One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Themes

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.

Sanity v. Insanity

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest explores the idea of what it means to be sane or insane, and, perhaps most importantly, who gets to define what qualifies as sane versus insane. One of the novel’s most salient insinuations is that the psych ward, Nurse Ratched, and all the other tools of “sanity” in the book are, in fact, insane. This question becomes central with the arrival of Randle McMurphy to the ward, a…

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Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity

Nurse Ratched is notorious for her desire to exercise complete control over the men who are under her jurisdiction on the psych ward, both as patients and as employees. In doing so, Nurse Ratched becomes a metaphor for the entire mental institution, the government, society at large—or to put it simply: any and every powerful institution that exists to regulate, control, and categorize groups of people. In order to determine the difference between sanity and…

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Social Pressure and Shame

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…

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The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man

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…

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Emasculation and Sexuality

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…

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