One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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The Control Panel Symbol Analysis

The Control Panel Symbol Icon
Randle McMurphy makes a bet that he can lift the control panel, an object that is so large and heavy that no one believes he can actually do it—but they are all committed to seeing him try. Though he fails, and walks away with bloodied hands, there is a sense of victory in his fighting against the insurmountable. The control panel symbolizes The Combine and the rules of the ward that seem too big to move or change. Chief Bromden is groomed by McMurphy to get his old strength back, and at the book’s end is able to throw the control panel out of the window and escape the ward. In other words, Bromden uses a symbol of his own oppression in the ward to free himself from it, and from The Combine in general.

The Control Panel 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 The Control Panel. 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 Four Quotes

I still had my own notions—how McMurphy was a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine that was networking the land with copper wire and crystal, how he was too big to be bothered with something as measly as money—but even I came halfway to thinking like the others. What happened was this: He’d helped carry the tables into the tub room before one of the group meetings and was looking at me standing beside the control panel.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy
Related Symbols: Gambling, The Control Panel
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chief Bromden expresses some of his doubts about McMurphy’s character. Nurse Ratched has just implied that McMurphy is treating the other patients as “suckers,” winning away all their money in card games. Bromden doesn’t fully believe Ratched’s suggestions—he likes McMurphy too much to do so—and yet he does consider the possibility that McMurphy is just a con artist; Ratched’s implication by itself is enough to incriminate McMurphy, even in the eyes of the Chief, perhaps his most loyal follower.

And yet the passage illustrates the full extent of McMurphy’s worth in Bromden’s eyes. As Bromden sees it, McMurphy is a liberator, here in the hospital to save the patients from Ratched’s authority, and from the authority of the sinister, tyrannical Combine. The point here isn’t that Bromden is right or wrong about McMurphy (it’s entirely possible that McMurphy is just a con artist, with no great plans of crushing Ratched’s authority or battling injustice). What counts is that Bromden believes that he’s found a role model in McMurphy; whether or not McMurphy ultimately measures up to Bromden’s worship, he’s inspiring Bromden to escape from the hospital.

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The Control Panel Symbol Timeline in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Control Panel 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
Social Pressure and Shame Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
...window. Cheswick says it’s special-made, and won’t break. McMurphy decides he would move the giant control panel and crawl out behind it, but everyone agrees that it’s far too heavy for one... (full context)
Part Three
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon
...full-sized and built up, would he be strong enough to lift something the size of the control panel . Bromden thinks he would. McMurphy says if Bromden promises to take McMurphy’s special bodybuilding... (full context)
Part Four
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
Social Pressure and Shame Theme Icon
Bromden says he never felt suspicious about McMurphy until an event with the control panel . McMurphy wants to see if his training regimen has worked for Bromden, and asks... (full context)
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
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon
Following Scanlon’s advice that he should run, Bromden lifts the control panel and throws it through the window. He can hear aides running down the hall, so... (full context)