Analysis Of Philosophical Issues In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest By Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey’s debut novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, is perhaps the best novel to exercise Foucault’s theories; not only in a literary way but also in everyday situations. Although it is a novel that has quite the background — being shunned, praised, banned, and awarded in its lifetime — it delivers profoundly. The term expressed by Foucault the most, “disciplinary power”, may not even be enough to begin describing the content available and present in this 1962-year novel. The novel is narrated by a person that it introduces us as ‘Chief Bromden’. Chief describes the institution that he once was “part of”, the events that occur within that institution, and the hierarchy in it. The institution is said to be ran by ‘the Big Nurse’, or ‘Miss Ratched’. Though she is described as a calm person with a mostly mechanical approach to things, in her institution the patients are given shock treatments. Chief mentions this was done to block the way of any danger that can be caused by the patients, whether he came up with this himself or he heard it from somewhere is not mentioned. We are shortly after introduced to a ‘gambling fool’ from a work farm at Pendleton; a new patient named ‘Randall Patrick McMurphy’ joins the institution. He can perhaps be described as the ‘anarchist’ in the institution, as he later goes on to give speeches to other patients, encouraging them to defy the rules and be free even when forced to live in a cell block. Unlike the previous analyses, this paper will not include a summary of any kind within it. This is due to the reason of the novel being remarkably famous and the contents of which being totally known by most individuals, perhaps thanks to the movie installation of the novel.


Throughout the paper the terms ‘discipline’ and ‘power’ will come up frequently; they also may appear together. The reason of the necessity of the previous sentences resides in one of Foucault’s famous works: Foucault argues that “Discipline sometimes requires enclosure” and that “The enclosure is the protected place of disciplinary monotony.” The events of the novel take place in an insane asylum located somewhere in the United States and all the events are surrounded by a higher person being in control. The correlation between Foucault’s view and the content of the novel immediately line up.

Disciplinary society

There is an enclosure of the patients and per Foucault’s definition of discipline, a society ruled by discipline (a.k.a. a disciplinary society) must construct a metaphorical clear wall between what is considered normal and what is considered anormal. In this novel, what is considered anormal would be the patients with a high chance of defying the rules and creating a dangerous environment for not only the administration but also the ‘normal’ patients. A prime example of an anormal patient would be McMurphy, where in one case he and Chief Bromden attack the asylum staff to defend George Sorenson, nicknamed ‘Rub-a-dub George’ by the asylum staff, from an invasive approach by an aide named Washington (perhaps a nudge at the United States government spying on its citizens). McMurphy goes on to call Washington a “Goddamned motherfucking nigger” while attempting to beat him up. He and Chief are later sent to be given shock treatment as punishment. It must be mentioned here that the asylum ‘staff’ (they are not really staff) who is tasked to take care of the patients are referred to as ‘aides’ (or “Black Boys” as Nurse Ratched calls them) and they all have an African-American background. They consist of 3 people: Washington, Warren, and Geever.

Division between the normal and the anormal

To get back on the topic, the normal and the anormal must be divided to ensure the continuation of the normal being normal and to train the anormal effectively. This disciplinary society is known to Chief as ‘the inside’ (a.k.a. the ward patients reside in the mental asylum) and he also believes that what Nurse Ratched does is adjusting the Inside to the Outside. The ways in which Nurse Ratched aims to achieve that goal is described in the novel in a detailed fashion.

Observe and control

In the novel, “Black Boys” ensure order by constantly walking in the patients’ ward, or sometimes literally between them, and watching them. In addition, the asylum administration also observes “Black Boys” to ensure they do what they are meant to do. However, Foucault argues that “although surveillance rests on individuals, it is like a network of relations from top to bottom, but also to a certain extent from bottom to top”. It can be seen in the novel as well that no surveillance only works from top (the authority with power) to bottom (individuals), the bottom can also observe the top. There can also exist a ‘same rank’ surveillance, where one can still observe another who is in the same rank as them. A clear example of this can be found in the novel, where Nurse Ratched tells the patients that “if they hear a friend say something during the course of everyday conversation, then list it in the log book for the staff to see.”


Alongside surveillance is the Panopticon. Panopticon is a concept developed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who also irrelevantly requested that his body be dissected and later be shown to public. It revolves around the idea of being able to constantly. We can see in the novel that Nurse Ratched takes many steps to ensure this is achieved in the mental asylum, she also goes forward to explicitly tell McMurphy that being able to see and having the patients always in a position to be seen is an important factor for her to maintain the discipline. Regardless, next to the patients’ ward exist a ‘Nurses’ Station’, a room with a big window facing inward toward patients which can only be accessed by the asylum staff. Chief Bromden describes this room in the opening pages of the novel, but specifically for Nurse Ratched he says: “Nurse Ratched spends the day sitting at her desk and looking out her window and making notes on what goes on out in front of her in the day room during the next eight hours”. This room ensures an automatic exercise of power simply by having the patients recognize that they are being watched. Although they may not be watched constantly, the patients do not know of it unless they look at the room directly, something they do many times in the day.

Prison-like environment

Easily the most obvious way the administration follows to achieve a disciplinary society is to make the mental asylum resemble a prison as much as they can. There is no simple way out for the patients, in fact there is no way out for the patients. The windows are covered with a heavy mesh that cannot be broken even by throwing chairs at them; the main door can only be locked and unlocked by Nurse Ratched. The prison-like environment is a great way to achieve discipline according to Foucault, he argues that “Prison always covered both the deprivation of liberty and the technical transformation of individuals”. Because the administration can take away the patients’ liberty away, they can also control their time.


The mental asylum administration imposes a strict time-table to their patients which covers the entire day from “when the lights flash on in the ward” to the time patients take their night medications before going to sleep. The reason that this time-table, or really any time-table in all the places, exist is explained briefly and clearly by Foucault, “the time-table must establish rhythms, impose particular occupations, and regulate the cycles of repetition”. This gives the authority with power the ability to exercise their power automatically. Later into the novel this time-table comes back up as McMurphy proposes to Nurse Ratched a change in it so that the patients can watch baseball games on TV. Nurse Ratched, however, refuses this proposition and adds, “the Schedule had been set up for a delicately balanced reason that would be thrown into turmoil by the switch of routines”. The reason she refuses this proposition is not because of time related economy reasons. Foucault mentions of this as “a schema of individual submission”, there simply existing a time-table can enforce an automatic way of achieving docility in the patients without any manual work being necessary.

Controlling patients’ times

Other than the time-table, the administration in the mental asylum can also manage their patients’ time freely; per Chief Bromden, “the Big Nurse is able to set the wall clock at whatever speed she wants”. This is described in a physical way by Chief, but the real meaning of this sentence is given later in the novel: When the asylum is gathered in a meeting to discuss McMurphy’s actions, Nurse Ratched mentions that “The length of time McMurphy spends in this hospital is entirely up to us”.


The novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one to be recognized in both the world of literature and the world of philosophy. The novel works itself into, around, and through all the concepts brought up by modern humans; surveillance, control, power, and order. It is no surprise that Foucault’s views line up perfectly with this novel as well. The novel ends with the authority that has the power doing the unthinkable task of lobotomizing the ones that cause a disruption in the discipline chain. It expresses the discipline chain in such a way that can easily be applied to other aspects such as governments. A must read for anyone, not only to understand those things that can change a person’s life silently but also to be able to recognize them in real-life.


  1. Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.
  2. Kesey, K. (2008). Ken Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (New ed; H. Bloom, Ed.). New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism.
01 February 2021
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