One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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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.
Social Pressure and Shame Theme Icon

Randle McMurphy is shocked to learn that there are more men on the psych ward who are voluntarily committed than those, like him, who have been committed by the state. Dale Harding, for instance, is so ashamed of his homosexuality that he chooses to commit himself to a mental asylum to escape the shame he feels around his wife. Billy Bibbit is in his early thirties, but he has become so infantilized and reliant on his mother’s acceptance and approval that he is paralyzed by the thought of being with another woman, or of his mother finding out anything about him that would lessen her esteem of him (e.g. when he sleeps with Candy and blames the events on McMurphy and the rest of the men).

The novels makes it clear that many of these men are holding themselves back from living freely because they are terrified of how they will be received by the general population for their behaviors. Not fitting in because of sexual orientation, ethnic background, infantilization—no matter what it is, the men fear what makes them different and would rather hide from society than face its judgment of them. The judgments about what constitutes normal or abnormal behavior, about what is shameful and what is not, are decided by the few in positions of institutional power, but their influence and legitimacy gives their views—however wrong or right—the ability to become the definition of what is Normal in society. For most of these men, they simply cannot deal with the shame of not fitting into what is conventionally normal until McMurphy helps them to recognize their own internal dignity and self-worth, to reconnect with themselves in a way that is unaffected by society's perception of them.

Social Pressure and Shame ThemeTracker

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Social Pressure and Shame 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 Social Pressure and Shame.
Part One Quotes

Across the room from the Acutes are the culls of the Combine’s product, the Chronics. Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking around the streets giving the product a bad name. Chronics are in for good, the staff concedes. Chronics are divided into Walkers like me, can still get around if you keep them fed, and Wheelers and Vegetables. What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker)
Page Number: 14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening description of a mental hospital, Chief Bromden describes a surreal, infernal room. The room is full of mental patients, some of them incapable of walking or talking; some, like Bromden, perfectly capable. As Bromden sees it, everyone in the mental hospital is, in some fundamental way, broken. Like everyone else in the modern world, the mental patients are manufactured by a mysterious force (essentially society) called the Combine--the only difference between a mental patient and a normal member of society is that hospital patients need to be repaired or at least kept off the streets.

In general, Bromden paints a sinister view of the hospital. It's important to note that while Bromden is talking about the hospital, everything he says can be applied to modern society in general. As Bromden sees it, human beings are being manufactured by the Combine--a potent symbol of the strong, insidious control of modern society. Humans have lost their natural life force--instead of blood and a soul, humans contain nothing but cold, sterile rust, a clear symbol of what the Chief perceives as humanity's vanished vitality.

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This world…belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must face up to this. Nor more than right that it should be this way. We must learn to accept it as a law of the natural world. The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf as the strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows his place. He most certainly doesn’t challenge the wolf to combat. Now, would that be wise? Would it?

Related Characters: Dale Harding (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Dale Harding is the hospital's intellectual, and yet he's also totally submissive to the established order. As we can see, Harding believes that power is the only real justice in life; everyone should accept their place in society, depending on how strong or weak they are. There is a natural order in the universe, visible in all forms of life from rabbits up to human beings, and Harding sees no reason to disrupt such a natural order.

Harding's emphasis on nature and order turns out to be self-defeating, since he's gay, and therefore--in the judgment of his society, and seemingly in his own self-hating worldview--a violator of the "natural biological order." Moreover, it's surprising that Harding is so willing to accept the corrupt authority of the nurses in his hospital--he's smart enough to see that they're tyrannical, but not willing to challenge their tyranny. Harding is, in short, a frustrated, self-hating man, who knows that he's being treated unfairly by his society, and yet lacks the strength to do something about it.

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.

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.

Please understand: We do not impose certain rules and restrictions on you without a great deal of thought about their therapeutic value. A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside World, because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them. At some time—perhaps in your childhood—you may have been allowed to get away with flouting the rules of society. When you broke a rule you knew it. You wanted to be dealt with, needed it, but the punishment did not come. That foolish lenience on the part of your parents may have been the germ that grew into your present illness. I tell you this hoping you will understand that it is entirely for your own good that we enforce discipline and order.

Related Characters: Nurse Ratched (speaker)
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Nurse Ratched gives one of her longest explanations of why she treats the patients the way she does: in short, sees everything she does as being for the patients' own good. Ratched doesn’t go into any details about her medical or psychological theories; rather she states as a given that the patients are insane because of their inability to measure up to society’s “rules.” Ratched never bothers to justify or explain the rules of society—she accepts them dogmatically, and therefore treats the patients like children and animals for their failure to obey.

The main difference between Ratched and McMurphy is that where Ratched accepts society’s rules as the truth, McMurphy questions the same set of rules. A good example of a questionable rule would be the ban placed on sodomy and homosexuality in the United States at this point in history—a ban that plays a decisive part in sending Harding to the hospital. Ratched would never doubt that homosexuality is against the rules, and therefore wrong—McMurphy, on the other hand, seems to embrace all ways of life, even those that he doesn’t understand.

Part Three Quotes

They 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. They didn’t exactly apologize to the girl for the things they’d said, but when they ask to see a fish she’d caught they were just as polite as pie. And when McMurphy and the captain came back out of the bait shop we all shared a beer together before we drove away.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Candy Starr
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

McMurphy and his fellow patients at the hospital have left the hospital with supervisors (and a prostitute named Candy) and gone on a fishing trip. During the course of the excursion, Bromden notices an enormous change in the patients’ attitudes. They’re more relaxed and easygoing, and seem not to think of themselves as mentally diseased in any way. As a way of “measuring” the change in the patients, Bromden notes the way the dock workers who point McMurphy to the boat perceive the patients—instead of considering the patients oafish and ridiculous, they seem to think of the patients as "normal" people.

The normality of the fishing excursion culminates in the “sharing of a beer”—just about the most normal activity one can engage in in the United States. The message is clear: by treating his peers as ordinary, normal human beings, not specimens needing examination, McMurphy has cured them of many of their supposed psychological afflictions.

Part Four Quotes

First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives—gambling with human lives—as if you thought yourself to be a God!

Related Characters: Nurse Ratched (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Billy Bibbit, Charles Cheswick
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy Bibbit has just committed suicide. Billy has had sex with a woman (with McMurphy’s encouragement) and afterwards seems to have lost his stammer and neurotic behavior. Nevertheless, he is humiliated when Nurse Ratched finds him with the woman, and immediately regains his neuroses. When Billy kills himself, Ratched blames McMurphy for egging Billy on and pushing him to do things he didn’t really want to do.

First, it’s important to note that Ratched accuses McMurphy of “playing God.” McMurphy has always been trying to challenge Ratched’s absolute authority over the hospital. Ratched sees herself as the “God” of the building, meaning that any other authority figure must be a “false prophet.” Also, of course, Ratched is the one who really drives Billy to kill himself, with her guilt and reminders of authority.

Second, it’s worth asking if Ratched has a point. Certainly, McMurphy has urged his friends, mental patients, into some bizarre, unfamiliar circumstances. As Ratched puts it, McMurphy is a gambler through and through—he’s organized parties and group outings without knowing how they’re going to turn out. In the end, then, what Ratched really objects to isn’t the fact that McMurphy threw a party or encouraged Billy to have sex—it’s that he did so without knowing what would happen next. McMurphy’s laid-back, uncertain approach to living life is the antithesis of Ratched’s orderly, authoritarian worldview (in McMurphy’s world, there’s no schedule; in Ratched’s there is only a schedule). In general, then, Ratched’s outburst sums up the differences between herself and McMurphy.

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.