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The Antagonists of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST: An Analysis

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic example of how memorable an antagonist (Nurse Ratched) can be for years to come. Starring Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, a new patient at a mental institution, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a critically acclaimed psychological comedy-drama from 1975.

The film also stars Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif. Nevertheless, with a film as acclaimed as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, what can we learn from Nurse Ratched from a writing perspective? Let’s take a look and see.

Still from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'. Photo credit: The Film Sufi

Nurse Ratched

Nurse Ratched is one of the most acclaimed antagonists in any film. The character is constantly competing for power and position with Randle McMurphy. Her scorn for the patients and emphasis on upholding her ridiculous rules demonstrate her control and demand for power.

More specifically, Nurse Ratched’s reluctance to follow the rules makes her the adversary of the multitude of men on the ward. She is additionally made into a villain because of how she handles her power. It’s more demented than the average antagonist we’re used to in film.

For example, when she has a conflict with a patient, she sends him off to electroshock treatment or to get a lobotomy. Even though she blames McMurphy for playing God, Nurse Ratched is the one playing with lives. She makes life worse for all of the patients in the ward.


Deviance from the rules is declared irredeemable by Nurse Ratched. She imparts this faith in the patients in the ward, allowing her to control the ward more easily. Ratched keeps tight control over everything and doesn't change strategy often. The character expects everybody to be as organized and exact as the music she plays in the ward.

Following orders and conformity is how the ward runs. Therefore McMurphy's abnormality and conflict turn it into a hazardous danger from Ratched’s perspective. The focal clash of the plot is the battle between Ratched's interest in conformity and McMurphy's wild and degenerate demeanor.

Learning from the idea of conformity, consider writing your antagonist as a complete contrast to your protagonist. Even if both characters have negative qualities, remember the importance of the conflict between characters. Either way, be mindful of building the characters and how they interact with one another.


McMurphy's appearance addresses a danger to the painstakingly organized schedule that Ratched uses to keep up with command over the ward. McMurphy addresses the individual, and Ratched represents the order of the ward. Think of how those components work on a character level.

The film shows how authority figures control and persecute individual forces keeping up with their power and control. An all-encompassing subject of the film is that authorities control the particular way of behaving to maintain everything under control in society. Ratched is authority, so how does that translate as an antagonist?

Freedom and Captivity

The biggest paradox with the story of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest is the idea of the ward. On the one hand, it’s supposed to be a place to reform individuals so they can be in society while simultaneously holding people captive (obviously, actual clinics that care for people are critical. This is a point strictly in this situation).

The story takes a more significant turn on the boat when McMurphy realizes most of the men are committed by choice. It’s longer a complete take-over of the antagonist in Ratched but rather a combination of the two. These men need help, and since they haven’t been reformed due to Ratched’s care methods, they’re forced to stay in captivity.

Measuring Insanity

Besides being the figure of authority, Ratched is a different representation of the force that measures the insanity of each patient. While McMurphy's hostility and negligence for power is a sort of danger to society, he doesn't experience the ill effects of the real world.

Moreover, McMurphy questions whether the men in the ward are even crazy. It becomes a question of measurement and who is in charge of deeming these matters. Some can argue that Ratched falls under this category for how she treats the ward's patients. After all, who is harming more people?


Part of the reason audiences are so infatuated with Ratched is because of her ability to present as a distinctive character. Specifically, Ratched represents control, authority, and order. In contrast, McMurphy is a liberated individual who follows his desires without any care.

The irregularity of these two characters makes for a more potent antagonist. Without the polar opposite character to go opposite her, Ratched wouldn’t work in a script. If it was just Ratched terrorizing everyone in the world without any opposition, why would we follow along? You need the two to face conflict and differences with one another to craft a great protagonist and antagonist.


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