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Themes of Suppression and Conformity in the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

Based on the book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” the eponymous film starring Jack Nicholson effectively communicates many themes of conformity and suppression of emotions in subtle and metaphorical ways. The film is about a prisoner who is transferred to a mental institution and is there to be evaluated by the staff to see if he is to be deemed mentally ill and fully transferred there instead of a rough and tough prison. Jack Nicholson’s character, McMurphy frequently pushes against the employees of the institution and openly doesn't follow the rules. He also brings a rebellious attitude out from other patients with arguments over cigarettes and gambling. Many heartfelt moments communicate important themes that have made this film the classic that it is.

In the heated scene where Cheswick screams, “I want MY cigarettes, Mrs. Ratched!”, we see the chaotic energy that can occur in these group therapy sessions in the institution (Forman, 1975). This scene represents resistance in a caged and trapped scenario. McMurphy acts as he pleases and breaks into the nurse’s office, and gets Cheswick his smokes. This all occurs as Cheswick suffers a complete mental breakdown and is restrained and beaten by the staff of the institution. Had the clinicians decided to take his cigarettes to make sure he does not compulsively smoke too much, then he could’ve calmed down. But instead, she took them to get the patients to turn against McMurphy, who caused defiant behavior from the patients. The clinicians do not effectively treat or control their patients, only trying to make them obedient and submissive patients. This is evident by the repetitive daily actions they complete: Group Therapy, Socialize, Go Outside, Eat, Drink, Take Medication, and Sleep. These are not bad things to do, but they do not offer much treatment for their mental health issues. If the clients do not follow orders, they are beaten, forced into shock therapy, restrained in bed, or if worst comes to worst, given a lobotomy. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert states, “It is about a free spirit in a closed system. Nurse Ratched, who is so inflexible, so unseeing, so blandly sure she is right, represents Momism at its radical extreme, and McMurphy is the Huck Finn who wants to break loose from her version of civilization.” (Ebert, 2003). This explains how the obedient patient represents conformity and submission, and the rebellious patient represents freedom and independence.

McMurphy is clearly a rabid dog among good dogs. He smokes all day, gambles, escapes, sneaks around to watch the ball game, and questions authority. This is clearly a threat to Nurse Ratched and it hits a boiling point where she has him induced to electro shock therapy. This is after the fight that occurred about Cheswicks cigarettes. McMurphy is able to bring some of the characters out of their shells. Two characters being the youthful Billy and the fake-mute Chief. Billy is told by McMurphy, “You’re just a young kid, what are you doing here? You ought to be out in a convertible bird-dogging chicks and banging beaver, what are you doing here? For Christ's sake!” (Forman, 1975). According to an analysis by Witney Seibold she states, “his rebellion that audiences so cheer is also a damaging force.” (Seibold, 2022). The damage done is to Billy most of all and to McMurphy himself. Billy is encouraged to have sex with one of McMurphy’s lady friends he sneaks in during a Christmas party, and after Billy is caught, he commits suicide. This action is done out of fear for the consequences brought down by Nurse Ratched and his mother who are the two women that he fears the most. All of the Nurses and any other women besides McMurphy’s prostitute friends are displayed as emotionless and controlling forces in all of the character’s lives. 

McMurphy sees the suicide, and immediately knows that Billy Bibbit killed himself out of fear of the consequences that would be brought down by his mother and Nurse Ratched. In a fit of rage, he nearly strangles Nurse Ratched to death, and this brings about a tragic ending. Chief had been brought out of his shell by Jack Nicholson’s character. McMurphy was the only person the fake-mute Native American patient would speak to. They talked about trauma, and the possibility of escaping the facility. Fully bent on leaving the institution, Chief sees McMurphy returned after being restrained and taken away by the staff (after nearly strangling Nurse Ratched). McMurphy can not speak, he looks brainless, he was given a lobotomy. The institution severed a part of his brain making him emotionless and unable to speak. Famous comedian and podcaster Duncan Trussell states this, “This like threat is hovering which is: If you fuck up too much, if you get angry at Nurse Ratched who is a monster (essentially the way he describes it as she’s the demiurge it’s the antichrist) Then you know what happens? They’re gonna give you a fucking lobotomy. They’re gonna cut out your brain and turn you into a zombie.” (Trussell, 2023). This shows that McMurphy was made to be an example and shows that if you are defiant in this mental institution which represents conformity and a world where your emotions are suppressed you will be given a lobotomy. Chief sees McMurphy in this state and immediately knows he has been given a lobotomy. Executing a sort of “Mercy Kill”, the saddened Chief smothers him to death with a pillow, and does what McMurphy tried to do many times, and throws the hydrotherapy console through the window and escapes the tyranny of the Mental Hospital. This film isn’t necessarily about the specifics of mental health treatment, rather it uses the setting of a Mental Hospital to convey the negative effects of blind conformity and the cons of emotional suppression in a forceful and controlling world. 


Forman, M. (Director). (1975). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Film]. United Artists

Ebert, R. (2003, February 2). One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest movie review (1975): Roger Ebert. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Review. 

Seibold, W. (2022, January 12). One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest ending explained: Breaking out of the system. /Film. 

Trussell, D. (2023, June 20). The history of Lobotomies and one Flew over the cuckoo’s nest. YouTube. 

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