Truth, Madness, and the Impossible Distinction in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

by Alexandria Ouimet

The first-person narrator allows readers to get direct insight into how the character is feeling and what they are thinking, but when the narrator’s reliability comes into question, it becomes hard to trust what they say. However, just because their truth is not the whole truth does not mean it isn’t their full reality. “Chief” Bromden in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest struggles with what seems to be schizophrenia causing him to see things no one else does, making it difficult for readers to distinguish what is caused by his madness and what is really happening. Bromden’s madness forces him to see people’s size in relation to the amount of control they possess while also making him believe that the government is implanting machines into people defying their expectations in order to better control them. Adding to the image of madness, Bromden is Native American, so those around him have also assumed he is deaf and mute; an image he maintains in order to help him keep the little control he has. Because of this, Bromden is labeled a madman, creating a reality both readers and other characters in the novel do not understand or believe, both giving and taking away his power and control. However, this does not mean his understanding and point of view is any less true; what he sees and believes is his truth, madman or not. When Bromden’s reality is understood, madness becomes just another perception of the world allowing the mad person to freely think and behave differently with no consequence.

Throughout the novel, Bromden interprets the size of the people around him by how much control or agency they have over themselves and others. Although how he sees others and himself is not their literal size, Bromden understands size figuratively creating a more accurate depiction of the characters. In his mind size does not matter if there is no power behind it. Someone who has more control, agency, and power is bigger than someone who can do nothing to stop them. Bromden sees himself as small because he has little to no power or control over what happens to him during his time on the psychiatric ward. Even the orderlies notice Bromden’s potential to put up more resistance. An orderly, talking about Bromden, says, “Big enough to eat apples off my head an’ he mine me like a baby” (3). Bromden is said to be around six-foot-seven. His body could allow him to fight off both the orderlies and the nurse, but since he believes he is small it is not a possibility. His depiction is completely accurate; he perceives people based on their influence, not how they look.

Since Bromden pretends to be deaf and mute, no one knows he sees himself as insignificant and small, creating a false reality for those around him. Bromden, silent along the wall, uses his shrunken presence to watch and listen to people at their most vulnerable moments. Determining McMurphy as a big, strong, and confident man, Bromden breaks his silence deciding to trust the new powerful force. After learning about Bromden’s ruse, McMurphy doesn’t understand his inability to defend or speak up for himself. McMurphy says “Criminy, look at you: you stand a head taller’n any man on the ward. There ain’t a man here you couldn’t turn every way but loose and that’s a fact!” (184). Bromden responds “No. I’m way too little. I used to be big, but not no more. You’re twice the size of me” (184). His warped perception creates a seemingly unrealistic worldview.

When telling McMurphy about how his white mother grew twice the size of his Native American dad, McMurphy is eager to hear the tale of how this would be possible. Bromden says, “A guy at the carnival looked her over and says five feet nine and weight a hundred and thirty pounds, but that was because he’d just saw her. She got bigger all the time” (184). Bromden uses more than his eyes to measure the size of people because the technicalities used to declare height and weight are useless to him. It matters how they make others feel, what they can accomplish with their bodies. The reason his mom continued to grow is because she gained control and power of those around her. Elaine B. Safer, in her article, says, “his sense of inadequacy start[ed] when his father, an Indian chief, is reduced in stature by his white wife” (136). His dad used to be inexorable, but as people started to work at him, he shrank, much as Bromden has during his time on the psychiatric ward. Bromden’s view of people is not wrong or misleading, it’s just an alternative perception – a view that not everyone needs to believe in order to make it true.

The most obvious example of Bromden’s unique view of size is Nurse Ratched. The main nurse on the ward is always called “Big Nurse” in Bromden’s narrative, as he often imagines Nurse Ratched shapeshifting depending on her mood, attitude, or actions. The big nurse has complete control over the psychiatric ward because it is impossible to resist her power. No matter how often the patients try and fight her policies or argue for their humanity and rights, the final decision is determined by Nurse Ratched’s orders. So, it would be no surprise that Bromden sees her for a big monster machine that only wants to control and change the patients. The first-time readers are introduced to Nurse Ratched, Bromden’s interpretation of her is impossible to believe – it’s madness. The narrator says, “She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times…She blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor” (4-5). This is obviously not the reality of the situation – real people don’t shape-shift. Whether this hallucination stems from fear or anxiety, it is very much real to Bromden. And even if the other patients don’t see the nurse this way, they sure do act as if she is the all-powerful machine Bromden describes her as. They allow her to morph into this monster giving her power and control over their bodies and lives while they are living under her watch. Whether or not Bromden’s hallucinations should be deemed as madness, the actions and behaviors of those around him create a solid basis for his twisted visions.

When McMurphy is admitted, Bromden calls both his body and voice big, as he is not fearful or intimidated by the nurse, orderlies, or rules and policies that the ward has in place. McMurphy essentially remains the same person throughout the novel questioning and fighting the demands given to him by the Big Nurse. Similar to Nurse Ratched, Bromden’s view of the new patient is controlled by McMurphy’s personality. During the last section of the novel, Bromden’s self-perception gets bigger and stronger as he learns tools that help him gain power and control with McMurphy’s help and encouragement. Everyone already sees Bromden as a giant, but because Bromden’s confidence in himself is so low, it is impossible for himself to see how big he truly is in comparison to those around him. McMurphy says to Bromden, weeks into size training, “By God, Chief, it appears to me you growed ten inches since that fishing trip. And lordamighty, look at the size of that foot of yours; big as a flatcar” (227). Sure enough, when Bromden looked down, he sees that his foot really did grow twice the size as it was before. The reality of his foot actually growing that much doesn’t make sense. But, in his head, it doesn’t need to. It’s all about what he believes he can do and how he views himself.

With McMurphy’s encouragement and constant confidence boosters, Bromden is realizing his true size. The narrator says, “I caught a look at myself in the mirror. He’d done what he said; my arms were big again, big as they were back in high school, back at the village, and my chest and shoulders were broad and hard” (228). This is not a physical change as the reader and Bromden are understanding it to be. The truth is that Bromden’s mentality is becoming clearer giving him confidence in his own strength and size. He comes to understand the inherent power he held in his body and would later use this strength to escape from the ward that made him small. Understanding why Bromden views people the way he does is extremely important in interpreting the way he thinks. It is difficult to distinguish the difference between a mad or realistic perception. However, the two views can be true at once, especially when readers are learning through Bromden’s narrative. Since he viewed himself as small, that’s what he was: weak, short, and controlled by the system in place. Once he had the confidence, he used the newfound strength to escape from both his negative mindset and the place that put him there.

Bromden’s schizophrenia forces him to see and believe in a false reality beyond just people’s sizes. He does not necessarily blame Nurse Ratched and her controlling antics on her choices alone, as he truly believes that she is being controlled by something bigger: the combine. The narrator says, “…it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them” (157). The combine, in Bromden’s mind, is a machine that is meant to control society and forces them to behave according to its authoritarian expectations. As Bromden describes Nurse Ratched’s control system developed by the combine he says, “Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot” (23).

The combine takes away people’s humanity and turns them into a perfectly controlled unit designed to conform, on the inside and outside, according to the combine’s societal constrictions. The combine does not exist the way Bromden believes it does, but the manipulative influence that it wields is very real, especially in terms of the Big Nurse’s actions. Safer writes, “The hospital’s hierarchical power structure…reflects the cold, calculating machinations of a repressive society that disregards civil rights and destroys individuality” (132). On the ward, there is no escaping from the control the nurse or the combine possesses. As stated before, what she says goes, no matter how cruel, restricting, and condescending it may be. In many ways, she does work and behave like a machine. She is constantly performing the same cold and calculated responses to the patients’ behaviors and antics, never taking their wants or needs into consideration.

The biggest part of Bromden’s madness comes in the form of this machine. The combine creates fears and anxieties that don’t need to exist, but since Bromden truly believes this is how the world is run, it causes him to be cagey and afraid. Readers can easily write this off as madness, but when the reader chooses to see what Bromden does, they will also be able to see the reality behind his hallucinations and beliefs. This idea of the machine being the center of control for humanity did not even start with Bromden – it started with his father, when Bromden was still with his Native American tribe. When describing the combine to McMurphy, Bromden says, “The combine had whipped Papa. It beats everybody! It’ll beat you too. They can’t have somebody as big as Papa running around unless he’s one of them” (185). These fears and anxieties about being controlled by the government’s machine started long before the psychiatric ward, explaining why he desperately tries to disappear when someone wants to do something to his body such as shaving, showering, or taking medications. The racist ideas from America, especially their government, showed Bromden and his family that society did not want people like them around. The repressive attitude society tends to have on the “other” – the foreigner, the mad person, the neuroatypical body – leads them to start believing and thinking that everyone is out to get them. When people are denied access, sympathy, or even just simple understanding, whether or not there is actual belief behind it, it highlights the ways that society deems those differences as wrong or less than. Bromden’s beliefs, or madness, stems from something quite larger than a diagnosis – it stems from not ever being heard, or believed, or trusted. Readers, while interpreting Bromden’s narrative, are given a chance to depict his madness as something real, something that does exist, just maybe not in the way the reader themselves would understand it.

In a fit of anxiety and trying to make McMurphy understand him, Bromden is desperately trying to get him to see the dangers of the combine. He says, “…they work on you ways you can’t fight! They put things in! They install things. They start as quick as they see you’re gonna be big and go to working and installing their filthy machinery when you’re little, and keep on and on and on till you’re fixed” (185). The thing is, Bromden is not too far off with his theory about the power and control of the machine. Throughout the novel, readers hear about a place the patients call the “shock shop,” the room in the hospital where they use electroshock therapy to help patients calm down. It is the use of a machine to “fix” or change people into someone that is easier to control or to make them comply to the rules and regulations set which is exactly how Bromden views the combine. Bromden’s madness shifts reality into something he can fully understand. Elena Semino, in her article, writes, “Reality is the result of perceptual and cognitive processes that may vary in part from person to person; thus, individuals may differ in their conceptualizations of the same experience” (144). It would be ignorant to assume that everyone views the world in the same way. Telling someone that their way of thinking is incorrect represses their mind, furthering them into what society deems as madness.

Along with the machine, Bromden sees fog that both helps and inhibits his agency. Whether or not the fog actually exists does not matter when interpreting Bromden’s story. More than likely, it is just a side effect of Bromden’s madness, but again that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s simply a different interpretation of the real events he encounters during his time on the ward. After putting up a fight because Bromden was being forced to shave, the narrator says, “They start the fog machine again and it’s snowing down cold and white all over me…so thick, I might even be able to hide in it if they didn’t have a hold on me” (7). The orderlies are told to use this method whenever the patients start acting violent or become uncontrollable. When Bromden comes out of the fog, he has a hard time remembering what happened to him after it started. Readers do not know what the fog is or where it actually comes from, but it does drastically change the way Bromden sees the ward showing there is importance in believing it exists in the ways Bromden says it does. The fog is real in some way, working in tandem with Bromden’s madness and ignorance of the ward’s manipulation methods to create a warped version of reality that he can understand. His madness, or mental illness, is not the entire source of his hallucinogenic feelings. Because Bromden interprets the world a little differently, readers need to be able to understandwhat he sees without automatically dismissing what he sees as madness.

In being labeled insane while also being a Native American, Bromden is assumed to be deaf and mute by most people he encounters, especially because of his hesitancy to speak to any white person due to warnings from his father. This label of deaf and mute can be changed whenever Bromden feels it necessary. However, he maintains the label, as he learned it helps him gain more control, allows him to become invisible, and gives him more access to information and, in turn, knowledge. The narrator says, “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf, it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all” (174). Since others forced him into this category, Bromden behaves as if he cannot hear or speak. It was because of people’s racist assumptions and stereotypes that he originally began feigning this act. This image was easier to obtain, and maintain, because of his mental illness. He was already deemed mad and insane, so it wouldn’t hurt to also play deaf and mute. In doing so, Bromden is able to stand in on staff meetings hearing what everyone really has to say about the patients and what their plans are on how to deal with them. Bromden starts to learn information and gives it to McMurphy in order to take back some of the control Nurse Ratched has taken away. His perceived image also allows him to have a warning about situations he might want to avoid. On nights he does not take his medication and knows they are coming to forcefully give it to him, he is able to fake sleep to avoid taking the pills. When he hears orders from the nurse to the orderlies about shaving him, he takes the opportunity to hide away and avoid being touched against his will. The truth did not matter to the racist, ignorant people when first encountering him, so keeping up the lies and act to protect himself gives him a small ounce of control in a place that is trying to take it all away.

The first-person narrator reliability should be determined based on the intent of their differentiating realities. The mad person, in this case Bromden, is telling his truth and his full interpretation of the situation. So many times, people who have been labeled “madmen” have been dismissed and ignored because of their madness or mental illness. They are looked at as less than human and their stories are assumed to be “crazy” or exaggerated and Bromden is no exception. The way he interprets his daily life and the events happening around him can easily be dismissed as madness, but if readers take a deeper look to at what he is talking about, there is truth in his words showing how impossible it is to distinguish between truth and madness when trying to understand something you have never encountered.

Works Cited

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York, Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962.

Safer, Elaine B. ““It’s the Truth Even If It Didn’t Happen”: Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1977, pp. 132-141, Accessed 18 Mar. 2022.

Semino, Elena. “Metaphor and Mind Style in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Style, vol. 30, no. 1, 1996, pp. 143-166, Accessed 18 Mar. 2022.