Society can help people survive but it can become a prison to people, who choose a different path or way of thinking. In case one does not correspond to the conventions of normality, the society is ready to announce a person insane and even to force him/her change by violence. Both, the novel One Flew over Cuckoo’s Nest and Emily Dickinson’s poem deal with this idea about the distorted concepts of sanity and insanity imposed on a person. The authors imply that in fact the situation is quite reverse in many cases, when the majority is insane and an individual chased by them is absolutely normal.
In these short lines of her poem, Emily Dickinson expresses an idea that penetrates the whole book of Ken Kesey: society is able to destroy individuality just because it wants everyone to be the same. As the poet suggests, there is a certain game, the rules of which are quite severe:
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-
And handled with a Chain ( Dickinson).
These lines resonate with the issues raised in Cuckoo’s Nest, such as correlation between freedom and conformism, between dignity and comfort. Indeed, the novel suggests that it is safer to agree with the majority and live the life that is imposed by society. In fact, the mental hospital depicted by the author is a metaphor of how humans can be dependable like sheep, especially led by an authoritarian person. The problem is not only about villains who take the power but also about victims who choose to be the ones.
Yet, as the book suggests, there are individuals who are able to change the overall situation and who are dangerous as a result because they can make others rebellious too. The story of Randal McMurphy is the case of an individual’s struggle against the monstrous system, represented by Nurse Ratched. Being a patient of the mental asylum, he discovers that it is based on total control and submission. Instead of being healed, patients’ vulnerability is used for the sake of power. The man’s appearance in the place is illustrated by the above mentioned lines of Emily Dickinson:
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous- ( Dickinson).
Most patients in the asylum take the rules of the game. This is why, they are not dangerous, unlike McMurphy, who is eventually declared more insane than others are, because of his disobedience. The situation of rebellion ends in a tragedy, when the man is sent for lobotomy, after which he is completely broken. With this shocking metaphor, the book implies that society tries to get inside a person’s brain in order to erase the slightest signs of their individuality or any inconformity.
Apart from the theme of freedom and oppression, the book also contemplates on what exactly can be considered to be madness and what sanity is. As a matter of fact, the author suggests that the borderline between the two is quite vague, and moreover there is a twisted perception of sanity and insanity in contemporary society. People are so used to certain abnormal things which they take as norm that any normal idea can seem insane to them. In the same way, Emily Dickinson suggests in her poem:
Much Madness is divinest Sense-
To a discerning Eye-
Much Sense-the starkest Madness- (Dickinson)
This idea is confirmed by the events described in One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, where patients of the asylum seem to be more sane than the staff, whose task is to treat them. When speaking about “divinest Sense” implied by Dickinson, it should be noted that through their insanity the book’s characters are able to see more than other people because of a different vision. Thus, for instance, Chief, a Native American patient, has a special kind of madness, which allows him to see immaterial things as material ones. For example, he pictures attitudes, emotions like anger or cruelty as physically palpable entities. On the one hand, such visions are a sign of madness, but on the other hand it can be treated as a special touch of wisdom and ability to see deeper than other people.
Speaking about insanity, the author also links it to immorality, which appears to be a result of unhealthy models of communication. When a person has absolute power, he or she is tempted to abuse it sooner or later, which is the case with the nurse Ratched. This is why. her obsession with absolute control appears to be a form of insanity, that is even more dangerous than her patients’ state. Manipulation is her way to get what she wants, but this would be impossible unless she was a part of a huge mechanism, which gave all opportunities to her. Power is able to corrupt a person’s soul, and lead to a special kind of madness that is also evil and dangerous. When Dickinson says that a rebel who does not correspond to society’s requirements is ” handled with a chain”, it is obvious that nurse Ratched and her likes are just instruments that the machine uses to destroy individuality and free will.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that there is a parallel between Emily Dickinson’s poem and the novel One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest. Both of them reveal the fact that the difference between madness and sanity is illusionary in many cases, and moreover, that it is often twisted so, that the insane takes the place of the sane and vice versa.