One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
Ken Kesey
Contributed by Elene Blackwelder
Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Societal Repression Over the Individual

Societal repression over the individual is the main theme of the novel. In the mental hospital, the patients (representing the individual) are subjected to all kinds of cruelty at the hands of the repressive hospital administration (representing the State). If they refuse to be controlled, the patients are given shock treatments, against their will, to bring them in line. If a patient still refuses to follow the repressive orders of the staff, the patient is lobotomized, as evidenced by McMurphy.

Through the novel, Kesey has shown that any individual who rebels against the State must be very strong or else he will be destroyed. Conformity is the key word. As long as one conforms to society's rules, life runs smoothly; if one refuses to conform, the non-conformist will pay the price unless he is very strong. The Chief's father acted with non-conformity, but was not strong enough; as a result, he was destroyed.

The patients in the hospital that have voluntarily committed themselves are there because they are not strong enough to fight society. Billy was not strong enough to fight the repression and kills himself. McMurphy was strong enough to oppose the repression; but in the end, he still loses.

Destructive Power Women Wield Over Men

The minor theme of the novel is the destructive power women wield over men. The Chief's father and Harding are both emasculated by their wives. Billy is dominated by his mother and kills himself when the Nurse threatens to tell her he has been with a prostitute. Nurse Ratched terrifies the men in the ward. McMurphy tries to breaks the Nurse's hold over the patients by exposing her breasts and rendering her helpless. She retaliates by having a lobotomy performed on McMurphy, turning him into a docile vegetable. 

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