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The Item Of Power In The Works Of Emily Dickinson And Ken Keesey

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“McMurphy: She likes a rigged game. You know what I mean?” My coursework will outline and focus on the similarities and differences that both the Author Ken Keesey (one flew over the cuckoo’s nest) and Poet Emily Dickinson comment on in terms of power. The idea of power can be separated by two key features in both works, one being the power of society, and the other being the power of gender.

Both of these key themes address issues around the society of the times, as well as the backgrounds and lives of both artists. I intend to use books, the internet and literary critics (both contemporary and modern) to research and compose my coursework on my chosen subject.

The poems of Emily Dickinson focus mainly on the idea of one’s own society, ‘I took my power in my hand’ (540), talks about one’s own conflict with society. This may have been written in persona, however there is no evidence to support this claim. The first stanza is a reflection on the voice’s actions, to which the voice compares with the story of David and Goliath from the Bible. This allusion increases the intensity of the task and therefore is a metaphor that also creates imagery of the size of the conflict. The metaphor makes the inequality of power seem almost insurmountable. There is capitalisation of the words ‘World’ ‘Hand’ and ‘Power’ within the first stanza. The words ‘Hand’ and ‘Power’ inform the reader of the voice’s personal strength and ability. From numerous biographies of Emily Dickinson it is noted that she did not take part in The Second Great Awakening that swept across America. Dickinson was a member of the Calvinist Church, and the Second Awakening created a more optimistic view of the church’s belief; in addition to the more liberal views that reformed the church. The church also embraced more roles for white women to have, as well as including a higher number of African American members. This Poem may be based on Dickinson’s own feelings when the Second Awakening required her to pronounce herself ‘saved’. However, she abstained from this choice as she felt independent in her own religious beliefs. The use of the word ‘World’ helps to set the scene of the poem for the reader, in addition to being the ‘task’ that the voice has to defeat. The world is the voice’s Goliath, and it is representative of the enormity of the fight. The second stanza is a reflection on the voice’s failure to defeat the ‘World’. The capitalisation of ‘pebble’ is symbolic of the solution that the voice uses to try to end the conflict. This is ironic, as within the story of David and Goliath, David defeats Goliath successfully using the pebble. Therefore, this poem cannot form a valid link to the Bible story. It is rather a story in reference to the ‘majority’, the society in which Dickenson lives and feels forced to validate her beliefs within. This poem links to Kesey as the minority is never being able to defeat the majority. This is reminiscent of the fight between the patients of the Asylum and Nurse Rattchet; to whom the pebble is McMurphy.

The psychiatric ward in ‘One Flew Over’ can be seen as a microcosm of society. Society is presented as an efficient machine, being referred to as the Combine, that makes everyone conform to its narrow rules. All individuality is removed from the patients, and the natural, joyful expressions of life are suppressed. In the hospital ward, the representative of society is the Big Nurse, Nurse Ratchet. She embodies order, efficiency, repression, including sexual repression, slavery and tyranny. She fulfils the need of society to somehow “repair” those who do not subscribe to its model. This means they can then be sent back to take their places as cogs in the great machine. If they refuse or resist, they are destroyed by invasive, abusive treatments such as electric-shock therapy and brain surgery such as lobotomy. Bromden introduces the idea of the combine within the novel. He informs the reader of his life away from the combine as ‘broken’. He was born into an Indian tribe and he recalls hunting in the woods and fishing for salmon as a boy. However, the Indians’ independent way of life was destroyed by the greed of white society This society took their land and used it to install a hydroelectric dam. After a technological work force had been trained to manage the new facilities, the men lost all their individuality to the workings of the combine. They all conformed to the same standardized model and became in Bromden’s view, only half alive. Chief Bromden associates’ power with literal size, for example Nurse Rattchet is referred to as the ‘big’ Nurse, and when she gets angry, she swells up larger and larger. This is an indication that Bromden feels small within himself, and within the asylum society. This is a clear indication to the reader, of the manipulative ways of the nurse, McMurphy states within the novel ‘All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everyone else down.” The critic Terence Martin States ‘it is a central insight for the unsophisticated McMurphy – and one of the truest and generally applicable statements in the novel.’

Throughout the novel Bromden feels smaller than everyone else, and this may be due to the repressive nature of the ‘big’ nurse, and therefore effects the gender bias that controls the majority of this book. This fear of women instilled within Bromden, Harding and Billy Bibbit, come as a result of them being surrounded by powerful women, ‘ball cutters’ as McMurphy quotes. Their one job in life is to emasculate the men around them and consume their power. This maybe a reflection on the growing fear of the feminist movement, which was enhanced by the creation and relaxed use of birth control, allowing women to have greater independence from men. This was against the ‘bohemian lifestyle that Kesey and ‘The Merry Pranksters’ believed in where the perfect woman was ‘pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen’. This would have allowed women enough freedom whilst also being controlled by the patriarchal society they lived within.

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The subject of societal segregation is suggested in Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘The soul selects her own society.’ The word ‘Soul’ is interpreted within Dickinson’s work as a reference to herself, the poet. The distinction between her own personal life and the life of greater society is abstract, as they are reflective of one another. The personal society is a statement of one’s own company or singularity; which creates an abstract view on the way in which society is defined, while the ‘Divine majority’ could be a reference to her own society in Amherst Massachusetts. The selection of her own society references her objection to the Second Great Awakening and therefore her experience of the truth. The use of the words ‘Shutting the door’ is the voice shutting out the pressures and assumptions of society. This may also be a reference to her being a recluse and therefore shutting everyone else out. The word ‘Divine’ increases the status of the souls within the ‘society’ and therefore shows the reader of the lower status in which the voice finds itself. However, there is strength to be found in the task of ‘shutting the door’ and in addition to this motion, the voice gains ‘fame’ from doing so. “Unmoved – she notes the chariot’s pausing… emperor is kneeling Upon her mat.” The imperial lexus used such as ‘chariots’ and ‘emperor’ show the elevated status of the voice once they have rejected their counterparts and understood the importance of making one’s own choice. Dickinson suggests within this poem that the individual is absolute, and an individual’s rights are unchallengeable; the soul is assured of its own identity.

Harding in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ uses the analogy of the patients being rabbits and people such as Nurse Ratchet being wolves. The reason the rabbits have been placed within the asylum is because they cannot adjust to be a rabbit in the real world. This analogy explains the social segregation that links to the theme of repression throughout the book. The power of the wolves is created due to them ‘devouring the weak’; this is recognisable as something Nurse Ratchet does in her day to day running of the ward. The word devouring creates an image of gluttony and the image that the ingestion of power is satisfying. The anecdote also introduces the idea of hereditary power, that you are born powerful or you are born weak; and therefore, those that are born weak must be taught by the powerful how to survive. Within the introduction it is commented that Nurse Ratchet “her lack of sensuality represents a puritanical society’s fear of what they cannot control”

The novel was written near to the beginning of Cold War tensions between The USSR and The United States. It is commented that control defined the Cold War and ‘institutional conformity became a most popular subject of the most widely acclaimed fiction’. Kesey was writing to both please readers around America, in addition to commenting on a society which was fearful of anything ‘unamerican’. In the 1950’s psychiatry reached its peak and it became common for doctors to separate the mentally ill from society. This segregation allowed patients to be exploited which gave medical professionals increased power and authority which they subsequently abused.

Bromden is a complicated narrator, the reader is fully aware of his ability to be deceptive through his pretence of being deaf and dumb and therefore it would be sensible to question his ‘reality’. It is however the most honest account of the ward, and therefore it is in the readers best interest to take each of Bromden’s conclusions as truth. Chiefs account of the fog in part one, in addition to the floating chairs on page 115, are all illusions created by his illness. It is made exclusive at the beginning of the book that Bromden is a Paranoid Schizophrenic, a mental illness that causes abnormal behaviour and hallucinations which decrease one’s ability to understand reality. Bromden’s accounts of reality are created in his mind, to which the reader is aware of when one of the night watchmen tell him he is having a bad dream; this confirms that the incidents occur only in chiefs mind. However, the hallucinations help to convey the trauma and suffering that is happening on the ward. McMurphy changes the way in which Bromden narrates, this is through the immensely clearer depiction of events, chief finds confidence in McMurphy and acts using his strength. Throughout the majority of the book, Bromden feels ‘small’ due to the near total control in which he is subject to from the ‘Big Nurse’, McMurphy helps to ‘grow’ him. “man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been conquerors.’ Throughout the book, Keysey openly shares a misogynistic view on society, this quote directly states that the matriarchy can only be overthrown if conquer their oppressors through their penis’. Male sexuality within the novel is sanity, and therefore the repression of the male sexual needs is what causes the matriarchy to established repression within the ward. This is evident in the character of Billy Bibbit, to which his phycological problems are embodied as a stutter; ”Fir-first stutter? First stutter? The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mam-ma,” The reader can clearly analyse that Billy’s problems have arised due to his instilled fear of the matriarchy. Billy’s is completely infantilised by mother, who wants to keep him completely dependent on her, and therefore is referenced as a ‘ball- cutter’ due to her emasculating ways that keep her thirty-one-year-old son a virgin. After Billy is discovered in bed with Candy, he speaks without a stutter for the first time; in addition to the effrontery way in which he speaks to Ratchet when she tries to shame him back into subservience; this shows the reader that he has gained power and his manhood after losing his virginity. After this introduction of power, Billy commits suicide, a completely independent decision, which creates a catalyst to the final conflict between Ratchet and McMurphy.

Dickinson was growing up in a predominaly male society, I which women were actively discouraged from the literary arts and pushed into being an accommodating housewife. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ which helped to question the assistance of God. This opposition to the existence of the transcendental world gave a justification to her renouncement to be obedient to God; this foundation layer by Darwin helped Dickinson to see the language and words as the poets own. This gave her the freedom to write and be peculiar in her work, for example the use of dashes, where there is no evidence for a meaning. This revelation gave Dickinson the power to write, even though the society dominated by men wouldn’t allow her to publish the all of her works bar seven. The patriarchal society was no obstacle of Dickinson as she used writing as an expression of her thoughts and feelings, in particular the power of society. ‘I gave myself to him’ is a comment on marriage, in which women gives herself in order for financial and socioeconomic gain and therefore their husband is only a customer. In “Emily Dickinson and Popular Culture”, David S. Reynolds, a new historicism critic, wrote that “it’s no surprise that the majority of Dickinson’s poetry was produced between 1858-1866, It was a period of extreme consciousness about proliferation of varied women’s role in American culture. It was a time where women were actively searching for more “literary” ways of self-expression”. Within ‘I gave myself’ the line ‘some found it mutual gain; sweet debt of Life,” this line shows the ways in which women and men make a mutual agreement to marry on the terms of socioeconomic gain, a ‘sweet debt’ that is paid in sexual penance, to which both partys partake. The 1850s, when Dickinson was in her early twenties, saw a grave change in American society. The supreme court, ruled that a slave moved to a free state, never ceased to be a slave, despite residing in a free state, they then denied him citizenship in addition to denying him the sue. The growing abolitionist movement caused a slow development on the diversity of America, these changes especially focused in the north of the country. The abolitionist movement has no clear link to the life of Dickinson; however the tensions would meet at the conflict of the Civil war. Her brother, too scared to join the war, paid a conscript to take his place, however great friends of the poet such as Thomas Higgins lead the first black regiment in the Union Army. These conflicts created an ever-stronger patriarchal society, and therefore the subjects such as poetry and literature, became an ever increasing ‘mans’ subject. Dickinson fights these societal boundaries and continued to write until her death, to which thousands of poems were found. Her increasing rejection of the confines of society, makes her poetic ambition clear to the reader, she ‘took her power in her hands’ and became a prominent figure in the literary world after her death.

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The Item Of Power In The Works Of Emily Dickinson And Ken Keesey. (2021, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from
“The Item Of Power In The Works Of Emily Dickinson And Ken Keesey.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2021,
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