One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Laughter Symbol Analysis

Laughter Symbol Icon
After Randle McMurphy arrives, Chief Bromden notices that his laughter is the first genuine laughter he has heard in years. The longer McMurphy is on the ward, the more the men begin to laugh. Laughter becomes a symbol and an active representation of the men’s freedom, even though they are basically imprisoned by the ward and by society. They can still find pleasure in their small rebellions and jokes, and this happiness—as embodied by laughter—cannot be taken from them.

Laughter Quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest quotes below all refer to the symbol of Laughter. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Sanity v. Insanity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest published in 2002.
Part One Quotes

There’s something strange about a place where the men won’t let themselves loose and laugh, something strange about the way they all knuckle under to that smiling flour-faced old mother there with the too-red lipstick and the too-big boobs. And he thinks he’ll just wait a while to see what the story is in this new place before he makes any kind of play. That’s a good rule for a smart gambler: look the game over awhile before you draw yourself a hand.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker)
Related Symbols: Laughter, Gambling
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chief describes the society of the mental hospital in more detail, and how McMurphy sees it. As he sees it, the society is composed of docile subservient men, submitting to the authority of the female Nurse Ratched. The passage suggests a crisis of manhood itself: instead of acting like strong, confident men, the patients act like babies, thanks to the overpowering maternal presence of the nurses.

The passage is also important in that it places a lot of emphasis on study and close observation. As the Chief says, it's important to study the game before you play yourself. (MCmurphy is an avowed gambler, so Bromden observes him "playing" here.) By the same token, we spend a lot of time "studying" the structure of hospital society before we really meet any of the characters who inhabit it. The Chief wants to show readers the basic features of life at the hospital, because it's only when we understand such features that we can truly understand the patients who live there.

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You know, that's the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing. A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him up and 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…

Related Characters: Randle P. McMurphy (speaker)
Related Symbols: Laughter
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

McMurphy points out the total absence of laughter in the mental ward. McMurphy hasn't heard any laughter since he arrived; furthermore, he sees the absence of laughter in his new hospital as a symbol of the broader problem with the ward. Laughter, as McMurphy sees it, is one of men's most important weapons, both against women and against authority in general. With laughter one can satirize authority, reminding people not to trust it under any circumstances. Stripped of their ability to laugh, however, the patients seem to have resigned themselves to the nurses' authority--they have given up their most basic defense against tyranny.

McMurphy, then, is a kind of clown, whose role is to oppose tyranny using humor and satire, thereby liberating his new friends from the nurses' control.

Part Two Quotes

There was times that week when I’d hear that full-throttled laugh, watch [McMurphy] scratching his belly and stretching and yawning and leaning back to wink at whoever he was joking with, everything coming to him just as natural as drawing breath, and I’d quit worrying about the Big Nurse and the Combine behind her. I’d think he was strong enough being his own self that he would never back down the way she was hoping he would. I’d think, maybe he truly is something extraordinary. He’s what he is, that’s it. Maybe that makes him strong enough, being what he is. 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.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Related Symbols: Laughter
Page Number: 139-140
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Chief Bromden is beginning to see McMurphy as a hero. For Bromden, the world is firmly under the power of the Combine--the mysterious, dangerous force of mechanization and industry that controls all human beings. Bromden himself is the prisoner of the Combine--that's why he doesn't talk. And yet Bromden recognizes that McMurphy doesn't seem to be under the influence of the Combine at all. While other men are quiet and docile, since the Combine has crushed the life force out of them, McMurphy is bright and lively, an exemplar of the life force. Somehow, Bromden thinks, McMurphy hasn't allowed the Combine to destroy him.

While McMurphy himself probably wouldn't understand what the Chief was talking about, it's clear enough that he embodies a certain kind of strength and self-confidence that is sadly lacking in the hospital, and perhaps in society as a whole. In other words, the passage clarifies the point McMurphy made earlier about Bromden having his own "kind of sense." Bromden's descriptions of the Combine might not be true, literally, but they have a kind of poetic truth about them.

Part Four Quotes

She tried to get her ward back into shape, but it was difficult with McMurphy’s presence still tromping up and down the halls and laughing out loud in the meetings and singing in the latrines. She couldn’t rule with her old power any more, not by writing things on pieces of paper. She was losing her patients one after the other. After Harding signed out and was picked up by his wife, and George transferred to a different ward, just three of us were left out of the group that had been on the fishing crew, myself and Martini and Scanlon.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Dale Harding, George Sorenson, Martini, Scanlon
Related Symbols: Laughter
Page Number: 277
Explanation and Analysis:

After McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched, her authority is broken forever. McMurphy is severely punished for his actions, as we’ll see. And yet by attacking Nurse Ratched, he accomplishes exactly what he wanted to: he liberates the patients of the hospital from Nurse Ratched’s tyranny. Like many a martyr, McMurphy is more powerful absent than present: in person McMurphy was a threat to Ratched’s power; now that he’s been sent away, the idea of McMurphy acts as a constant, 24/7 attack on Ratched.

The effects of Nurse Ratched’s loss of power are obvious: her patients leave. One by one, they regain certainty that they can control their own lives, and don’t need Ratched telling them what to do. Some, such as the Chief himself, remain behind, but by and large it’s clear that Ratched can no longer convince her subjects to obey her.

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Laughter Symbol Timeline in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The timeline below shows where the symbol Laughter appears in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part One
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
...only hear his loud voice, which reminds Bromden of his father’s once booming voice. McMurphy laughs, for no identifiable reason, and Bromden realizes it’s the first laugh he’s heard in years. (full context)
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon
...introduces himself to everyone in the day room as a gambler and a fool, still laughing. He says he requested a transfer from the Pendleton Work Farm so that he could... (full context)
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon
...most unsettling thing for him walking into the ward was that he hasn’t heard anyone laugh. He claims without laughter you start to lose your “footing,” and if a man lets... (full context)
Sanity v. Insanity Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
...them back their confidence by letting them win all their losses back by the end—and laughing all the while. (full context)
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
...McMurphy has his admission interview with Dr. Spivey, and when McMurphy returns they are both laughing. At the group meeting afterward, Dr. Spivey says that McMurphy’s suggested a plan to fix... (full context)
Part Three
Sanity v. Insanity Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
Social Pressure and Shame Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
...the men who plead with him to pull in the fish; he just watches and laughs. The patients look foolish trying to reel in their fish, and Bromden cuts his thumb.... (full context)
Part Four
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
Social Pressure and Shame Theme Icon
...the night before. As Nurse Ratched discovers more and more damning evidence, the patients start laughing uncontrollably, which only makes Nurse Ratched angrier. Turkle opens up the screen on the window... (full context)