Critical Essays The Role of Women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


The female characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can be divided into two extreme categories: "ball-cutters" and whores. The former is represented by Nurse Ratched, Harding's wife, Billy Bibbit's mother, and Chief Bromden's mother.

Each of these women are intent on dominating men by emasculating them, whereas the whores Candy and Sandy are dedicated to pleasuring men and doing what they're told. Despite the obvious nature of this observation, Kesey aims higher than asserting male dominance over female acquiescence. His goal is to assert those qualities identified as feminine to undermine those qualities considered masculine.

In between the two female extremes of ball-cutter and whore is the Asian-American nurse in the Disturbed Ward who bandages McMurphy. She represents an ideal middle ground — a compassionate, intelligent, nurturing woman who is nevertheless powerless to save McMurphy. McMurphy flirts with her after she relates Ratched's history to him. She doesn't succumb to his advances, presumably to display that Kesey realizes that women are more than sexual playthings. Her presence in the novel is short-lived, however, and McMurphy is quickly returned to the machinations of Nurse Ratched.

"We are victims of a matriarchy here," Harding acknowledges to McMurphy after McMurphy characterizes his first group therapy meeting as "a pecking party." When Harding protests that Ratched is "not some kind of giant monster of the poultry clan, bent on sadistically pecking out our eyes," McMurphy responds, "No buddy, not that. She ain't pecking at your eyes. That's not what she's peckin' at."

However, McMurphy acknowledges that not all ball-cutters are women when he continues: "No, that nurse ain't some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter. I've seen a thousand of 'em, old and young, men and women. Seen 'em all over the country and in the homes — people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to. And the best way to do this, to get you to knuckle under, is to weaken you by gettin' you where it hurts the worst."

By polarizing the battle between repression and freedom as a battle between feminization and masculinity, machinery versus nature, and civilized versus wild, Kesey offers a simplified mythology much like the comic book heroes he reveres. The war isn't between the sexes, but an archetypal battle between the more positive masculine qualities and the more negative feminine qualities. This motif suits his purpose because it allows Kesey to express a worldview of good against evil in which one of the cardinal virtues of McMurphy's world is masculinity. It is the masculine virtue that engenders nature, spontaneity, sexual freedom, and rebellion against the feminine qualities of societal repression under the guise of civilization.

Of the antagonistic women in the book, the reader learns most about Nurse Ratched and Chief Bromden's mother. Chief's observations of her on the ward illustrate Nurse Ratched, but the reader knows more about the castration of husband and son through the depiction of Chief's mother.

It is through Mrs. Bromden that the government gains rights to the Indian land on which the dam is built. Two white men and a woman come to speak to the Chief's father, but the woman realizes that the better approach is to speak first with Chief's white mother.

Once Chief's mother convinces her husband to sell the land in order for her to return to civilization, both husband and son begin to lose their identities. Chief relates that his father begins to "shrink" in size after taking his wife's last name as his own: "You're the biggest by God fool if you think that a good Christian woman takes on a name like Tee Ah Millatoona. You were born into a name, so okay, I'm born into a name. Bromden. Mary Louise Bromden."

Adopting the mother's name is a mark of an ultimate sacrifice Chief's father makes to appease his wife, losing in turn his own pride and self-sufficiency. Father and son are forced to adopt the white person's name and lose all that Tee Ah Millatoona (meaning the Pine-That-Stands-Tallest-on-the-Mountain) symbolizes. The result is the alcoholism and death of the father and the institutionalization of the son.