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Societal repression over the individual
In this novel, Kesey has shown the disastrous results of society's repressive forces and tried to secure a victory for the individual over such forces. Men like Harding, Billy Bibbit, Seefeld, Frederickson, and McMurphy are not really crazy. McMurphy is in the hospital because he has feigned insanity. Seefeld and Frederickson are epileptics who have trouble coping with their disease. Harding and Billy are, as McMurphy says, "not any crazier than the average ashore on the street". They are here because they cannot cope with society. They have been beaten into submission, and their individuality has been suppressed. They believe that living in society is too hard. They feel they are "rabbits" who need a "fox," like the Nurse, to control them; unfortunately, they cannot cope with their "rabbithood" and will remain rabbits for the rest of their lives. Billy has been laughed at his whole life. His stuttering speech is an indication of his weakness, just as Harding's hands are his drawback. Even the Black orderlies have suffered at the hands of society, and the Nurse uses their hatred to control them and help them control others. They have been trained to take insults and, therefore, nothing affects them.
The Chief, largely due to his being an Indian, has been treated as subhuman. He was ignored and forced into invisibility by the government who took away his father's land. His father, who was a strong man, became a drunkard because of society's atrocities. The Chief, however, learns to use his "invisibility" to his advantage. While everyone thinks he is deaf and mute, he listens in on their conversations and learns all about what is going on around him.
The repressive society cannot tolerate a man like McMurphy, who is strong enough to teach others about the wrongs around them. He refuses to conform to the rules of the repressive society and rebels against it; as a result, he is destroyed through a lobotomy that renders him incapable of thinking or acting against the repressive forces.
Matriarchy and the power of women over men
The novel reveals that women have power over men and what this power can do if it is allowed to become out of proportion. Harding, Billy Bibitt, and the Chief's father are all emasculated by women. Harding is not man enough for his wife, and she accuses him of everything from being a homosexual to not having enough of anything to satisfy her. His problem is further complicated by his beautiful, white hands that are feminine and cause him shame. Billy is not good enough for his mother. She dominates him, does not consider him a man, and treats him like a child. When Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother that Billy has slept with a prostitute, he is so fearful and ashamed that he slits his own throat. The Chief's father is made "small" by his white wife, who joins with the government people to convince her husband to sell his land. She renders him powerless and ineffective, causing him to become a drunkard.
Nurse Ratched also tries to emasculate the patients. She threatens them and controls them through fear. When she is not successful in gaining control over a patient, she orders shock treatments to accomplish her goal. When she cannot successfully render McMurphy powerless, she has him lobotomized so that she can control him and use him as an example to other patients.