I was fourteen, and in the fast-track English group. Next year we were all going to be hemmed in by the O level syllabus, but in the intervening year, my English teacher decided to give us a course of more "challenging" reading to get us into the habit of thinking about the books we read. He put together an incredible list. Each of us was to choose two books and study them in-depth, but independently. Generic questions that could be equally applied to any book would replace specific ones on the exam.
The list included, amongst many others, three which had the parents up in arms -- Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kinflicks was held to be the 'dirtiest', so most of my classmates selected that. The French Lieutenant's Woman was considered the most difficult, so, being the bloody-minded kind of person I am, I chose that, and as my second, I chose the Kesey, because I'd always wanted to see the film, but had never been allowed. I was blown away.
At first glance, it appears to be a savage indictment of the Mental Health establishment, which destroys what it is instituted to save, but I feel there is a second conflict as deep and fundamental as system vs individual. For me, the primary conflict was about male and female operating from the extreme ends of their power. Please note: all the below is my reading of the book, and has no authority other than my interpretation.
We see the whole story from the perspective of the longest term inmate of the institution -- Chief "Broom" Bromden, who is the son of the chief of a small Native American tribe and his caucasian born wife.
"Bromden" is the Chief's mother's name, not his father's, and this is the first instance of what was, for me, the most persistent theme throughout the book -- the emasculation of men by women.
Nurse Ratched is the embodiment of a "type" -- Firstly she is "the system", trying to mould individuals into components of a larger whole, but she is also the classic ball-breaker. She rules her kingdom, not just the inmates, but the orderlies and the Doctor too, with the power of words -- with talking and sharing -- a feature more closely associated with the feminine than the masculine.
The patients on Ratched's ward are largely there because of women -- Harding is undermined and emasculated by his wife, Billy Bibbit and Bromden by their mothers. These are explict, other such situations are implied -- such as one patient's regular refrain "F-f-fuck da wife!"
Into this atmosphere of conformity and masculinity repressed by the feminine comes Randall P. McMurphy, who is the antithesis -- he's unregenerated man's man, agressively male -- and agressively individual.
He does battle with Ratched on both levels. He disrupts her routines, and confronts her methods. He fails to comprehend the source of her power, and it's indicated (by the women he associates with: giggling, brainless whores) that he's had little or no contact with women with her type or level of power.
Following his example, the other patients begin to regain their individuality, and their male pride, and the Doctor also asserts himself more effectively.
It is significant that in the final confrontation between the two, McMurphy attacks Ratched on both levels, ripping away her uniform -- the symbol of her authority within the system -- and revealing her breasts -- the symbol of the vulnerable side of her femininity.
Retribution is swift and complete on McMurphy himself. He is lobotomised, and all that makes him individual, and male, is ripped away.
However, this retribution is not victory. The remaining patients leave, either legally or by escape. They've got enough balls and self-respect back to deal with life outside the institution and they achieve freedom. However, they do leave, they don't take up McMurphy's standard and challenge the system, so they also take the lesson that direct confrontation between extremes is destructive to both sides.
It's also important to recognise that an ideal is also presented -- the ward where McMurphy and Bromden are sent for electro shock therapy is presided over by a strong, but compassionate woman, who crushes neither individuality or masculinity.
The book is beautifully written (yes, I cried at McMurphy's fate -- not something that I do easily) and multi-layered. It's also entertaining, the heavy subject matter covered with humour and wit, and the characters portrayed with depth and compassion, even when they seem for a while to be stereotypes.