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The Death of Two Leaders:

An Analyzation of the Power Struggle in Ken Kesey’s

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Katherine White

Ms. Ladika

AP Literature 2A

December 21, 2017

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Death, albeit elusive and feared, can be bluntly identified when slouched in and strapped to a creaky hospital chair in front of you. Such is the life of various men who make up Ken Kesey’s unenviable mental ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Submissive to Nurse Ratched’s totalitarian presence, the men show no traces of independence. However, when Randall McMurphy is admitted alongside them, they feed off his vigor and excitement, and experience new life through the ongoing power struggle between their two leaders. The symbolic deaths of Ratched and McMurphy, (his lobotomy and her loss of speech) cause the destruction of two cult-like mentalities- one being stark obedience and the other being uncontrolled rebellion. In their death lays the patients’ opportunity for independence, but, as they lack the willpower to take action without instruction, it is clear to see that the death of a leader can result in the death of each individual as well.

Our beginning descriptions of the ward from Chief Bromden’s eyes are both manically sadist and incredibly dull. He speaks with intense apprehension about the various machines, metal contraptions, and emasculating staff that create this environment of fear, while tossing in comments here-and-there that showcase the stale living qualities of his peers. (Kesey 6). The men are complacent, beaten-down, and lacking any sort of willpower to take control over their heavily-monitored lives; Bromden’s nightmarish hallucinations give a very personal and representative insight as to how the headspace of each patient is causing their lack of action. In a very obvious way, the men in the ward are already dead. Lifeless bodies being dragged from room to room, activity to activity, simple thought to simple thought* every day without any pride, independence, or ability to do anything but what they are told. It must be noted that a major contributor to the mental state of these men is not only their own lives and psychological

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mark-up, but the unending totality of Nurse Ratched’s control. She is the single spark that constantly fuels their disdain for life, and is the pre-existing antithesis to McMurphy’s energetic mania. Her role as a leader in the ward is incontrovertibly repressive, which makes McMurphy’s provocation all the more effective. McMurphy’s entrance scene immediately shows him as out-spoken, rebellious, and a natural leader. His subtle mischievousness interests all characters in the ward, especially Bromden and Ratched, both of whom instantly realize his intent for independence. (Kesey 26). Despite her dominant and emasculating presence, McMurphy speaks to Nurse Ratched as an equal, not an inferior, which catches the attention of several ward members. After only five minutes in the ward, McMurphy has already asserted himself as someone who will not be controlled; and his bold demeanor is a blatant contrast to the behaviors and appearances of the other men in the ward. After being under Ratched’s thumb for so long, McMurphy’s apathy for the structure of his new environment sparks an excitement in the men; finally there is a fighting force, finally there is someone to lead them away from Ratched’s command.

Contributing to the leader role McMurphy quickly embodies, there is a deeper layer of symbolic dominance that adds to both his struggle with Ratched and his captivation over the patients. Going back to his entrance scene; when McMurphy enters the ward for the first time, Bromden quickly takes note of his stature and eminence, and makes an evocative connection between McMurphy and his own father. (Kesey 12). Perfunctory as this connection may seem, it plays a huge role in our understanding of the developing relationship between McMurphy and the other patients. Immediately he is observed as a father-like, authoritative figure, which contributes to the progression from his role as a leader to his role as a savior for the rest of the

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ward. Again, he is seen as a hopeful change for the men; someone to help them, someone to save them, someone to lead them out of the desolate mental wasteland Ratched has created. However, Ratched cannot be tossed aside as the terrible villain character that exists only to make the savior more prominent. She is the other side of the patriarch that McMurphy personifies. If he is the rebellious, paternal influence, then she is the strict, unheeding mother that represses that desire to rebel. But, it is also imperative to understand that Ratched, as a matriarchal figure, does not utilize her power with the intention to help her patients improve, mentally or emotionally. In a heated discussion about the ability for independence in the ward (or lack thereof), Harding, another patient, speaks on the autocratic nature of their environment. He speaks on the trap of Ratched’s  “Sweet Mother” persona (Kesey 63.), explaining that despite her speech about wanting to help the men achieve their greater good, her constant instigation allows her to gain satisfaction from watching her patients go into madness while using her passive nature as a guise. Comparable to the “devouring mother” archetype Ratched thrives off of her inferiors being dependent on her. (Simpson-Green, The Ruler Archetype). Her personal gratification from emasculating and beating down her patients is obvious, both in her actions and in the reactions of the patients. In his elaboration, we see how her feminine, docile appearance only strengthens her power as a matriarch. She is a force of sexless, scolding femininity that can only be attributed to the all-knowing, all-seeing power of motherhood. They are helpless against her, and worse, they believe they are helpless against her. The patients’ hopelessness under her regime makes both McMurphy’s and her own death more intense in affecting the patients. In their deaths, the men lose both the illusion of freedom that McMurphy provides, and the command of Ratched that they are trying to gain freedom from. The effects of both leaders on the patients are codependent

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and cooperative, meaning that their eventual end leaves the patients lost. Like children who have been abandoned by their parents, they are forced to choose between going off into the world independently or falling under another person’s agenda; and since these men have always been followers, it is not likely that the death of their leaders will provide incentive for new, individual thinking.

Often times in power plays, it becomes clear that followers will naturally and happily take their place as followers, and leaders will naturally lead any and all situations they are involved in. Despite the struggle between McMurphy leading the men and Ratched leading them, it’s obvious that the men feel obligated to follow one or the other- never making the choice to act on their own accord. As the relationship between McMurphy and the rest of the patients’ progresses, we gradually begin to see him as being held in this higher regard. They flock to him, watch his every move, and model their own actions under his example. He is becoming idolized by the men and looked to for comic relief, as well as guidance through Ratched’s tortuous routines. However, McMurphy being looked to as this parental or even godlike figure, only makes him more similar to Ratched. Just as the men have been seeing and hating her as an elevated figure, they are seeing and admiring McMurphy as one too. Comparing Freud’s “Herd Mentality” theory in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego to the ongoing situation between McMurphy, Ratched, and the patients, we can note the beginnings of a savior/follower complex, with McMurphy playing the godhead. It’s important that this observation is weighed

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against the relationship between Ratched and her patients, as she has, in a way that is blatant enough to be subliminal, also taken the role of the godhead. Although she’s nowhere near worshipped, her presence is absolutely infamous; she is feared, hated, and not to be challenged by those who recognize their role as inferiors.

Freud’s theory describes the intellectual and emotional regression of those who, like the patients, have found themselves operating under the control of a leader.

Some of its features- the weakness of intellectual ability, the lack of emotional restraint, the incapacity for moderation and delay, the inclination to exceed every limit in the expression of emotion and to work it off completely in the form of action- show an unmistakable picture of a regression of mental activity to an earlier stage such as we are not surprised to find among savages or children. (Freud 4).

Applicable to the effective brainwashing done by cult leaders, the complacency of a people following the word of political leaders, or even the strong power complex between a parent and child; those in the role of the inferior will ultimately succumb to a lack of initiative- unable to think of act of their own free will. This is blatantly displayed in One Flew Over, as the patients of a mental ward would already be expected to act with a certain helplessness. Their own mental health, with the addition of Ratched’s, and eventually McMurphy’s authority, would lead to a group full of men completely and totally under the regime of either leader. Without question. Looking at the inevitable death of these two leaders, we see why this mental regression is so pivotal to the plotline. The men in the ward have no thought, no action, no feeling, and no

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life without someone to guide them and when their leaders die, they have no individual living to fall back on. They become as useless and helpless as society deemed them when placed into the ward to begin with.

Moving in time with the respective idolization/demonization of McMurphy and Ratched, another aspect to address is the pleasure the men get out of following McMurphy’s lawlessness. His vigor for rebellion and trouble-making go a long way with the patients, getting to the point where in following his actions, they believe they have taken their independence back from Ratched. This would be a reasonable conclusion to make, if McMurphy had been one to take his independence back from Ratched as well; but McMurphy never lost his independence to begin with. He came into the ward with it and kept it strong throughout his stay, whereas the patients acclimated to his individual behavior and convinced themselves that they too, were mentally free. However, the gratification they gained from following McMurphy did not come solely from their fallacy of individual independence; there is another subconscious layer of reasoning that can again, be attributed to Freud’s “Herd Mentality” theory. Lou Manza’s analysis of why cults are so addictive to their members touches down on Freud’s theory, as well as cultivating several explanations as to why cult members gain gratification from following a leader. He states that cult leaders often make unattainable promises regarding emotional pleasure, mental clarity, financial stability, etc., to their followers, creating a false sense of security and comfort. Despite the fact that the leader will rarely follow through with these promises, the constant affirmations in addition to the protecting, dominant persona instills a trust that cannot be broken. (Manza, How Cult Leaders). The analyzation of these methods can be applied to the situation between

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McMurphy, Ratched, and the patients in several ways. The complexities between Ratched’s role as a maternal, instructive figure, and as an emotional and mental healer (being a nurse in the ward) are a perfect combination through which she is able to keep her dominance consistence. Again, as a maternal or matriarchal figure, she is never susceptible to the masculine effects- these being sexualization or active misogyny. As a nurse, she is able to promote the same promises as the aforementioned cult leader: emotional recovery and pleasure, clarity, independence, and a whole slew of other conscious abilities that the men in the ward will never reach under her care. Referring back to the “devouring mother” archetype, one could say that she uses her nurturing, motherly, healing persona as a façade to retrieve her own gratification out of the patients suffering. (Simpson-Green, The Ruler Archetype). Their mental and emotional deterioration leads them to become more dependent on her for what medical and therapy-related help she can provide, increasing her dominance over them and strengthening her leadership, thus creating a cycle of systematic abuse that feeds Ratched’s ego as a person of power. As for the men, it may be an unconscious gratification that they develop, but it is a gratification that feeds off of their dependence on Ratched. Despite their hatred for her extreme rules and punishments, Ratched will always be there as the matriarchal figure, as well as the demonized leader that they love to hate; she will always be there for them to come back to after they have been broken down- even if she was the one who did the breaking.

Looking into McMurphy’s character, however, we can see that his gratification in embodying the leader role is slightly more complicated. Contrasting Ratched, he doesn’t advertise these promises as rewards that will come from following the rules, but actually does the opposite. Creating chaos everywhere he walks, he encourages the other men to do the same.

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Though he never verbally tells them of the mental freedom rebellion holds, he displays it through his own nonchalant attitude, which the men see and subsequently want for themselves. Now, in this state of rebellion against Ratched, one may think that he is an advocate for free thought and individualism- i.e. what Ratched wants to repress –but this is not the case. In observing McMurphy’s character, we see that he actually gets his own subtle pleasure in making the men follow his lead. He is mirroring Ratched in his intentions, but opposing her in his actions, which, albeit a more exciting time for the patients, is just as selfish as Ratched’s manipulative abuse of power. Unfortunately, the patients only seem to watch this patriarchal figure in admiration as he laughs, smiles, and yells at his own accord; feeling pleasure in hoping that they could one day feel as carefree as he feels. They gain the pleasure and assurance that the aforementioned cult leader promised not from McMurphy, but through him, and are unaware enough to feel his independence as their own.

The union of these two leader personas further reiterates the lack of individual life the patients have. Their pain, pleasure, love, hate, excitement, and disappointment are all being spoon-fed to them by McMurphy or Ratched, and they seem to be too caught up in the haze of medication and routine to realize that these emotions are not organically their own. Applying this to the symbolic deaths of the two characters, we again come to their conclusion that without their leaders, the patients are unable to truly cultivate a life of their own.

Bromden, despite being an understated character in this analyzation, holds weight in the perception of McMurphy’s and Ratched’s characters. Through his explicit, often grotesque depictions of the perpetual mayhem in the ward, we are able to better comprehend McMurphy’s

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and Ratched’s effects as leaders and idols. Bromden is more thoroughly examined in Jill Clare’s “Multiple Critical Perspectives: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, where she speaks specifically on the personal conceptualizations that Bromden uses to cope with everyday life. One particular concept repeated throughout the book by Bromden is the “Combine”; it is the societal structure that continuously goes on outside the ward and is imposed upon the men, by Ratched, inside the ward. (Clare, Multiple Critical Perspectives). In this way, the Combine can be used as a categorical organizer for various characters- those who fit into the Combine and those who do not; that being those who can function in society in an acceptable manner and those who cannot. Ratched, in Bromden’s eyes, is the biggest enforcer and representation of the Combine, as her instructional role in the ward is all about helping the men towards their “greatest good”, which has everything to do with behaviorisms and very little to do with emotional health. Lee Harris’s article, “The Spirit of Independence: The Social Psychology of Freedom”, looks at free will and independent thought from both a political and psychology standpoint. He states that when looking at a person’s psyche in freedom, there are two categories that a person may fall into: he who believes the power over his life lays within himself, and he who believes that external forces, or the “powers that be” will always have more control than individual free will. (Harris, The Spirit of Independence).

Now. McMurphy and Ratched have already been categorized into multiple archetypes: the matriarchy and patriarchy figureheads as well as the blatant leader and subliminal leader. Looking at the two types of people Harris references, it’s safe to say that both McMurphy and Ratched fall into the category of independence. When looking at their actions, they are both prominent leaders who take charge of their environments, using their own power and ability to

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influence their reality. That being said, this categorization should not be applied to whether or not they lead, but how they lead. As stated before, McMurphy and Ratched both retrieve the same selfish ends through different means; those being McMurphy’s façade of advocating against Bromden’s Combine, and Ratched’s façade of advocating for it. In this way, how they lead can be attributed to Harris’s two types of people- McMurphy seems to encourage the men to apply themselves to the independent category through his constant persuasion for rebellion, and Ratched seems to encourage the men to fit into the dependent category, creating a life for them where they must adhere to the rules given, without question. Despite this appearance, both leaders are actually coercing the patients to fit into the dependent category. Regardless of McMurphy’s act of wanting rebellion and free thought in his fellow patients, his gratification comes from the men following in his footsteps; even if they are to copy his rebellion, they are only doing it because they want to try and feel the freedom that McMurphy feels- not because they actually want to create change in the ward. Ergo, even though they follow McMurphy’s example, they never actually believe that their lives can be of their own accord. In this way, McMurphy is just as manipulative as Ratched; Ratched wants to train her patients to fit into the Combine, she wants them willing, mindless, and completely trained to fit into the socially acceptable methods of living she has set up for them. McMurphy, on the other hand, wants them to incite destruction and chaos to Ratched’s order, but he wants it done under his command. Both leaders are extreme in their intentions and actions, and neither is a true moral leader. Their methods of ruling lead to a more severe dependency from the patients, but both leaders are effective in getting the personal results they want. Their fanaticism from the patients is continuously building, which ultimately results in their deaths being that much more devastating.

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When your leader’s methods of leading are so intricately wrapped up in psychological play and warfare, how could you, as a follower, not feel a dependency on their guidance?

Patrick McNamara and David Trumbull’s An Evolutionary Psychology of Leader/Follower Relations speaks on what truly makes a good leader. In weighing morality against agenda, with the ultimate need for cooperation from their followers, a leader must be someone who can create order from chaos if they wish to have a real impact. (McNamara and Trumbull 2).  McMurphy’s leadership, which we have already determined to be both intense and psyche-altering for his followers, can be described as creating chaotic order out of Ratched’s orderly chaos. From the moment he enters the ward, he realizes the lowly, lifeless state of the men inside and sees an opportunity to cause trouble. He’s often seen as someone who represents freedom, a holy redeemer in the novel- someone who has the best intentions for his peers, despite his unorthodox methods of achieving them. However, after looking into the psychology of his actions, it’s clear that his intentions were self-satisfying, He is not there to create positive change or a better life for the patients, but to provide diversity in action. McMurphy’s aforementioned gratification that he gains from the men following him is directly related to both his similarities and differences with Ratched. Regardless of how he is viewed by his followers, his purpose as a character is not to save these men from Ratched’s regime, but merely to provide new stimulation for the,. He is a not a savior, but a leader of new action, which is why the loyalty his followers develop for him is so ironic.

By the end of the novel, the men are absolutely insubordinate towards Ratched, and completely in the palm of McMurphy’s hand. From the prostitutes he sneaks into the ward to the

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liquor and extra cigarettes he brings for the men, McMurphy has led them into believing that his hedonistic ways are the best ways to live, regardless of what consequences will be imposed upon them later.(Kesey 311). It is solely of McMurphy’s effects that the ward evolves from a lethargic, spiritless mental graveyard to a frenzied zoo of reckless men, and when his lobotomy is performed, all the life he had put into the ward immediately vanishes. McMurphy’s death in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not just the death of a character, but the death of joy, comic relief, pleasure, blissful distraction, chaotic excitement, and steady leadership for the men in the ward. Similarly, Ratched’s death is not only the death of a character, but the death of humiliation, abuse, fear, chaotic boredom, and steady leadership for the characters in the ward. It’s notable that McMurphy’s and Ratched’s deaths were caused by each other, as his physical attack on Ratched caused both his lobotomy and her permanent lack of voice. (Kesey 319). The two leaders went out at the same time, and as they died, all the patients fell away, each one either leaving the ward or retreating back into mental vegetation. One-by-one, they each lost the vigor they had once held, showing that their identities were not sustainable without their leaders.

Because McMurphy and Ratched represented the various aspects of emotional experience for the patients, their death ultimately caused the death of those emotions in the patients as well. With Ratched no longer being the omnipresent, haunting figure she once was, there was no longer anything for the patients to hate, nothing for them to get riled up for and fight against. With McMurphy no longer being the eternally energetic force of chaos that he once was, the patients no longer had initiative to take pleasure-seeking risks. Without their leaders, the lives of the patients lacked substance. Their entire worlds revolved around the ward and its two monarchs- when their leaders died, they died with them.

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Works Cited

Clare, Jill. “Multiple Critical Perspectives: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Prestwick

House, Prestwick House, Accessed December 11th, 2017,

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; Trans. by James Stratchey.

New York: Boni and Liveright, [1922];, 2010.

Harris, Lee. “The Spirit of Independence: The Social Psychology of Freedom.” AEI, The

American, 2 July 2010,

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Penguin Random House LLC, 1962.

Manza, Lou. “How Cult Leaders Like Charles Manson Exploit A Basic Psychological Need.”

             The Conversation, The Conversation, Nov. 2017,

McNamara, Patrick, and David Trumbull. An Evolutionary Psychology of Leader/Follower

             Relations. Nova Science, 2009.

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Works Cited Continued

Simpson-Green, Lauren. “The Ruler Archetype: Three Types of Matriarch.” Fractal

                  Enlightenment, Fractal Enlightenment, 14 Apr. 2015,

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