One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Group 2)

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?

5 thoughts on “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Group 2)

  1. Carl Langaker

    As my peers have pointed out, one notable change that I found interesting was how the inmates are told to monitor each other, as this so clearly incites general distrust and anxiety with regards to if and when you are being watched.

    What also struck me is the way in which lobotomy almost seems to be held above the prisoners’ heads as a threat. An example of this is Ruckly, who “came in a few years back as an Acute, but him they overloaded in a different way: they made a mistake in one of their head installations. He was being a holy nuisance all over the place, kicking the black boys and biting the student nurses on the legs, so they took him away to be fixed. (…) they brought him back to the ward two weeks later, bald and the front of his face an oily purple bruise and two little button-sized plugs stitched one above each eye. You can see by his eyes how they burned him out over there; his eyes are all smoked up and gray and deserted inside like blown fuses”. Everyone in the ward is aware of Ruckly’s fate, and it generally feels like the possibility of becoming mentally wiped out looms among the inmates as a symbolic sort of warning. Nurse Ratched seems to abuse this power – for instance, when commenting on how the acutes like to remain on their own side because of the smell of the chronics, our narrator notes that “I know it isn’t the stink that keeps them away from the Chronic side so much as they don’t like to be reminded that here’s what could happen to them someday. The Big Nurse recognizes this fear and knows how to put it to use; she’ll point out to an Acute, whenever he goes into a sulk, that you boys be good boys and cooperate with the staff policy which is engineered for your cure, or you’ll end up over on that side”. This type of mind game seems massively cruel, and to me further displays how this ward is no better than the wards we have previously seen with regards to wanting all patients to get better.

    Also, without spoiling too much, this power that Nurse Ratched has is displayed at the end of the book when a character is lobotomized, which I feel shows the fact that the inmates are more like prisoners who risk a near equivalent to a death sentence if they break the rules.

    Another example of the seemingly ever-present threat from the staff with regards to lobotomy, is the plaque with the text “CONGRATULATIONS FOR GETTING ALONG WITH THE SMALLEST NUMBER OF PERSONNEL OF ANY WARD IN THE HOSPITAL” that is positioned between the acutes and the chronics. This again feels like an ominous warning, almost as if it is representing a line, and that if the acutes cross it they will end up stuck in the chronic area forever. This is another example of a cruel mind game, particularly so when considering that these are all people who are already in an asylum.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    Similar to Andreya and Elizabeth’s points about the patients spying on each other, I found it to be similarly and consistently odd at how desperate Nurse Ratched and the other staff are to keep the patients from having any sort of camaraderie or consistent group dynamic. Statements in the novel such as, “Then … she sights those black boys. They’re still down there together, mumbling to one another. They didn’t hear her come on the ward. They sense she’s glaring down at them now, but it’s too late. They should of knew better’n to group up and mumble together when she was due on the ward. Their faces bob apart, confused. She goes into a crouch and advances on where they’re trapped in a huddle at the end of the corridor. She knows what they been saying, and I can see she’s furious clean out of control. She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious,” (7). The asylum needs to separate the patients and keep them from forming unity as a means of control, however most modern psychological research would ascertain that people with actual mental health disorders can gain comfort and agency when surrounded by a support network of people going through a similar issue (though that isn’t the case with every disorder). Bromden serves as a rejection of this social control and he perhaps has more courage to push back against the asylum because he has been there the longest. This perhaps relates to the patient’s encouragement to spy on one another because they cannot form sustainable relationships with each other as a result of the ward’s strict regulations, and therefore feel as though they must look out solely for themselves.

  3. Elizabeth Srulevich

    Andreya makes a great point about how the way Nurse Ratched encourages patients to spy/snitch on each other relates to Foucault’s “Panopticism” chapter of “Discipline and Punish.” Foucault’s book was published in 1975 — the same year the film adaptation of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was released and about a decade after the book was originally published. Foucault describes a cultural shift from the discipline-blockade, or “the enclosed institution, established on the edges of society” (7) to the discipline-mechanism, or “a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it more effective” (7).

    The “Public Relations” character who tells the tour group at the beginning of the book that they have “come a long way” from “brutal” mental institutions of the past is referring to a similar shift. The Bedlam-esque institutions of the past, located “on the edges of society,” have been replaced with more efficient and “ethical” modes of discipline, like Nurse Ratched’s ward. Foucault also describes how a full shift from the discipline-blockade to the disciplinary-mechanism can only occur when (among other factors) disciplinary mechanisms are “disseminated” throughout society as more flexible methods of control. These mechanisms are concerned with even the most minute details — just like how Nurse Ratched sets up a book in the common room in which the Acutes can write down details about each other that they overhear. This reinforces “productivity” or desired behaviors because individuals realize they’re being watched.

  4. Andreya Zvonar

    The ward as portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does not provide any nicer an image than the previous wards we have looked at. As is pointed out, it is just as cruel only disguised to be friendly.

    The main change I would like to draw attention to is the use of prisoners to spy on other prisoners. Nurse Ratched encourages the Acutes to divulge information to her and as a reward allows them to sleep in. This is such a pertinent change in the wards we have studied because it creates a system in which one never knows if he is being watched. Important to this conversation is Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. This circular prison had a central watchtower, which allowed one guard to watch over all of the prisoners. Key to the design was the fact that the prisoners never knew if they were being watched. As a result, they were forced to act as though they were constantly being watched. I see Nurse Ratched’s use of patients to spy on one another as a more sophisticated version of the Panopticon.

    This is so important because it allows Nurse Ratched to keep the patients in a constant state of subjection. McMurphy’s sanity allows him to see through this and will ultimately pose a problem to Nurse Ratched. On this note, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish offers an interesting idea: “In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.” Because the patients never know when they are being watched, they live in this constant state of subjection. This is a characteristic of the ward that I think we have not seen before, and one that makes it all the more cruel.

  5. Henry Mooers

    I think one of the major changes we are seeing as a break from the prior narratives of mental health institutions is, ironically, an increased capacity of the mentally ill to have their own level of free will. Ultimately, it is the portrayal of the patients in the institution that changes for me.

    This is initially accomplished by the incorporation of a sane person into the institution’s mix via the character of McMurphy. We saw a similar device in Bly’s work from last week, however the main difference here being that Bly’s admission into the institution was voluntary on her part, whereas McMurphy’s is involuntary.
    McMurphy’s role is different from that of Bly’s in that he attempts to be the champion of the patients in the institution. Bly is merely observing the institution for journalistic purposes. In this fashion, I think the story portrays the patients in the asylum in a more empathetic and humanizing fashion than does Bly, who more focuses on the negative conditions of the place.

    In terms of having their own free will, the patients are all the same shown as having more and less then their counterparts in some of the other pieces we have read on this topic. The dynamic between billy and candy is one example of this; the accompanying party that same night is another. In my view, these occurrences make the institution appear more normal than some of the other depictions. The patients are depicted as doing things more characteristic of what people in the outside world would be doing. In this fashion, I think they are also humanized in that they are shown to be more then just their mental illness.

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