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Book Analysis

Feminism In "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" - Shreya Sachdev


One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, written by Ken Kesey, is a 1960 novel that explores many different themes and motifs. The role of femininity in the novel is a topic of heated debate, as there are many different arguments as to what Ken Kesey’s intention was and whether or not he presents women in a negative light. The following essay will examine and analyze the ways in which One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a thinly veiled condemnation of feminism by exploring the use of symbolism, diction, characterization, and sartorial imagery.

Analysis of Nurse Ratched’s Behavior:

The character of Nurse Ratched is the prominent female figure throughout the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Ken Kesey uses symbolism to foreshadow Nurse Ratched’s character and true intentions. For example, on the first page, Ken Kesey describes her actions: “She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her.” This gust of cold implies that the moment Nurse Ratched walks into a room, there is a sense of darkness and bitterness that follows her. The locking of the door could also imply that Nurse Ratched traps the patients in the ward and treats them as prisoners, as locking is usually associated with making sure someone or something does not escape. On the 5th page, Ken Kesey uses the symbol of the tool box to further characterize her unyielding persona: “She’s carrying her woven wicker bag like the ones the Umpqua tribe sells out along the hot August highway, a bag shape of a tool box with a hemp handle.” This tool box could symbolize that Nurse Ratched does not treat her parents with a lot of care and instead uses  Nurse Ratched’s personality, and hint that she is someone who is quite rigid in her opinions, as a tool box consists of tools meant to keep something stable and stop it from moving. Further description that supports this theory is the line on page 5 “ She walks stiff.” This could again indicate that Nurse Ratched is someone with a strong opinion and someone who doesn’t easily change her mind. Not only this, but this quotation could also indicate that Nurse Ratched is a woman with a hard interior and does not show much compassion or softness for her patients. Here, Ken Kesey makes use of symbolism and physical imagery to portray Nurse Ratched as a rigid and fixed woman. 

In addition, the reader is introduced to an unconventional portrayal of a nurse. On page 6 of the novel, Ken Kesey uses the quotation “She looks around her with a swivel of her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian back there hiding behind his mop and can’t talk to call for help. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists.” Here, Ken Kesey showcases Nurse Ratched’s sinister and manipulative side as she ensures none of the patients are around her before she yells at her two assistants. This implies that Nurse Ratched conceals her true colors, and intends to deceive them to continue to believe that she is a caring person who only wants the best for them. Here, Ken Kesey makes use of characterization to aid the reader in understanding that perhaps the way Nurse Ratched presents herself to her patients is not the true story.

Pecking Party:

Additionally, the common two words that Randle McMurphy uses to describe women are heard as “ball-cutters” and “whores.” Randle McMurphy describes Nurse Ratched as a ball-cutter, somebody who is constantly emasculating the men in the ward making them feel as if they’re not real men. Randle McMurphy goes on to state that the way in which Nurse Ratched emasculates these men is through her group therapy sessions. In the group therapy sessions, all the patients in the ward sit around Nurse Ratched and Nurse Ratched asks each man to share something about what’s been bothering them lately. When the men are hesitant to share, Nurse Ratched picks on the patients one by one and asks them extremely personal questions that embarrass them. For example, on page 39, Nurse Ratched asks Dale Harding why he believes that his wife is cheating on him, and then goes on to ask him if he believes that he is unable to satisfy her. On page 39, Nurse Ratched says “According to the notes listed by various patients in the log, Mr. Harding has been heard to say that she ‘damn well gives the bastards reason to stare.’ He has also been heard to say that he may give her reason to seek further sexual attention.”

In this passage, Ken Kesey portrays Nurse Ratched as manipulative and who disregards the patients’ needs to get what she wants. Here, Nurse Ratched wants all the men in the group therapy session to say something about Harding’s issues with his wife and make him feel ashamed for not being able to satisfy her. Emasculating the men in this mental hospital is the way that Nurse Ratched remains in control. Furthermore, Nurse Ratched not only wants to emasculate each man individually, but also wants the men in the mental hospital to turn against each other. This is what Randle McMurphy describes as a “pecking party.” When Nurse Ratched brings up something about another man, another patient will say something unkind about it, and that will lead the original man to say something back and something unkind to the patient who first insulted him. This turns into a pecking party between the men and her motivation behind this strategic division is so that the men do not gang up together and protest against Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched prefers to keep the men divided so that they cannot unite and rebel.


Kesey employs the use of dialogue in order to show how Nurse Ratched diminishes the men in the ward in the conversation between Dale Harding and Randle McMurphy on page 49 of the novel. On page 49, Dale Harding says: “Oh, you’re not paying attention, my friend. She doesn’t accuse. She merely needs to insinuate, insinuate anything, don’t you see? Didn’t you notice today? She’ll call a man to the door of the Nurses’ Station and stand there and ask him about a Kleenex found under his bed. No more, just ask. And he’ll feel like he’s lying to her, whatever answer he gives. If he says he was cleaning a pen with it, she’ll say, ‘I see, a pen,’ 

Another tactic used by Nurse Ratched in order to humiliate and demean the men is seen in a conversation about a kleenex. When Dale Harding mentions the kleenex, the reader is immediately introduced to another side of Nurse Ratched. A side in which Nurse Ratched is not necessarily accusing the patients in the ward of doing something, but instead dancing around the question and manipulating them so that they feel even more embarrassed afterwards. The situation set on page 49 of the novel is an effective example of Nurse Ratched’s manipulative motives. Nurse Ratched calls a man over to the nurse’s office to ask him about a kleenex that she found under his bed, even though finding a kleenex underneath somebody’s bed isn’t even that big of a deal, Nurse Ratched still feels the need to question this man about is just because of the fact that she knows this man used it for masturbation. Nurse Ratched questions this man about the kleenex and is described by Ken Kesey as “subtly smiles” when asking about it. This use of characterization can be seen as manipulative and clearly indicates that Nurse Ratched is trying to humiliate this man for masterbathing, as it resembles loneliness. Nurse Ratched wants to make the man feel unmanly for doing what he did and ashamed for not being able to find a partner. Again, Ken Kesey portrays Nurse Ratched as cruel, heartless, and someone who attempts to emasculate the men. In order to convey this facet of Nurse Ratched, Ken Kesey uses Harding’s character as he is able to confront her in a confident manner. By using someone who has been at the ward for a long time, Ken Kesey is able to highlight another trait in Nurse Ratched which aids the reader in seeing Nurse Ratched for who she really is. Therefore, Ken Kesey not only uses Nurse Ratched’s actions and speech to show the reader her true intentions, but also secondary characters such as Dale Harding that aid as a foil to Nurse Ratched and help the reader understand Nurse Ratched’s real personality. Thus, reinforcing his critical and unforgiving view of strong female characters. 

Electroshock Treatment:

On page 53 of the novel, the patients in the ward explain to Randle McMurphy what the electroshock treatment is. Ken Kesey uses the quotation by Harding “You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns. You are touched on each side of the head with wires.” The electroshock treatment is another symbol of Nurse Ratched’s cruelty and prison like environment. The electroshock treatment is also a symbol of how Nurse Ratched perceives the patients in the ward. It is clear that she does not consider the patients in the ward significant enough to consider other less painful options for the men. The way that the patients talk about their fears of electroshock therapy is a symbol of the power that Nurse Ratched has over her patient’s thoughts and feelings. Nurse Ratched is able to use this form of punishment to keep control in the hospital, as all the patients in the ward will know what will happen to them if they disobey the rules. 

World Series:

Through the use of dialogue, Kesey displays Nurse Ratched’s thirst for power and control over the men in the ward. On page 112 of the novel, McMurphy wants to watch the World Series. Nurse Ratched agrees that if he can get more than half of the patients in the ward to say that they also want to watch the World Series, then McMurphy can have his wish granted. During the meeting, McMurphy desperately tries to get as many patients in the ward as he can to vote so he can watch the World Series. Just as the meeting is about to close, Chief Bromden raises his hand and now the majority of the patients in the ward have voted to watch the World Series on television. When McMurphy tells Nurse Ratched that he has collected enough votes to be able to watch the World Series, Nurse Ratched replies by telling him that the meeting has closed and that no matter how many votes he has collected, it does not matter since the meeting is now over, even though this was just one minute after the meeting supposedly closed. The fact that it was only a difference of a few seconds between when McMurphy collected the last vote and when the meeting was cancelled, a compassionate nurse would allow McMurphy and the patients to watch the World Series. Considering the fact that Nurse Ratched does not let McMurphy and the patients watch the World Series even though McMurphy did collect enough votes, suggests that Nurse Ratched does not truly care about her patients and instead is preoccupied with her dominance and control. Ken Kesey uses the quotation “The meeting was closed, she says. Her smile is still there, but the back of her neck as she walks out of the day room and into the Nurses’ Station, is red and swelling like she’ll blow apart any second.” Therefore, Ken Kesey makes use of characterisation and diction to showcase Nurse Ratched’s personality. 

Billy Bibbit & Nurse Ratched:

Another scene in which Nurse Ratched’s true colors are revealed is on page 243 of the novel. In this scene, Billy Bibbit, who is another patient in the ward, sleeps with Sandy, one of Randle McMurphy’s friends. When Nurse Ratched discovers Billy Bibbit and Sandy sleeping together, she immediately begins to yell at Billy Bibbit and ask him questions such as “Aren’t you ashamed?” and continues to call Sandy cheap and disgusting, attempting to make Billy Bibbit feel bad about having sex with another woman. When Billy stands up for himself and tells Nurse Ratched that he is not ashamed of sleeping with Sandy, Nurse Ratched turns the tables and hits Billy Bibbit’s weak spot and brings up his mother. Billy Bibbit and his mother have a complicated relationship as she has been said in the novel to constantly emasculate him and make him feel less of a man. When Nurse Ratched brings up Billy Bibbit’s mother, there is an immediate shift in Billy’s demeanor:  “What worries me, Billy,” she said - I could hear the change in her voice - “is how your poor mother is going to take this.Billy flinched and put his hand to his cheek like he’d been burned with acid.” In this exchange of dialogue, Ken Kesey uses Nurse Ratched’s diction in order to again highlight her true intentions. In this dialogue, Ken Kesey also uses the physical imagery of Billy Bibbit’s cheek being burnt with acid so that the reader can see the drastic impact that Nurse Ratched’s words have on the patients. Skin being burnt with acid is a strong piece of physical imagery that would immediately paint a gruesome image in the reader’s mind, and thus help to show the weight of Nurse Ratched’s cruel and manipulative words. 

Looking at the quotation above, it is clear to readers that Nurse Ratched has no sympathy or emotional attachment to her patients since she does seem to care that Billy Bibbit is having an emotional breakdown. This clearly aids in supporting the theory that Nurse Ratched is only trying to manipulate her patients and maintain power over them. It is likely that Nurse Ratched views Billy Bibbit sleeping with a woman as a threat, as the patients knew that this was not allowed. Nurse Ratched is characterized as aware that it would be hurtful to Billy if she were to tell Billy Bibbit’s mother that her son lost his virginity, but did so anyway just so she could regain her power and make a point to all the patients in the ward. Furthermore, when Randle McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched and rips open her uniform, he exposes her breasts. Randle McMurphy exposing Nurse Ratched’s breasts can be seen as a symbol of Randle’s inability to take Nurse Ratched disguising herself as the superior figure in the ward, and exposing her breasts in order to showcase her femininity as breasts are seen as gentle and of course a feminine component. In this specific instance, Ken Kesey aims to portray women as figures who should aim to be inferior to men and not emasculate men , but rather satisfy them. By having Randle McMurphy get angry at Nurse Ratched and expose her breasts, in other words, her femininity, Ken Kesey conveys to the reader that women should exist to obey men and please them rather than take control and make them feel unmanly. This leads us to the other type of women that are portrayed in the novel that are known as whores. 

The Whores:

On page 230, the patients in the ward properly meet Sandy and Candy. Ken Kesey uses the quotation “Her shoulders and breasts and hips were too wide and her grin too big and open for her to ever be called beautiful” to describe Sandy. By saying that Sandy’s breasts and hips were very wide and that she had a big grin, portrays Sandy as a stereotypical feminine figure as large hips, shoulders, and breasts are what are deemed feminine and attractive. Furthermore, women are stereotypically regarded as delicate and gentle creatures, and by stating that Sandy has a large grin, it invites the reader to perceive her as vibrant and cheerful, two traits that women may be stereotypically associated with.


The whores in the novel are Sandy and Candy, Randle McMurphy’s friends. Despite the fact that they are regarded as whores and only there to please men, Ken Kesey encourages the reader to admire these two women and encourages the reader to genuinely like them in the novel. In the last few pages of the novel, Randle McMurphy decides to escape out of the ward with Chief Bromden. However, he first wants to throw a party as he believes that the patients of the ward deserve it. Thus, he invites Candy and Sandy  to dance around with the men and give the men a chance to have their sexual fantasies come alive, without having to be embarrassed or emasculated by Nurse Ratched as they have been for the last few years. As mentioned previously, the way in which Sandy and Candy are presented in the novel invites the reader to regard them favourably. As this is the first time that the reader sees the men in the ward smiling and joking around with women, rather than being emasculated by the wicked Nurse Ratched. For example, on page 230, Ken Kesey uses the quotation “How, Candy, how, how, how do these wild things happen to us?” She turned around once more and stopped, with her bare feet spread, giggling. “These things don’t happen,” Harding said to the girl solemnly. “These things are fantasies you lie awake at night dreaming up and then are afraid to tell your analyst. You’re not really here. That wine isn’t real; none of this exists. Now, let’s go on from there.” Here, Ken Kesey portrays Candy and Sandy as two smiling, vibrant young ladies who the men in the ward are immediately attracted to as Harding cannot even believe that he is seeing these women in real life. By using Harding’s diction, Ken Kesey highlights the impact that the whores have had on the patients. 

Billy Bibbit & Sandy:

In addition, Kesey characterizes Billy as having a crush on Sandy and becomes jubilant when Billy and Sandy do end up sleeping together, as the reader wants to see Billy with a woman and be happy. On page 242 of the novel, Ken Kesey uses the quotation “Good morning, Miss Ratched,” Billy said, not even making any move to get up and button his pajamas. He took the girl’s hand in his and grinned. “This is Candy.” Here, Ken Kesey makes use of characterization and shows the reader how much Billy Bibbit has changed after losing his virginity to Candy. Due to the fact that the reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for Billy Bibbit, to witness Billy  in a happy relationship invites the reader to appreciate the character of Candy. Thus, Ken Kesey makes use of characterization in order to highlight the positive effect that Candy has had on Billy Bibbit that is observed by all the patients in the ward when Billy and Candy wake up the next morning together. 

Sartorial Imagery:

Through the use of sartorial imagery, Kesey portrays the women as seductive  and attractive. On page 230, Ken Kesey uses the quotation “They were both in skirts and sweaters and nylons and barefoot, and both red-cheeked and giggling. “We had to keep asking for directions,” Candy explained, “at every bar we came to” to introduce the girls. Here, Ken Kesey makes use of sartorial imagery to portray the girls as stereotypical prostitutes. The use of the words “skirts”, “nylons”, and “barefoot” paint the picture of a woman that attracts many men and dresses provocatively to gain attention. Throughout the novel, Ken Kesey shows the positive impact that the prostitutes have on the patients in the ward, which infers that Ken Kesey applauds this portrayal of women. This portrayal of women is a stereotypical and objectified depiction of women, which is in clear contrast to feminism. Thus, Ken Kesey uses sartorial imagery to show the reader what he believes is attractive about a woman. 

The contrast between the ball cutters and whores in the novel is apparent and the way in which Ken Kesey portrays these two types of women is also clear. Ball cutters are the type of women that Ken Kesey wants to get rid of in society, for example Nurse Ratched as these kind of women do nothing but emasculate men and lower their levels of manliness.  On the other hand, it is implied by Kesey that the whores are the type of women who are appreciated in society as they please men and act in a feminine manner. Nurse Ratched is portrayed as manipulative and immoral, whereas Sandy and Candy are presented as sweet and obedient, being kind to the patients - which in turn, invites the reader to favor the whores more than the ball cutters regardless of the other interpretations and viewpoints that can be taken regarding Nurse Ratched’s role. 

Chief Bromden’s Mother:

Candy, Sandy, and Nurse Ratched are the main women in the novel that Ken Kesey focuses on to contrast what he believes are the two type of women in the world. However, it is important to note that the author also makes small references to other women such as Chief Bromden’s mother. From the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to the fact that Chief Bromden’s mother emasculated both he and his father. His mother is said to be taller than Chief Bromden, and said to have refused to have taken her husband’s last name which in turn led to him being emasculated. Thus, Ken Kesey is again using characterization and showing a woman with strong opinions to have a negative impact on a man, which sways the reader to dislike Chief Bromden’s mother regardless of the fact that she is possibly reaching closer to feminism. 

Leading Experts:

As Philipa Darbyshire, a woman in the Department of Nursing and Community Health in Glasgow Caledonian University states “Kesey created Big Nurse as a monstrous figure in every respect. Nurse Ratched’s presence is seen as intimidating, not only in her omnipresent surveillance of men, but in her near gothic physical proportions” Ken Kesey’s intention is clear throughout this novel. Kesey portrays Nurse Ratched as an evil figure who constantly manipulates the patients. Darbyshire makes the point that nurses are typically associated with being caring and loving towards their patients, and Nurse Ratched does the complete opposite of this instilling terror and a lack of trust in her patients. 

Gustav Rydergad, a professor from Mid Sweden University, also explains the same in his published work of “The Wardian Angel: A Reading of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the Light of Gender Role Stereotypes and Patriarchal Domination.” In this paper, Gustav uses the quotation: “When Candy is contrasted to Ratched, we see that she is appreciated because she responds to all what the men wish for in a woman – undemanding sexuality and availability, characteristics that are nowhere to be found in Nurse Ratched.” This clearly supports the theory that Ken Kesey is supporting women such as Candy and Sandy much more than women who emasculate men, such as Nurse Ratched. 


To conclude, I believe that Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is not a thinly veiled condemnation of feminism but is rather a very strong condemnation of feminism that Ken Kesey makes explicit through the use of symbolism, characterization, diction, and sartorial imagery. Ken Kesey is not necessarily a misogynist, but is someone who believes that women and men have separate roles in society and that both genders should conform to their stereotypical associated trait. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that Ken Kesey is criticizing feminism as feminism is seen as a step forwards from the traditional obedient woman (Candy or Sandy), and Ken Kesey suggests that women should only be there to please men, and in contrast, feminists (Nurse Ratched) would only emasculate men. 


Shreya Sachdev