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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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NURSE RATCHED

A ratchet: a piece of machinery. That's one of the most
important clues to the character of the Nurse who bears a
similar name. Nurse Ratched (the name also carries unpleasant
echoes of rat and wretched) has transformed herself from a
human being into a machine that demands complete control
and perfect order from everyone. For the book's other major
characters, McMurphy and Chief Bromden, we're given
detailed accounts of their life before they entered the hospital.
For Nurse Ratched we're given only the barest outlines: that
she is about 50, unmarried, a former Army nurse. Why so
little? Because the hospital is her life: she has shaped it in her
image, it has shaped her in its image.

So powerful are the Chief's descriptions of the Nurse as a
mechanism of terror, able to swell to tractor size and control
the hospital with beams of hate, that it's easy to see the Nurse
as the embodiment of pure evil. And because the world of the
Cuckoo's Nest is in many ways a cartoon world, with good and
evil clearly defined, that view is in large part correct. Still,
Cuckoo's Nest would not be so effective a criticism of the
modern world if its characters didn't bear some resemblances to
the people we see around us every day. The Nurse is not
insane: she could not have risen to her position of power if she
were. Nor is she unique in her drive for complete control-she
represents forces that influence all of us.



If we were to visit the ward on one of the public relations man's
tours, we would probably see the Nurse simply as the strict
middle-aged lady Harding describes, the lady the PR man calls
Mother Ratched. She smiles, speaks softly to her aides, bids
good morning to her patients. She appears to have the best
interests of her ward at heart. She is the voice of common
sense: after all, her patients are mentally disturbed; they need
some control in their lives.

The Nurse's menace comes from the fact that she has
convinced herself that if some control is good, complete
control is better. In fact, it's essential, and any threats to it must
be destroyed. By putting her goal of complete power ahead of
everything else, she perverts the good intentions of the
hospital, hiring aides who abuse the patients, and doctors too
timid to cure anyone, setting patients spying on one another
and turning a useful therapeutic technique, the Group Meeting,
into an orgy of shameful psychological back-biting. She
destroys the patients' confidence in themselves so they will
never be strong enough to leave her.

There's no question that the repression of sexuality is an
important part of the Nurse's tactics. She has denied her own
sexuality by hiding her large breasts beneath a stiff white
uniform and McMurphy points out that no one could become
sexually aroused by her. If, as Harding says, the patients are
victims of a matriarchy, Nurse Ratched is certainly the head
matriarch. But even McMurphy comes to see that the Nurse's
sexual repression is only part of a larger problem-desire for
complete control over nature and man that the Nurse shares
with much of the modern world.

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