Study Guide

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Laws and Order

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Laws and Order

Part I, Chapter Three
Nurse Ratched (Big Nurse)

"Aide Williams tells me, Mr. McMurry, that you've been somewhat difficult about your admission shower. Is this true? Please understand, I appreciate the way you've taken it upon yourself to orient with the other patients on the ward, but everything in its own good time, Mr. McMurry. I'm sorry to interrupt you and Mr. Bromden, but you do understand: everyone... must follow the rules."

He tips his head back and gives that wink that she isn't fooling him any more than I did, that he's onto her. He looks up at her with one eye for a minute.

"Ya know, ma'am," he says, "ya know—that is the ex-act thing somebody always tells me about the rules ..."

He grins. They both smile back and forth at each other, sizing each other up.

"... just when they figure I'm about to do the dead opposite." (1.3.60-64)

Big Nurse and McMurphy size each other up.

Part I, Chapter Four

So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman's clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses' Station. A number of Order Daily Cards are returned, punched with a pattern of little square holes. At the beginning of each day the properly dated OD card is inserted in a slot in the steel door and the walls hum up: Lights flash on in the dorm at six-thirty: the Acutes up out of bed quick as the black boys can prod them out, get them to work buffing the floor, emptying ash trays, polishing the scratch marks off the wall where one old fellow shorted out a day ago, went down in an awful twist of smoke and smell of burned rubber. The Wheelers swing dead log legs out on the floor and wait like seated statues for somebody to roll chairs in to them. The Vegetables piss the bed, activating an electric shock and buzzer, rolls them off on the tile where the black boys can hose them down and get them in clean greens. ... Six-forty-five the shavers buzz and the Acutes line up in alphabetical order at the mirrors, A, B, C, D.


Seven o'clock the mess hall opens….


Seven-thirty back to the day room. (1.4.20-25)

Chief explains the precision that the daily schedule and routine is carried out. As we discover later, this daily routine is the main method for keeping order and maintaining control.

Part I, Chapter Nine
Randle McMurphy

He [McMurphy] gets seconds on everything and makes a date with the girl pours coffee in the kitchen for when he gets discharged, and he compliments the N**** cook on sunnysiding the best eggs he ever ate. There's bananas for the corn flakes, and he gets a handful, tells the black boy that he'll filch him one 'cause he looks so starved, and the black boy shifts his eyes to look down the hall to where the nurse is sitting in her glass case, and says it ain't allowed for the help to eat with the patients.

"Against ward policy?"

"Tha's right."

"Tough luck"—and peels three bananas right under the black boy's nose and eats one after the other, tells the boy that any time you want one snuck outa the mess hall for you, Sam, you just give the word.

When McMurphy finishes his last banana he slaps his belly and gets up and heads for the door, and the big black boy blocks the door and tells him the rule that patients sit in the mess hall till they all leave at seven-thirty. McMurphy stares at him like he can't believe he's hearing right, then turns and looks at Harding. Harding nods his head, so McMurphy shrugs and goes back to his chair. "I sure don't want to go against that goddamned policy." (1.9.8-12)

Though he pretends to be conforming to the rules, McMurphy consistently rebels against them.

Part I, Chapter Fifteen
Nurse Ratched (Big Nurse)

[Nurse Ratched:] "I said, Mr. McMurphy, that you are supposed to be working during these hours." Her voice has a tight whine like an electric saw ripping through pine. "Mr. McMurphy, I'm warning you!"

Everybody's stopped what he was doing. She looks around her, then takes a step out of the Nurses' Station toward McMurphy.

"You're committed, you realize. You are... under the jurisdiction of me... the staff." She's holding up a fist, all those red-orange fingernails burning into her palm. "Under jurisdiction and control—"

Harding shuts off the buffer, and leaves it in the hall, and goes pulls him a chair up alongside McMurphy and sits down and lights him a cigarette too.

"Mr. Harding! You return to your scheduled duties!"

I think how her voice sounds like it hit a nail, and this strikes me so funny I almost laugh.

"Mr. Har-ding!"

Then Cheswick goes and gets him a chair, and then Billy Bibbit goes, and then Scanlon and then Fredrickson and Sefelt, and then we all put down our mops and brooms and scouring rags and we all go pull us chairs up.

"You men—Stop this. Stop!" (1.15.125-133)

Nurse Ratched tries to reassert her control by appealing to the authority of the institution, and its laws, regulations, and hierarchy— but her appeal fails.

Part II, Chapter Three
Charles Cheswick

In the group meetings there were gripes coming up that had been buried so long the thing being griped about had already changed. Now that McMurphy was around to back them up, the guys started letting fly at everything that had ever happened on the ward they didn't like.

"Why does the dorms have to be locked on the weekends?" Cheswick or somebody would ask.

"Can't a fellow even have the weekends to himself?"

"Yeah, Miss Ratched," McMurphy would say. "Why?"

"If the dorms were left open, we have learned from past experience, you men would return to bed after breakfast."

"Is that a mortal sin? I mean, normal people get to sleep late on the weekends."

"You men are in this hospital," she would say like she was repeating it for the hundredth time, "because of your proven inability to adjust to society. The doctor and I believe that every minute spent in the company of others, with some exceptions, is therapeutic, while every minute spent brooding alone only increases your separation."

"Is that the reason that there has to be at least eight guys together before they can be taken off the ward to OT or PT or one of them Ts?"

"That is correct."

"You mean it's sick to want to be off by yourself?"

"I didn't say that—"

"You mean if I go into latrine to relieve myself I should take along at least seven buddies to keep me from brooding on the can?"

Before she could come up with an answer to that, Cheswick bounced to his feet and hollered at her, "Yeah, is that what you mean?" and the other Acutes sitting around the meeting would say, "Yeah, yeah, is that what you mean?"

She would wait till they all died down and the meeting was quiet again, then say quietly, "If you men can calm yourself enough to act like a group of adults at a discussion instead of children on the playground, we will ask the doctor if he thinks it would be beneficial to consider a change in the ward policy at this time. Doctor?"

Everybody knew the kind of answer the doctor would make, and before he even had the chance Cheswick would be off on another complaint. (2.3.1-14)

When the men begin questioning the rules and regulations that govern their lives, Nurse Ratched clings to ward policy, and reminds them of their mental illnesses in order to prevent a full-scale rebellion. She posits law and order as the cure to their inability to adjust to society; if they get what they want, they will never be able to live on the Outside.

Part II, Chapter Eight
Nurse Ratched (Big Nurse)

[Nurse Ratched:] "Please understand: We do not impose certain rules and restrictions on you without a great deal of thought about their therapeutic value. A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside World, because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them. At some time—perhaps in your childhood—you may have been allowed to get away with flouting the rules of society. When you broke a rule you knew it. You wanted to be dealt with, needed it, but the punishment did not come. That foolish lenience on the part of your parents may have been the germ that grew into your present illness. I tell you this hoping you will understand that it is entirely for your own good that we enforce discipline and order."

She let her head twist around the room. Regret for the job she has to do was worked into her face. It was quiet except for that high fevered, delirious ringing in my head.

"It's difficult to enforce discipline in these surroundings. You must be able to see that. What can we do to you? You can't be arrested. You can't be put on bread and water. You must see that the staff has a problem; what can we do?"

Ruckly had an idea what they could do, but she didn't pay any attention to it. The face moved with a ticking noise till the features achieved a different look. She finally answered her own question.

"We must take away a privilege. And after careful consideration of the circumstances of this rebellion, we've decided that there would be a certain justice in taking away the privilege of the tub room that you men have been using for your card games during the day. Does this seem unfair?" (2.8.11-15)

Nurse Ratched plays her hand, enforcing the rules and regulations of the ward, just to see how the new McMurphy will respond.

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