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Existentialism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Nikhil Dutt

on 21 January 2016

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Transcript of Existentialism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

- Chief stating that he feels "big as a damn mountain" represents that he feels self-confident and ready to pursue freedom, because a mountain is an element of nature that equates to strength and freedom.
By Nikhil Dutt and Timothy Sah
Existentialism in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
What Exactly is Existentialism?
Taking place inside a mental institution that symbolizes everyday society, Milos Forman's 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" displays the idea that there is more to life than what society presents. Randle McMurphy, the protagonist, puts up a facade of insanity to avoid prison work and is instead sent to the state mental hospital for detainment. There, he encounters a diverse crew of mainy voluntary inmates, including the suicidal "mama's-boy" Billy Bibbits and silent Native American Chief Bromden, who are oppressed and controlled by the cold-hearted Nurse Ratched and her loyal staff. From the moment McMurphy arrives, he and Nurse Ratched develop a rivalry to gain/retain influence over McMurphy's fellow inmates. Nurse Ratched acts as a power-hungry figure who equates sanity with human decency, while McMurphy exercises his spontaneous care-free personality to disrupt Ratched's system by simply living as he pleases. McMurphy teaches the group that there is more to life than what the mental hospital presents to them by teaching the inmates basketball, taking an unsolicited afternoon fishing trip and hosting a night party with alcohol and hookers. Although Nurse Ratched eventually succeeds over McMurphy, his philosophy to "live free or die trying" is ultimately impressed upon one inmate, who embodies the idea that hope and free will can help one overcome even the most difficult circumstances.
Plot Summary
-The men in the ward are constantly put down and mentally castrated by Nurse Ratched's authority. They lack individuality and willpower. Until McMurphy comes...

- Once McMurphy comes, he helps them discover self worth—as if they have a reason to live and a destiny to fulfill.

-McMurphy helps the mental patients develop the confidence and intellect to challenge Nurse Ratched's oppressive policies. He ultimately teaches them that their lives should not be limited by "made-up" rules.

-These men were labelled as "mentally challenged" by society, but
McMurphy shows them that living an authentic life is more important
than being accepted by society. Being "crazy" is subjective, and
McMurphy wants the men to understand that their life is in
their own control—not society's.
Existential Elements Found in the Film
In this film, each main character symbolizes an important idea which connects to the overall theme of the film.
Character Symbolization
Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.
Nurse Ratched
- Nurse Ratched represents the methodical, oppressive, and indifferent nature of modern society.
(and her staff)
- She runs the hospital like a boot camp and refuses to adjust the daily schedule of the ward, despite the desires of the patients.
The Patients
Randle McMurphy
-McMurphy represents free will, and self-determination—characteristics foreign to his fellow inmates of the ward, who accept Nurse Ratched's oppressive policies.
- The mental hospital patients represent the majority of the present-day population that conforms to society and its "must-follow" policies.
- Until McMurphy arrives, they blindly obey Nurse Ratched's policies without protest, showing that they fail to live authentic lives unbounded by the rules of society.
Quotes, Clips, and Scenes

- McMurphy is the "driving force" that allows people to question their surroundings and discover their identity and life purpose.
Chief Bromden
- Chief, one of the mental patients, pretends to be deaf
and dumb. Though physically very tall, Chief feels small compared to McMurphy because McMurphy lives authentically, while Chief abides by the ward rules.
- Chief pretends to be deaf and mute as an act of defiance
against society. However, he eventually learns free will
and authentic living from McMurphy and literally
escapes the ward in the end, signifying that
he has cast aside the rules to live
a life of freedom.
Personal Connection/Perception
(the movie)
Existential Summary of the Film:
- Chief, somewhat like McMurphy, represents the minority of people who are outliers—whose way of thinking is different than the rest—and therefore, not accepted.
Live Authentically:
Have the Courage to Challenge Society and Live Freely
McMurphy requests that Nurse Ratched change the hospital schedule to accommodate time to watch the World Series.
Indifference of Society Towards People
Indifference of Society Towards People (cont.)
Nurse Ratched: "Well, Mr. McMurphy, what you're asking [to be able to watch the World Series] is that we change a very carefully worked out schedule..."
- Nurse Ratched denying McMurphy from watching the World Series, though a simple enough request, shows that she "doesn't care" about the people.
*Important to note, that later on, the patients took another vote, and McMurphy gained a 10-8 majority. Yet, Nurse Ratched would not play the ballgame for McMurphy.

- This correlates to the existential idea that the universe/society is
indifferent and hostile towards humanity.

- Nurse Ratched seemed to glare at the patients as McMurphy
tried to get their votes.

- This shows how a harsh society can scare
people into not exercising free will.
McMurphy is bewildered that most of his fellow inmates are voluntary. He questions them as to why they put up with the mental hospital when they have the option to simply "walk out."
Throughout the movie, McMurphy helps each man to realize that they have the power to be whomever they wish. He makes each individual feel as if they are important and unique. But when McMurphy gets a surgery on his brain (as a punishment for almost choking Nurse Ratchet to death because of her indirect link to Billy's death) he loses that power. In the last scene, everyone has been defeated and relapses to their "pre-McMurphy" routines. McMurphy tried to teach all the patients to live life authentically, but only one patient took his "teachings" to heart... The Chief. The Chief was the only patient to question his surroundings and challenge the authority of society. He only
spoke with McMurphy because McMurphy was different from the rest of
society. Perhaps The Chief acted deaf and mute because society acted
deaf and mute towards him, as they had nothing to say to or hear
from him. The Chief finally escapes the ward, fulfilling the
wishes of McMurphy and leaving a trace of hope for the
others. One can easily overcome the "boundaries" of
of society with enough will power, self-
determination and dedication.
Live Authentically:
Have the Courage to Challenge Society and Live Freely (cont.)
The Final Scene
McMurphy: "You guys do nothing but complain about how you can't stand it in this place here, and you haven't got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin'? Well you're not! You're not! You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets and that's it."
Follow Your Own Dreams and Challenge Your Surroundings
- This correlates to the existential idea that people should question their own
existence and set out to find their life "meaning," regardless of what society
tells them. Being "cured" is subjective, simply because "craziness" is
subjective as well. McMurphy preaches about ignoring what
society tells you (that they are crazy) and determining your
own identity through your actions.
Living in Oppression:
Death Before Conformity
McMurphy is escorted to his bed by two staffers,
after receiving a lobotomy (removal of one's brain) as punishment for assaulting Nurse Ratched. Chief is horrified, and puts McMurphy out of his misery.
The Chief uses the motivation that McMurphy instilled upon him to find his true inner strength in order to pick up the water tank and escape the ward.
Living in Oppression:
Death Before Conformity
Chief: "Mac... They said you escaped. I knew you wouldn't leave without me. I was waiting for you. Now we can make it, Mac; I feel big as a damn mountain..." [sees lobotomy scars] "Oh no... I wouldn't leave you this way..."
- Chief, noticing McMurphy's operation scar, smothers McMurphy to
death presumably because he feels that McMurphy would rather
die than conform to the oppressive rules of society.
- This correlates to the existential idea that freedom is necessary for one to find an authentic life. Chief's newfound feeling and eagerness to escape shows that he is ready to pursue an authentic life through free living.
- This correlates to the existential idea that authentic living is the true
essence of life. If one is forced into conformity and opportunity
for authentic living is made impossible, then life is not
worth living.
Follow Your
Own Dreams and Challenge Your Surroundings:
Whether we know it or not, existential elements are abundant in modern society. The first time that I became aware of an existentialist notion was when my grandpa told me about the job he had always dreamed of having since he was a little boy. Since day one, he had always wanted to work in the forests as a researcher to gain more knowledge about our environment and help save it. But then when he turned 17, his father gifted him a rifle and signed him up for the army (which was a very respected job back then). This story opened my eyes as well (as my partner's) and left us shocked. It got us thinking- people around an individual have so much control over his/her life. And then we started to connect these ideas with our life. And we realized that people in our society had a lot of control over us! If one of us wanted to go to community college and become a carpenter or an electrician, we would would be looked down upon by society. What if one of us genuinely had the talent to become something great, but didn't because of what other's would think. Does an individual have no free will or self respect? Do we blindly perform based on the beliefs of society?
Our Personal Beliefs
We both came to the conclusion that we should think freely and be individualistic people. Even though society has the power to fabricate a life path that we "must" follow to be successful, we both feel that our personal goals/desires in life should precede that set path. Life is only truly meaningful if you strive to fulfill your own destiny for yourself.
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