Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
The conflict that Kesey depicts in the book is on two levels. The first level is between the patients, especially McMurphy, and the hospital authorities, especially Nurse Ratched. At first, the patients are content to live under her thumb; when McMurphy arrives, he shows them that they are worth more than the poor treatment they are receiving. On the second and more universal level, the novel is a conflict between the individual, depicted in the patients, and the repressive forces of society, depicted in the hospital administration. Symbolically, it becomes a conflict of good (the individual) vs. evil (the repressive society).
The protagonists of the novel are the patients of the mental hospital, chiefly represented by McMurphy and Chief Bromden. McMurphy works throughout the novel to improve and free his fellow patients. On the symbolic level, they represent the individual in society.
The antagonist is the cold, uncaring hospital administration, chiefly represented by Nurse Ratched. It is obvious that Ratched's main concern is to keep her patients submissive. On the symbolic level, the administration represents the repressive forces of society.
Appropriately, Nurse Ratched has the authorities on her side, and her strongest weapon against the inmates is the Shock Shop, where they are kept under control. Although Kesey does not develop much of her personality, Ratched is obviously a cold, calculating woman. She despises McMurphy, for she has difficulty in controlling him. She tries to demystify him and prove to the other inmates that he is just as ordinary as they are, and not a hero or messiah as they see him.
The climax or high point of the novel comes when McMurphy tears open Nurse Ratched's uniform to expose her large breasts, which have caused a sense of wonder amongst the patients. In retaliation, she has McMurphy lobotomized, turned into a vegetable that will be easy to control.
The novel ends in tragedy, for McMurphy, the representative protagonist of the patients and the individual in society, is overcome by the hospital administration, the representation of the repressive society. When he cannot be controlled by normal means, he is lobotomized.
The patients, however, win one significant victory over the repressive hospital staff. Chief Bromden cannot bear to see Nurse Ratched triumphant over McMurphy, who exists as a vegetable after his lobotomy. He mercifully kills McMurphy rather than let him live as a sad example to others; after the murder, he successfully escapes from the hospital.