Throughout history, the struggle of women to gain and sustain power in society has proven to be difficult, and has coexisted with a rivalry against the opposite sex. Women have been denied many throughout the course of history. They have been discriminated against, lost jobs, lost privileges. Women’s suffrage had not developed in the United States until the Nineteenth Amendment, which became effective in time to allow the voting by women nationally in the Presidential election of August 18, 1920. Stereotypical views of the ideal features of women are femininity, maternity, gentility, care, nurture, and dependency. Not matriarchy, independence, nor strength. Women are not generally associated with these traits, and society generally expects women to posses the assumed feminine characteristics.
This is not the case in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, in which Ken Kesey shows a woman can hold a dominating, powerful role in society and be contrary to the stereotypical woman figure to depict the validity of the society’s views about women and their roles using the failure of the matriarchal female character to succeed at her role assumed by her occupation.
The matriarchal female, Mildred Big Nurse Ratched, gains control over her realm in the mental hospital, but fails to fulfill her duties as a nurse of healing or helping her patients. The sexist description of her physical appearance provided by her patients are those typically associated with women, however, she completely contradicts the typical female. She is a matriarchal figure, not maternal. She is powerful, not dependent. And she manipulates complete power over the staff and patients of the hospital. However, her matriarchy does not fulfill her duties assumed by her occupation; to heal and help the patients. Instead, she worsens the situation by diminishing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses; which she does to gain control in a way which appeals to her senses.
Big Nurse, or Mildred Ratched, attempts, and succeeds, to create her own world within the confines of the ward; one where she is completely in charge of all her subjects. This depicts her strong matriarchal role. Her desire to gain complete control over her environment uses several strategical moves. After convincing her patients to confess their personal secrets, Ratched is understood by the patients to use the disadvantages of her patients to her own advantage in her accomplishment of gaining absolute power. Nurse Ratched is able to “smell out” the fear of her patients and “put it to use” (17) As the novel progresses, we also learn that Ratched’s powers within the ward extend to ludicrous measures as she is able to order harming of the relatively disruptive patients, which contributes to her extensive amount of power withing the ward. In numerous important scenes, we learn the extent of her power to prevent noisome independence: she can, in addition to all the little arts of prodding the guilty recesses of her “patients'” consciences, order electric shock, even lobotomize the recalcitrant or merely disruptive patient. (Boardman )
She achieves control over the ward, as her patients, aware of her power, obey willingly or unwillingly. Mac, a patient at the hospital, promises to bug the nurse “till she comes apart at those neat little seams” (12). However, he learns that he can be institutionalized as long as the nurse sees fit. He immediately becomes cagey, satisfying, temporarily at least (Boardman)Nurse Ratched is able to establish complete control in the ward, and her patients recognize her ability maintain total control; a type of control that is parallel to a monarchy. In her own realm, Ratched is viewed as a very powerful individual, and the patients start to abide by her rules.
Harding, a patient, explains, “‘We are victims of a matriarchy here, my friend, and the doctor is just as helpless against it as we are'” (54). This sentence is remarkably significant. It accredits the nurse as a dominant character in the hospital, and it also establishes the idea that the patients are not the only ones controlled by her, but the doctors as well. At times, Ratched refers to the sexuality of the men in the institute, making them inferior because of their inabilities.
Ratched’s strength, and matriarchial character as a woman directly contradict the assumed characteristics associated with women; those of femininity and gentility. This contradiction is established in a way many by critics that look at the surface of the topic as a sexist description. In multiple occurrences throughout the progression of the novel, Ratched’s female characteristics are exaggeratively described by the patients such as McMurphy. McMurphy describes Ratched as having too red lipstick and the too big boobs. (43) and as a a bitch and a buzzard and a ballcutter. Therefore, Ratched directly opposes the traditional gentle view of women as a matriarch but is given over-exaggerated female characteristics. Kesey’s purpose in creating this contrast between a stereotypical woman and and an ideal woman that is independent and strong is to establish the unsuccessful attempt at triumph of the ideal strong woman.
The unsuccessful attempts of Ratched are depicted by her failure to meet the assumed role of being a nurse that consists of helping and healing her patients. Instead of helping, Ratched proceeds to make the state and situation of her patients worse and worse as she puts them down about their inabilities and maintains total control over them. Ratched is even viewed as evil. McMurphy explains, No, that nurse ain’t some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter. I’ve seen a thousand of ’em, old and young, men and women.
Seen ’em all over the country and in the homes–people who try to make you weak so that they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to. … If you’re up against a guy who wants to win by making you weaker instead of making himself stronger, then watch for his knee, he’s gonna go for your vitals. And that’s what that old buzzard is doing. (58) McMurphy also refers to Ratched as impregnable and this sets her apart from the typical view of a female and the clichéd mother/whore dichotomy (Quinn) is established in the novel.
There is an ambiguity that arises in the course of the novel, and the established dichotomy discussed by Quinn is expanded with a comparison of the two parts; the matriarch and the whore. Whereas Ratched uses power and control to accomplish her role of care and fails, the two whores introduced by McMurphy gain the trust and sympathy of the reader. They are viewed positively and as kind hearted by the patients in the institution. An excellent comparison captures the perception of the two figures; Strong women are evil and emasculating (Quinn) and The women viewed positively in the novel are the kind-hearted whores whom Mac introduces to the men and the sympathetic and very tiny Japanese nurse who works on the Disturbed ward. (Quinn)
Through this direct comparison of the strong woman that is apart from a typical figure and the stereotypical woman that performers an act directly associated with women, one can see that the typical woman is able to do what the other cannot; gain the affection of the male. While Ratched hides her female characteristics by wearing a white coat, the whores display their female attributes, and gain a positive view from the society made up of the hospital. McMurphy’s prior comment of Ratched being impregnable is linked to this comparison, since sexuality is a trait apparently missing from Ratched.
Ken Kesey depicts the failure of a non-typical female figure to accomplish her goals as a dominating powerful figure by describing Ratched as evil, and comparing her to whores, who are viewed as kind hearted. This defiant comparison is uncommon since typically whores are viewed as a malignant part of society and nurses are viewed as purgatory. As a complete opposite, the whores are able to help amend the feelings of the patients, whereas Nurse Ratched fails miserably to accomplish her duty and even worsens the situation of her patients. Through the development of the female characters in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Kesey is able to convince the reader that the stereotypical woman is able to successfully help society, while the unusual matriarchal female is unable to fulfill her duties by gaining control and exercising domination.
(MLA Format)Boardman, Michael M. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rhetoric and Vision.” Journal of Narrative Technique 9. No. 3. Fall 1979.: 171-83. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Quinn, Laura. Moby Dick vs. Big Nurse: A Feminist Defense of a Misogynist Text: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints. Ed. Nicholas J. Karolides. Lee Burress. John M. Kean. Scarecrow Press, 1993: 398-413. Rpt. in Novels for Students. Vol. 2.
Zubizarreta, John. “The Disparity of Point of View in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Literature/Film Quarterly 22. No 1. 1994: 62-9. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism.