Notes on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Themes

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Topic Tracking: Women

Chapters 1 - 15

Women 1: The Big Nurse is the first appearance by a woman in the novel. She is also the only major female presence on the ward. All of the patients are men, and the nurses who help the Big Nurse are not especially prominent characters. She is described by Chief Bromden as being doll-faced, and severe looking. The only thing about her that approaches humanity are her overly large breasts. She is machine-like, and proper; the representation of society and conformity, the negative aspects of the controlling woman.

Women 2: The second reference to women is during Harding's group therapy session. He feels inadequate compared to his wife, and believes she may be sleeping around. His wife is immediately caricatured during the meeting: extremely attractive; flirtatious; and possibly cheating. Women are designed to pull men down, to cut away their strength; they manipulate and humiliate without obviously attacking.

Women 3: The third strong reference to women is Billy Bibbit's overbearing mother. His mother, through over-protection and condescension, has managed to make Billy incapable of dealing with the real world. He says the first word he ever stuttered was the first word he spoke: mama. One role of a woman in a man's life is to be his mother and tend to him. Billy, however, is a victim of female oppression trough his mother.

Chapters 16 - 23

Women 4: Harding's wife finally appears and she's an almost sympathetic character. Harding treats her sarcastically because it is the only way he knows how to deal with his feelings of inadequacy. In response, she flirts with McMurphy. While this presentation is slightly more positive than that of Harding's wife from earlier in the novel, it is still not wholly enthusiastic; instead of reacting to Harding's sarcasm, or stalking off, she starts to undercut him by flirting with another man in her husband's presence.

Chapters 24 - 25

Women 5: The Big Nurse is disapproving of McMurphy's idea of a chaperon, saying that the woman he has chosen doesn't sound entirely "responsible." Women are neatly divided into two categories: the older ones, like the Big Nurse and Bibbit's mother, who believe in suppression and shame, and McMurphy's friends, whores who are content to be mere representations of men's needs.

Women 6: Bromden's mother is another one from the Big Nurse's crowd. She cuts his father down to size with nagging, and grows huge herself. She's not a large woman physically, but like the Big Nurse, she towers over the men around her spiritually, but not in a wholesome way. She exemplifies women as the enemy.

Women 7: By her name alone, Candy, it is easy to discern what she represents: the idealization of men's sexual desires. Her personality consists of responding to McMurphy's jokes, and being flattered when the men on the ward flirt with her. Women as sexual beings are merely extensions of men's fantasies. Nothing is really learned of Candy's character. She serves as a symbol of what the men could be having, if they were willing to take it.

Women 8: McMurphy lost his virginity to a girl of 9 when he was only 10. This echoes the earlier story of McMurphy's charge of statutory rape (a girl who, according to McMurphy, lies about her age and nearly attacks him to get him into bed). McMurphy was naïve and thought the sexual experience was important, and wanted to announce it; the girl left behind her dress and walked home in her underwear. According to McMurphy, if a woman exhibits sexuality, she's a whore; otherwise, she must suppress it completely.

Chapters 26 - 29

Women 9: The little Japanese nurse who runs the Disturbed Ward is the only truly adult, decent woman in the entire novel. She treats Bromden and McMurphy sympathetically when they are brought up to her ward, and expresses disapproval of the Big Nurse's methods for running her ward. She appears briefly again near the end of the novel, to run the ward while the Big Nurse is being treated for her injuries.

Women 10: The final weapon the Big Nurse has against Billy is shame, and the only way she can get him to feel it is to mention his mother. Immediately, Billy is reduced to a cowardly wreck, denying responsibility for his actions like a five year-old, blaming everyone else in the room for forcing him to sleep with Candy. When he is left alone in the doctor's office, he cuts his throat in order to avoid having to see his mother again.

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