Many social issues and problems are explored in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Perhaps the most obvious complaint against society is the treatment of the individual. This problem of the individual versus the system is a very controversial topic that has provoked great questioning of the government and the methods used to treat people who are unable to conform to the government’s standards. McMurphy is an individual who is challenging and rebelling against the system’s rules and practices. He eventually teaches this practice of rebellion to the other patients who begin to realize that their lives are being controlled unfairly by the mental institution. When McMurphy first arrives at the institution, all of the other patients are afraid to express their thoughts to the Big Nurse.
They are afraid to exercise their thoughts freely, and they believe that the Big Nurse will punish them if they question her authority. One patient, Harding, says, “All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees…We need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach us our place” (Kesey 62). This novel has a very strong theme of government rejecting those who are considered nonconformists in modern society. The government then places these nonconformists in mental institutions so it will not have to deal with them. This is society’s way of ditching those with nonconformist attitudes so they will disappear from the world and be forgotten. According to one critic, oppressive, conformist, regulatory, civilization is the suppressor of individual freedom (Barsness 433).
“He (McMurphy) hadn’t let what he looked like run his life one way or the other,anymore than he’d let the Combine (the characters’ metaphor for the government) mill him into fitting where they wanted him to fit…He’s not gonna let them twist him and manufacture him” (Kesey 153). McMurphy is symbolized as the typical individual, while Big Nurse Ratched is symbolized as a member of the system, or the Combine. Bromden narrates, “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them” (181). The enemy McMurphy fights is society and the artificial, complex, and institutionalized civilization that he is confined to against his own will (Barsness 433).
The social problem of the individual versus the system is a problem that has always existed and will never be extinguished from the modern world. The government will always wish to have control over people in some form or another, especially those who refuse to conform to society’s desired standards. McMurphy demonstrates the struggle of the individual versus the system in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.