One Flew Over The Cuckoo S Nest

2 Essay, Research Paper

Randall Patrick MacMurphy s struggle against institutional authority in the 1975 Academy Award winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo s Nest illustrates one man s rebellion against the repressive and controlling powers of a total institution. MacMurphy is committed to a mental institution after his ejection from a prison work farm due to his belligerent attitude so that he can be evaluated some at the prison believed him to be crazy. Within the walls of the manmade cuckoo s nest MacMurphy and his fellow inmates are placed under total control and of course very close supervision. Their information is controlled to the point where they can not even watch the current World Series on television all personal freedoms are erased and insignificant, including pre-existing status and all semblance of personal freedom. The degradation ceremony that strips away this pre-existing status occurs as soon as MacMurphy enters the ward and all his personal belongings are collected from his holders. From that point on he is no longer a man, he is a case file, to be dealt with in a standard fashion by the powers that maintain control of his life.

Power in this total institution is solely divided between the leaders of the mental hospital. The doctors and nurses make the rules, they are the people responsible for stripping away the identity of the inmates and controlling their new one. The doctors and nurses employ a number of techniques to demonstrate their control over the inmates. Those in positions of power in the hospital have access to all parts of the ward. They are privileged to be able to walk through any doors they please. The patients however, are designated to only certain areas of the ward. They are always in rooms divided by a large observation window, and are never on the side of the glass doing the observing. At all times this division of space is a constant reminder to the patients that they are being watched, they are always aware that their controllers can see what they are doing. The patients know they are not to break the rules laid down by authority for they know the consequences are painful. The repressive Nurse Ratched knows how to exploit the mental weaknesses of the inmates and does so to keep them in line. A prime example is her actions toward Billy Bibbit towards the end of the film. Billy, a shy and virginal boy deathly afraid of his mother, is emasculated by Nurse Ratched as she threatens to tell his mother of his actions with Candy, a prostitute. Just as Billy is beginning to gain some confidence he is set straight by the powerful nurse. So plagued with the guilt of his horrible actions, Billy slits his own throat with a piece of glass.

This exemplifies Erving Goffman s argument that the institution shapes the illness. If it were not for Nurse Ratched controlling Billy he would have made huge progress concerning his issues of shyness and paranoia. Although Billy was moving away from his insecurity, he wasn t moving away from it the way Nurse Ratched wanted him to so he is again labeled as deviant and controlled. Another example of the institution shaping the illness is the neurotic Cheswick s demand for his cigarettes at a group discussion session. He throws a temper tantrum, which demonstrates a dramatic change in his demeanor.


No longer is Charlie Cheswick the insecure man he was before. Though he goes about it in a very uncontrolled and disturbing manner, Cheswick is demonstrating a huge amount of self-confidence. These child-like statements show that he does have the ability to say he wants something, even though his methods of asking aren t quite developed.

It is impossible to tell in either of these situations whether the subjects are crazy or they are making breakthroughs to the sane world. In this hospital situation both Billy and Cheswick s actions are viewed as negative. Their change is misinterpreted as a change for the worse yet they are only progressing forward. Since Nurse Ratched believes the only way for the patients to recover from their illnesses is from therapy in the group discussions, she doesn t see that MacMurphy may be aiding the patients by treating them like human beings. This special environment she has created in which there is no cure except for her own leads her to misread every action of the mental patients that she does not provoke or expect. For example, when MacMurphy refuses to take his pills because he does not know what they might contain, he is accused of getting upset. MacMurphy is merely questioning the idea of blindly swallowing a medicine whose ingredients have not been disclosed to him, a very understandable request. The man was not upset, but concerned; Nurse Ratched misunderstands this as a blatant antagonistic attack against her control.

Most of the patients within the walls of the mental institution were not committed, they willfully entered on their own accord. They volunteered to join the mental ward s community to escape the pressures of the outside world. But unlike men on vacation, they escaped to a world that they could handle. They volunteered themselves into a total institution, where everything is regulated for their treatment. Most of the willful inmates entered the institution with the idea that they would leave someday a better man, cured. It is evident now that none of those voluntary members of the institution will ever leave. They are so conformed to the lifestyle the total institution has created for them that they could never be expected to readjust to the pressures of the outside world. The inherently awful Nurse Ratched had socialized each and every member of the community to her wishes. She has [them] coming and going. Her domineering attitude is not appropriate for care of those with mental and emotional problems – she would be more suited at the head of a slave ship with a whip or club. When she comes in contact with the very sane yet very belligerent R. P. MacMurphy the two personalities clash in a chaotic manner. The wrath of the total institution s dominance is witnessed when Mac s need for independence and Ratched s need for absolute control causes them to lock horns in war that Ratched eventually wins at all cost. Billy is pushed to suicide and MacMurphy ordered lobotomized a fate worse than death for the free of spirit and mind.


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