Critical Analysis Essay on Nuances of Silence in 'One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest' and 'Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence'

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Silence is the absence of speech, yet simultaneously silence can express beyond words. The texts “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey and Martin Luther King’s discourse, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” was published in 1962 and 1967 respectively. This society is seen as growing towards the understanding and the philosophy of freedom and equality.

Both of the texts explore the underlying nuances of silence and its range of implications. The appearance and facets of silence take numerous manifestations. From the texts, it can be interpreted as a catalyst in driving the oppression, and in Kesey's novel it is depicted as the ultimate psychological escape mechanism, and to an extent, it is considered a betrayal in both texts. This is depicted through the use of repetition, imagery, characterization, and diction.

In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Kesey develops the theme of silence and oppression through characterization (particularly the behavior of the characters) and effective use of imagery. The author uses these literary techniques to criticize oppressive regimes and conformist views. The Combine depicted by Nurse Ratchet “forces [the inmates] one way or the other, into doing what [she thinks them] should do.”

As a result of this, the lack of voice within certain characters expressed through this oppression has various figurative implications. This is most apparent in Chief Bromden, the superficial layer of his outward character is perceived as a chronic incapable of reaction or response to the oppression around him, becoming almost invisible to Nurse Ratchet and the orderlies.

In literal terms, he remains a mute spectator and a witness to the persecution, whilst simultaneously being persecuted. But the origin of his silence was the day the white officials came to retrieve a portion of the land and failed to recognize Bromden talking, as a matter of fact, “they [looked] like [they did not] hear [him] talk at all.”

This is significant in depicting the racial discrimination and oppression experienced by Bromden, leading to the development of his disassociation with communication, as a measure to save himself through confinement. It worsened further under Nurse Ratchet’s dictatorship in the Asylum, where Bromden was trained to remain silent and forced to accept the way circumstances were.

Another instance where oppression led to silence was Billy Bibbit’s suicide, this can be perceived as the ultimate form of silence. His demise was the result of Nurse Ratchet’s threat, he had no chance to ignore but look “straight ahead at her face, like there was a spiraling light, a hypnotizing swirl”. This imagery alludes to the controlling nature of Nurse Ratchet’s “mechanical power”.

Moreover, hypnotism is also associated with psychological control and prompting the desired response, which in this case was suicide. Ultimately Billy’s death could be seen as a catalyst to propagate silence in other inmates and induce fear, which is deciphered as a perpetual dynamic of silence, as a means to be reminiscent with the inmates. This is not only a continuous reminder of the consequences of dismissing the legal obligations of conformity but also a reiteration of the authority the Combine holds.

This can be paralleled to Martin Luther King’s speech where the Vietnamese and the victims of America, predominantly the black Americans, were under the jurisdiction of segregation, oppression, and violence. Through the use of effective diction and anaphora, Martin Luther King establishes that silence is the consequence of oppression and nullification.

King further states that rules and policies governed by despotic regimes and manipulative authorities are bound to lead to political ramifications, social distress, and the uttermost silence amongst the oppressed. King commences by stating that those who are “[victimized]” by those “who shout war” are “voiceless”, it creates a dichotomy, a malfunction in the system by which the “voiceless” suffer.

(This highlights the distinction between the oppressed and the oppressors.) This further accentuates the idea of division and incoherence, the separation from “brotherhood”. Moreover, the silence demonstrated by the victims renders them passive and inferior. This is evident through the use of anaphora and the adjacent words trailing the phrases; for instance, “they languish…they watch…they must weep…they wonder…they see”.

The singular verbs “watch”, “weep”, “wonder”, “languish” and “see” speaks volumes of the remote and passive response in which silence looms within the mouths of the victims. These words which are particularly selected for emotive purposes contain a negative connotation of fear and hopelessness to enhance the idea of silence as a measure of marginalization.

Moreover, the distinction between the victims and the persecutors is evident through the speech structure, as depicted by the adjacent paragraphs which uphold contrasting illustrations of the oppressor versus the oppressed. Moreover, it creates a binary dichotomy between the 'voiceless' victims and the corrupted so-called 'liberators'.

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This distinction is further emphasized through diction, for instance, the phrases those who “shout war” and the 'voiceless ones' employ the words 'shout' and 'voiceless'. These would be classified as opposite sides of the spectrum and their differences depict that of the victims and the oppressors.

Another aspect of silence is illustrated as a betrayal, which finds resonance both in 'One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.' In this context, silence is associated with ignorance and is represented through a lack of verbal support; the indifference to the sufferings of those who are persecuted by the procrustean society.

This is most evident when McMurphy purposefully failed to respond to Chewick's question concerning the petition for cigarettes. He hoped he would ' back him up' but 'all he got was silence.' This strongly suggests that silence is betrayal, which would ultimately become the cause of Cheswick's suicide.

Paralleling this to Martin Luther's speech, King explicitly states that '[one must] break the betrayal of his [own] silence', which King did as to be the 'voice for the voiceless'. Not only did King say this to assert his proposition, but to force the attendees to question and judge themselves concerning this matter.

King further uses personification to illustrate the potential consequence of betrayal, which he states as 'America’s soul [becoming] totally poisoned' and 'the part of the autopsy [reading] Vietnam.' He later convicts the observers who see this international affair and continues by stating 'it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be led down the path of protest and dissent.', creating an accusatory tone and thus crafting the idea of betrayal, in their silence.

Another facet of Kesey’s novel portrays silence as a liberating force from the cultural assimilations and the substantial weight of society. To be able to speak shows one possesses the ability to articulate ideas, perceive and verbally transfer their understandings and interpretations of the world they live in, and in doing so, one is liable to the criticisms and the consequences of the weight of their words.

Another perspective on Bromden’s silence is that it was the ultimate mechanism to dissociate from societal expectations and responsibility. Without syntax or composition, “a room all white walls and white basins”, no smear of color, creativity, or understanding is expressed, Bromden’s blank silence has no content to be judged, nor of any suspicion to hold against.

The silence is a vacuum that annihilates all sense of oppression by which one could simply dismiss reality and fall into the “fog”. In the fog, Bromden loses himself “when nothing else is happening” and when silence rules over time “[he] usually gets the fog… to contend with.” This metaphor depicts Bromden’s feeling of safety in solitude and isolation when words do not dictate nor rule his position in the Asylum (a microcosm of society itself).

Simultaneously, Bromden’s lack of voice allows him to access information and sneak into the 'hospital secrets' which other inmates could not do. In 'acting deaf' he has freedom in other aspects, which is ultimately a self-sustaining retaliation from the oppression.

To summarize, both the texts, 'One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest' and Martin Luther King's speech resonates as a criticism of the society's oppressive regime through the theme of silence. Although Kesey effectively portrayed silence as the ultimate weapon to fight oppression through an extensive metaphor; both Ken Kesey and Martin Luther King expanded upon the various facets of silence and the implications regarding the oppressed and the oppressor.

Which was depicted through the use of metalanguages such as repetition, speech structure, and characterization. Finally, from the latter analysis of the text, it can thus be concluded that silence speaks volumes of a repressive and oppressive society.

Thank you for listening. But before I conclude please allow me to put forth a thought-provoking philosophy and leave you with a question. Certainly, these pieces of literature were developed based on reality and our reality is developed through our understanding and the meaning we bring to the individual words and conversations that we form.

If so, we all have slightly various interpretations of art, literature, music, and words. Thus, to what extent are we liable to conform to a particular perspective if everyone is different and unique? And to what extent do other viewpoints mold and shape our choices and our character? And when does a man become the product of society and all he is and will be in silence? Thank you.

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Critical Analysis Essay on Nuances of Silence in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’. (2023, July 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
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Critical Analysis Essay on Nuances of Silence in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Jul 20 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from:

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