One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man 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.
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon

The Combine is what Chief Bromden calls society at large, a giant force that exists to oppress the people within it. The hospital ward is a mere factory for remedying mistakes made within The Combine (within neighborhoods and churches), to re-set peoples’ behavior into the “correct” behavior. The ward is a mechanized extension of The Combine, but more importantly The Combine represents the increasingly mechanized structure of all of nature and society. Bromden's ideas about The Combine arise in part from his own history as a Native American—his ancestral land, on which his people lived and fished, was taken from him and his family for the purposes of building a hydroelectric dam.

Chief Bromden sees The Combine as a taming force against human nature: it devastated his homeland and, in doing so, stripped him of his human nature. He becomes what others believe to be deaf and dumb, much like an automaton—tasked with cleaning up the ward on schedule like a robot. His existence for years on the ward is without humanity; he exists only to complete tasks. Kesey suggests with the theme of The Combine that the taming of nature goes hand in hand with the taming of man. While Kesey focuses his attention in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the psychiatric ward, and the way it runs like a factory, the novel also suggests that the ward functions as a metaphor for the world at large, which grounds down its people into mindless drones, disconnected from themselves and from nature.

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The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man 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 The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man.
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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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.

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.

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.

You’re making sense, old man, a sense of your own. You’re not crazy the way they think.

Related Characters: Randle P. McMurphy (speaker), Chief Bromden
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

McMurphy meets Chief Bromden, his new bunk mate. The Chief refuses to speak for any reason, and everyone in the building seems to avoid him. And yet McMurphy notices Bromden right away, and regards him as wise and sensible. There's no good reason why McMurphy respects Bromden; Bromden hasn't done anything particularly brilliant or noteworthy. And yet McMurphy's quotation suggests why he's such a charismatic figure. McMurphy sees potential in everyone, regardless of how much or how little they talk.

The key words in this quotation are "a sense of your own." McMurphy doesn't claim to understand Bromden--why he's refusing to talk, for example. And yet McMurphy does acknowledge that there are many ways of looking at the world--many kinds of sense. Rather than dismiss the patients as insane, like Nurse Ratched, McMurphy celebrates the patients for their unique forms of "sense."

If somebody’d of come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year –old woman hollering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they’d of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the first Part of the novel, McMurphy achieves an ambiguous victory. He's petitioned for Nurse Ratched to turn down the loud, cheesy music that plays throughout the hospital, and he's also tried to get the patients to vote to watch the baseball game on television. Nurse Ratched, reluctant to yield any power to McMurphy, has refused both of his requests. But here, McMurphy asserts his victory over Ratched by pretending that the ball game is playing on TV. Together, he and the patients yell and cheer at a blank TV screen.

In a way, McMurphy is doing what he's always done--using humor and satire to undermine Ratched's authority. Ratched thinks that she can use her power to crush McMurphy's spirit, but here, McMurphy proves her dead-wrong--he's more than capable of keeping his spirits up, even if the authorities deny him TV.

The final comment of the passage also emphasizes how Kesey blends the ideas of sanity and insanity in the book. Everyone in the ward is supposed to be "insane" except for the "sane" nurses, but in this case it's only when the patients are acting very lucid and rebellious that they really look "insane," and Nurse Ratched looks just as insane as any of them.

Part Two Quotes

They’re trying to act like they still got their eyes on nothing but that blank TV in front of us, but anyone can see they’re all sneaking looks at the Big Nurse behind her glass there, just the same as I am. For the first time she’s on the other side of the glass and getting a taste of how it feels to be watched when you wish more than anything else to be able to pull a green shade between your face and all the eyes that you can’t get away from.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

Immediately following McMurphy's act of disobedience, there's a clear change in the atmosphere of the hospital. The mental patients, who are used to being constantly looked at by Nurse Ratched and her colleagues, find themselves staring back at Ratched. Nurse Ratched, Bromden imagines, isn't really used to having so many people stare at her. Trivial as it might seem, the patients' surveillance of Nurse Ratched constitutes an act of rebellion--it shows that McMurphy is teaching the patients to think of Nurse Ratched as "just another person," not a demigod from whom they must avert their eyes at all times.

It's also significant that Bromden conceives of the patients' act of rebellion as a rebellion of vision. Bromden is haunted by the possibility that he's being watched at all times--surveyed by the agents of the Combine. It's only appropriate, then, that the Chief conceives of the patients' rebellion as an act of retaliatory surveillance.

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.

In the group meetings there were gripes coming up that had been buried so long the thing being griped about had already changed. Now that McMurphy was around to back them up, the guys started letting fly at everything that had ever happened on the ward they didn’t like.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see the effect that McMurphy's presence has had on the group dynamic during hospital therapy sessions. Where before the group therapy sessions were quiet and useless, presided over by a calm Nurse Ratched, now they have become wild and argumentative. The men have been repressed in their frustrations for so long that they're glad to have an opportunity to "air grievances." And beyond dealing with current problems, they also talk about problems that they had long ago, but never had the courage to discuss.

It's possible to interpret the new dynamic of the therapy sessions as dangerous and pointless--as Bromden notes, the patients aren't really addressing problems that can be solved at all, because they happened so long ago. And yet the patients' airing of grievances does serve a useful purpose: it allows them to vent the frustration that's been building up inside them for years. So even if the patients' complaints aren't in themselves "useful," they pave the way for more productive and satisfying conversations in the future.

I’m committed…I’d of left here before now if it was up to me. Maybe I couldn’t play first string, with this bum arm, but I could of folded towels, couldn’t I? I could of done something. That nurse on my ward, she keeps telling the doctor I ain’t ready. Not even to fold towels in the crummy old locker room, I ain’t ready.

Related Characters: The Lifeguard (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we meet the Lifeguard, one of the patients at the hospital. The Lifeguard explains that he's in the hospital involuntarily--he'll be allowed to leave as soon as the nurses say he's capable of surviving in the real world, but of course, such a day never arrives. Instead of leaving the hospital, the Lifeguard is going to spend the rest of his life there.

The passage is a good example of how the nurses might be abusing their authority in order to dominate their patients. The Lifeguard lacks the courage (or the means) to "define" himself--he's forced to rely on other people, mostly the nurses, to tell him whether or not he's "sane," "fit," etc. The Lifeguard's words also educate McMurphy about the realities of his situation--he'd assumed that he would be allowed to leave the hospital after a fixed period of time, when in reality, he'll only be permitted to leave when the nurses say he's "healthy."

EST isn’t always used for punitive measures, as our nurse uses it, and it isn’t pure sadism on the staff’s part, either. A number of supposed Irrecoverables were brought back into contact with shock, just as a number were helped with lobotomy and leucotomy. Shock treatment has some advantages; it’s cheap, quick, entirely painless. It simply induces a seizure.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker)
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

Harding describes the use of electroshock therapy (EST) at the hospital. EST is sometimes used to punish unruly patients. It's also used to "cure" them of their supposed problems--patients have supposedly been brought back into consciousness with the help of shock therapy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has played a large role in demonizing EST in popular culture—and EST certainly used to be used inhumanely and excessively in many institutions—but it is still used in some cases today, and has proven effective for many issues. (Harding gives a slightly nuanced view on the subject here, although throughout the book EST is shown as a "punitive measure," as he describes it.) Treatments like lobotomies and leucotomies, however, are entirely ineffective and horrifying in the personality changes they induce.

McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, McMurphy prepares to defy the authority of Nurse Ratched one more time. He's angry that Ratched has punished the men for their disobedience by taking away their rec room--in retaliation, he's planning to shock Ratched and undermine her power. As always, Bromden interprets McMurphy's actions in his own terms--terms like "Combine," "fog," etc.

Although it's hard to take everything the Chief says literally, his words clearly have a metaphorical truth. It's been clear for some time that the hospital in the novel is a microcosm for modern American society--a society in which people's vitality is taken and they're forced to accept the identities society gives them. So when Bromden says that Nurse Ratched is only one small part of the total "Combine," we can't help but agree: Ratched is just a metaphor for the mechanization (and, as Kesey portrays it, the emasculation) of social order.

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 Four Quotes

[Nurse Ratched] knew that people, being like they are, sooner or later are going to draw back a ways from somebody who seems to be giving a little more than ordinary, form Santa Clauses and missionaries and men donating funds to worthy causes, and begin to wonder: what’s in it for them? Grin out of the side of their mouths when the young lawyer, say, brings a sack of pecans to the kids in his district school—just before nominations for state senate, the sly devil—and say to one another, He’s nobody’s fool.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Nurse Ratched
Related Symbols: Gambling
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

Nurse Ratched tries a shady strategy for wearing away at McMurphy’s authority. Instead of trying to censor him or punish him, she tries to convince his army of followers—i.e., the patients—that he doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Ratched implies that McMurphy is only trying to steal the patients’ money, and that he’s only humoring the patients, pretending to treat them normally so that they'll gamble with him. As Bromden notes here, Ratched’s attack is clever, because humans naturally question generosity of any kind—they ask themselves why the other person is being so generous and cheerful, and tend to assume that such a person is in fact selfish.

It’s fair to say that Ratched has a point: McMurphy is no saint, to say the least, and he has in fact been conning the patients out of their money. And yet Ratched’s attack totally misses the point: McMurphy is a charismatic leader to the other patients because he treats them as normal human beings. Ratched, who’s used to treating the patients as children, can’t conceive of a situation in which McMurphy treats his peers as adults. So even if McMurphy is conning the other hospital patients, his status as a therapeutic and normalizing force among patients hasn’t changed.

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.

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.

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.

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?

The big, hard body had a tough grip on life. It fought a long time against having it taken away, flailing and thrashing around so much I finally had to lie full length on top of it and scissor the kicking legs with mine while I mashed the pillow into the face. I lay there on top of the body for what seemed days. Until the thrashing stopped. Until it was still a while and had shuddered once and was still again. Then I rolled off. I lifted the pillow, and in the moonlight I saw the expression hadn’t changed from the blank, dead-end look the least bit, even under suffocation. I took my thumbs and pushed the lids down and held them till they stayed. Then I lay back on my bed.

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

In the final pages of the novel, McMurphy is lobotomized for disobeying Nurse Ratched, and then returned to his old hospital ward. The Chief, horrified that his old friend has been reduced to a vegetable, decides to take matters into his own hands, literally: he kills McMurphy by smothering him to death. The Chief can’t stand to see McMurphy being defeated and manipulated—his lobotomization proves that Nurse Ratched has finally crushed McMurphy’s spirit (the very thing McMurphy was always most afraid of).

There’s also a more subtle side to Bromden’s actions in this quotation: by killing McMurphy, Bromden allows his old hero to die in a blaze of glory instead of being seen by the patients, his former followers. McMurphy the vegetable would be a piece of propaganda for Ratched: “Do as I say or you’ll get what he got.” Dead, McMurphy can continue to be a symbol of resistance to Nurse Ratched: he’ll live on, as wild and charismatic as he ever was.

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.