Individualism Vs. the Establishment


Since the establishment of law and society thousand of years ago, mankind has
struggled to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of society as a whole.
Many societies have placed the rights of the individual as the center of their society, while
others have placed strict limits on individualism for the good of the general society. Ken
Kessey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest creates a microcosm of the most
totalitarian system humanity could produce. By evaluating mankind’s most brutal system,
we are better able to understand our own world.

Society can be defined as the union of individuals into a social group to improve
the prosperity of each individual. Societies create rules to facilitate the union of these
individuals, and rules to govern interpersonal relationships. In doing so, society must
limit the rights of the individual, for the sake of the society. When an individual is unable
or unwilling to follow the rules of society, his will is broken and he is controlled by the
authority figure. In the novel, the Big Nurse plays the role of the authority figure (pg.
57). Her black boys, the medication, and the use or threat of electroshock treatment and
lobotomies have caused the patients to follow her commands without questions. (pp. 162-

In every totalitarian system, it is necessary to pacify the people by convincing
them that remaining a member of the society is in their best interest. The majority of the
patients were not committed, and could have left the hospital as soon as they wished (pp.
167-168). This would leave the nurse powerless, a queen without subjects. In order to
prevent the exodus of patients, she uses group meeting to have the patients air all of their
concerns, making them believe they have an active role in organizing their lives (pp. 145-
148). The nurse also allows recreation, such as television and the fishing trip, in order to
quell their uneasiness caused by being confined (pp. 177). In this way the patients
genuinely believed remaining in the ward was necessary for their well being.
The system organized by the nurse is comparable to Hitler’s nazi Germany. She
manages to keep the people happy, and has her black boys take care of any dissenters.
Hitler faced a similar situation. The only method of harassing them was to use quick,
sharp attacks, and to retreat quickly, as both McMurphy and the resistance did (pp. 172).
As long as they keep the harassment to a minimum, and let the sleeping bear lie, they
were safe. Yet once McMurphy awoke the full vengeance of Big Nurse, she reacted
swiftly with her most potent weapons: electroshock treatment and the lobotomy which
led to McMurphy’s death (pp.236-238)(pg. 269).

The quest for an ideal society is littered with obstacles. Kessey’s novel gives us a
glimpse into the worst type of totalitarianism. Other novels have given us equally horrific
stories of anarchy. Each man is capable of deciding what society will best fill his needs.
Governments will continue to evolve until an equilibrium between the rights of the
individual and the rights of society is met. As Kessy has show, individuals in a less than
ideal society will struggle to adjust the system to best fit their needs.