Reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an unsettling experience, because the further you read, the less clear it is what makes Nurse Ratched (aka “Big Nurse”) the villain. When the hero, McMurphy, shows up at the psych ward, the setup of the battle of good vs. evil couldn't be more obvious: He's big, brash, and rebellious; Nurse Ratched is cold, controlling, and manipulative. Ostensibly she is in charge of the psych ward, but her influence runs deeper than setting the patients' schedule and telling them what they can and can't do. Somehow, she has the entire psych ward, including the hospital staff, cowed. McMurphy aims to fix that.
He is mostly successful at implementing his agenda. He wins the patients' rights to play cards, watch the World Series, and leave the hospital to go fishing. None of these victories seem to carry weight, however. Nurse Ratched maintains control, and she wears McMurphy down with kindness and patience. Over time, he begins to question his own motives. He, along with the reader, loses clarity of purpose.
Who is Nurse Ratched, and what is the source of her power? Kesey gives us several clues. She's about 50 years old, never married, and, by the inmates' description of her, quite beautiful in her prime. But she is completely asexual. By my read, she possesses but one feminine quality, which she executes with nun-like precision: motherhood.
Ask any mother what the hardest thing about raising children is, and she will tell you it’s letting them leave when they’ve grown up. It is with a heavy heart she watches them leave the nest, should that be their choice. But if they choose to stay for whatever reason, she will understand. She will not push them away. The “failure to launch” phenomenon has two guilty parties: the young adults, typically men, who refuse to grow up; and the mothers who discourage them from leaving.
Dependency is natural for children, but in adults it is retrograde. Adult life isn’t lived in the womb of one’s childhood home. It’s lived outside it, initiated by the child as he matures. He goes to mom for comfort, but to dad for advice.
Nurse Ratched represents the tug of perpetual childhood on the most vulnerable parts of our selves. She is more an unconditional caregiver than a vengeful authoritarian. Unfortunately the effect on the men in the psych ward is the same. They are free to leave any time they wish, but they choose not to because they’ve grown accustomed to the security blanket she provides.
The purpose of a psych ward is to rehabilitate patients so they can reenter society. By denying her patients the freedom to do that, Nurse Ratched robs them of any chance at real rehabilitation. McMurphy, who enters the psych ward a man, becomes like a child. When he tries to reclaim his independence, Nurse Ratched has him lobotomized, rendering him literally infantile, the ultimate form of dependent.