Till about half a century ago, society perceived a man’s role at work and a woman’s role as homemaker. Men were expected to exercise authority and power and women, on the other hand, were to be subservient and docile. These stereotypes extended beyond the family into public life and manifested in areas such as politics, education and occupations. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey reverses these archetypal gender roles to demonstrate the disorganized and sometimes tragically comic world of a mental hospital.
In the novel, Kesey portrays women as powerful oppressors who manipulate the patients on the ward, as shown by the characters of Nurse Ratched, the mothers of Billy and Chief and of Vera Harding. Nurse Ratched takes advantage of her position to gain power; maintains her power by emasculating and dehumanizing the patients; and, succeeds in suppressing their laughter. When McMurphy enters the hospital, he is struck by the fact that nobody is laughing. He says, “I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that?
Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing…” (65). Nurse Ratched also takes advantage of the patients’ vulnerability and instability. She is unethical in deploying all means to make them conform and do things the way she wants. After the first group therapy session, McMurphy calls her a “ball-cutter. ”(57) She has power over both her subordinates and her superiors, like Dr Spivey. Mr. Harding calls him “a frightened, desperate, ineffectual little rabbit, totally incapable of running this ward without our Miss Ratched’s help and he knows it.
And, worse, she knows he knows it and reminds him every chance she gets. ” (60) Nurse Ratched destroys and weakens her patients through a careful, manipulative program aimed at destroying their self-esteem and crushing their hopes. She also uses outside influences to help her control her patients: As seen in her friendship with Billy Bibbit’s mother with whom she plots to exploit Billy. Most male patients in the novel have been damaged and harmed by the overpowering women in their lives. Billy Bibbit and Chief Bromden are two patients who have been belittled by their mothers.
Billy Bibbit’s mother takes advantage of his insecurity. She gains her power by preventing Billy from maturing and by holding him back from becoming a functioning adult. This oppression ultimately drives Billy to take his own life. Initially, it seems like Mrs. Bibbit does not understand that Billy is old enough to make his own decisions. Later, it is discovered that all this was just an pretext for her narcissism. When she tells Billy he has plenty of time to accomplish things such as going to college, he reminds her that he is thirty-one years old.
She replies, “Sweetheart, do I look like the mother of a middle-aged man? ” (247). When she can no longer keep her son mentally immature and innocent, she hands him over to Nurse Ratched. When Nurse Ratched catches Billy with a prostitute, she threatens to tell his mother. She says, “Mrs. Bibbit’s always been so proud of your discretion. I know she has. This is going to disturb her terribly. You know how she is when she gets disturbed, Billy; you know how ill the poor woman can become…” (264).
The threat of his mother’s disappointment and anger leads Billy to suicide. Billy’s mother and Big Nurse dominated him to death. Similarly, Chief Bromden was run down by his mother since childhood Chief started hallucinating after witnessing his father, Tee Ah Millatoona, a full Indian chief, being disgraced at the hands of the government and his white wife. Although he is 6 feet 7 inches tall, he thinks he “used to be big, but not no more” (26). His father took his mother’s last name and he describes his mother as a castrator.
He says his mother “got bigger all the time” and was “bigger than Papa and me together” (26). According to him, she built herself up by constantly putting them down. Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Bibbit and Chief’s mother are not the only women who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the respective male characters. Vera Harding uses her beauty and husband’s insecurities about his sexuality to manipulate him. She makes Dale feel inadequate using her physique and her sarcastic remarks on his lack of masculinity. Mr.
Harding’s effeminacy and frailty is represented by his graceful, unmanageable hands which Bromden describes as, “…hands so long and white and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap, and sometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him free as two white birds until he notices them and traps them between his knees; it bothers him that he’s got pretty hands” (23). Mr. Harding is extremely embarrassed of his hands because they make people question his masculinity. He believes they are all “victims of matriarchy” (59). His wife’s constant accusations and barbs make him meeker.
Mrs. Harding “sweet-talks” the black boys into bringing her in the ward during non-visiting hours so that she can continue her verbal assaults on him (157). She humiliates her husband in front of the inmates and makes him feel inferior. When he starts to laugh after telling her a funny story about McMurphy, she snaps at him and says, “Dale, when are you going to learn to laugh instead of making that mousy little squeak? ”(158). The fear of his wife and the shame in expressing his homosexuality make Mr. Harding stay voluntarily at the mental hospital.
Nurse Ratched and Mrs. Harding make sure to smother the slightest spark of courage Mr. Harding might have had to face the world with his sexuality. Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Bibbit, Chief Bromden’s mother and Vera Harding depict the oppressive authority of women over the lives of the inmates in the mental hospital. Kesey portrays that Nurse Ratched is not the only one taking advantage of her powers: Mrs. Bibbit, Chief’s mother and Mrs. Harding also take advantage of their sons and husband’s mental instability, susceptibility and frailty respectively.
Kesey argues that women like these would not be able to obtain such powers had they not been associated with inherently weak and unstable men. He shows women in the novel as cunning and manipulative to make their mark in society. However, Candy, Sandy and Miss Pillbow also make an impression on the patients without being evil. Nonetheless, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest clearly is a powerful narrative of the reversal of stereotypical gender roles and of the counterpoint of male domination by showing its female variant.