Nurse Ratched’s Struggle for Power: A Feminist Approach To Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
by Clifford J. Kurkowski
History will show that women who procured stature and power in society have always struggled to keep their position, and those who tried to topple these women from their lofty perch were, more than likely, always men. It is the same in Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the character, Nurse Ratched, struggles to keep her self-constructed domain together after an opposing enemy, named McMurphy, fights to pull power from her by causing a revolt. In the end, Nurse Ratched wins the battle between her and McMurphy by having him lobotomized, but does she really win the age-old battle of male versus female by suppressing him? Another question is: Why do readers see Nurse Ratched as an evil and conniving woman for trying to save her own self-constructed domain? Feminist critics point out that Kesey’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched is degrading because they truly believe she represents the negative personification of the female struggle for power. However, there is a need to look at Nurse Ratched from a different point of view and reveal the positive qualities that Kesey is trying to portray in women through Nurse Ratched. If we analyze the sexist language used to describe Nurse Ratched from a positive female perspective, we would notice that the control and power she uses is to maintain order in a chaotic environment that the men have created in her self-constructed domain. Though the men on the ward see her as a dominating dictator, as readers, we need to take a leap of faith in order to understand that her dominating attitude is a calculated move to maintain order, which in turn, can be considered a positive character trait. Our goal is to look at Nurse Ratched from a female perspective but examine her in a positive light, while interpreting Kesey’s intentions as to why he uses sexist stereotypes to characterize a woman’s struggle to keep her domain.
When Kesey released his novel in 1962, America was in the midst of a civil uprising that marked the beginning of a movement towards a national identity. At that time, we were a young nation, trying to define ourselves as we struggled with our diversity. One of the struggles prevalent during that period was the Women’s Liberation movement, which was “petitioning for equal opportunities and rewards for women” (Porter 5). Though the National Organization for Women did not begin operation until 1966, women in the early 1960s were struggling to make headway in a male-dominated society. Jobs for women in the workforce were limited to nurse, schoolteacher, retail salesperson, cleaning attendant, or waitress. When women rose to power in their field of work, men often watched them closely. It was common at the time for the men to make the daily decisions and then funnel them down to the women. However, when Kesey wrote his novel, he used an unconventional approach by putting a woman in charge of a mental asylum’s male ward. This, of course, would spark the most basic conflict setting in a plot: a woman in a position of power over men. In order to understand Nurse Ratched, we will need to analyze who she is as a person in order to formulate her existence in the story. This, in turn, will give us a better understanding of her actions.
Nurse Ratched is described by the men on the ward as a “veritable angel of mercy” who is “unselfish” and “toils thanklessly for the good of all, day after day, five long days a week.” She “further serves mankind on her weekends off by doing generous volunteer work about town.” She also helps a young couple that is having a difficult time financially. She “sends them money for – scouring powder” and helps the “young bride” out by offering her “twenty dollars” to go “buy a decent dress” (59). Several years earlier Nurse Ratched’s colleague and best friend of 30 years offered her a position to run a ward at the asylum. They “were Army nurses together in the thirties,” and her friend believed she would be the best person to have the job (60). The men on the ward, of course, feel as if they are the “victims of a matriarchy” because they assume that women stick together in decision-making. Since Nurse Ratched’s supervisor is her best friend and a female, there are no males to dominate their thinking.
When Nurse Ratched constructed her team, she was particular on whom she wanted around her. In other words, she wanted people who were going to be loyal to her if she ever needed support. In constructing her team, she made sure that the people she hired passed her stringent requirements:
Her three daytime black boys she acquires after more years of testing and rejecting thousands. They come at her in a long black row of sulky, big-nosed masks, hating her and her chalk doll whiteness from the first look they get. She appraises them and their hate for a month or so, then lets them go because they don’t hate enough. When she finally gets the three she wants—gets them one at a time over a number of years, weaving them into her plan and her network—she’s damn positive they hate enough to be capable (28).
If read from a conventional male perspective, a reader will be able to point out the negative connotations on the way Nurse Ratched is constructing her team. However, when read from a female perspective, a reader will question whether she is being shrewd with whom she wants around her or deviant in picking such a cruel team. The old saying goes that the mark of any good leader is the people you have around you. In fact, even though the men on the ward feel that she and the people who surround her form a dictatorship, they still feel that there is an air of professionalism, and they like how “efficiency locks the ward like a watchman’s clock” (29). The patients on the ward believe that Nurse Ratched wants a “world of precision, efficiency, and tidiness” and in her own utopian society, she does. She wants control over her self-created domain even if it means handpicking the doctor to maintain control of the medical environment she wants. Several questions arise at this point: Could Nurse Ratched be a calculating boss who wants to ensure that her job is performed as efficiently as possible? How much do we believe what the inmates are saying? After all, their minds are in a “fog” for a majority of the day, and they are in a mental institution. How credible can their descriptions of Nurse Ratched be?
If we take Nurse Ratched’s characteristics and apply Josephine Donovan theory, from her essay, “Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Criticism,” she would more than likely describe Nurse Ratched as an “Other,” i.e., a woman who “detracts from the goals of the male protagonist,” in this case, McMurphy. She would also state, “sexist ideology necessarily promotes the concept of woman-as-object or woman-as-other because “sexist ideology controls the text” (236). There is no doubt that Kesey uses “sexist ideology” to describe Nurse Ratched and the other women in the text, but is his description of Nurse Ratched a negative personification of a “woman-as-object” or “woman-as-other?” Could he be describing the strengths of a woman instead of her weaknesses? Donovan would also cite Simon De Beauvoir’s theory that Nurse Ratched could be perceived, in male dominated literature, as a “deviant, inessential object” to satisfy the politics of feminism (236). Donovan may be correct in her initial judgment. She would have to reconsider her point of view of Nurse Ratched, however, since she was able to win back her self-constructed domain by having McMurphy lobotomized. To some readers, this act would be considered a “self-determined action” in other words, Nurse Ratched is a “moral agent” and is a “character that has a reflective, critical consciousness” thus being an “authentic character” because she was able to battle McMurphy and win (236).
Leslie Horst’s essay, “Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex-Role Failure and Caricature” takes Donovan’s stance that Nurse Ratched is a “perversion of femininity.” She states that
Big Nurse represents not only an anti-feminine figure, but also all the social forces of conformity, constraint, and denial of freedom. She is anti-sexual and anti-life. At another level, she symbolizes all the forces of socialization and civilization that would turn an impulse-expressive child into a conforming and deadened adult (465).
Though Horst believes that Kesey portrays Nurse Ratched in a negative tone, she does not fully grasp the male perspective that women with power and those who have to struggle to keep their power will always be looked at as a “bitch,” “anti-sexual,” or “anti-life.” Horst also believes that Nurse Ratched’s weakness stems from her “apparent sexual invulnerability” which recalls an age-old “power struggle” between men and women. After all, McMurphy does try to break Nurse Ratched down by using lewd remarks and physically intimidating her. However, he fails in his attempts because she understands that she has control of the environment that the men live in and can limit what they do on the ward:
How come a seasoned con like this—an old pro, a carnival artist, a dedicated odds-watcher gambling man—would risk doubling his stay in the nuthouse by making more and more an enemy out of the woman who had the say-so as to who got discharged and who didn’t? (249-250)
Nurse Ratched has more power than anyone can imagine but the feminist critics fail to recognize her strengths and, instead, only focus on how the men perceive her in the text.
Like other critics, Horst believes that Kesey’s “view of women” is “very negative.” She points out that there is an “anti-woman view” in his “male-oriented novel” and that Kesey’s “humiliation” of the men is just a way of saying, this is what women have to do in order to control men (468). However, Horst fails to look beyond the order and efficiency that Nurse Ratched has created to control her environment. She does not see that Nurse Ratched cannot let the patients run the asylum. Though she tries to institute a democratic way of governing the ward allowing the men to have their say, she still needs to maintain control. Unfortunately, at times, she has to resort to stooping in a childlike fashion to the male primal level in order to gain respect of the men:
She talks to him about how they, the patients downstairs on our ward, at a special group meeting yesterday afternoon, agreed with the staff that it might be beneficial that he receive some shock therapy—unless he realizes his mistakes. All he has to do is admit he was wrong, to indicate, demonstrate rational contact, and the treatment would be canceled this time. That circle of faces waits and watches. The nurse says its up to him.
“Yeah?” he says. “You got a paper I can sign?” “Well, no but do you feel it nec—“ “And why don’t you add some other things while you are at it and get them out of the way—things like, oh, me being part of a plot to overthrow the government and like how I think life on your ward is the sweetest goddamned life this side of Hawaii—you know, that sort of crap. (268)
In this passage, Nurse Ratched tries her best to defuse the situation between herself and McMurphy. She does not want to give him electroshock therapy, but he is stubborn and does not want to understand her perspective: that she is only trying to protect her domain and the people in her controlled utopian society. From a male perspective, McMurphy does not want to give up control to a woman or admit that he is wrong. He would rather suffer at her hands than admit guilt. His attempt to usurp her authority and gain a dominant role with the men only weakens his character and strengthens hers. Conventional critics that would look at this from a male perspective might interpret this passage as her way of trying to dominate him; but in reality, she is just trying to balance out the control in a calculated way. Her goal is to make decisions in a democratic way, though from a male point of view, he or she would believe she is being a dictator while the feminist critic would perceive her as being “deviant” with her punishment (Donovan 236).
One critic who shares my point of view that Kesey’s depiction of Nurse Ratched’s characterization can be seen in a positive light is M. Gilbert Porter. In his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rising to Heroism, he believes that Bromden’s description of Nurse Ratched is a “hyperbolic magnification” of a “distorted sense of her power” and that the “impressionistic descriptions of her dehumanized nature are supported by the assessments Bromden reports from others” (50). He understands that Bromden’s view of Nurse Ratched is “speculation” at best and that his thoughts on her motives may or may not be “reliable.”
He believes that for Nurse Ratched “the acquisition and maintenance of control and the exercise of power are of central importance to her” (51). To her, McMurphy is “the greatest threat to discipline and order,” and “she sees him, with his free-spirited indifference to her methodology and to her dreams of order, as her natural antagonist” (51-52). Porter understands that Nurse Ratched is trying to keep order and control in her self-constructed domain and that being a “crusader” for order is her struggle for power and recognition in a male dominated society.
When Kesey wrote his novel in 1962, he wanted readers to fully comprehend the male perspective of how women were viewed in society during his time. He wanted to illustrate that women were beginning to achieve stature and control as they climbed up the proverbial corporate ladder and were making headway in other facets of society. For Kesey to get his point across, he used sexist language and over-personified how the male characters in his novel viewed women. In so doing, he received a backlash of harsh criticism from women who stated that Nurse Ratched portrays women in a negative tone.
The feminist point of view of Nurse Ratched is negative because of the “sexist ideology” used in the text and feminist critics do fail to look beyond the scope of her control and order to see that she is just a woman struggling to keep control and order in her self-constructed utopian society. In other words, Nurse Ratched is battling the males in order to gain respect, keep her control over the ward, and to show readers that a woman must defend and fight in order to succeed, which in turn, should be viewed as a positive character trait and not a negative one.
Donovan, Josephine. “Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Criticism.” Contexts for Criticism.
Ed. Donald Keesey. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing C, 1987. 235-45.
Horst, Leslie. “Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex-Role Failure and Caricature.” One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Ed. John Clark Pratt. New York: Penguin Group, 1996. 464-71.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Ed. John Clark Pratt. New York:
Penguin Group, 1996.
Porter, Gilbert M. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rising to Heroism. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.