Stories about people with mental health problems have always been extremely popular among literary critics. The main reason why stories about insane people draw professional attention is because insanity has far-reaching social implications. Mental health problems and insanity are often associated with the loss of identity and individual power, whereas asylums exemplify the utmost form of power and domination over patients. Stories of physical assaults, cruelty, subordination and tortures in asylums are not uncommon. More often than not, mentally ill individuals are believed to exist in the atmosphere of constant and omnipotent medical control which, in addition to their mental health problems, deprives these people of their identity and individuality. Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” reconsiders the life in a psychiatric hospital from a new perspective: in Kesey’s story, the theme of matriarchy and its effects on patients is one of the most important. In Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, the power of matriarchy represents the fight between the worst female and the best male features, leading to the polarization of male and female identities, the triumph of women in the gendered asylum, and the eventual removal of men’s masculine identity.   

Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a story of the painful and never ending fight between female and male identities. The story takes place in a psychiatric hospital, with Chief Bromden, a patient, at its center. Like many other patients of the hospital, Bromden suffers from hallucinations: “Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them” (Kesey 3). However, the boundary between Bromden’s hallucinations and the realities of life in the psychiatric hospital is extremely blurred. This mixture of the reality, fantasy, hallucinations, and sick memories makes the book particularly difficult for reading. At the same time, it is through men’s hallucinations, sick memories, and physical and mental weakness that matriarchy moves to the top of the story’s thematic hierarchy.

Matriarchy is at the heart of most revelations in Kesey’s book, and the rigid division on whores and ball-cutters (for example, Nurse Ratched) is the leading thread transcending all aspects of the narration. Ball-cutters act to emasculate men and deprive them of their individuality, whereas whores are expected to bring sexual satisfaction and reinforce the presence of masculine identity in male patients. Nurse Ratched, the role model of a ball-cutter, fulfills her work with efficiency and precision, “and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam” (Kesey 26). Obedience is at the center of Nurse Ratched’s life, as well as the foundation for the continued domination of women over men in the psychiatric hospital.

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In Ken Kesey’s book, matriarchy stands out as the expression of the worst female features. Matriarchy represents the fight between the worst female sides and the best given to men by nature. This is how McMurphy describes Nurse Ratched: “No, that nurse ain’t some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter. I’ve seen a thousand of ‘em, old and young, men and women. Seen ‘em all over the country and in the homes” (Kesey54). She is the woman who weakens men by getting them where it hurts the worst (Kesey 54). She is the woman who wants to win by making men weaker instead of using their strength for her benefit (Kesey 54). This is how Kesey reverses the order and distribution of gender forces in the world beyond the walls of the psychiatric hospital. Needless to say, men are often believed to possess unilateral power over women, making them obedient and subordinate. The world is claimed to be uniformly patriarchal, but the situation in the psychiatric hospital zeroes the significance of these assumptions. The psychiatric hospital described by Kesey provides women with an opportunity to take revenge for the pains and sufferings they are usually bound to experience because of their sex. In the psychiatric hospital, men represent the kinder side of the world, being too weak to withstand the growing pressure of matriarchy.

Matriarchy leads to the subsequent polarization of male and female identities and the eventual removal of masculinity in men. In Kesey’s story, matriarchy is a metaphorical expression of castration, both physical and emotional. In the psychiatric hospital, men and women exist along the different lines of reality, and women enjoy a privileged position over men. Many men are brought to the psychiatric hospital when they are already at the edge of emotional castration; these men exemplify a unique and extremely convenient object of female exploitation. For example, Bromden’s mother plays the chief role in his movement toward insanity. Bromden loses his masculine identity even before he is institutionalized, and Nurse Ratched merely fuels the conflict between Bromden’s identity and the rest of the world. Those who refuse to subordinate are subjected to inhuman tortures. Physical castration and lobotomy are used in abundance: “Chopping away the brain. Frontal-lobe castration. I guess if she can’t cut below the belt she’ll do it above the eyes”, - this is what Harding tells McMurphy as they are discussing Nurse Ratched (Kesey 154). Kesey shows that the removal of masculinity from men does not stop women in their quest for absolute power. Physical and emotional castration of men leads many of them to death through suicide. However, contrary to nurses’ expectations, death can hardly strengthen their position and power, because when the last patient flees the asylum, women are left alone in their moral short-sightedness, with no chance to restore their dominant matriarchal position.

Matriarchy is one of the leading themes in Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In the discussed book, the power of matriarchy represents the fight between the worst female and the best male features, leading to the polarization of male and female identities, the triumph of women in the gendered asylum, and the eventual removal of men’s masculine identity. It seems that the psychiatric hospital provides women with a unique opportunity to take revenge on all men for their abuses and sufferings in the patriarchal world. However, when the last man flees the asylum, women are left alone with their moral short-sightedness and no chance to restore their matriarchal position.   

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