Notes on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Themes

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Topic Tracking: Power and Control

Chapters 1 - 15

Power and Control 1: Chief Bromden sees power in terms of literal size. The Big Nurse, when she gets angry, swells up so large that she towers over everyone. Even her name, "Big" Nurse, has to do with size. Although he's over six feet tall, Bromden considers himself small because he doesn't have the courage to do anything; not to speak or take action or leave the ward.

Power and Control 2: The Big Nurse's ultimate aim throughout the book is to keep everything running smoothly. To Bromden, she has designed the ward to churn out people who conform to society. To do that, she must have absolute control over everything at all times. Things have to work efficiently, and exactly the way she wants them too, and she keeps everyone in line in order to do that. McMurphy represents an immediate threat to this need for control.

Power and Control 3: The Big Nurse's control over the men is so exquisite that she can get them to abase themselves by mere silence. She runs group meetings almost like medieval torture sessions, where men are broken down by the constant barrage of questioning from their peers. Everyone does what she wants most of the time, because they're too afraid of her not to comply.

Power and Control 4: Bromden is so convinced of the Big Nurse's authority that he attributes the passage of time to her, as well as the actions and conversations of most of the men. She takes on mythic proportions in his mind, as someone so powerful that she can run anything she wants to.

Power and Control 5: McMurphy tries to lift the control panel, which is clearly too big for him. He makes an attempt, though, and as he does, his arms swell up from the effort. Once again, the bigger you are, the more powerful - and vice-versa. Even though McMurphy fails to lift the panel, he is not intimidated by it's size into not trying; which makes him stronger than the rest of the men.

Chapters 16 - 23

Power and Control 6: Essentially, the Big Nurse does , have absolute power in the ward because she gets to decide how long McMurphy stays there. Thus, he has to get her permission to get his freedom. Her control is generally indirect. McMurphy can still choose to wage war against her, but she gets to decide the consequences.

Power and Control 7: One of the Big Nurse's most powerful tools is to treat men like little children: with pity and condescension. This is humiliating, and it is also nearly impossible to fight against, because it seems like all her comments are deserving. She makes Sefelt's natural fear of medication side effects like the fear of a child of the boogeyman.

Power and Control 8: Now that things have calmed down, and McMurphy has apparently given up, the Big Nurse is free to punish the men back-handedly for something that she was too afraid to stop before. Like the Chief thinks earlier, the only way to beat the Big Nurse is to beat her every time, because the minute you let your guard down, she's back on top.

Chapters 24 - 25

Power and Control 9: The Big Nurse uses the men's fear to try and thwart McMurphy's plans. She never says anything directly (which is the essence of her power), instead she leaves newsclippings on the bulletin board that talk about sunken ships and hostile seas. No one can accuse her of sabotage, because she can merely say that she was looking out for the men's safety.

Power and Control 10: As soon as Bromden speaks, he admits to McMurphy that he's not as big as he is. He's been staying silent not to fool people, but to avoid the world. He describes his mother as huge, although not in physical size; she towered over his father near the end, and drove the man to drink. McMurphy makes a deal to make Bromden "big" again, which Bromden accepts.

Chapters 26 - 29

Power and Control 11: Nurse Ratched's final gambit is to show the men how much money McMurphy has made from his supposedly philanthropic schemes. She does this behind his back, and once again, never accuses anyone of anything. Her control of the men is based on a well-honed knowledge of their suspicions and fears.

Power and Control 12: She uses shock treatment as a form of torture, in an attempt to get McMurphy to admit she's right. Once again, she's completely impeccable in her actions, and it's impossible to directly accuse her of anything.

Power and Control 13: In one of the few examples of non-Big Nurse handled control, McMurphy attacks her because of the need of the men. They can control him through their weakness: one strong personality to step in and defend a thousand weaker ones. McMurphy's final undoing of the Big Nurse is to rip open her shirt and expose her too large breasts. He also tries to strangle her, but it's the humiliation that destroys her power more than anything else. She has tried to hide her breasts from the very beginning; their size is an embarrassment, which makes them even more difficult to conceal. By showing that even she has something that she is ashamed of, McMurphy removes the last of her power.

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