A Woman Before Her Time by Leah Hastedt

See Leah’s Inquiry 2A here.

Writer’s Reflection

For this Inquiry, I wanted to write about a very influential novel from its time of writing/publication. I chose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey because it touches on many items/events from the 1950s-1960s, but reverses them in an interesting way. The main thrust of this paper is how using the main characters’ roles, setting, and interactions can portray a type of “role reversal” from what was happening in the 1960s, regarding the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement. The strongest sections of my paper are the comparisons of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to what happened during the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement. Using a specific example from a sit-in in North Carolina, I portrayed how Nurse Ratched and the other main characters’ interactions were different from what happened during the actual Movement. Because of the roles played, it shows a complete “role reversal” from the Civil Rights Movement and, when I talk about the Feminist Movement, I illustrated how Nurse Ratched was a woman in power, which in the 1960s was rarely seen.

I put a significant effort into writing this paper. This was one of the most difficult papers I have had to compose during my high school/college career, and I think I did a good job of supporting my arguments and composing an outstanding paper. I learned how to use many secondary sources and integrate them into this Inquiry. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of my favorite novels that I read in high school and I’m glad I explored it in greater depth and from a different perspective.



When one reads One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, many themes and characters are presented to the reader. It is a very powerful novel from the 1960s because of its setting, characters, and what goes on in the story’s mental institution, focusing primarily on the main characters’ interaction. The novel’s author, Ken Kesey, creates a vivid picture of the stark life inside a mental institution, the multi-dimensional personalities of the inmates residing there, and the controlling nature of the people in power at the institution. Most interestingly, Kesey creates a society and authority structure within the institution that represents a significant “role reversal” when compared with the gender and racial norms of American society in the early 1960’s.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written in 1959 and published in 1962, at the same time that the Civil Rights Movement was building momentum in the United States, and also when this country’s Feminist Movement was beginning to take shape. During the Civil Rights Movement, the walls of segregation were beginning to be knocked down as non-violent protests were becoming more effective and prevalent in discouraging discrimination. For example, on February 1, 1960, four African-American men went to a restaurant in North Carolina and sat down at a whites-only counter. Unsurprisingly, they were denied service, but they continued to sit at the counter until closing time. This marked the beginning of the Greensboro sit-ins, which helped to foster more sit-ins throughout the Southern United States (Vox). In his novel’s first example of “role reversal”, Kesey seemed to look at the country’s racial norms in a different way by establishing African-American men in a position of power within the institution instead of a more normal white-male structure. The three black men held positions of authority, enforced the rules, and made life difficult for the white, male inmates in the mental institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This may have been an unnatural situation for the readers of this novel to grasp given the widespread segregation this country was used to in past decades.

The Feminist Movement was another event occurring at the time One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written and published. Women’s roles were changing, evolving and were more clearly identified. Women were not seen in positions of power, unlike in Kesey’s novel. They were more likely to stay in the home; cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children.  If they were working similar jobs as men, they were getting paid less to perform them (Vox). In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is a powerful, white woman, who serves as the leading authority figure in the mental institution. Chief Bromden, another main character, describes Ratched as being like a machine, and her behavior fits this description: even her name is reminiscent of a mechanical tool, sounding like both “ratchet” and “wretched” (“Nurse Ratched . . “). This is seen as unusual to readers because they are used to seeing men in positions of power. As a person reads through the novel, they see how Nurse Ratched treats the inmates with her controlling nature and how she abuses her authority.

In a personal account of being housed in a mental institution in the 1960s, William R. Carney, Jr. describes his living experience. During his 40-month stay, he only received drug therapy for treatment. His days consisted of, “a steady diet of institutional food, chlorpromazine, and boredom” (Carney, Jr.). As he stayed at Grace New Haven hospital, he was exposed to some group therapy. Mr. Carney’s experience can be related to passages from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Most of the inmates participate in group therapy sessions with Nurse Ratched and her controlling nature has taught them to act like robots; they hang onto Nurse Ratched’s every word and do whatever she tells them to do. In these sessions, Nurse Ratched is very intimidating and the inmates react to it. Also, all the inmates must take a certain kind of medicine, depending on their diagnosis. Nurse Ratched believes this is a way for the patients to feel like they are getting better which makes them feel more indebted to her, when she actually knows it is acting as a placebo and the patients are not improving. Only the bravest (and most stubborn) characters, like Randle McMurphy, can see through what Nurse Ratched is about; he knows the drugs are useless for therapy and the group sessions are bogus. These sessions are another way Kesey illustrates Nurse Ratched’s power over the inmates because she knows they will take the drugs and attend group therapy, no matter how much they complain.

Nurse Ratched maintains her domination and complete authority throughout the novel reversing the typical subservient role of women in the society of the 1950’s and 1960’s. She wants complete and total power, so she manipulates her staff and the inmates to implement all of her requests. She is able to control inmate behavior and change things to the way she wants them done because she has ultimate power. Most of the time, she uses hatred to get things accomplished, and she is very successful in getting other people to do what she wants (“Nurse Ratched . . .”). Similar to the situation Kesey created with the black men in the institution, the reader may have found Nurse Ratched’s actions to be quite unusual as most women during this time were not able to hold positions of power or keep men in subservient roles. In several ways, Kesey seemed to symbolically foretell societal changes that were about to take place in the near future.

Many novels, movies, and television programs set in the 1950s-1960s presented characters in stereotypical roles, such as white working men usually in positions of power, subservient black characters, and women working in the home, performing typical household tasks. Two contrasting works to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest are: 1) Pleasantville, a 1998 comedy-drama film that is built around a 1950’s situation-comedy about the Parker family and it’s typical 1950’s mother, Betty Parker, and 2) To Kill a Mockingbird, another popular novel of this time (based on the author’s real-life experiences, similar to Kesey), written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, that illustrated the typical societal gender and racial roles. In Pleasantville, Betty is the typical wife and mother of that period, constantly in the kitchen cooking for her family with no real ambition for taking on positions of authority and, certainly, not exhibiting any desire to challenge the male-dominated status quo. In fact, Betty says to never complain about the things that men do to upset women– just deal with it (“A Woman’s Role . . .”). This is the complete opposite of how Nurse Ratched approached her daily life as she controlled the actions of the men in her life rather than be controlled by them, similar to Betty. Another reversal/or contrast of norms and roles between Betty Parker and Nurse Ratched was demonstrated as women began to diverge from the 1950’s “norm” in Pleasantville. Their husbands didn’t understand or accept this behavior, and saw it as a threat to their manliness (“A Woman’s Role . . .”). This was reversed in Nurse Ratched’s case as any deviation from the norm by the men in the institution was met by her swift disapproval and retribution. She treats them as unruly children and will not accept any challenge to her authority.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, the central figure in the novel, is the town’s lawyer, respected by everyone, held in high regard, and doing fairly well despite the widespread poverty. The African-American race is held in low regard and when Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson in court, he becomes an object of disrespect and derision in the community. Despite the town’s overriding animosity toward the black population, Atticus still admires most of the town folk, understanding that people have good and bad qualities, and he is able to understand the good qualities while forgiving the bad ones. As a father, he passes down this great lesson to his children, Jem and Scout, whose admiration for their father grows as the novel progresses. Atticus’ behavior is shown as being consistent and he views matters from the perspectives of others, not just his own (“To Kill a Mockingbird”). In addition to the contrasting use of gender and racial roles in these two novels, the behavior and strength of the central characters also are in stark contrast. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a woman in power who feels her opinion is the only one that matters. Rather than being held in high regard, she accomplishes her job through intimidation and shame and will not accept anything less than that.

The examination of another famous work of the early 1960’s helps to further illustrate the uniqueness of Nurse Ratched’s character. A novel published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan, illustrates the roles of women at that time and why women were unhappy. Friedan surveyed about two hundred of her female classmates from Smith College several years after graduation to determine why women were unhappy, using many theories, statistics, and first-person accounts. She found that women automatically accepted the role of a housewife and/or mother at the expense of their career aspirations. Friedan attempted to prove that the feminine mystique denied women the opportunity to develop their own identities, ultimately leading to problems for women and their families. She saw this as something she called “the problem that has no name,” with an idealized picture of femininity she branded “the feminine mystique” (“The Feminine Mystique”). This is so unlike the female character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched, who does not embrace the role of a housewife/mother. She holds a position of authority, developing her own identity. She refuses to have anyone bring her down off her high horse and stops at nothing to belittle and mentally and physically abuse the inmates. Kesey developed a female character that already was breaking away from the feminine mystique several years before Friedan popularized the terminology.

Nurse Ratched was not an admirable character and had few redeeming qualities, but she clearly was a woman before her time. Given the cultural and societal norms of the 1950’s and 1960’s, she stood out among the typical fictional and non-fictional women of her time as portrayed in novels, movies, and educational research. Ken Kesey created a character that broke the “feminine mystique” before the term was known, and reversed roles with the men of this era. Against the background of this era’s gender, racial, and social norms, an analysis of Nurse Ratched gives new meaning to the title One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  While most readers believe the title refers to either the character of Randle McMurphy or the Chief Bromden character as “flying over the cuckoo’s nest”, a third alternative could be Nurse Ratched. Her heavy-handed, iron-fisted approach to her role was so unlike and “before” the actions of most women of her time. She elevated herself to a completely unique status and figuratively “flew over the cuckoo’s nest”.


Works Cited

“A Woman’s Role in the 1950s.” Associatedcontent.com. Yahoo! Inc. Yahoo! News Network, 2011. Web. 25 Feb 2011.

Carney, Jr., William R. “My Experiences as a Psychiatric Patient in the 1960s.” Personal Accounts. 56.12 (2005). Print.

“Nurse Ratched (Big Nurse) in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov 2008. Web. 25 Feb 2011.

“The Feminine Mystique | Introduction.” eNotes.com. eNotes.com, Inc. Web. 14 Mar 2011.

“To Kill a Mockingbird: Analysis of Major Characters.” Sparknotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. Web. 28 Feb 2011.

Vox, Lisa. “Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-1964.” About.com. The New York Times Company, 2011. Web. 25 Feb 2011.


Editorial Team’s Note

One of the trickiest things to do in ENG 112 (and academic writing) is to effectively incorporate research material into one’s own original thought. In her essay, Hastedt uses historical information, as well as literary context, to show her 21st century readers the role reversal in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Such elements may not be as obvious today. She not only uses historical context, but also looks at other texts written at that time, such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Even though she brings in all these sources, she never loses focus on her point – showing role reversal in the novel. Each paragraph explains how the information she found contributes to her point. Being able to incorporate other people’s thoughts and research is valued in every discipline at the university, and this essay shows some very successful techniques that can be used in achieving this goal.