, but McMurphy teaches them that if they become more like birds, they can easily avoid predators. Once McMurphy has a lobotomy, most of the men withdraw themselves from the ward. Only a few stay in the ward to see what happens to McMurphy, one of them being Chief. When Chief sees McMurphy, he decides to suffocate him so that he doesn’t have to live as nothing but a symbol of Nurse Ratched’s power. That same night, Chief also finds the strength to lift the panel that even McMurphy couldn’t lift and to escape from the ward. Him being able to lift the panel, in a sense, symbolizes that he is carrying on McMurphy’s legacy for him since he is no longer able to. The fight for freedom is one that can’t be fought alone, even the great need someone to fight along-side of them, and they need someone to continue to challenge the system even after they are gone.
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