Skip to main content

Analysis of Bullying in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

What Role Does Bullying Play in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

As blood gushes from the throat of a middle-aged man, as it soaks into his green pajamas and trickles into a puddle on the floor below him, children scattered throughout the country are waking up to yet another dreaded day. However, they don't dread the day because a man is dying. They dread the day because they are dying - on the inside. They dread the day because of what causes the man to die. They dread the day because they, too, are dying in the same, slow debilitating way.

Usually, these are children who do not fit into the norm. A number of them have physical or learning disabilities; others express themselves differently than most people; and some have never experienced any act of kindness at all. Every day bullies who laugh at them, take their food or money, push them around, and exclude them from group activities bring them to tears. Gradually, their spirits are broken.

The need for society to recognize the effects that bullying has on an individual is a major theme in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Though McMurphy tries to reverse the effects that bullying has on the patients, Billy Bibbit lacks an emotionally stable background to control his mental illness; however Chief Bromden and Dale Harding have memories of some good in life and they make a decision to escape from society's bullying and then from the hospital in order to survive.

The 1912 "Dome Building" on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital, now used as the headquarters for the Oregon Department of Corrections. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed here as well as in the infamous main "J Building" of the Oregon

The 1912 "Dome Building" on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital, now used as the headquarters for the Oregon Department of Corrections. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed here as well as in the infamous main "J Building" of the Oregon

How has Bullying Affected Billy Bibbitt

Unlike Bromden, Billy Bibbitt cannot control the thoughts in his head. Ever since he was a child bullies have been making him believe that he is weak, inadequate, and cowardly. These "flaws" {were} beat in over so many years" that the damage to Billy's thought process is irrevocable (Kesey 14). In addition, he has become accustomed to people never supporting anything he has to say, which causes him to have little faith in ever getting his point across. After he starts to explain to McMurphy the complications that will arise if they vote against Nurse Ratched, he sighs, "Oh, what's the use of it anyway" (Kesey 115). Again, he starts to explain to McMurphy the reason he and the other patients remain in the hospital but he gives up and cries, "Oh--it's n-no use" (Kesey 184). Although Billy is not reacting to McMurphy's attitude, he is reacting to the attitude that has had the greatest magnitude in his life, the attitude of his mother and Nurse Ratched.

How did Billy's Mother's Overprotecting Behavior Cause Him More Harm than Good

Although unintentional, Billy's mother confirms his thoughts and validates his feelings throughout his life by cradling him and encouraging him to avoid confrontations. In fact, she discourages him from seeking a normal life in school or with a wife; "Sweetheart, you have scads of time for things like that" (Kesey 281). At the same time, she disregards his feelings while she tickles him as though he is a child. According to Keys to Dealing With Bullies, a book by Barry E. McNamara and Francine McNamara, "Overprotecting behavior is common among families of victims" (22). However, this is only one reason that Billy fails to learn effective strategies to overcome his weaknesses.

Another reason is that he learns to give up when he observes his mother giving up: "when she gets disturbed" she becomes "ill," teaching Billy to do the same (Kesey 301). Over time, Billy's illness escalates because it is treated improperly by a society that has not evolved enough to realize the importance of treating every human being with an equal amount of kindness, consideration, and respect.

What are the Effects When Billy is Bullied by Multiple People Throughout His Life

Likewise, Nurse Ratched exploits Billy's weaknesses when she intentionally hurts him in an attempt to destroy the friendship that he develops with McMurphy. Finally, Billy has met someone who wants to help him improve and for a short time McMurphy succeeds at building his confidence. But, Nurse Ratched will not allow it because if her patients become confident, she loses control. Therefore, she prevents Billy from defending McMurphy, and at the same time, she places doubt in his mind about the geniuneness of McMurphy's friendship: "I just thought it would be better if we didn't have any delusions about the man's motives," she badgers (Kesey 253).

Undoubtedly, Nurse Ratched knows that Billy has attempted suicide due to an intense amount of shame. However, when she finds him with Candy, the prostitute, she does not let up on her quest to humiliate him. First, she proclaims that she is "ashamed for him" (Kesey 300). Then, she belittles the woman he is with. Next, she threatens to tell the person who will make him feel the most shame of all: "Mrs. Bibbit's always been so proud of your discretion...This is going to disturb her terribly," she boasts (Kesey 301). Since Billy has been shamed since he was a child, he loses faith that there will ever come a day that he will not feel rejected. In effect, Nurse Ratched carefully calculates the outcome she sets out to achieve, the inevitable suicide of Billy Bibbit, the man in the green pajamas.

What Happens to Dale Harding When People Don't Accept Him for Who He Is

Similarly, Dale Harding is a victim of the cruelty passed down from generation to generation. This malevolence stems from a closed-minded society that will not accept people whose natural differences defy the norm. Apparently, his own wife only comes to visit him so she can intimidate him by flaunting her body in front of the staff and McMurphy. Evidently, she is the cause for Harding's obsession with his hands when she tells him that his friends keep stopping by, the ones with "the limp little wrists that flip so nice," she taunts (Kesey 174).

While Harding appears to be homosexual in a culture that finds homosexuality unacceptable, he is ridiculed and taunted. As a result, Harding is bullied into believing that he should feel ashamed of who he is: "it was a feeling that the great, deadly, pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me--and the great voice of millions chanting, 'Shame, Shame. Shame." he says as he hides his dainty hands and everything that they may represent (Kesey 294).

Unlike Billy Bibbitt, Harding's alleged "flaws {were} born in" through genes that were natually supposed to determine who he would become (Kesey 14). However, cultural attitudes and expectations will not allow his spirit to grow naturally. In fact, offers David G. Myers, "We can see the shaping power of culture in ideas about how men and women should behave--and in the scorn that they endure when violating expectations" (195). In effect, Harding is shaped into a confused and frightened individual and becomes distressed by the social influences that affect the incongruence of his self-concept and his ideal self.

Who is to blame when these people decide not to take it anymore? Who is to blame when they slide a knife across their throats or wrists? According to Chief Bromden, in his paranoid state of mind, the Combine is to blame: "McMurphy doesn't know it, but it's the whole Combine" (Kesey 181). However, crazy as this may seem, he may not be too far from the truth. For example, if the Combine is society in general, then perhaps Bromden has legitimate reasons to believe that he is being targeted. Perhaps, society is out to get him. After all, society's attitudes and expectations break up his family, take away his home, and alienate him from his father. In fact, Terry G. Sherwood comments, "Modern society standardizes men and straitjackets its misfits; it causes the illness which it quarantines" (399).

How Much Bullying Would People Notice If They Watched for It on a Typical Day

Go for a walk through the mall or sit on a bench in a park filled with children and pay attention to how they treat each other and how they are treated by the adults nearby. Notice their faces when somebody calls them a name or pushes them around. Is one child bullying another; or, is an adult doing the bullying? Are some children purposely excluding one from joining them? Does the child stand up and defend himself or herself? How many adults are within earshot? Does anybody talk to the bully and explain why their behavior is unacceptable? Does anybody try to show an example of what would be the kind thing to do? How many people look away?

Society defines what is natural and acceptable according to the beliefs of the majority and the powerful. Most people learn through example. According to James W. Kalat, "People often conform to the expectations of others, and an expectation of abnormal behavior can produce abnormality in vulnerable people" (583). While, sometimes, these examples are learned in the home; other times, they are learned through broadcast by journalists, news media, actors, politicians, comedians, and others who many people look up to and want to emulate.

Many times, the message they send is that it is funny or entertaining to hurt or humiliate another human being because of their differences. This is the kind of behavior that should be considered abnormal. Many people continue to encourage this behavior, mainly, out of fear of becoming the next victim or due to ignorance to the psychological distress it causes, or, similar to Nurse Ratched, they feel strong when they expose the weaknesses of others.

Scroll to Continue


H Lax (author) on November 28, 2012:

Thank you, Martie, I know exactly what you mean. I am only 4'8 and 3/4 lol. Sounds like your Mom taught you well. The way we teach people all depends on their spirit and how they handle things and your Mom sure knew you. I'm glad you stood up for yourself and kept your spirit. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 28, 2012:

honeybb, this is a very interesting hub about the effect of bullying and also the effect of our responses to it.

I was always the shortest or second shortest girl in my grade - an open target for the bullies. One afternoon during my first grade when I came home crying as usual, my mother promised me a hiding if I ever come home crying again. So between the devil and the deep blue see I've acquired the skills to fight my own battles. My teeth were my initial weapon - until today I can literally feel them grow into fangs when I get angry - but as I grew up they were replaced by my words. I've changed many enemies into friends with only words. Of course, bullies hated me and they still do. Fortunately the bullies as well as the Nurse Ratched type expose their true selves sooner or later and lose their power or rather potential power over a person with a well-balanced fighting spirit.

Voted up and awesome :)

SandCastles on November 07, 2012:

I've met people just like Nurse Ratched and what astounded me was how they sucked up to her; I couldn't believe it. The Nurse Ratched people get power because so many people are intimidated of them; they have that serious face. I confronted a Nurse Ratched person and she started to cry-she was so taken aback that anyone would question her and you know what, the other toadies criticized me for making Nurse Ratched cry and called me a bully. That happens too when you stand up to a Nurse Ratched type. It is so weird.

H Lax (author) on October 23, 2012:

Thanks Jamie, I try to make people aware of all the ugly faces of Bullying. Thanks for reading.

Jamie Brock from Texas on October 23, 2012:

I have seen that movie.. but has been so long. I need to watch it again...I keep thinking about the one that has Robert DeNiro in it "Awakenings" Excellent movie if you haven't seen it! Bullying has been a problem for a long time.. I'm glad that awareness is finally being brought to it. It's so sad to me that people do this to other human beings- I mean seriously, it is just so sad that people have to tear others down in order to feel good about themselves... Wonderful hub.. thank you for sharing :)

Sarra Garrett on October 06, 2012:

Voted up and Awesome. I love the way you wrote this hub using this book which is one of my favorite movies and I cry every time I see it. This hub is a great example of bullying by adults. Nurse Rachet couldn't stand the bonding and friendship that was happening and how it was helping the men. She was losing control and couldn't stand it.

Bullying is becoming an epidemic and there is no way to stop it. Unless we have laws against it especially when it leads to suicide. Thank you for reading my hub on this by the way.

Related Articles