Sexual repression vs sexual freedom in Cuckoo’s Nest

The notes below are from the theme section of the Gradesaver notes on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. There is plenty of reading there for those of you who need to kickstart your revision!

“One of the prevailing motifs of Kesey’s novel involves the metaphorical contrast between clamped-down sexual mores and freewheeling, instinctive, “natural” sexual freedom. The conflict is represented by the war between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The “Big Nurse” represents a frigid, controlled sexuality, an attempt to button up natural instincts and resist impulse through conscious order. She cannot, however, disguise her huge breasts, which show through her uniform no matter how much she covers up. McMurphy, the symbol of total sexual abandon, ultimately tears the Nurse’s clothes from her body to “unleash” her breasts in a final climax of the battle. McMurphy himself is almost animalistic in his sexuality, which is a main reason he has been institutionalized by a repressive society. He is considered dangerous and hostile because he acts on his urges. His primary crime is statutory rape, an offense he defends by arguing that the young girl pressed him to have sex rather than the other way around. At the end of the novel, though McMurphy frees nearly all the main characters sexually–bringing a prostitute for fellow inmates, encouraging the men to rediscover the emasculated souls they’ve surrendered to Nurse Ratched–he must pay for his free sexuality by losing a part of his brain. Kesey suggests that fully unfettered sexuality is too dangerous for modern society to tolerate.”

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