Movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Categories: Film

Nurse Ratched: That’s okay, Nurse Pilbo. If Mr. McMurphy does not want to take his medicine, we will just have to arrange for him to have it some other way, although I don’t think he’d like it very much.

In the movie, although most of the patients are not “chronics” (committed forcibly), nobody ever leaves to establish their autonomy. Nurse Ratched, under the guise of a counselor interested in helping them to overcome their problems and establish independence, actually uses implicit and explicit measures to oppress them and keep them captive in a de facto dictatorship.

One of the ways to keep the patients docile and puerile is exemplified in the foregoing dialogue. The ingestion of pills indicates an oral fixation and an inability to progress to the proper phallic stage. Even if the pills are not the catalyst of the arrested development, and their neuroses are the result of arrested development that preceded their admission to the hospital, the pills preclude any possibility of ameliorating their problems.

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McMurphy, who is the quintessential representation of democracy and rugged individualism, has no such problems. However, in an attempt to control him, Ratched threatens to forcibly insert the pill into his body rectally. Such an action, if completed, would symbolize a regress to the anal stage, successfully removing him from the world writ large and the Law of the Father. Luckily, McMurphy feigns swallowing the pill to appease her, and then spits in out.

Two incidents that support psychoanalytic reading

Billy Bibbitt is a stuttering, virginal, thirty-year old boy child.

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His inability to establish solidarity with anyone, especially of the opposite sex, and his profound difficulty articulating himself, show an inability to successfully enter the Symbolic realm and establish a name for himself. He is strikingly similar, in many ways, to the monster in Frankenstein. However, towards the end of the movie, he is wheeled in a wheelchair into an isolated room, where he has sex with a strumpet. As he sits in the wheelchair, he is ill, malignant to society, a cancer who has been successfully removed.However, after coitus, he becomes confident, holding his head high, laughing, and most importantly, he does not stutter. Nurse Ratched asks him if he is ashamed of what he did. He says, “No, I’m not” as articulately as an ambassador. Unfortunately, Ratched threatens to tell his mother, which once again removes him from the Symbolic realm, forcing him to stutter again, losing the linguistic facility he required. It is too much for him to bear. He kills himself.

Charlie Cheswick, an insecure neurotic, becomes enraged, overtly challenging Nurse Ratched when she hides his cigarettes. Inspired by McMurphy and his democratic, paternalistic ideals, he begins to see the cigarettes as a phallic symbol, his absent father, desperately attempting to return to the imaginary stage so that he can accept his father’s dominance, disabuse himself of an overwhelming need for his mother, and enter the Symbolic realm, thereby gaining his autonomy. Unfortunately, Ratched and the sadistic orderlies put an end to his fustian ranting, and he is led away, crying, to receive electro-shock therapy. L

Interpretation of one character using psychoanalysis

Martini, played by Danny Devito, not only has a childlike physicality, but has a puerile affect as well. He does not speak throughout the entire film, except for non-sequiturs and sibilant and monosyllabic utterances in response to McMurphy’s remarks and always has an innocent smile on his face, oblivious to the meaning of language (he cannot understand McMurphy’s explanations of how to play cards). This shows an inability to escape the imaginary realm, as he is not able to successfully construct meaning with others.

However, towards the end of the movie, after all of the patients reveled in bacchanalian bliss, Nurse Ratched asks him to pick up her soiled cap, which lay on the floor. He understands her and, smiling, carries out her order. He may not be able to understand the Law of the Father, but he can understand Ratched’s language (the signifier) and the thing that it signifies (oppression that relegates him to eternal childhood).

Themes and Issues

** McMurphy (Law of the Father) versus Ratched (the maternal thing and object a which the patients are seeking, but can never recover. However, the façade of possibly grasping it – Ratched strings them along- keeps them hostage).

** Taciturnity versus fluency


** Cigarettes are symbolic of the phallus

** Pornographic playing cards, which can possibly be symbolic of a mother figure, are here used (I believe) to stimulate sexual desire in an attempt to draw the patients towards the Symbolic realm).

** Pills are symbolic of an oral fixation.

** Wheelchair is symbolic of paralysis (stifled by Ratched’s dictates), but when Billy Bibbitt falls out of the wheelchair, into the arms of a woman, Ratched’s control is vitiated.

Why I believe in this reading

Because mental illness, or the perception of mental illness, is the focus of the movie, psychoanalytic criticism is perhaps the best critical theory to analyze the themes and characters. The aberrant behavior manifested by the patients can easily be explained using the imaginary and symbolic realms, and metaphoric connections can be drawn, as the heading “symbols” shows. This is not only an easy and productive theory to use for this movie, but one which yields (I believe) truthful explanations.

Reader Response

Textual Passage

“But Doc, she was fifteen years old, going on thirty-five, Doc, and, uh, she told me she was eighteen and she was, uh, very willing, you know what I mean…I practically had to take to sewin’ my pants shut. But, uh between you and me, uh, she might have been fifteen, but when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of ya, I don’t think it’s crazy at all now and I don’t think you do either…No man alive could resist that, and that’s why I got into jail to begin with. And now they’re telling me I’m crazy over here because I don’t sit there like a goddamn vegetable. Don’t make a bit of sense to me. If that’s what’s bein’ crazy is, then I’m senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road, wacko. But no more, no less, that’s it.”

In the foregoing passage, McMurphy defends his sanity with an apology that would be difficult for anyone in society to disagree with. He portrays the female as the lascivious one, so interested in satisfying her sexual desires that she prevaricates about her age to copulate with the “unsuspecting” McMurphy. He portrays himself as the all-American male, respectful of women, yet having a strong libido, ready, willing, and able to cleave the beaver at a moment’s notice. J He becomes the victim when he ascertains her true age, and derides the system for questioning his mental health for acting as any other man would in his situation. He concludes his defense with verbal irony, acerbically vociferating that if such behavior is abnormal, then he is indeed the king of craziness.

Two incidents that support reader-response

McMurphy knows that the others are not crazy, and although he may not be able to articulate it, knows that they are all being governed by an autocrat with no interest but self-interest. In an effort to overcome the totalitarian regime, he knows he must win the other patients over to his side. To become victorious over Nurse Ratched, he feigns watching the World Series, creating his own game, a game which is a foundation of democratic ideals, as American as apple-pie. Nurse Ratched looks on in disbelief and rage as the patients, usually reticent and phlegmatic, become excited and happy, buying into McMurphy’s ideals. She immediately importunes them to stop, but as the scene ends, they continue their revelry. It appears that McMurphy has the upper- hand.

The movie takes place in the 1960’s, when racism was still prevalent. It is important to note that all of the patients are white, yet powerless, and all of the orderlies, a menial job, are black, yet dominate the patients throughout the movie. Not only do they physically control the patients, but also are mentally and emotionally healthier, and they have more freedom (they listen to the World Series, while the patients cannot). Perhaps even implicitly, the director is advocating equal rights for African Americans, or perhaps even insinuating that blacks are superior to whites. However, since they must answer to those in charge (who are also white) the latter theory does not seem plausible. The director most likely wants to show how powerless the mentally ill truly are, to be controlled by people who were subjugated and kept in bondage for hundreds of years. They are truly the dregs of society.

Interpretation of one character using reader-response

Although Chief Bromden seems to be more powerless than McMurphy throughout most of the film, it is he who survives and escapes into the world writ large at the movie’s end. Bromden has intrinsic strength, but is unable to find it throughout most of the movie because it is concealed by a hatred for the world (fostered by his father’s alcoholism). However, he buys into McMurphy’s democratic ideals, his vision of freedom, and desires to break free from the bondage and begin a life full of promise. Unfortunately, he is forced to do it alone because McMurphy, who appears to be so powerful throughout the entire film, is only affecting interest in freedom. He knows that he is a pariah, and desires to be incarcerated to escape the pain of the world. He lies to himself and to others when he spreads his vision of autonomy.

He has several chances to escape to freedom during the movie, but forsakes them in favor of wild antics. However, intractability and totalitarianism do not mix. His obstreperous antics and unwillingness to escape from his subjugation cause his demise. After he is lobotomized, and Bromden understands McMurphy will never be free, he knows that he can never be free unless he escapes from the institution. Hanging on to the ideals of democracy, which he now firmly believes in, he knows he must be strong enough to accomplish the dream that McMurphy could not fulfill. He suffocates McMurphy so that he can enjoy freedom after all, and then uses brute strength to experience a freedom of his own as he throws the fountain, which McMurphy could not lift, through the window). It appears that Bromden is the stronger of the two after all, and McMurphy’s strength was always artificial. He was not able to change any of the other patients with his worldview, but it appears verisimilitude can have positive effects after all. Where is Chief Bromden now, I wonder?


** Democracy versus totalitarianism

**Perception versus reality

** Black versus white

** Femininity versus masculinity

**Criminality versus insanity

** Nature versus nurture

** Social constructs and identity formation


** Music symbolizes regimentation and control

** Sex symbolizes freedom

** Race, affect, cognitive development, gender, and mental stability symbolize stratification.

** Mental facility symbolizes a microcosm with the macrocosm, which is directly antithetical to the ideals the macrocosm embraces – rationing of personal effects, bedtimes, facilitated and monitored conversations, etc.

** Choice symbolizes the taboo.

Why I believe in this reading

Without reader response, subjectivity cannot exist. When myriad ways of looking at the world do not exist, provincialism ensues, and eventually a maniac like Nurse Ratched may govern us all. J To preclude myopia and societal malignancies (racism, classism, chauvinism, and other biases), it is necessary to view texts, and by texts I mean everything society that can be analyzed, as objectively as possibly, analyzing them from many perspectives. I am grateful to have the ability to use my mind to attempt to develop solutions to the ills of the world, because some people live in worlds that preclude them from using their minds to seek justice for themselves and others. Nurse Ratched’s must be thwarted before they establish power!

Feminist Approach

Textual Passage

Nurse Ratched: Why did you ask that girl to marry you Billy?

Billy: I, I, I, loved her Nurse Ratched.

Nurse Ratched: Why didn’t you tell your mother about it? Your mother told me you didn’t tell her.

Billy Bibbitt: ( He is silent and hangs his head in shame).

Charlie Cheswick: (Fearfully and hesitantly) Nurse Ratched, let me ask you a question.

Nurse Ratched: (Angered, with fire in her eyes, affecting concern) Go ahead, Mr. Cheswick.

Charlie Cheswick: Nurse Ratched, can’t you see he’s uncomfortable. I mean, if he doesn’t want to talk, can’t we just go on to some new business.

Nurse Ratched: ( Impatiently and caustically, verging on a diatribe) The business of this meeting, Mr. Cheswick, is therapy!

While it might appear that Nurse Ratched is genuinely concerned about Billy at first glance, after further examination it is apparent, from this discourse and other interlocution throughout the movie, that she has deep seated sexual problems and loathes men, hatred that may be the product of inequalities or abuse that she has experienced at the hands of men. While adult men should not have to apprise their parents of relationships with the opposite sex, Nurse Ratched thinks it is imperative. She is remembering promises of fidelity from sweet-talking Lothario’s, men who proposed marriage, but did so clandestinely, all in an effort to use her for sexual pleasure!

She loves Billy’s inability to articulate himself, because he cannot flatter women with lies, and break their hearts, as men broke hers. She values men who are close to their mothers because such relationships are built on trust and innocence. Those who keep secrets can conspire to hurt others for their own selfish gain. Mothers hate that! When she attempts to counsel Billy, she does so from a personal bias, even if she does not see it. In an effort to assuage her own pain, and the oppression of all women in society, she destroys Billy’s self-image, emasculating him, making him as powerless as she is.

Interpretation of Mildred Ratched using feminist criticism

Mildred Ratched shows a desire, a compulsion really, to completely control every man on the ward throughout the entire movie. She knows she cannot establish such power with completely healthy men, so she cherishes her time at the ward (if one is on the qui vive during the movie, it is apparent that she comes when the sun just rises and leaves when it is dark – she’s a fanatic!). She is attempting to create her own world, one where she is completely in charge, and the oppressive ideologies of a patriarchal society become a de facto fiction. Almost all of the men are taciturn, or when they do speak, the language is fragmented and uncertain. Her language is omnipresent and omnipotent, superseding and threatening to completely obliterate the language of the outside world. When McMurphy, an intractable democratic ideologue with glib on his tongue and subversion on his mind comes to the facility, her own suppression becomes a reality once again, and she knows she must fight until she tames this wild beast.

Although McMurphy proves to be a formidable foe, she defeats him in the end, proving that a woman’s language can defeat the oppressive language of men when the two collide, and that others will still accept it after the battle is over. It is interesting that a male, Chief Bromden, who is thoroughly emasculated throughout the entire movie, has to generate the strength to escape from “feminine language” to enter the masculine language of the world writ large. It is NO LONGER the world writ large. Nurse Ratched’s world has turned into the macrocosm, and everywhere else is just a microcosm, only tangentially connected to reality proper, a reality that the virtuous Nurse Ratched creates.

Two incidents that support this kind of reading

I have already covered a lot, so I will give two brief examples. Randall McMurphy says: “They’ve been giving me ten-thousand volts a day and I’/ hot to trot. The next woman to take me on’s gonna light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars.” Nurse Ratched shows anger at first, and then affects amusement before changing the subject. She in sickened by his objectification of women, but then understands that she has him under her control. He won’t be gettin’ any nookie if she can help it! J Earlier in the film, she hides the patients’ cigarettes as punishment for gambling. The cigarettes represent phalluses, which she has complete control of. She emasculates them, and will only give their members back if they are good boys and follow her rules.

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Movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". (2016, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

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