The central metaphor of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that of the machine. The metaphor is introduced early in the novel, through the character of Bromden, and it recurs at regular points throughout. Bromden sees society as a giant machine, which he calls the Combine, and he sees the same machine at work in the hospital. He describes the Big Nurse in machine-like terms. In the first chapter, as he sees her approaching the black boys, “she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load” (p. 5). When he describes her physical appearance, it is in terms that apply to machines: her gestures are “precise, automatic” and “Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made. (p. 5).” But he also comments on her large breasts and regards them as a “mistake . . . made in manufacturing,” which she resents because they are a mark of femininity.
The machine-like Combine tries to make machines out of everything, including humans. Bromden dreams that the hospital workers are killing Blastic, one of the patients referred to as a Vegetable. When they cut him up, there is nothing human inside him. Instead, Bromden sees “a shower of rust and ashes, and now and again a piece of wire and glass” (p. 85). The Combine has done its work on him. (Significantly, Blastic dies the very night that Bromden dreams of him.)
The turning of people into machines reaches to the level of language and ideas as well. People who have been “processed” by society no longer have any ability to understand anything that doesn’t fit what they have been programmed to hear. When Bromden recalls the incident in which the three government agents wanted to buy his father’s land, he remembers they were incapable of hearing any of the things he said to them. He describes their thought-processes in terms of machines. He can see the
seams where they’re put together. And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken (p. 201).
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that McMurphy is to be regarded as a Christ-figure. There are foreshadowings of this early in the novel in the patient Ellis, who received EST and is now nailed to the wall with his arms stretched out, as if he were being crucified (this is how Bromden sees him). It is Ellis who says to Billy Bibbit, as the men are about to set out for the fishing trip, to be a “fisher of men” (p. 222), which is what Christ said to the fisherman Peter when he called Peter to be his disciple. The table which is used for the EST treatments is shaped like a cross, which suggests the crucifixion of Christ. McMurphy takes twelve people with him on the trip, just as Christ had twelve disciples, and he chooses to see out his mission to free the patients from their slavery to the hospital, even at the expense of his own safety. (For other examples of Christian symbolism, see the Analysis sections that follow the Plot Summaries.)