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
Emasculation and Sexuality Quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.