Study Guide

Imagery and Symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


The fog that constantly surrounds Chief and the patients on the ward is, Chief claims, "made" by Nurse Ratched. Because we know that Chief is schizophrenic and sees things that are not literally there, we recognize that the fog may be medicinally induced and is a fog of the mind rather than a literal fog. It keeps the patients from rising up in rebellion against Nurse Ratched, but it also keeps them satisfied with their lives and prevents them from ever thinking about anything real. It both helps them to live this way and prevents them from ever trying to improve their life situation. As Chief says, the men hide behind the fog because it is comfortable.

A Pecking Party

McMurphy describes a "pecking party" as a situation in which chickens see blood on another chicken and start pecking at it like crazy until they’re all bloody, pecking at each other in a frenzy, and end up killing each other. McMurphy points out that Nurse Ratched’s Therapeutic Community meetings are pecking parties. Nurse Ratched strikes one of the men to reveal his weakness, and then all of the patients follow her lead, "pecking" at the man. This starts off a chain reaction that hurts all of the men, sets them all against each other (instead of against Nurse Ratched), and keeps them all feeling weak (and emasculated). Thus the "therapeutic" meeting aren’t a time when patients can provide each other with mutual and beneficial help, but where they end up hurting each other and making it all worse.

Rabbits and the Wolf

Harding explains to McMurphy that the world is divided into the weak and the strong. He, the doctor, and most of the patients are the weak – rabbits – and Nurse Ratched is the strong, a wolf. She hasn’t made them into rabbits – they’re inside because they can’t adjust to being a rabbit on the outside.


The world is divided into the inside of the insane asylum and Outside, the world as it exists outside of the walls of the insane asylum. Outside has a grip on everybody’s imagination – to some, it’s a scary place and to others, it’s a seductive place, but everybody divides the world into this dichotomy.

Green Seepage

Chief notices that whenever the staff congregate together for a meeting, there’s a green light that pours out of the room they’re in. Afterwards, there’s a green seepage that covers everything, which he has to clean off. He says you wouldn’t believe the poisons that ooze out of staff members’ skins. Because we are aware that Chief is mentally ill, we realize that his observations are not literal truths even though he sees it as a literal truth. Instead, he is observing a sort of spiritual residue that infects the entire ward because of the poisonous attitudes of the nurses and orderlies towards the patients. This further reinforces the idea that the asylum is not a place of healing, but of harming the patients.

The Combine

This is Chief’s word to describe the machine-like nature of the asylum system. But it’s not just the asylum that’s governed by this machine – it’s the entire world. He can hear its hum in the walls. Often, Nurse Ratched represents the authority of the Combine; she is the public face of an inhumane system.

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