Within the novels of “1984” and “One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” both George Orwell and Ken Kesey use symbolism to explore a number of different themes and messages, however oppression and the effects of confinement are two which dominate both texts. Each story expands on the messages its author expresses on the impacts of confinement upon the system alongside the oppression which maintains it and this forces the characters within them to rebel. As a result, each novel investigates the impact of the individual and mass rebellion in the face of an all dominating oligarchy. The analysis of the dictator in whom this oppression stems is also evident within both novels, with two similar yet contrasting leaderships in Nurse Ratched and Big Brother highlighting the different perceptions of control and the way they break down the human nature of their characters.
Both authors focus on the effects of an all controlling system by displaying how it ignites the spark of rebellion in the individual. Orwell was a supporter of democratic socialism and completely against the idea of a totalitarian regime. Within 1984, the writer creates a dystopian society which highlights the horrors of an extreme socialist system similar to a Stalinist model. Winston Smith was symbolic of Orwell himself; a writer in a highly political environment working within the uncertainty of war. What Winston is also symbolic of is the everyday man, with the name “Smith” being one of the most common and traditional names in the English language during the time Orwell wrote the novel itself. The ordinary nature of the protagonist is created by the author so as to enable the reader to feel more empathy towards him; his normality makes his oppression seem all the more worse to the reader as he is relatable. This empathy towards Winston is likely to be more profound for a reader of the novel in today’s society through the advances of technology, compared to the 1940’s where the computer had only just been invented. This was ultimately Orwell’s main warning; that a totalitarian society was very much a real possibility in the future, hence making “1984” the title of his novel, even though it was published in 1949. Having been witness to the lengths totalitarian nations such as Russia and Spain would go to in order to preserve their power, “1984” was a message to western governments on the dangers of the rise in Communism. Orwell also portrays the message that a single individual is simply not enough to defend human nature against an all-powerful autocratic regime, as shown by the failure of his protagonist within the novel.
Orwell’s story is told in third person, but is completely focused upon Winston, with the use of free indirect discourse allowing us to see Winston’s innermost thoughts about the party. What makes the book so disturbing is that, despite his best efforts, the protagonist has no control over his own consciousness. He is attacked not only externally through regulation and propaganda but internally also through nightmares and memories. Through this indirect discourse we see his fatalistic perception of his rebellious actions. The first act of rebellion which we see from the character is the writing of “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in his diary. The simplicity of the entry, along with the use of capital letters highlights the immense tension felt by the character and in turn this shows the reader how big a step this actually is, and also the intense paranoia Winston faces. This creates a comical effect as this increased tension is caused by a simple diary entry, an act of “thoughtcrime”, which is punishable by death, something which would seem ridiculous to the reader. As soon as this entry is made Winston believes that his eventual capture and death is inevitable and that as a result this then justifies further rebellion. His meeting and eventual love for Julia, the meeting with Goldstein and the renting of the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop are all examples of Winston taking risks that he “had always known” would lead to his capture, and it is this belief in being caught which leads him to rebel further. It is this justification which encourages him into reaching out to O’Brian in the hope of the existence of the “Brotherhood”.
The name “Brotherhood” itself is also a symbol used to highlight the effects of confinement and oppression as it is placed in the novel by Orwell to show the lengths the establishment will go to in order to hold on to its control. The fact that the primary source of rebellion against the tyranny of society has its name stemmed from the tyrant itself, “Big Brother”, displays the hopelessness of the society Winston lives in. During Winston’s interrogation O’Brien explains to him how “we control life… at all its levels” so it’s not absurd to assume that the Party would control its own rebellion, even bombing its own people in order to create hatred of the enemy. It is this control of all aspects of Winston’s life which makes him feel like he has no choice but to rise against the system, so as a result not only is Winston a symbol of the effects of oppression and confinement, his actions are also.
This message is also put across in Ken Kesey’s One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest, although within this novel the presence of the individual is emphasised to a greater extent. Kesey was an advocate of the common man and the indelible marks he can make upon society and no greater example of this is his creation of the character Randle McMurphy. This advocation is similar to that of Orwell but Kesey’s support of individual expression was aimed at it being an enemy to the threat of fascism rather than communism, saying in a radio broadcast that the real weapon against its threat was “individualism and… communities”. These weapons are shown to be left destroyed at the beginning of the novel through the lack of individual thought and togetherness amongst the men under the rule of Nurse Ratched, her being the symbol of a fascist ruler.
Kesey cleverly structures his novel around the narrative of the schizophrenic Clumbian-Indian so as to provide clear observations of the ward itself. His pretence of being deaf-mute means people talk freely around him, allowing him to gain a unique perspective of the ward. Bromden describes how “They don’t bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I’m nearby because they think I’m deaf and dumb” and it is this tone of secrecy which outlines to the reader the power the narrator actually possesses. The use of “hate” also highlights the clear gap between those oppressed, the men on the ward, and the dictator who causes the oppression through showing the reader the intense loathing and resentment felt by the hegemony towards those under their rule. Bromdens narration expresses why it was necessary for the men to revolt against the oligarchy, because we are told the story from both sides and this shows the true effects of oppression and confinement within the story.
This revolt is achieved through the impact of McMurphy, a character who bromden describes as “a giant come out of the sky” to save the men on the ward. The use of the noun “giant” helps register to the reader the colossal impact the protagonist has, although this metaphor is only attributed to McMurphy simply because he reclaims the human nature that had been stolen by Ratched. Kesey creates a character in Randle McMurphy who, although strong and charismatic is simply “a man and no more”, as Nurse Ratched describes, meaning he is still equal to his fellow men around him. He isn’t extraordinary” but what is significant about the character, as Chief Bromden describes, is that “He’s the sort of guy that gets a laugh out of people”. This is significant in a setting where comedy is completely unnatural and, as Bromden describes, McMurphy knew that “You can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things”. Laughter can be seen as a symbol for strength so in this sense the protagonist’s impact is made all the more notable.
In each novel there is a defining leader and cause to the oppression and confinement of the protagonists and the other characters, with each of these leaders being symbols of totalitarianism at its most tyrannical. Nurse Ratched is primarily a symbol of institutional and state dictatorship as in a system which is intended to be caring and therapeutic she is a self-serving tyrant who is only interested in the increase of her own power and in turn personifies the ward in her image. After the suicide of Billy Bibbit she strides across to McMurphy and states “I hope you’re finally satisfied”, thus shocking the reader with her coldness. The hypocrisy in the question of satisfaction in the manipulation of human life in the face of her own tyranny highlights her almost robot-like personality. It also shows her need for control as she attempts to strip away the sadness of the men and create a new anger within them towards their ally. In her dictatorship she strives to regulate the emotions of the men and deaden their sensitivity. In her character the reader can see the influence Orwell would have had on Kesey as she echoes the influence of a Big Brother style figure; a leader intent on controlling every aspect of the lives of those under her rule.
However, as a representation of oppression and confinement she is also a sign that it can be broken. McMurphy’s attack upon the antagonist reveals her breasts to the men on the ward, highlighting her femininity in a system set in the 1960s, an era where women were characterised as the weaker sex. The protagonist has “ripped her uniform”, the symbol of her authority so as a result her power is lost. Bromden describes how she walked past McMurphy “ignoring him just like she chose to ignore the way nature tagged her with those outsized badges of femininity, just like she was above him, and sex and everything else that’s weak and of the flesh”. The idea that her humanity is the source of her “weakness” is significant as again we see the influence Orwell had on Kesey as it is clear that indeed “ignorance is strength”.
Big Brother is different as Orwell has created a faceless and most importantly ageless dictator which epitomises the strength of the oppression itself and also the compulsive need for rebellion because otherwise no change will present itself. The power of Big Brother is represented through the character of O’Brien; a man who is a symbol of the unquestionable patriot within a fascist system. He describes to Winston how a picture of the future is “a boot stamping on a human face – for ever” and this is said with the “air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil”. The use of a school hierarchy to establish O’Brien’s status over Winston is effective as it highlights his overwhelming power. He is a character far more powerful than a reader would ever come across, however, not only because of the physical pain he can inflict, but because he is able to look into Winston’s mind and respond to his very thoughts. In this character Orwell has created a symbol of an unbeatable and unconquerable oppressor and this is indeed shown at the end of the novel through the conformity of the protagonist. The opening three words of the final chapter “The Chestnut Tree” tell the reader immediately of Winston’s brainwashing and his installation in the cafe’, where traitors await there execution. The fact that he is in his “usual” corner indicates that he has been a regular visitor for some time and that his death can’t be far off.
The café is a simple for a state of purgatory in which Winston has now been condemned and what makes this image so profound is how his only sin was to simply reclaim his humanity. This is the ultimate effect of oppression and confinement as even before execution his human nature has already been disintegrated to the point where he is unrecognisable from the man presented to us at the beginning of the novel and this is shown through the narration. While remaining focused on the main character its tone and content are ironic as although the narrator and reader share his thoughts, we do not share his beliefs or opinions. The tracing of “2+2=5” on the table displays how he has lost touch with the reality he once defended.
In conclusion, oppression and the effects of confinement are symbolised in a number of ways in the novels of 1984 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and these each surround the characters within the novel and the institutions in which they prevail or suffer in. Winston is a symbol of the common man and his sense of justice in the face of a system which discards his humanity, while McMurphy is a symbol of the requirement of an insurgent to inspire the rebellion against the oligarchy which castrates normality. This oligarchy and its potential is presented through the antagonist nurse Ratched and the system she creates, as is that of Big Brother. Each author uses these symbols to ultimately display their own messages and warnings to the reader and to that of western society itself that the threat of totalitarianism was a very real future. However, ultimately both books are examples of power and control being taken to its furthest logical point and thus highlight and isolate the truths behind human nature.