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Power is the predominant theme of Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’: who holds power, who doesn’t, who wants it, who loses it, how it is used to intimidate and manipulate and for what purposes, and, most especially, how it is disrupted and subverted, challenged, denied and assumed. On a deeper level, the theme reveals the ways in which an individual in pursuit of power will reduce any others who threaten that pursuit to the level of disposable commodities, and this dichotomy is, in turn, embodied in the chaotic relationship shared between Nurse Ratched and her adversary, Randle Patrick McMurphy.
Before McMurphy arrives at the hospital, Nurse Ratched’s routine works efficiently in maintaining a simple sense of order. “The ward is a factory for the Combine,” ‘Chief’ Bromden notes in his narration. “It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches… When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted and different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold.” However, this efficiency exists not in the hospital as a whole, but only within the walls of Nurse Ratched’s ward. “You may sometimes get the impression,” Harding later tells McMurphy, “having lived only on our ward, that the hospital is a vast efficient mechanism that would function quite well if the patient were not imposed on it.” Certainly the routine described by Bromden in the fourth chapter of part one is evidence enough of this claim: each inmate is assigned a job and is to abide by Nurse Ratched’s strict schedule, and each inmate fulfills his duties without question and with hardly an upset in that schedule – until McMurphy arrives. “[He has] a marked disregard for discipline and authority,” the hospital staff are told. “Time and again he has acted out his hostilities against authority figures – in school, in the service, in jail!” And with McMurphy’s disruptive presence entering the machine of the hospital, the conflict begins.
It is clear from the outset that Nurse Ratched holds power over the ward: “We are victims of a matriarchy,” Harding tells McMurphy shortly after McMurphy arrives. That they are living under a strict regime is evident in the way each inmate in the ward is labeled as either an ‘Acute’ or a ‘Chronic’ and, likewise, in the way Nurse Ratched is referred to simply as the ‘Big Nurse.’ As such, she holds her power not necessarily for any one characteristic reason and not only because of the things she does, but more importantly she holds power for a functional reason, because of the role she plays. She is the nurse, and she is in charge, and the inmates are simply objects in the machine, Acutes and Chronics, and she does not treat them as individual people, perhaps because none of them particularly stands out as an individual. But that cannot be said of McMurphy, and so he quickly sets to work on undermining Nurse Ratched’s power and her regime, resulting in a re-establishment of her power on a characteristic level rather than a functional one – that is, she is forced to re-establish power by way of the deeds she carries out rather than by the role she plays – and McMurphy necessitates this change by reinstating into the ward the one thing she has removed that is in possession of a power comparable to her own: laughter.
“I never saw a scareder-looking bunch in my life than you guys,” he tells the inmates. “[You’re] even scared to open up and laugh. You know, that’s the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing… Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing… A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him down till he can’t laugh any more, and he loses one of the biggest edges he’s got on his side. First thing you know, he’ll begin to think she’s tougher than he is.” And he succeeds in bringing laughter back to the ward: “I forget sometimes what laughter can do,” the Chief says. Later he remarks on McMurphy’s use of humor as a weapon against the routine of the ward: “He begins to see how funny the whole thing is – the rules, the disapproving looks they use to enforce the rules… [and] he goes to laughing, and this aggravates them no end. He’s safe as long as he can laugh, he thinks, and it works pretty fair.”
Of course, Nurse Ratched cannot play McMurphy’s game. McMurphy’s laughter is a result of his increasing familiarity with the machine of the ward, so, to regain her diminished power over him, she sets about disrupting his role within that machine. A suggestion goes around the ward that she will send him up to Disturbed – but she changes the rules to reassert her power over the ward as a whole, and she leaves him be. “I’ve seen [Nurse Ratched] send men half the size of McMurphy up to Disturbed for no more reason than there was a chance they might spit on somebody,” says Bromden, “[and] now she’s got this bull of a man who’s bucked her and everybody else on the staff, a guy she all but said was on his way off the ward earlier this afternoon, and she says no.” She says no because she understands the mechanics of power play: “Would removing him undo the harm that has been done to our ward?” she asks. “I don’t believe it would… I believe if he were sent to Disturbed now it would be exactly what the patients expect. He would be a martyr to them.”
What she does not count on is that McMurphy understands the rules of power play as well. He, too, refutes her expectations, and begins to play obediently by her rules – “he surprised everybody on the ward by getting up early and polishing that latrine till it sparkled” – but, in retaliation, she refutes his expectations of recognizing this change in his behavior. “She acted like it was nothing surprising at all.” In this instance there is a power structure at work that is of a more moral nature than the power structure that was in place when McMurphy arrived in the ward – it is the power of a character and his or her characteristic tendencies rather than the power of a person who fulfils a function. Here, we have a structure in which McMurphy sets the rules of disruption, which are then built upon by Nurse Ratched when she chooses not to fulfill her responsibilities in terms of resolving that disruption, built upon again by McMurphy choosing to voluntarily resolve the disruption he caused, built upon once more by Nurse Ratched not acknowledging this resolution. McMurphy gains the upper hand as a result of this structure: he puts Nurse Ratched in a position where she can either turn down the opportunity to acknowledge his voluntary resolution of his own disruption and, in so doing, acknowledge his power to wound or heal the ward as he sees fit, or she can not acknowledge his voluntary resolution and, as a result, become a more antagonistic figure than she was before the conflict even began; either way, she loses. “[Some of the inmates] figure he’s letting her relax,” says Bromden, “then he’s going to spring something new on her, something wilder and more ornery than ever.” This is certainly his tactic; he plays Nurse Ratched the way he plays his poker games: “he dealt and talked and roped [the men] in and led them smack up to the point where they were just about to quit, then [he] backed down a hand or two to give them confidence and bring them along again.” The power belongs to McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched is his pawn no matter what she does.
However, although the battle between them is rooted in their deeds, the heart of their conflict is rooted in their principles. Nurse Ratched does not care why certain rules have been established – indeed, her excuse for every rule is that it is simply for the therapeutic benefit of the patients – but instead she cares only that certain rules have been established, and must be abided by. Likewise, in the incident with the re-arrangement of the television schedule to accommodate the World Series, McMurphy ultimately does not care what he watches on television, but instead cares only that he watches television. It is a matter of principle – as long as he can change the rules she has established, even if he does not succeed in changing them as much as he had hoped, he wins the power. When the pressure becomes too intense for her to handle it, she responds in the only way she can: she relents, and she sends McMurphy up to Disturbed for electroshock therapy. But once again, even though she holds the power over him physically, he is still superior to her: by forcing her to resort to sending him to Disturbed, he has made her break the vow she earlier made, and even then he still withstands the treatment she inflicts upon him and, initially at least, he laughs in the face of it; laughter is still his weapon of subversion.
But he stands alone against Nurse Ratched until he can bring the other inmates over to his side. This is the next step in McMurphy’s methods of subverting Nurse Ratched’s power. If laughter is the only truly successful method of subverting that power and thus rendering the strictness of Nurse Ratched impotent, McMurphy is faced with the task of making the other men laugh, which proves difficult for him to do within the confines of the ward; hence the necessity of the outdoors fishing trip. “Maybe [McMurphy] couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet,” says Bromden, “but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things.” However, McMurphy’s ability to make the men ‘loosen up’ and laugh comes before they even reach the boat: “Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power,” says Harding, after the incident at the gas station en route to the fishing trip. “Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become.” Later, still speaking of McMurphy, Bromden says: “He knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.” The fishing trip is the perfect remedy for helping the inmates to unwind, and on their return journey to the hospital the fishermen who insulted them earlier in the day “could sense the change that most of us were only suspecting; these weren’t the same bunch of weak-knees from a nuthouse that they’d watched take their insults on the dock this morning.” McMurphy gives them the means to laugh, but it is not until later that he gives them the motive – after the two prostitutes arrive at the hospital in secret.
When the secret is revealed, Nurse Ratched’s power over the men is completely eliminated: her rules have been disregarded to the point of obliteration, and her routine and regime have both been interrupted by the events of the previous night. “When the nurse found the pile of pills Harding had sprinkled on Sefelt and the girl,” says Bromden, “we started to pop and snort to keep from laughing.” Things take a turn for the worse for Nurse Ratched when one of her own staff is found embroiled in the disruptive activities: “By the time they found Mr. Turkle in the linen room and led him out blinking and groaning… we were roaring.” Ultimately the laughter brought about by McMurphy reaches the point where Nurse Ratched can no longer tolerate it with the same kind of stoicism with which she earlier tolerated his abrupt change in behavior: “The Big Nurse took our good humor without so much as a trace of her little pasted smile; every laugh was being forced right down her throat till it looked as if any minute she’d blow up like a bladder… The men were immune to her poison. Their eyes met hers; their grins mocked the old confident smile she had lost.” Later, after McMurphy’s attack on Nurse Ratched, Bromden notes the accomplishment of the very goal McMurphy was working toward all along: “She couldn’t rule with her old power any more.”
Although Nurse Ratched does eventually destroy McMurphy, her methods of doing so have less to do with characteristic power and more to do with functional power; she beats him by way of an unfair advantage, and the superiority she achieves over him is only achieved by utilizing resources far beyond McMurphy’s grasp. As such, he still retains his power over her, even in his absence, because she was unable to beat him at his own game. If power is the theme of the novel, and laughter the currency in which it is dealt, then McMurphy leaves Nurse Ratched utterly bankrupt: though she removes him from her ward, he removes the perpetual smile from her face and allows the other inmates to wear one on theirs instead. Despite his absence, his presence still lingers and holds some influence over the men in the ward, and that power of longevity and perhaps even martyrdom is of a variety altogether more compelling and more enduring than anything Nurse Ratched is ever able to hold.
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