The Definition of Insanity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Essay
As Ray Bradbury once said, “Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage. ” In his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey depicts this arbitrary line between sane and insane. By elucidating the oppressive role of the mental institution and portraying its patients as more eccentric than insane, Kesey sparks a re-evaluation of what it means to be insane. Throughout the novel, the reader is made to question society’s definition and the responsibility of the institution for the mental state of its occupants. Insanity is largely dependent upon context and time period.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, takes place during the mid-twentieth century, the age of conformity. Because there was such a narrow range of acceptable behavior, individuals who did not conform were often regarded as crazy. The lack of understanding of mental illness and the absence of effective psychotropic drugs led to warehousing of many patients. In addition, the pendulum was swinging back from the deinstitutionalization movement that was so prevalent in the 1950’s. Large parts of the population were being swept into institutions, which served as storage houses for a broad range of conditions.
And once inside, mental instability was often perpetuated by the very system intended to “cure” it. In another time period, many of the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest probably would not have been institutionalized. Throughout the story, Chief describes the hospital as a place where society threw all of the nonconformists. McMurphy told the other patients, “I don’t think you fully understand the public, my friend; in this country, when something is out of order, then the quickest way to get it fixed is the best way.”
In this case, the quickest way was having one institution for a wide range of conditions, and pressuring those who did not kowtow to admit themselves. Sefelt and Frederickson were put in the institution because of the lack of awareness for epilepsy. Dale Harding is in the hospital voluntarily to escape the prejudice against homosexuals. Billy Bibbit, whose only apparent ‘sickness’ is a stutter, is in the hospital primarily because of his severe lack of confidence. These men surely would not been found in a mental institution today.
McMurphy recognized this fact, and told the fellow acutes, “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. ” Those in positions of authority determine who is sane, and by deciding it, they make it a reality in the hospital. McMurphy embodies the unrestrained individuality that society and the institution strive to stifle. In many cases, the staff were myopic in there diagnoses and treatment of patients.
Chief remembered, “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all. ” Chief also recognized that if something isn’t broken, it cannot be fixed. He described the chronics as “machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”
Nonetheless, the staff attempted to “fix” the patients, ultimately causing more harm than good. In fact, many of the men were only further damaged by the hospital. The disturbing “pecking parties,” rigid rules, and denial of basic freedoms would probably drive even the most sane individual mad. In essence, the system creates insanity, and the patients are having a normal reaction to their insane world. The authoritarian staff also made the patients feel guilty for having natural impulses and used harsh punishment to discourage rebellion.
Billy Bibbit would have been much better off outside the walls of the hospital, as he only became a true danger to himself after being exposed to the cruelty of Nurse Ratched. His suicide can be attributed to her constant degradation. The mental institution equates obedience to sanity. To Nurse Ratched, it merely depends on how willing the patient is to adhere to the rules. If any patient tries to challenge these rules, they will be kept longer and even punished. The electro-shock treatment and lobotomies served primarily as a means of dissuading defiance.
One might argue that the staff reverses roles with the patients. Perhaps they are the ones who are truly insane if they are willing to implement such by implementing such brutal policies. Harding suggests that Nurse Ratched is psychopath who has discovered how to use her insanity to her advantage and compares her to Hitler. When the patients make a reasonable request to watch the World Series, Nurse Ratched gets unduly upset. Chief notes that her reaction makes her look as crazy as the patients.
Throughout the story, the institution attempts to repress McMurphy’s humor, open sexuality, and confidence, all of which symbolize his sanity. This implies the institution itself is insane. One of the patients who was “successfully cured” in the eyes of the hospital was Maxwell Taber, who was punished with ETC after asking what medicine he was being given. This anecdote of a man who is tortured for asking a simple question reveals the insanity of the institution. Taber’s sanity was demonstrated by his questioning the system.
However, because the institution inadvertently values compliance over sanity, they turned him into a vegetable. In order to do away with his recalcitrance, they had to take away his sanity. Because the hospital is representative of society at large, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a social commentary on the public’s naive view of insanity and the insidious role of mental institutions. According to Philip K. Dick, “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane. ” Perhaps in a mad world, only the mad are sane.