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 likeable, crass gambler who may have faked psychosis to get relocated to the ward from a work camp. Regardless of Nurse Ratched’s personal suspicions that McMurphy is not, in fact, insane, Ratched must treat him as insane because only then can she exercise control over him. In other words, a ward that is meant to help cure those who are insane is instead treating as insane a man who its chief nurse believes to be sane—a fact which is, arguably, itself insane behavior.
Ken Kesey's portrayal of the characters within the psych ward further asks the reader to question the line between what is sane and insane. The characters in the ward are undeniably damaged or hurting, but are they insane or do they just not fit perfectly well in a rigid society? The narrator of the novel, Chief Bromden, has successfully pretended to be deaf and mute for years in the ward, though his recalling of events as a narrator are largely lucid and appear sane despite the hallucinatory fog—which seems to be something that the ward and the world has done to him, rather than some problematic aspect of his psyche—that plagues him for a large portion of the book. Dale Harding is an eloquent, well-educated man, but because of his homosexuality he is so uncomfortable in society that he voluntarily puts himself in a mental institution. Through these and other characters in the psych ward, Kesey makes a deliberate point of challenging the reader to ask themselves where the boundaries of sanity are, and who exactly determines them, and what is a world that allows the strong to label the weak or misfit as crazy just to shut them away.
Sanity v. Insanity ThemeTracker
Sanity v. Insanity Quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
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.
You’re making sense, old man, a sense of your own. You’re not crazy the way they think.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn’t it? Food for thought there.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.