Throughout history, there have always been incidents where the middle class or normal people of a society have had a lack of clarity or transparency in regards to the higher-order or governing power. The truth has always been hidden from the people. A lack of vision for what is true and the ability to move forward is represented by the fog in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the novel, the narrator and one of the main characters, Chief Bromden, consistently encounter a layer of fog at the mental asylum he lives in.
The fog impairs him from seeing others and is quite distracting; however, in the latter half of the novel, the fog seems to go away. The fog that Bromden experiences are a representation of the lack of transparency and clarity by the Combine of the mental asylum. The clearing of the fog is subsequent to McMurphy’s rebellion and represents the newfound clarity that Bromden and the other patients acquire when McMurphy is around. This symbolism is universal and can be applied to many historical contexts as well. The fog in the novel is an accurate gauge of Bromden’s mindset throughout the plot and the evolution of the patients from being the oppressed mass to empowered human beings.
Let us first look at what exactly the fog is and its symbolic meaning. Bromden sporadically describes a quaint fog and fog machine that comes and goes throughout the story, especially the beginning. “They start the fog machine again and it’s…so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn’t have a hold on me.” (Kesey 7). Obviously, this shows that the fog is much greater than any one person in the hospital, and it seems to be ubiquitous during heightened moments for Bromden, like when he is running from the aides or hears Nurse Ratched’s commands. Looking at the fog from a medical perspective, the fog is an effect of the Chief’s schizophrenia.
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Schizophrenia leads to one having beliefs, sights, and sounds that conflict with reality (PubMed). And while this may be so, it does not mean that the visions of fog are not a random hallucination; Bromden may be analyzing the social status on the ward and translating it into a concept much more primitive for him to understand and explain, which in this case is the fog. The fog begins when Bromden is in the war. “We had a whole platoon used to operate fog machines around airfields overseas.” (Kesey 112) This could mean that he began to have schizophrenia during the war and was somehow scarred by the fighting. This could also be when he began to see the authoritarian regimes that take up the world and the concept of corruption and control.
The fog represents the lack of lucidity in the ward. Nurse Ratched, the leader of the combine and oppressor of the ward, is the one controlling the fog machine. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Ratched maintains control and does so by ensuring that the patients do not think for themselves. Instead, they just pass through the hours of the day without any perspective of what is going on. She covers up the methods of control used, like hydrotherapy and ECT.
Bromden can see these cover-ups and the dominance asserted by the head nurse and describes it as the fog when he says, “I can’t see six inches in front of me through the fog and the only thing I can hear over the wail I’m making is the Big Nurse whoop and charge.” (Kesey 7) This quote proves that there is something greater controlling the hospital. Nurse Ratched is using the fog as a weapon to assert her power and nullify the patients into admitting so. Bromden continues, “Right now, she’s got the fog machine switched on…I feel as hopeless and dead as I felt happy a minute ago… I know now there is no real help against her or her Combine.” (Kesey 100)
The fog is also showing the reader that no one is standing up to the Nurse and “clearing up” the fog. Someone needs to rise and turn off the fog machine, however, everyone in the institution up until McMurphy’s arrival has conformed to the rules and commands. At the same time, however, the fog is in a way good for the patients, even Bromden himself. While a lack of transparency and honesty by a Combine has always been frowned upon, for those with as malleable and damaged mental states as those in the ward, the fog can actually have some benefits. With the fog, the patients have a safe zone in which they can live, a place where they do not need to worry about how the world works or why there are certain occurrences.
They have seen the terrors and tribulations of reality and this fog makes lives for them less complicated and the job easier for the Combine. Nurse Ratched is happy to take away their autonomy, provided that she does not face opposition. Says Bromden about the fog, “I’m glad when it gets thick enough you’re lost in it and can let go, and be safe again.” (Kesey 100) The fog becomes a drug for these patients because they use it to escape what is real and continue to rely on it, much as addicts rely on drugs to avoid the face of reality. This could be Kesey’s portrayal of the drug LSD, as it is known to be a hallucinogenic drug and make one escape reality.
Interestingly, the fog is used by Bromden to foreshadow events throughout the book. Bromden knows the way the Combine and Nurse Ratched work, and he expresses this through the dispersion of the fog. “[…]She’s fogging the ward for the meeting. She doesn’t usually do that. But now she’s going to do something with McMurphy today[…]” (Kesey 115)
Now that the fog’s appearance has been established, one must see the symbolism behind the disappearance of the fog and its cause.
When McMurphy exposes the atrocities of the ward and the dominance of Nurse Ratched to the patients, the fog clears. As McMurphy rallies the ward to vote on watching TV in the afternoon, Bromden observes, “[…]that big red hand of McMurphy’s is reaching into the fog and dropping down and dragging the men up by their hands, dragging them blinking into the open.” (Kesey 121). McMurphy’s defiance opens up the world to the mental patients and shows that they have the ability to overthrow the combine and make a name for themselves.
He is able to show them the light and the fog is no longer needed. He is able to turn off the fog machine, and Nurse Ratched cannot do anything about it. McMurphy teaches the others to fight the fog for their own good. As Bromden says during the shock therapy, “It’s fogging a little, but I won’t slip off and hide in it. No… never again…” (Kesey 248) At the same time, Bromden addresses that now that the fog is gone, they will face the truth, and reality will cause many problems for the mentally unstable.
Bromden furthers, “I’m just getting the full force of the dangers we let ourselves in for when we let McMurphy lure us out of the fog.” (Kesey 130) The patients are forced to make a tradeoff; either live in the confines of the misleading fog and feel safe or face the horrible clarity of real-life and know the truth.
The story of the fog and McMurphy’s termination of the fog machine is applicable to many historical situations, and one, in particular, is the story of the Man on Fire during the Tunisian Revolution. The Man on Fire, or Mohamed Bouazizi, was an unsettled Tunisian citizen who wanted to expose the autocracy of the Tunisian empire (Worth). To do so, he lit himself on fire on December 17, 2010, at night (Worth). His act catalyzed the Tunisian Revolution, in which the people revolted and the Combine of the Tunisian Government was overthrown (Worth).
This is very similar to the storyline of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The fog is represented by the dark preceding the Tunisian Revolution; the people were oppressed by the corrupt government, which controlled the fog machine. Bouazizi set himself on fire and subsequently illuminated the dark, similar to how McMurphy turns off the fog machine and eventually sacrifices himself to clear the fog from the patients. These events both lead to a revolution against the combine and discourse follows.
In conclusion, the fog in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the most important pieces of symbolic imagery presented to the reader. It is essential to describe the progression and plot of the novel, from the beginning where the patients are hidden from the truth by the thick fog, to the latter half when McMurphy cleans the fog and brings about the change and discord in the Mental Ward. This is similar to many historical events, more recently the story of Mohamed Bouazizi and the start of the Tunisian Revolution. Kesey has created a magnificent parallel in which those who are in the dark can be enlightened, and break from the barriers of the Combine and gain individuality and freedom.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
“Schizophrenia.” PubMed Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001925/>.
Worth, Robert F. “How a Single Match Can Ignite a Revolution.” New York Times. 21 Jan. 2011.
Web. 13 Nov. 2011.
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