Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Group 1

The ward in Cuckoo’s Nest differs from earlier mental institutions we’ve seen in a number of ways. Most patients remain voluntarily; there’s a clear emphasis on community therapy and some reference to democratic possibilities; we see nothing like the filth of Blackwell’s Island or Byberry, and the long-term use of restraints is plainly discouraged. If not by any means cheery, the look of the place seems to be decidedly clean, clinical, orderly, and professional, with polished floors, starched uniforms, and immaculate glass windows. One of my favorite but very minor characters is “Public Relation” who guides tours through the facility, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Bedlam in the 1700s, while asserting how different this hospital is: “What a cheery atmosphere, don’t you agree? . . . Oh, when I think back on the old days, on the filth, the bad food, even, yes, brutality, oh, I realize ladies that we have come a long way in our campaign!”

But if Ratched’s ward makes discipline and control less outwardly brutal and visible to tourists, it shows how fully under the watchful eye of authority the hospital remains. Authority is just exercised differently, through group therapy sessions, the piped music, and silent observation from behind glass walls. It’s striking to me how visible and vulnerable these patients are, despite the tendency to use physical coercion only as a very last resort. In Cuckoo’s Nest more than any asylum we’ve seen, medicine, the protocols of actual and professionalized treatment, become the mechanisms of control. It’s a historical progression that allows for educational tours and good public relations while providing an intensely repressive atmosphere for the patients. Perhaps that’s why visitors see nothing amiss while the chief has visions of inmates crucified on the wall.

What do others see as changes in the Cuckoo’s Nest ward?

3 thoughts on “Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Group 1

  1. Thomas Dillon

    The Cucko’s Nest ward certainly presents an environment of decency and dignity for its patients when compared to the other brutal wards and asylums we’ve covered and discussed in class thus far. However, there’s a sublte brutality that swims to the surface of the story in the form of Nurse Ratched, who uses psychological manipulation and surveillance to entrap and enlist her patients to a state of submission. I agree with Karianne’s point about McMurphy representing sanity and hope for the other inmates to reestablish their self-confidence and learn to push back against the suppression of their emotions, whether or not said emotions may deviate away from the societal standards of normalcy. McMurphy represents a grave danger to Nurse Ratched’s control over her patients and the ward and this camraderie and solidarity that is presented between McMurphy and his fellow inmates is another key difference. The reader is slowly witnessing the seeds of a rebellion against an authoritative figure and overall institution. Despite the positive sentiment and autonomy that the patients appear to be given, McMurphy allows them to snap out of their almost hypnotic states and realize the subtle brutality and control that Nurse Ratched wields over them. There seems to be dichotomy between the public presentation of the ward; decent, clean, emphasis on positive reinforcement, rehabilitation, and its true state: submissive, confining, and cruel.

  2. Karianne Laird

    At first glance, the ward in this story seems more civil than those we have been reading about in the past. The patients are not locked up in cells, they can commutate with each other and some of them are even there voluntarily. However, they are pacified and controlled in other ways than iron bars. This is done through, for example, the pills they are given, the constant monitoring and the threats lingering around them. Deceit and manipulation plays a significant role in keeping the patients there. Some of them are, arguably, being tricked into believing that they must stay in the asylum, despite it not having any helpful effect on their mental situation. This may also demonstrate how terribly society at large treats those who fall beyond the bounds of “normalcy” — driving them to voluntarily stay locked up in a terrible place rather than face the outside world.

    The manipulation of the nurses is partly why the presence of McMurphy has a shocking and liberating effect on the other patients. A memorable quote from McMurphy that highlights his contrasting mentality is when he says; “What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it. ” His free spirit and loud laughter stuns the other patients, who have grown used to repressing their emotions. He represents sanity. His normal treatment of those around him contrasts greatly to the strict and repressive treatment from the nurses and has a powerful effect on them.

    The extent of the institution’s power is one of the shocking aspects of this story. The hospital’s control of the fates of its patients is yet another example where the abusive treatment of the mentally ill is disguised behind the authority of the medical establishment. What occurs in the ward may be seen as clinical and orderly – unlike in some of the past asylums, but this makes it no less immoral or brutal than in the past. I think this story successfully highlights how much cruel treatment society becomes accustomed to when it is happening in a professionalized manner.

  3. Madison Brito

    The main difference I see in this ward is the agency the patients are ostensibly allotted. There’s an obvious push towards democratizing the environment, as all sorts of patients coalesce and interact with one another, and they are given a semblance of autonomy and say in their situation. Outwardly, this appears to be far more civil than previous asylums. But somehow it feels like being given the illusion of freedom, which it clearly is from the way Nurse Ratched will shut down the ‘freedom’ she gives them when it suits her, is more demeaning and deceitful than being honest about the lack of free will they will allow the patients. I’d feel played if I were one of the patients, which is made all the worse by the fact some of them are there voluntarily and are perhaps tricked into staying longer by this. And ironically, the person who perhaps most embodies American ideals of democracy and freedom, McMurphy, is there involuntarily. This paradox seems to tell us something about the real nature of free will in the ward.

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