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Book Analysis

Symbolism of The Control Panel In Ken Kesey’s "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" - Shreya Sachdev

In both the novel and the film of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy arbitrates to sneak out of the hospital and go downtown to watch the World Series. He bets the other patients he can lift this control panel and smash it through the window. All the other patients laugh at him and tell him “there’s no man that can lift that thing”. Nevertheless, McMurphy is sanguine and is determined to give it a try. The reason this control panel is so cardinal in the story is because of what it represents. The control panel is a representation of all the rules and regulations Nurse Ratched has inflicted onto the patient's that seem too rigid and too substantial to move. Even though McMurphy is indeed not able to lift the control panel, everybody is committed into seeing him try which is evident in Chief Bromden’s narration in the novel: “His whole body shakes with the strain as he tries to lift something he knows he can’t lift, something everybody knows he can’t lift. But, for just a second, when we hear the cement grind at our feet, we think, by golly, he might do it.” This is also evident in the film as we see the patients looking extremely intrigued with their eyes fixed on McMurphy to see if he can actually lift this control panel.

When McMurphy finally gives up, nobody uses the phrase “I told you so” or mocks him because in secrecy, every single patient was hoping he would be able to do it. This would’ve been a complete miracle due to the fact that these patients are so devoted in believing no man can lift that control panel, which again symbolizes that no man can change the rules of the ward and furthermore confirms the fact that Nurse Ratched has been successful in emasculating these patients since in order to lift this control panel, a man would have to be vigorous and muscular and these patients clearly believe that they are not brawny and actually completely incapable of lifting the control panel.

McMurphy might not have been able to lift the control panel, but he was able to make the patient’s believe that he could, even if it was for just a few seconds. He wanted to show the patients that there is clearly potential to disintegrate the power that Nurse Ratched has exerted on the patient's. However, this domination will not be able to be broken if only one single man fights. Thus, the only way these patients will finally be free is if they group together to agitate against Nurse Ratched and realise that they are in fact powerful men that have the robustness to lift these orders and get what they want. When McMurphy was trying to lift the control panel, he made the patients have faith in him and was in a way actually inviting them to come help him.

The intention of this aspect in both the novel and the film are exactly the same. McMurphy wants to show the patients that if they band together, they can break the schedule. The symbol of the control panel in both the novel and the film are exactly identical because they both show McMurphy’s eagerness to break the rules.

This symbolism of the control panel has the most meaning in the last chapter of the novel, when Chief Bromden finally sets himself free from the torture that he has been enduring all these years. In order to set himself free, he lifts the control panel and smashes it through the window. In other words, he lifts up the rules of the wards and smashes them through the window and sets himself free, finally realising his worth and understanding that he is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect.


Shreya Sachdev