In the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, the false diagnosis of insanity is used as a manipulation tool that will result in the patients’ control over the ward. Throughout the novel Nurse Ratched and her staff presume that many patients in the ward are mentally ill and the state of insanity was highly encouraged. The author does however imply that the big nurse possessed an awareness of their sanity through her persistence with forcing medications and having periodic group meetings that undermine the patients. Her method of constantly reminding them that they were insane was detrimental to any chance of them developing into being “normal.”
In this asylum, to be normal, to fit in, was to be unresponsive and defenseless. The patients had realized this and followed that requirement. They chose to play a certain role, so that they would get no closer to punishable treatment. The patients eventually manipulate the ward under the illusion of their mental illnesses. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the protagonist Randal McMurphy. The mental hospital was at a stagnant state before his appearance. He came into the ward so open and confident with his state of mind. It inspired the patients and competed with Ratched’s control.
The fog machine during the group meetings is another source of the wards power, to Bromden’s belief. The fog machine symbolizes the act of purposefully clouding one’s knowledge or awareness of their surroundings. Fog represents a lack of comprehension of one’s environment and also signifies a form of escape. A machine that the ward controls shows the grip that this staff has on their patients. McMurphy tells Bromden, “You had a choice: you could either strain and look at things that appeared in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself.”
The lack of awareness is a form of escape for the patients because their life in the asylum is constant confinement. As a result Bromden sees the fog as security, since it helps him leave this current reality. He realizes that the fog machine is a trap, but can’t help to be drawn to the security that it offers, since “ignorance is bliss.” So once again the patients choose to take the easier path; which is to let the fog engulf them. But as a result Ratched has piece of mind thinking that the fog still stands in their minds, when in reality McMurphy has already cleared the haze; especially in the mind of Chief Bromden.
Chief Bromden is a very strong character and symbol in this novel. He represents the theme of false diagnosis of insanity. Since he doesn’t speak nor does anything that he isn’t assigned. Bromden is so dedicated to his façade, that the other patients actually believe him to be mute. Throughout the novel the readers hear all the things he is thinking, and essentially Chief is a sane man. He purposefully portrays himself as thick and mindless so that he avoids discipline from the ward staff. Bromden exclaims, “They don’t bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I’m nearby because they think I’m deaf and dumb. Everybody thinks so. I’m cagey enough to fool them that much…”
McMurphy notices just how intuitive Chief really is; that this man is falsely showing insanity as a tactic to avoid issues. He is fulfilling the mental hospital’s social norm. But because of this, Bromden would never be suspected for doing a crime or anything rebellious. Since the ward sees him as a shell of a man that is insane. McMurphy realizes this and sparks the idea of manipulating using one’s false insanity. This idea leads to multiple events, like the fishing trip and the tv screen protest, that pushes the big nurse into a corner. The patients were starting to do things that they sane minds could handle, but they just had never been accustomed too.
Another aspect of sanity introduced by McMurphy that the patients had not observed for many years was the motif of laughter. Throughout the novel the author emphasizes the loud and thunderous laughter that McMurphy resonated around the ward. He noticed that not many people there can laugh and that made him suspicious as to the environment that he was recently placed in. Bromden thinks, “I forget sometimes what laughter can do.” The power of laughter is so strong and to McMurphy it symbolizes sanity. After the fishing trip, he got Harding, Scanlon, Doctor Spivey, and Sefelt to join him in having a big laugh. This shows that they are sane, but being in the hospital confines that. Laughter became such a big symbol to the patients that they would be snickering during group meetings and other times throughout the day.
This infuriated nurse Ratched, because the more they laughed, the more she lost her grip on these men. Other staff in the ward viewed the ridiculous action as insane. But it still overpowered them, no matter what they could do. The power of laughter was tested when the ward sent McMurphy to get his electro-shock therapy. After multiple sessions he returns during a group meeting and begins to laugh, loudly, piercingly. That scene pushed out all the nurse’s power and at that point the patients took control. They witnessed the treatment that they feared the most be overcome. So anything that happened afterwards was no threat.
In conclusion, the false diagnosis of insanity is used as a manipulation tool that resulted in the patients’ overall power over the ward. McMurphy arrived and showed them that the mental asylum is no different from the society outside the walls. The social norm in the mental hospital may be different from regular societal norms, but none the less you can take that and empower it. The ward promotes insanity and they take all measures to make sure that the patients are insane. But the opposite occurred and instead the men learned to simply pretend to be insane. This gave them power. It gave them control over their minds. “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…”