One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I watched Jack Nicholson again in one of my old time favourite films – here’s a paper I wrote years back on this story from a psychoanalytical viewpoint – this is while I was studying the analytical part of my integrative-existential training course.

‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ is a story that was written by Ken Kesey in 1962. Kesey’s book has been widely acclaimed following the making of an influential and multi-awarded film by Milos Forman, in 1975. The psychopathology and hospitalisation of the ‘mentally-ill’ in-patients, who had been diagnosed and prescribed by medical professionals, constitute a conceptual framework within which the story develops. This paper attempts to present and explore the intense personal expressions and relationships that develop by applying various psychoanalytical theories, and it includes an analytical exploration of the characters of the two protagonists: Randall Patrick McMurphy, one of the in-patients, and the head nurse, Meredith Ratched. Their intense personalities and escalating relationship form the backbone of the developing story, which comes to a tragic conclusion. Freudian and Kleinian theories, together with other analytical suggestions, provide the theoretical base of the following elaborations. Particular resonance with analytic theories seems to emerge in relation to certain aspects of the narrative, such as symbolic idealisations, aggression and sexuality. Such personal and relational aspects are seen to refer to analytic theories of the unconscious, transference, projective identification and schizoid tendencies. A study of main characters and their relationships, in the light of the above analytic theories and ideas, forms the main body of this paper.

The particular relationships in the cuckoo’s nest are seen as having two main counterparts, the mental health practitioners represented by Nurse Ratched and the in-patients under ‘treatment’ with McMurphy in the front line. The two groups are seen as forming therapeutic relationships, not in classical psychotherapeutic terms but rather in a broader sense as part of a structured clinical environment. The author also acknowledges the unexplored extensiveness of the topic of clinical relationships and their relevance with diverse theories and various other schools of thought.

Nurse Rutched enters…

‘…and I know it’s the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key…She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel – tip of each finger the same colour as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Colour so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which.’
Kesey, 1962: 4

Nurse Ratched was being described by Chief Bromden (the narrator of the story) as the Big Nurse and her figurative size was being clearly exaggerated in the eyes of everyone in the hospital ward. She entered the story expressionless, moving mechanically with her large breasts appearing as her most emphasised personal characteristic. Her power (like soldering iron) was in the service of her manipulative manner, ‘repairing’ individuals with her burning ‘tools’. She denied her womanhood; sexual feelings and impulses needed to be repressed and any sexual reminder – internal and external – was experienced as highly threatening.

She appeared primarily concerned with the smooth functioning of the ward, not with the well-being of the patients. Precise continuation of a carefully detailed daily program was seen as essential in the facilitation of the medical treatment based on diagnosis, drugs, and group-therapy meetings held on a regular basis. She was the oppressive ‘mother’ of the patients with the overbearing and suffocating breasts.

McMurphy enters…

‘I hear him coming down the hall and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don’t slide, he’s got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes…hitches his thumbs in his pockets, boots wide apart, and stands there with the guys looking at him.
“Good mornin’, buddies.” Kesey, 1962: 10

McMurphy had got ‘iron on his heels’(ibid), he was strong, loud and playful. He came from a prison preferring to do his time in a more relaxed environment, not realizing that he entered a more controlling one with no release date. He had a history of ‘anti-social’ behaviour – being violent and offensive – and a weakness in gambling. Sexual experiences appeared for him highly meaningful and pleasurable, as ways of relating and communicating with others, a driving force which energized him in the boring and catatonic ward.

He was exuberant, vulgar and entertaining, and one of his main ways of dealing with difficulties was through his witty sense of humour, full of graphic and sarcastic touches. He showed versatility by combining individualistic and altruistic attitudes, expressing a natural sense of narcissism and egoism while, sometimes, he selflessly exposed himself to danger for the sake of the others. A general ‘allergy’ towards rules and authoritarian systems was evident; systems he had kept running away from but paradoxically ending up trapped within…