One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey draws a clear connection between the men’s sexuality and their freedom—their very ability to be “men.” Nurse Ratched uses emasculating tactics throughout the novel in order to strip the men on the ward of their freedom. She sometimes employs physical force (such as shock treatment), drugs (personality altering pills), but also uses simple intimidation and other tactics to ensure that the men are always under a strict, unchanging schedule and that they are acting in a submissive, despondent way that makes them easier to control. When McMurphy arrives at the ward, he immediately identifies emasculation is the core of Nurse Ratched’s strategy of control, and notes after the first group session that she is a “ball-breaker.” Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, then, operate in direct opposition of one another throughout the novel: Ratched the emasculating force, McMurphy the hyper-masculine force, bragging about his many sexual conquests and challenging the other men to show some balls.

While Kesey draws a strong correlative between emasculation and lack of freedom on the ward; emasculation is also intertwined with social pressures—most of the men arrive at the ward already emasculated, and this is in fact the root cause for why many elect to be committed in the first place. Dan Harding feels emasculated because of his homosexuality and his wife’s reaction to his sexual proclivities. Billy Bibbit feels emasculated because of his mother’s hold on him and the fact that he had never been with a woman until he has sex with Candy, the prostitute. This act, though, once discovered by Nurse Ratched, forces him to suicide because he cannot bear to think of his mother’s reaction. After Bibbit's suicide, McMurphy rips Nurse Ratched’s uniform, revealing her breasts and womanly figure for the first time to the patients. In the logic of the novel, McMurphy's attack destroys the institutionalized mask that Ratched uses to make herself non-human and non-feminine and reasserts masculine dominance. It shows the men that Ratched is not some impersonal avenging force, she's a woman, and that the men, by extension, are men, who traditionally are the powerful ones. And that they can reassert that power if they wish.

Emasculation and Sexuality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Emasculation and Sexuality appears in each chapter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Emasculation and Sexuality Quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Below you will find the important quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest related to the theme of Emasculation and Sexuality.
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.

I couldn’t figure it at first, why you guys were coming to me like I was some kind of savior. Then I just happened to find out about the way the nurses have the big say as to who gets discharged and who doesn’t. And I got wise awful damned fast. I said, ‘Why, those slippery bastards have conned me, snowed me into holding their bag. If that don’t beat all, conned ol’ R. P. McMurphy,’…Well I don’t mean nothing personal, you understand, buddies, but screw that noise. I want out of here just as much as the rest of you. I got just as much to lose hassling that old buzzard as you do.

Related Characters: Randle P. McMurphy (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, McMurphy comes to terms with his situation in the hospital. Contrary to what he’d believed, McMurphy is being watched very closely: he can’t leave whenever he wants, and in fact is completely reliant on his nurses’ approval for release from the hospital. McMurphy was only behaving like a clown because he thought he had nothing to lose—he thought he had a definite exit date, and wanted to have a good time until then.

In a way, McMurphy’s admission in this quotation is disheartening for Bromden and the other patients. They’d assumed that McMurphy was being a kind of hero because he knew how much power Ratched exercised over him, and still wanted to stand up to her. Now, they realize that he’s just like them: he’s frightened of the nurses’ authority, and wants to get on their good side. Whether McMurphy will continue to be obedient or revert to his old ways, however, remains to be seen.

Tell me why. You gripe, you bitch for weeks on end about how you can’t stand this place, can’t stand the nurse or anything about her, and all the time you ain’t committed. I can understand it with some of those old guys on the ward. They’re nuts. But you, you’re not exactly the everyday man on the street, but you’re not nuts.

Related Characters: Randle P. McMurphy (speaker), Dale Harding, Billy Bibbit, Sefelt
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

McMurphy has just learned that he’s involuntarily committed to the mental hospital until the nurses deem him fit to return to society. Furthermore, he discovers that the majority of the patients in the hospital are there voluntarily—they could leave at any time. McMurphy is shocked with the patients’ attitude: he naturally assumed that they were involuntarily committed, since no one would voluntarily live with Nurse Ratched and then complain about her so much. McMurphy ends his quotation with a reminder that he sees his peers as human beings, not “crazy people.” Even if Harding and Billy aren’t exactly average people, they’re perfectly capable of running their own lives.

The implicit answer to McMurphy’s question is that the patients lack the courage and determination to live without Nurse Ratched behind them. They hate a tyrannical, domineering woman controlling their lives, but they’re too cowardly to try anything else.

Part Four Quotes

I tried to talk to [McMurphy] into playing along with [Nurse Ratched] so’s to get out of the treatments, but he just laughed and told me Hell, all they was doin’ was chargin’ his battery for him, free for nothing.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

Chief Bromden, now McMurphy’s closest ally, tries to convince McMurphy to back off of intimidating Nurse Ratched. McMurphy and Bromden have been given the dreaded EST—shock therapy that gives them a seizure. Bromden has been terrified by his experiences with EST, and wants McMurphy to avoid having to receive the treatment in the future.

McMurphy, as tenacious as ever, refuses to back down. By this point in the novel, he’s decided that Nurse Ratched can’t defeat him. Even though he was previously worried that Ratched would use her authority to confine him to the hospital forever, he’s now more concerned about undermining her authority for its own sake. In another sense, McMurphy is trying to assert his own identity—masculine, strong, charismatic—instead of devolving into a docile, demure child.

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.

I was only sure of one thing: [McMurphy] wouldn’t have left something like that sit there in the day room with his name tacked on it for twenty or thirty years so the Big Nurse could use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system. I was sure of that.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bromden comes face-to-face with the new McMurphy, who has been lobotomized as punishment for attacking the nurses. Bromden immediately recognizes what Nurse Ratched is aiming for: by lobotomizing McMurphy and then sending him back to his old hospital ward, Ratched is desperately trying to salvage her sinking authority. By parading McMurphy's lobotomized self around, Ratched is showing the other patients what happens to people who disobey her. McMurphy's fate, it seems, is to be a frightening reminder of why it's crucial to obey Ratched's authority. Notice that Bromden refers to the new McMurphy as an “it,” not a “he.” Bromden doesn’t really think of “McMurphy” as a human being at all any more: even though McMurphy’s body is intact, his mind (and, even more important, his indomitable spirit) is long-gone. McMurphy is as good as dead—the only question is, what will become of the body?

I been away a long time.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker)
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Chief Bromden, having mercy-killed McMurphy, escapes from his mental hospital and returns to the Outside World he’s feared for years. The Chief always had the strength to escape from the hospital; what he lacked was the willpower. Now that McMurphy is dead, Bromden knows that he owes it to McMurphy to escape the nurses’ authority—to be as lively and courageous as McMurphy would have been.

Outside the hospital, Bromden is strangely casual—indeed, the final sentence of the novel, quoted here, sounds surprisingly laid back, as if Bromden is looking around, trying to decide where to visit first. For many years, Bromden was too neurotic to leave the hospital; now, though, he’s seemingly been freed of his neuroses. The quotation suggests that Bromden’s imprisonment in the hospital was itself what kept him mentally ill; in other words, the hospital perpetuated Bromden’s mental problems instead of curing them. In all, the final sentence of the novel conveys a quiet optimism: Bromden has been asleep, and now he’s waking up, ready to live a long life in McMurphy’s memory.