Symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey uses the concept of a machine as a symbol for society, also referred to as the “Combine,” in order to show the control that society has over people who are considered to be damaged and unable to conform to societal expectations. Within the ward, the nurses and staff act as parts of the machine with specific functions to guarantee that the patients are blindly following the orders and rules of the hospital.

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Kesey asserts that the “Combine” is a machine that uses its control to fix the broken people until their minds are altered to work the same as everyone else’s in society, as well as to destroy the ones who dare to defy it.

Early on in the novel, it’s seen how the mental ward is perceived to have the characteristics of a machine, with the wires in the walls and fog that’s meant to urge the patients into a state of oblivion, so they’re more susceptible to the rules of the hospital. Kesey does this in order to show how the hospital uses its power to control the patients through the use of medication, seen as the fog, that obscures their thinking, and the wires that run through the walls as well as the ones used by the head nurse to control her staff. This machine, or factory, that symbolizes the ward, is a working structure for the Combine that’s for “fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods” (36) and anywhere else in society where those people considered mistakes don’t fit in.

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By specifically referring to the ward as a factory, it helps with the idea that the patients are being treated in a manner that will turn them into factory made products that are suitable for release, or to return to society itself. The ward has their patients following strict rules and being unable to think logically for themselves under the heavy medication that puts them in a “fog,” leaving them incapable of clearly thinking or acknowledging the harsh treatment they’re enduring. Kesey can easily show his belief of society being a dominating force against the patients and anyone else not considered normal through the strict machine-like control meant to keep patients operating smoothly on a day-to-day basis, as well as the fog machine that is meant to keep patients from defying their rules.

The first signs of glitches in the machinery that Kesey uses to symbolize society are seen with the introduction of McMurphy to the ward. Kesey does this to further help support his belief that the Combine holds all this power and control, almost as if being at the top of a hierarchy with the ward following below it and the staff of the ward beneath them, all working to control the patients and alter them to meet their expectations. McMurphy plays a role that purely defies the mental hospital rules and orders of the head nurse, purposely trying to get the better of her and show the other patients that they’re not puppets to be told what to do all the time. By doing so, Kesey can interweave his own thoughts into the novel’s plot about society not being as powerful or controlling as it is thought to be, but still ruthless enough to destroy anyone who tries to defy it.

McMurphy makes it his goal to win this game against the head nurse of the ward and gaining the other men some freedom, like in the form of a game room where they can play cards. During this change of events in the hospital, the machine-like atmosphere seems to be less prominent as it glitches from the new changes occuring. Kesey has McMurphy trying to “drag us out of the fog,” (112) as stated by a patient, to foreshadow the destruction done to him by the ward. Even though the patients have gained small wins, the head nurse will “go on winning, just like the Combine, because she has all the power of the Combine behind her.” (100) Kesey reinforces the idea of society being this strong force that sits above everyone, making sure they play their roles and don’t deviate from what society considers to be normal. Anyone who tries to defy loses in the end by the hands of the machine-like servants working for the Combine.

Kesey is also seen to refer to his characters, the patients and staff, as machines themselves. They are portrayed as small components, or gears, who are meant to play specific roles to function correctly in the Combine so it runs smoothly. As a powerful factor of life, society further shows its control by examining the patients to make sure “everybody’s machinery is functioning up to par” (161). Seeing the patients consider themselves as machinery is a way that conveys their submission to the way life works and dominates their lives. Kesey uses the X-rays that the men are supposed to get within the hospital to reveal the Combine’s method of guaranteeing that the patients are functioning correctly in the way society wants them to. In am instance that patients are not meeting the ward’s expectations of suitable behavior, they are taken elsewhere by staff members where other machines are meant to reset their behavior to the correct behavior. Kesey has the staff members as described to be attached to the ceilings with cords coming from their backs, a method of movement that’s dictated by the hospital.

This kind of control further shows how even the staff are only parts of the hospital that have a function to serve correctly. During this time that patients are taken to be checked on, Kesey also portrays an X-ray to “hiss and spit” (166) at McMurphy when he approaches it, showing the discontentment of the ward with his actions that defy them through his stubbornness to follow the rules put in place by the ward and constant subtle urge for the other men to speak more freely for themselves. McMurphy is even seen to walk within the ward in manner that displays his refusal to conform, seen as unafraid and not cowardly unlike the other men who have all become accustomed to behaving in this way. As a force to be reckoned with, Kesey uses McMurphy’s character to show what happens when someone tries to challenge societal expectations, ultimately leading to the destruction of a person’s character and ending any further opportunity to disobey.

When nearing the end of the novel, Kesey continues to further support the idea that society plays a controlling role with the power to oppress anyone who doesn’t meet its expectations. Using machinery as a symbol for society continues to reinforce the Combine presiding over the patients to make sure they are operating like gears to keep society running perfectly. Despite the small victories of McMurphy and the other men, Kesey has society continuing to show its ultimate control over them and their will to defy, as seen in the final destruction of McMurphy himself when he is lobotomized. After daring to challenge the hospital rules, McMurphy finally got what the head nurse wanted and, she would even “use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system” (278). In the end, McMurphy was erased since the person he was no longer remained; he was now no longer able to defy the hospital or the Combine. Kesey stressed how society acted like a machine and would eradicate anyone who seemed to be a threat, turning the patients into something that no longer left them with any pieces of themselves.

The Combine described in Kesey’s novel was describing society and how he viewed it to be a controlling mass over everything else in life. The use of a machine symbolized society and how it worked to guarantee the patients were functioning as expected, like parts of a machine required to serve a purpose in order for it to work. As a taming force against natural human behavior, Kesey symbolizes society as a machine working to reset individuals who are deviating from acceptable behavior, and then destroy those who try to defy against these societal norms.

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Symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (2022, Jan 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/symbolism-in-one-flew-over-the-cuckoo-s-nest-essay

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