The Problem of Society Nature

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is a 1950’s novel that declares itself to be a story that reveals the oppressive nature of society, as seen through the eyes of patients in a mental institution. Chief Bromden, a schizophrenic who serves as the main character and narrator of the story, establishes his own view of how society works, which he calls, “the combine”. The psychiatric hospital, according to Bromden, is nothing more than a factory that operates under the jurisdiction of the combine.

The ward is a place to “fix” people who don’t fit society’s standards; people who have been deemed socially unacceptable by those in positions of institutional power. Thus, the characters’ lack of self-confidence as a result of social pressure and shame causes them to seek comfort in the confines of the mental institution.

A lack of self-confidence is most predominantly seen in characters Billy Bibbit and Dale Harding. Their low self-esteem is rooted in their inability to fulfill a societal expectation, which presents itself as a general fear.

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For instance, Billy Bibbit’s fear is concerned with maturation and not being accepted by his mother. Although he’s in his thirties, Billy is absolutely paralyzed by the idea of making decisions for himself due to constantly being infantilized by the only person that he cares about. Billy’s development as an independent individual as a result of McMurphy’s rebellion is diminished when Nurse Ratched begins to explain the consequences of choosing to have an affair with Candy.

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In response to being told that his mother would be informed of the incident, Billy begins to revert back to the child-like tendencies to which he’s been conditioned. He throws what seems to be the combination of a tantrum and a mental breakdown, screaming, “And M-M-McMurphy! He did! And Harding! And the-the-the rest! They t-t-teased me, called me things!” (Kesey 264). He blames McMurphy and the rest of the men for sleeping with Candy, in hopes that either Nurse Ratched or his mother will sympathize with him. Billy has never had to stand up for himself because he’s never been allotted the opportunity to dictate what he does or what happens to him, and thus the possibility of his mother learning about his indiscretion is terrifying. Billy’s fear quite literally controls his life; he commits suicide because he can’t handle his mother being disappointed in him.

On the other side of the spectrum resides Dale Harding, a seemingly confident and sane man. Harding’s fear is caused by his homosexuality and his insecurities regarding his sexual orientation. Harding in particular is obsessed with how society perceives him, as homosexuality was seen as a disease in the late 1950s. The idea of masculinity and not fulfilling his role as a husband is what terrifies Harding the most; which is why he chooses to escape to the mental institution. His insecurities are revealed during the group therapy session in which Nurse Ratched reads, “He has been heard to say, ‘My sweet but illiterate wife thinks any word or gesture that does not smack of brickyard brawn and brutality is a word or gesture of weak dandyism’” (Kesey 44). Even his wife passes judgment on her husband’s lack of masculine dominance, as the absence of “brickyard brawn and brutality” is associated with the femininity of “dandyism”. Nurse Ratched continues to read the patient log, disclosing that, “He has been heard to say that he may give her reason to seek further sexual attention” (Kesey 44).

Harding goes as far to say that his wife’s promiscuous actions are justified because he cannot fill the desired role that she expects him to. It’s imperative to understand that Harding isn’t ashamed of being gay, but rather the judgment society places on him for his sexuality, “I indulged in certain practices that our society regards as shameful. It wasn’t the practices, I don’t think, it was the feeling that the great, deadly, pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me– and the great voice of millions chanting, “Shame. Shame. Shame.’ It’s society’s way of dealing with someone different” (Kesey 255). The constant feeling of insufficiency and rejection is all too much for Harding to deal with. He associates his sexuality with being outcasted and shamed, as he’s determined that to be the way society handles anyone who doesn’t fit the predetermined standards. This casted shame is what holds Harding back from living freely in the outside world.

A mental institution wouldn’t generally be seen as comforting or accepting; but for Harding and Billy, the ward protects them from the outside world. The reason the two men seek so much comfort within the walls of the institution is because they’re allowed to be “socially unacceptable”. Harding gives first hand an explanation as to why he voluntarily checked himself into the ward, “The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf as strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows his place. He most certainly doesn’t challenge the wolf to combat” (Kesey 60). The “rabbits” symbolize those who are deemed as socially unacceptable; the ones who wield the least amount of power in society. The “wolf” symbolizes those who define what is considered to be “normal” in society. Harding and Billy, like the rabbits, understand that they’re not conventionally normal. Thus, when their fear gets the best of them, they “dig holes” — they look for a place to hide. Both men remain committed because once they’re out of the hospital, they expose themselves to the outside world; they become vulnerable prey for the “wolves” to hunt down.

Chief Bromden’s idea of the combine also captures the essence of why the men seek solace in the ward. On the way to the fishing trip, Bromden takes note of how the world around him has changed, “Maybe the guys weren’t able to see it either, just feel the pressures of the different beams and frequencies coming from all directions, working to push and bend you one way or another, feel the Combine at work–but I was able to see it” (Kesey 240). The combine represents society; thus the mental institution, which is a “factory” for the combine, shields its patients from the growing world around them. Bromden is the only one out of, “the guys” (the ward patients) who is able to see “the combine at work” because he’s one of the only patients with an understanding of the way society functions. Bromden, and eventually McMurphy, come to understand that the men choose to remain committed in the mental institution because of the protection that it provides them with.

Conformity proves itself to be a concept that both Billy and Harding struggle with immensely. As previously stated, their inability to conform to societal standards causes them to hide away in the confines of the psychiatric hospital. A student in Ms. Flachsbart’s class stated that, in response to a question regarding McMurphy’s frustration towards the uncommitted acutes, “McMurphy can’t envision this [choosing to voluntarily commit oneself] because he is too proud to bow to the expectations of the Combine. The world around him can tell him all they want that he is different or unsafe but he’ll continue to believe he’s no crazier than the average person. His own ego is too high for him to ever conform as he won’t be pushed around by Big Nurse or anyone else”.

McMurphy’s power stems from his confidence; something that Billy and Harding are in dire need of. They don’t possess the power to believe that they’re, “no crazier than the average person” because their inability to fulfill societal expectations has conditioned them to believe that something is in fact, wrong with them. Society wants these men to conform, and because they can’t, they seek comfort in the ward; something that McMurphy could never imagine doing. Billy and Harding need to be accepted by society; McMurphy doesn’t. This distinction is what sets the men apart from each other, and eventually, what leads to one’s downfall; and another’s success.

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The Problem of Society Nature. (2022, Jan 13). Retrieved from

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