During the course of the last fifty years, society has changed significantly. In modern society a great emphasis is placed on individualism and diversity within a society. It is rare that an individual would be ridiculed or forced to change simply for not complying with what society views as “normal”. This has not always been the case though. The nineteen fifties were much different. This was an era of social conformity. The members of society who were intent on maintaining this social state ostracized individuals who were considered “abnormal”. Such “abnormal” individuals just simply accepted the fact that they were not part of this normal society. Because of society’s influence, these people sought help in psychiatric wards in attempts to better themselves and thus fit into society. By doing so, they let society conform and mold them into what was thought as “normal”. Ken Kesey was a man in this era that did not believe in social conformity. Kesey, along with his followers set off on a mission to open the minds of people who were focused on maintaining this status quo. Ken Kesey’s journey led him to write One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. This novel focuses on the struggle between individuals who are intent on keeping things the same with those who are considered “different”. Harding is a character in the novel that is limited by opposing forces of society and who in turn, seeks refuge in hopes to be accepted. With the influence of McMurphy, Harding changes from an apprehensive “rabbit” to a self-assured man. This change illustrates Kesey’s view that an individual can realize the worth of their life through self-acceptance and reliance on ones self rather than conforming to social norms.
Harding admits himself in the psychiatric hospital because he is “abnormal” in a society that highly values normality. “[He] discovered at an early age that [he] was?different? ?[He] indulged in certain practices that?society regards as shameful”(pg. 294). Admitting himself in the hospital is Harding’s way of succumbing to the forces of society. He simply accepts the fact that without help he will never fit in the “real world”. Harding knows that “This world belongs to the strong?”(pg.62). For this reason he felt that is why he belonged in the hospital. The hospital is a place where “[a] good strong wolf like the Nurse [could] teach [them their] place”(pg.62). Initially with no self-esteem, Harding lets the Nurse and the other hospital staff tell him how to live. When initially questioned of his abnormal life by the other patients and the staff, “Harding [had] his thin shoulders folded nearly together around himself?his hands trapped between his knees?trying to look calm-but he’s chewing his cheeks?not calm at all” (pg.54). Harding is a nervous man who finds it difficult to deal with his differences and simply follows society’s commands in order to keep things easy.
Harding’s views and behaviors start to change slowly as he associates more with Randle McMurphy. McMurphy enters the ward involuntarily and has a much different outlook on life than the other patients. McMurphy places a great influence on being an individual and goes to great extents to be just that. He is a leader and not a follower. His straightforward tactics and self-confidence allow him to freely express his values. Along with these attributes, McMurphy also treats the other patients normal and does not treat them how society does. By treating them as equals and by instilling into them his views and ethics, they are able to see the world differently. McMurphy’s concern with the music that “dulls the senses” shows another side of him as well. It shows his concern and consideration for his peers. A more important feature of McMurphy is that he shows no shame. This shows the patients, including Harding, that there is no need to fell shame for being who they are. Amongst these things, McMurphy teaches the patients the power of trying and believing in ones self. McMurphy attempts to lift the panel in order to try to escape and he fails. Even though he failed in the end, he still had enough confidence to try. The lesson is learnt that it is far better to try and fail than to never even try. Looking at McMurphy’s actions and values shows that he is perceptive and sensitive to others. He is able to see the men’s weaknesses and attempts to build them up. He hopes that in the end they will see Big Nurse’s strategy and be able to stand on their own feet and fight her ways.
It is with McMurphys lead and strong influence that Harding is able to see that there is nothing to be afraid of. Harding slowly learns from McMurphy and makes realizations about himself. From these realizations he starts to change his ways and fight the powers of society. When the patients are told by Big Nurse that they can’t watch the baseball game “Harding shuts off the buffer?. and goes pulls him a chair up alongside McMurphy?”(pg.138). Instead of obeying the Nurse as usual, Harding begins to think and act for himself. When McMurphy arranges a fishing trip Harding is eager to go along. His nervous and apprehensive ways have begun to change. The fishing trip is significant because it shows Harding’s independence and his initial ability to act without McMurphy. When the boy’s fish are biting Harding takes charge for the first time. “Harding finally saw that McMurphy wasn’t going to do anything, he got the gaff and jerked [the] fish into the boat with a clean, graceful motion like he’s been boating all his life”(pg.236). For the first time without McMurphy by his side, Harding sees that he is able to depend on himself in the real world.
When Harding returns from the fishing trip things begin to change even more. Candy and Sandra sneak into the ward and they all have a party. Harding knows the consequences of the party will be great and he begins to make plans as to what must be done. He makes plans for McMurphys escape and thinks of every aspect of what must be said and done. Harding would never have thought of this type of action before McMurphy came along. Harding’s intricate plans and clever defense of McMurphy show that he is no longer a follower. His confidence and new outlook on life have changed his ways drastically. Once a timid nervous man, who simply accepted his so-called abnormality, Harding is now able to depend on himself and accept who he is. Once thought of by Harding as “the strong wolf”, he now sees the Nurse as nothing more than “?. full of so much bull*censored*”(pg.307). Harding fought against the Nurse and left the hospital with his wife after McMurphy opened his eyes as to what life was about. For the first time in his life Harding rejected the status quo.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful novel that has a deep meaning. It does not simply tell the story of a psychiatric ward. The novel goes further to explore the importance of self-esteem and self-reliance. It focuses on the power of individualism in an era when such a thing was shunned. The changes in Harding’s attitude reflect Kesey’s personal rebellion against social conformity.