One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest question


660 views
Nurse Ratched, What Made Her Cruel?
Monty J Heying Monty J (last edited Apr 27, 2017 11:26AM ) Mar 15, 2013 02:00PM
I'm not making excuses for Nurse Ratched, just trying to understand what makes her tick. I don't think people are born cruel. Something happens to make them that way.

I have a theory that's based on personal experience. One of the matrons in the orphanage where I was raised was a monster like Ratched. One murderous look from her could melt steel. Horrific beatings were common during the two plus years I was under her control. Subsequent management forced her to resign for beating a boy. She should have gone to jail.

My theory is that Nurse Ratched's cruelty comes from a form of PTSD caused by long term exposure to other people's trauma--"Second-hand trauma" to coin a phrase.

People who work in institutions like mental asylums and orphanages must face and absorb, day-in and day-out, the emotional outbreaks and other intense manifestations of the trauma suffered by their wards.

Some of these administrators aren't capable of coping with the stress without access to therapy themselves, and feelings of helplessness and being trapped can accumulate and build up, like steam in a boiler. They need an outlet, and they take it out on their wards, the very people they're supposed to be caring for--the source of their discomfort.

4/27/17 Addendum:
Also consider the aspect of "Caretaker Burnout." I've read news reports about caretakers who turn on their ward and abuse them. I wonder if this is partly because they don't get enough time off. Many caretakers have 24/7 shifts. This was the case at the orphanage where I grew up, and some of the staff beat the kids horribly. Some were discovered and forced to resign, but none were ever punished. Each matron had an average of 15 kids to watch over. This was the 1950s. Today, the accepted ratio is around 5:1, and if the ward is "special needs," that ratio should be 1:1 or more.

Prison staff are notorious for abusing prisoners, and I wonder if caretaker burnout is a factor there as well.

I wonder if caretaker burnout could account for Rached's wretchedness. But I don't think Kesey gave that any thought. After all, she's a fictional character. But she certainly provokes thought.



Is it possible to read the book without seeing Ratched as cruel, but really a person trying to do her job? She is a nurse in a mental ward trying to get anti-social people to behave properly in society. It means teaching them to follow a set of rules. McMurphy comes in and rips the place up. There are no rules. She tries to get him to conform and uses every bit of her knowledge and experience and every tool at the hospital's disposal, but cannot.

The only time we see her as truly cruel, is at the end (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) with Bibbit, but maybe its less cruel and more that she lost her cool and forgot herself as a professional.


Ratched represents order, authority, the State and the power that fact wields over ordinary citizens. She is actually rather kind to the patients who simply shuffle along and do as they are told and only allows her ugliest and most sadistic side to show when her authority (the authority of the State) is challenged or questioned.

It's difficult for me to read this book as anything but allegory so it becomes almost impossible for me to see the characters as real people with real motives.

M 25x33
Arthur Mitchell Allegorical in a sense, probably, yet, so much more in a broader context of the interpretation of values to the themes we hold dear, and a perspective ...more
Feb 04, 2019 05:30PM

Look up the Stanford prison experiment.


I haven't read the book although plan to. Have only seen the film. Nurse Ratched would be a narcissist or a psychopath. Probably heading towards being a psychopath. I'm surprised some people post here around her maybe just doing her job etc. Maybe the symbolism of the film is meant to be about power and control of people by state authority I don't know. It's incredible if that actually happened that no one would complain about her which makes me think that. Why is she so well thought of? Why do none of the coworkers think she is an arsehole? I think that may be where the symbolism comes in.

Mcmurphy could have been sent back to prison but she wanted to keep him there. Why? Her intention was clearly not to help him. He didn't belong there and if she cared about people and the work she could have got on with 'helping' the other people there.

She sees weak spots and works on them for power and control. McMurphy is also a possibly narcissist so what erupts is the power struggle between them as they want power in different ways. He's a bit more compassionate at the end of the day. He could have just ran off when the dude cut his throat but he had real care about the other clients and some sort of trying to free them so lost his temper and went to strangle her.

McMurphys buttons are pushed so he reacts and then she gets what she wants, complete control once the decision would be seen outside somehow fit for him to be lobotomised.

By the way I am a therapist and I in fact work at a Psychiatric hospital. It is necessary to keep order but if anyone was even remotely like her I'd be saying something about it. haha


It is hard to tell because of the unreliability of Bromden as a narrator but I have a theory.

The nurse on the disturbed ward gives another perspective when she talks about army nurses. I would assume from Ratched's age that she probably entered nursing during WW2. Seeing the chaos of battlefields may well have instilled a desire for extreme control and overprotection of the vulnerable.

The mundanity of the patients' lives rightly or wrongly keeps them safe and MacMurphy is a threat to that safety. They both acted terribly towards each other with escalating cruelty, only in the end she 'won'.


The fact she destroyed McMurphy, without guilt, to protect her power and authority lends itself to her being a monster. Right?


It's been a fairly long time since I read this book but my initial reaction to this discussion is, how much of what the narrator tells us is actually true? McMurphy is a sociopath. He is a rapist who pleads insanity to escape jail. He constantly defies authority at every turn.
I don't say this to justify what happens to him, but just to point out that I am not sure Ken Kesey means for us to believe everything he tells us. For one thing it is common for sociopaths to blame everyone but themselves and that is how I felt about much of the story. I read a lot of McMurphy's rants in the same way I did Chief's hallucinations. They were great insights into the way mind works but not really truthful.
Secondly Nurse Ratched is the individual that is there on the unit so she takes the blame for a lot of things that aren't really under her control. She doesn't make the rules but she has to enforce them. The book claims she got McMurphy lobotomized, but she's not a doctor and she didn't wield the knife. She ends up for better or worse personifying everything that is wrong with the entire system.

M 25x33
Arthur Mitchell I just commented minutes ago. But I don't have a copy close of Cuko's Nest: but I don't remember McMurphy a sex ofender or rapist. Am I wrong? ...more
Feb 04, 2019 05:39PM

Monty, I can't entirely agree with you. I've met people that have worked 20+ years working with mentally ill people in asylums, and they are all rather friendly people. They tell stories about how difficult it is to be around such unstable people, but they just want what is in their best interest for becoming better.

If anything, I believe Nurse Ratched is simply a man-hater. Why? I don't know. Maybe she was abused as a child or perhaps raped. Maybe she didn't have a father that gave her the attention and respect she desired. Perhaps she might feel inferior and makes up for it by showing her dominance over her male patients. I do find the bit in the book extremely demoralizing when McMurphy rips her shirt down. It was brutal, but did it really warrant a lobotomy?


Renee E (last edited Jun 28, 2014 12:17PM ) Jun 28, 2014 12:14PM   0 votes
Cuckoo's Nest was a kick in the gut for me on a whole 'nother level. While Nurse Ratched IS an archetype and a representation of The Combine, she is frighteningly like my mother, also a nurse. What I did not know at the time I first read the book, or even until recently, is there's a classification for these people and they're every bit as sociopathic as the McMurphies of the world. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in the malignant spectrum.

It's just who they are. And yes, they love power. They love torture. They get off on it. And they know how to work an audience and come off looking innocent and righteous.


I worked in community mental health for the better part of 40 years, though never in an impatient hospital. i have worked in residential treatment, up-close and personal with many people's madness. An easy way to protect yourself from others' madness is to distance yourself from them, see them as different (inferior) kinds of people, or not quite human. This supports denial: I am not irrational, I don't feel angry , I don't want to hurt mentally-ill people, I'm doing it for their own good. Add to this having real power over patients, including the practical power over food and activities, and the political power to (in some cases) deprive people of their liberty. I think all these factors go into making a Nurse Rached.


She has a job to do and sometimes that creates a conflict. She might not have been a bad person but it was the job that made her that way. The "system" created the monster. I'm not making any excuses for her but sometimes people change with authority. She had to keep her patients in line and McMurphy threatened her post.


I think she's just as afraid of life as much of the patients on the ward are. But, as is the case with many scared people, she tries to hide it by manifesting control to reduce her anxiety. That's also her main problem with Mc Murphy. He isn't scared of life and this causes her to be afraid and want to exercise more control. It's a mirror of society Kesey provided. Ratched represents governments trying to coçntrol their citizens by fear tactics and the use of violence.


I believe that though the intstitution, in this and other cases, certainly affects the individuals within the institution, things are not quite so clear-cut as trials such as the Stanford Prison Experiment would have us believe. Certainly, internalization of institutional roles is very prevalent, but one must also consider that the sort of people attracted to the positions of Head Nurse in a mental ward or matron in an orphanage, as in your personal example Monty, are often individuals who obtain a sense of validation from being in a position of power. One also can see this trend in prison guards, police officers, politicians, and whatnot. This sort of person often values power and control more than empathy, and tend toward unethical behaviour in order to maintain said control.


I've read all the posts and agree with them all. I think the story is very disturbing is so many ways. It is a reflection of society when Cuckoo was written and now as well. As a people we haven't changed all that much. There is bigotry in every place. There are nurses who are compassionate and then there is nurse Ratched. I think it was POWER that made her mean. She was mean because she could be and there was no one to call her on it. Power can do a lot to a person. It is the true test of character. People have the capacity to be whatever they want to be--some choose to lord-it over others in an oppressive way. They do it because there is no accountability for them. When there are no checks and balances in a system there is the danger of evil taking hold. This is just my idea on Cuckoo. I loved it when the indian (don't remember his name) pulled the sink and cabinet out of the floor and threw it out the window. When he did that I felt such release of the pent up anger and tension I had held throughout the story. The movie was especially electrifying at that moment. When he ran out and over the countryside, I thought about what the 'staff' would say. Then, I felt peace. I think it was nurse Ratched instead of the window that he was throwing the sink at! Hooray!!!


Monty, I really like your take on this. Very good observation.


Monty J wrote: "I'm not making excuses for Nurse Ratched, just trying to understand what makes her tick. I don't think people are born cruel. Something happens to make them that way.

I have a theory that's based ..."


1.)We must not forget she is responsible for maintaining discipline not only on the patients or/and orderlies but create an environment of order and discipline.

2.) Also it is a mental institution for mentally ill patients (with psychological and psychiatric disturbance owing to many factors)
:::::but not many criminally insane:::::::
which I say to point that they are a bunch of wackos with not much of self -esteem and this implies
::::::it gives nurse a sense of CONTROL::::::
please allow me to be more aggressive that POWER CORRUPTS

Which gives her:
A.) A sense of superiority (which is also necessary to maintain discipline )

B.) She could take out her personal frustration on this ill (by being a tick)

And as you have rightly said
"Some of these administrators aren't capable of coping with the stress without access to therapy themselves, and feelings of helplessness and being trapped can accumulate and build up, like steam in a boiler. They need an outlet, and they take it out on their wards, the very people they're supposed to be caring for--the source of their discomfort."


I think she is more like a type than an actual human being, so I find her motivations impossible to fathom.

Think about the way he describes her breasts. There is a lot of hatred focused on them. I think that sums up what she is for him.
He has this feeling that modern society is dominated by a specific type of woman, a matriarch, whose purpose is to castrate men. All of society just poisons the human spirit, and a part of this is women like Ratched.

The mothers and nurses in the book are bad women. The prostitutes are good women and likeable: they know their place. Think about how the temporary victory over Ratched involves exposing her breasts.


Kesey doesn't give much background as to Nurse Ratched's psychopathology, and I think that's the point. She represents society and everything that they are, the "machinery" they are based on, and the sheer fact that she tries to "fix" these patients like they are broken toys and not humans. Her cruelty seems arbitrary, just like that of the rules and conditions of society are arbitrary. People (society) creates rules for order, because without order we would have chaos, and most people fear chaos. She is afraid of disorder, as you can see by her uptight attitude and her seemingly senseless meanness and cold personality. Without this rigid order, there would be chaos, and she absolutely cannot handle that. Without arbitrary rules, her perfect world would fall apart. Without arbitrary rules, our society would not function. They're representatives of the same idea.


Nurse Ratchet is the classic malignant narcissist--they are made as infants, usually by abusive parents. It's a survival technique/madness that is seeded very young. No amount of PTSD could make a person act cruel outside of a psychosis with comorbid characteristics. Her excuse was she was likely abused as a child. Narcissists are not manufactured as adults or very consciously. I'm married to a nurse--he's had infants die in his arms in pediatrics--he was upset a little--but driven mad--nope, it's part of their territory. Nurses don't PTSD much from their jobs. When I was in a psych. ward, the inmates were great--the staff were psycho. Artists and writers since the middle ages have made this observation--madness can be subjective--it's a departure from rational ideology, not just aberrative behaviour.


I don't think that there is always a definite reason as to why someone is mean or cruel. Nurse Ratched, in my opinion, is simply a symbol for the destructiveness of power. In fact, she may very well be a psychopath, or be suffering from OCD in the first place. However, if I had to guess...

Did you guys notice the huge sign that said "congratulations on getting along with the least amount of staff" or something like that? Maybe to handle all the patients she developed a mentality that she had to be tough and man-like (did you notice how she dressed like a man all the time and tried to conceal her breasts a lot?) and put on an act to get them to follow her orders, and just ended up becoming that person over the many years? Fear is the most accomplishing way to gain control, scaring people into admission, as is obvious in history. I'm not excusing her behavior, but maybe over the years she got angrier and angrier, and her tough act just became her personality. Maybe she doesn't even recognize herself anymore and just lost her moral compass along the way and got lost in translation.

Also, given the fact that this is placed during the Cold War, the book could be a political allegory to the Red Scare and the battle between Democracy and Communism. McMurphy was always trying to encourage voting and being independent of the "law". Of course as a symbol and a metaphor, there probably isn't a real reason why Kesey wrote her the way he did- it probably didn't even occur to him to write a backstory if the goal was for her to be a symbol or part of an allegory.

But anyone's guess is as good as mine. (Or my English teacher's, since this was assigned reading a few weeks ago in my A.P language class). Huh, that was longer than I thought it was going to be. :)


deleted member Mar 18, 2014 04:26PM   0 votes
She's not even a character really--just a figure meant to represent control, authority, abuse of power etc. She is not what my English teacher would call "three-dimensional."


I think Doctor Ratched is so cruel because the patients are becoming overwhelming for her, even after the arrival of Randle, and she just doesn't want to put the effort into something she doesn't enjoy.


back to top