The cult film “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Milos Forman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, is a picture of extremely high psychological saturation. This movie can be considered a complex psychological metaphor embodied by the psychoanalytic models and concepts of the founders of psychoanalysis. The psychiatric hospital also acquires a certain metaphoricity in the main place of action; the clinic appears as a “stage,” thereby a space of consciousness where psyche dramas are played out. Although the plot parodies psychoanalysis, the action taking place on this “stage” is built on the same principle as Freud builds the structure of the human psyche.
Perhaps this parallel itself was not carried out deliberately but was reproduced under the algorithms inherent in the work of the subconscious, including Jung’s “collective unconscious.” The basis for the psychoanalytic analysis of the film is the structural model of Freud and the theory of Jung’s archetypes, the concepts of which are reflected in the plot, the characters, and their relationships.
Referring to the psychoanalytical structural model, Nurse Ratched personifies the super-ego, which Freud identified as an important element of the psyche. The super-ego is a repository of moral norms, standards of behavior, and those formations that form prohibitions for the individual (Sandler et al., 2018). It plays the role of limiting the activity of consciousness and unconscious actions. Opposed to her, the freedom fighter McMurphy should symbolize the opposing super-ego and the necessary accompanying “Id.” This presupposes thoughts rejected by consciousness, which are regarded as unacceptable.
From this point of view, the film’s plot reveals not so much the struggle of a tyrant and a tyrant fighter but a war of two feelings of pride. Ultimately, two neuroses or two extreme manifestations of neurotic consciousness collide. In this case, each of the two acts as an external projection of the contents, displaced from the consciousness of his antagonist, not recognized by each other (Jacobi, 2020). So, Randall is Nurse Ratched’s “Shadow,” as Jung uses the term. Likewise, the nurse herself is the object of the hated McMurphy’s projections.
However, Freud also identified a third element of the human psyche within the framework of the structural psychoanalytic model. It can be assumed that for this psychic instance in the film, there is also correspondence, comparing with the Ego the image of one of the main characters – McMurphy’s friend. This is the patient-Indian Bromden, named the Chief, who represents a kind of golden means between common sense and a passion for freedom in the film.
Another character who attracts attention without ever appearing in front of the audience is Billy Bibbit’s mother, whose calmness Ratched blackmails him. A mother who managed to intimidate her child so much that he is ready to prefer death to her disapproval is a classic image of the Formidable Mother of the archetype reflected in Jung’s theory. If to look broadly, here, one can read the authoritarian image of the system, under the yoke of which the negotiation of the individual psyche reaches its apogee.
The dictatorial system is reflected in the image of secession as a whole, in which Nurse Ratched rules. Not only are the patients under her close supervision, but the doctor himself does not dare to argue with his sister and, at the same time, reflects on her autonomy. Turning to the psychoanalytic models of Freud or Jung, this rapture itself is a clear sign of a hidden and unconscious longing for freedom, of which he, like his patients, is deprived. Thus, using the models and concepts of the founders of psychoanalysis, the psychological side of the film can be analyzed.
Jacobi, J. (2020). Complex/archetype/symbol in the psychology of CG Jung. Princeton University Press.
Sandler, J., Holder, A., Dare, C., Dreher, A. U., & Wallerstein, R. S. (2018). Freud’s models of the mind: An introduction. Routledge.