Breaking Free from the Machine
Throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey repeatedly uses animals, specifically the dog, in Chief’s hallucinations to symbolize Chief’s mental transformation in the mechanized state of the ward under the inspiration from McMurphy. Ultimately, Kesey warns against the power of technology and encourages people to work together to overcome adversity.
Chief Bromden, the narrator of this book, talks about his experience in the ward. Nurse Ratched, who runs the ward, uses her power to intimidate patients like Bromden to abide by strict rules which strip individualism from the patients. When a new inmate, McMurphy, comes to the ward, none of the patients knew what to do because McMurphy immediately rebels against the nurse. Meanwhile, Bromden’s hallucinations about nature, specifically the representation of each animal, begin transforming and changing when he embraces McMurphy nonconformist mindset.
Kesey describes Bromden’s earlier hallucinations as an embodiment of Bromden’s self-effacing character through the symbolism of a dog and a bird, demonstrating how Kesey elicits the dangers of conformity. Bromden first hallucinates about a dog when the orderlies pin him down and shave him. Bromden imagines hunting a bird with his father. Each aspect of the hunting represents his feeling about the ward. Specifically, Bromden describes that the bird (being hunted) is “safe as long as he keeps still and stands still” but the hunting dog helps Papa (Bromden’s father) hunt the bird by “sniffing and circling, louder and closer” (7). Big Nurses’ policies belittle Bromden, so he acts deaf and dumb. So, the stagnant bird in this hallucination represents Chief’s mentality of surviving the ward as long as possible. Bromden believes staying still allows himself to avoid troubles even though he inevitably gives up his individuality. On the other hand, the dog represents the orderlies chasing Bromden, symbolizing how they aid the mechanized state of the ward (Papa’s gun symbolizes the pills Big Nurses forces the patients to digest without protest). Papa’s eventually succeeds in killing the bird, symbolizing Big Nurse’s resources (people and tools) for forcing her patients to acquiesce to any of her demands. Throughout this whole hallucination, Kesey demonstrates the impossibility of survival in the ward because of the technology’s overwhelming power. More importantly, Kesey shows how isolating oneself ultimately leads to one’s demise whether mentally or physically. This motif emerges again when Bromden looks outside of the window and imagines hearing a car approaching as well as seeing a chief goose and a dog which ends unclearly: “…that lead goose was right in the center of that circle, bigger than the others… I (Bromden) watched the dog and the car making for the same spot of pavement… The dog was almost to the rail fence at the edge of the grounds” (165). Like the gun in Bromden’s previous hallucination about hunting, the car represents Big Nurse’s technological weapons (pills, electroshock therapy, etc.). Interestingly, in this hallucination, the dog’s significance transforms and now represents the patients, specifically Bromden. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of the geese and the dog shows that the geese are free, representing how the lead goose is like McMurphy’s vie to lead the inmates to stray away from supporting Big Nurse’s absurd policies. The end result of the car approaching the dog represents McMurphy’s fight for freedom in the ward is suppressed by Big Nurse’s omniscient power and emasculation of the patients. Through this imagination, Kesey warns that if one tries to overtake the machine, that one will be killed. The only way to escape is to work with one another for freedom. Through these two hallucinations, Kesey shows the slow transformation of Bromden and the effect McMurphy has on the patient’s. These different animal symbols show how important recognizing one’s own fears and working with others will help one overcome his or her fears.
Kesey furthers develops Bromden’s self discovery near the end when Bromden realizes how confidence in himself leads to freedom and power against the Nurse and the ward, demonstrating how one person (McMurphy) can impact many. Specifically, Bromden joins McMurphy’s fist fight against one of the orderlies to protect George (another patient), showing that now Bromden aligns with McMurphy’s values of self expression without the containment of Big Nurse’s policies. As a result, the orderlies send both McMurphy and Bromden to electroshock therapy. When McMurphy is about to get his electroshock therapy, Bromden imagines, “Sparrows fluffed out against the cold, scratching among the sparks for seeds. We cut across the crackling grass, past the digger squirrel holes where I saw the dog” (281). This description of the sparrow shows how Bromden is continually searching for his own individuality. Specifically, the sparrow scratching for seeds represent the patients desperation for freedom. Specifically McMurphy’s desire. The dog’s freedom and freewill show the patient’s search for happiness and their passion/reason to live. Specifically, this references McMurphy’s transformation: he originally had a hedonistic and selfish mindset when he arrived at the ward because he wanted to have an easier way out of prison/ward. Nevertheless, the dog transitions and adventures demonstrating how McMurphy has found happiness by helping out his fellow patients. Kesey shows how even though it takes a long time for people to find their true passion/ reason to live, it is important to unlock it. Kesey also shows that people often need a role model to discover themselves. Even though Chief is undergoing electroshock therapy, he is confident and strong because he is there with McMurphy, showing how important friendship and role modeling is for a person. Similarly, near the end of the book, after McMurphy is lobotomized, Chief realizes how he needs to escape the confines of the ward. As a result, Bromden runs away. He describes this experience as truly freeing from Big Nurse’s mechanized state. When running away, Chief described his freedom: “I remembered seeing the dog go, toward the highway… I felt like I was flying. Free… But I didn’t stop” (324). Big Chief remembers the dog, demonstrating how he feels relieved from Big Nurse’s power Because of McMurphy, Big Chief feels stronger and more confident to run away from the ward. Just like the dog, Chief runs away into the highway. This time, there is no mention of a machine he has to face, showing that Chief avoided the machine by running away from it. Through this freeing of Chief’s self from the ward, Kesey warns against a direct fight against machines. He encourages people to instead find empowerment through struggles and break free from those. Through Chief, he shows how curiosity and confidence goes a long way to break free from the current state. Through these later quotes, Kesey demonstrates how one can truly transform when he is led by an individual who is ambitious and bold.
Through all these hallucinations, Kesey reveals how the insecurities of Bromden transforms into his confident true self. Thus, Kesey warns that technology gives a certain extent of leverage but can always be combatted with a group of people. He emphasizes the importance of working with one another for a common goal. McMurphy developed a common goal of fighting against the Big Nurse’s bullish policies and replacing it with ones that respected the patient. Likewise, Kesey encourages people to let confidence build up in yourself, not slow down from failures.