The authority that women hold in society is an important issue that is raised throughout Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’ as well as Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. In the modern day women are treated as being equal to men; however this was not always the case. Women were not always treated fairly, often being domineered in an almost misogynistic society, where men held the power. Up until the late 1920’s women did not even have the right to vote, until the suffragettes movement highlighted the issues in regards to a male dominated society. The three texts all demonstrate the role of women and more importantly the authority they hold in a number of circumstances.
Throughout Kesey’s novel, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, there is a predominant theme of matriarchy and female dominance displayed most notably by the antagonist Nurse Ratched. The setting within which the novel takes place is referred to as the ‘ward’ and can be viewed as a reflection of the domineering nature of American society in the 1950’s. In general, women would not have been viewed as being equal to men, and certainly would not have held as much power or authority as the men would have, however Nurse Ratched undoubtedly shows her strict oppressiveness and control over the patients within the novel. Nancy Reagan, the widow of former United States President Ronald Reagan and former First Lady of the United States was an influential figure and representation of the power women can hold. She once stated: “A woman is like a tea bag – only in hot water do you realize how strong she is” which is suggesting that women in society certainly have power and only when things become strained and trying, do a woman’s true colours come out. This can be applied to Nurse Ratched who is a ‘strong’ character and individual yet manages to hide her true feelings and emotions. Her entrance into the room “with a gust of cold” and the Chief’s statement that she has “been around locks so long” indicate her position of authority, likening the ward to a prison of which she has full control over. The use of the word “cold” implies she is an emotionless, bitter individual and supports the idea that she is hiding behind a facade of a caring individual, when in fact she simply despises the patients, only being satisfied when they are fully under her control.
Nurse Ratched displays her authoritative and imposing nature over anything she regards as being a “nuisance”. She is tireless in her efforts to maintain control over the patients and for the most part succeeds. Furthermore, the Chief often refers to her as the “Big Nurse”, indicating the control she holds over him even though he is much larger in stature. Harding even points out that the men on the ward are “victims of a matriarchy”, emphasising the manipulation and suppression shown by her. The women within the novel use the weak men around them in order to maintain a sense of authority and power. Nurse Ratched takes advantage of her high position in the ward, yet also disregards her morals and ethics by mentally abusing the men and other staff so that they follow her orders. “Year by year she accumulates her ideal staffâ€¦ some with backbone enough to stand behind their ideas, and she fixes these doctors with dry-ice eyes day in, day out, until they retreat with unnatural chills.” Nurse Ratched does not allow anyone around her in the ward to distract her from her duties and responsibilities she believes she must fulfil, in “fixing” the patients. As she is able to “accumulate her ideal staff” she is never truly challenged by her fellow doctors or staff meaning that her dominance is maintained and even reinforced. Her “dry-ice eyes” suggest that she is a cold, impassive individual and the idea that some doctors, seen as potential threats to her rule, “retreat with unnatural chills” truly reflects Nurse Ratched’s supremacy, with the use of the word “unnatural” almost suggesting she is inhuman in her approach. Nurse Ratched is able to remove any sense of power or authority from those she works with simply by looking at them.
Nurse Ratched’s control over the ward is reflected in the so-called “therapeutic meetings” that are held regularly, in particular when McMurphy raises the notion of a “pecking party”. He describes a “pecking party” as when chickens see blood on a single chicken and in turn start pecking at each other in a frenzied state until they end up killing each other. McMurphy claims that Nurse Ratched’s meetings are pecking parties. Therefore the “therapeutic” meetings aren’t a time when patients can provide each other with mutual and beneficial help, but where they end up hurting each other and making it all worse. The meetings are simply another reminder of how much influence Nurse Ratched has over the male patients and are a perfect demonstration of the power women can hold over weaker men due to the authority they hold. During a group meeting, Nurse Ratched shows her mental superiority by asking the other patients to comment on the subject, embarrassing Harding. “Harding shuts his eyes, and nobody says anything. McMurphy looks around at the other guys, waiting to see if anybody is going to answer the nurseâ€¦” All the patients are intimidated by the way the nurse handles the situation and remain quiet. The patients are ultimately unwilling to question the Nurse and prefer to remain silent, as they are essentially fearful of her. As the novel is set on a ward with only male patients, the majority of which are mentally unstable and vulnerable, Nurse Ratched faces little to no resistance in imposing herself over the ward. This is in contrast to the male dominated society of the time, and reflects how without strong men within the ward to dominate over her, she is able to revel in the authority and powers she holds over the patients.
constantly attempts to embarrass or belittle the men by referring to their sexuality and making them feel inferior.
As the novel progresses references to castration appear, highlighting Kesey’s idea of emasculation by the Nurse.
At one point, Rawler, a patient in the Disturbed ward commits suicide by cutting off his own testicles. Bromden states that ‘all the guy had to do was wait,’ implying that the institution itself would have ‘castrated’ him in the long run. The hospital, run by women, treats only male patients, showing how women have the ability to emasculate even the most masculine of men. Finally, near the end of the novel, Nurse Ratched suggests taking more drastic measures with McMurphy in the form of a lobotomy. The ‘operation’ can be compared with the idea of castration, with both removing a man’s individuality, free will, and capacity for sexual expression.
‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ is split into four parts, with each part displaying shifts in the power held by the characters involved. Part one introduces the key characters and the initial confrontations between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. Part two focuses on the power held by the Nurse as it is discovered the patients are living in the ward voluntarily whilst part three sees McMurphy reassert his influence over the ward as the patients go on a ‘fishing trip’. The final part sees both characters essentially losing their ‘power’ as McMurphy is lobotomised, yet his final actions manage to restore the manhood and power of the patients as Nurse Ratched’s control over the ward is diminished. Chief Bromden is the narrator, and details the events through his own perspective, meaning we are unable to view the ward in an unbiased fashion. The Chief has lived on the ward for a very long time, and experienced the domineering force of Nurse Ratched from the start, meaning that he is able to present his past experiences and emotions to the reader. The novel can be seen as a personal development for the Chief as he gradually becomes more powerful and confident as an individual as the novel progresses, with him eventually leaving the ward altogether. This ultimately undermines the control that the Nurse has held over him for so many years and essentially relinquishes her of the power and authority she has had over the ward, as the Chief is almost ‘freeing’ himself of her rule.
It could be suggested that Carol Ann Duffy wrote ‘The World’s Wife’ in order to illustrate that notable men in the past were not completely superior and that women who knew them actually had views and opinions on the world. Duffy is giving the female voice authority and assertiveness; a reoccurring theme throughout her poetry. It can also be interpreted that Duffy wrote this collection in order to demonstrate the dominance men have in literature today as she is one of the few female published writers. Lyn Gardner, a journalist for the Guardian claimed that within the collection ‘is a woman’s instinct and practical approach to life that is celebrated’.
The idea of women controlling men is also explored in the poem ‘Mrs Beast’, within which a female has ‘tamed’ the beast, having complete dominance over him, seen in the line ‘Here / were his hooked and yellowy claws to pick my nose, / if I wanted that.’ This would suggest that the ‘Beast’ will do anything she pleases, as she certainly holds more power in the relationship. Similarly the poem ‘Queen Kong’ displays a female’s control over a man in a relationship yet in a much more loving way. ‘My little man’ suggests that the man is inferior and overpowered by Queen Kong. The use of the word ‘My’ reflects a sense of ownership and control, rather than love, and also implies that he is viewed as a possession to her rather than as a partner. Furthermore, there is no escaping her even at death, as he is worn around her neck as a keep-sake, ‘I wear him now about my neck.’
The poem ‘Thetis’ is about a woman growing more powerful with every stanza but thwarted by a man’s intentions until the moment she has a baby, at the end of the poem. In the beginning of the poem Thetis is subservient to the man, ‘I shrank myself’ altering herself to find a way of pleasing the male gender and make them feel dominant. However, later on in the poem Thetis takes on the shape of much stronger and powerful creatures therefore overpowering the man. Each animal Thetis becomes is more powerful than the last: a small bird; an albatross; snake; lion etc. until the penultimate stanza where Thetis becomes, ‘wind, I was gas, / I was all hot air,’ becoming intangible and ethereal, therefore meaning she cannot be held or perhaps controlled. Duffy also explores the feeling of women that they have to alter themselves for a man, ‘So I shopped for a suitable shape’ whilst also mocking a man’s thoughts that all women enjoy the experience of shopping. The idea that women may feel the need to ‘change’ themselves in order to please a man reflects the power held by men over many women, yet the idea that Duffy is mocking men suggests that men are foolish and predictable, emphasising the power a women can hold.
Powerful women can also be explored in ‘The Kray Sisters’. The characters in the poem are very boastful and the twins exude an air of confidence, which comes from their bullying and violent behaviour. The first line, ‘There go the twins! geezers would say’ would suggest that other men had respect or admiration for the twin sisters, although it could also mean the ‘geezers’ were scared of the two women emphasising their power. The twins are very masculine in their language and style and perhaps this shows that although they are female they are actually not that different from men. Although they are very powerful women, they belittle other females and are condescending to them, referring to them as ‘girls’ and lecturing them Finally, Duffy claims, ‘A boyfriend’s for Christmas, not just for life’. This is similar to the well-known phrase yet puts the male in the place of the dog, patronising and degrading men in general. Finally the extract from the Nancy Sinatra song at the end implies that all women have the power to assert themselves over men in authority and one day they will do so.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written in a time period within which women were very much underpinned by men in society, being forced to act submissively and subserviently. However, Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ displays the power a woman can hold, with Lady Macbeth demonstrating her manipulative and convincing persona in order to make her husband commit the mortal sin of murder. It could be suggested that Shakespeare’s intentions were to display to the audience how women can actually have a major influence upon how men in society act. Lady Macbeth behaves in a way in which would be deemed ‘unacceptable’ by a Shakespearian audience as she questions her husband’s manhood and ability to rule as potential King of Scotland.
‘Art not without ambition, but without/The illness should attend it.’ (Act 1 Scene 5, Lines 17-18)
Lady Macbeth is questioning whether or not her husband is strong-minded and courageous enough to carry out the necessary task of killing Duncan in order to claim the throne. She knows that Macbeth has the drive and initiative to become King, yet fears he is too honourable to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth displays her corruptive nature by accepting she must convince her husband to commit the act.
‘That I may pour my spirits in thine ear/And chastise with the valour of my tongue’ (Act 1 Scene 5, Lines 24-25)
She is essentially going to corrupt her husband by attempting to convince him to kill Duncan. The use of the word ‘chastise’ emphasises how determined she is to convince her husband and suggests she will use any means necessary in order to persuade him. The majority of Act 1 Scene 5 is Lady Macbeth, showing to the audience how she is completely independent in her plans and not influenced by anyone else around her. She tries to exploit her husband’s weakness by appealing to his ego, ‘Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor’ in a very similar way to the poem ‘Eurydice’ within which the poetic voice yearns to regain her freedom by making Orpheus turn around by appealing to his ego. ‘Orpheus, your poem’s a masterpiece. / I’d love to hear it againâ€¦’ The poem would suggest that men are egotistical and boastful as they can be persuaded if they are praised or admired. This highlights yet again how women can use their personality and charm to ultimately hold power over men through the art of persuasion.
As the two of them plot against the king, Macbeth reveals his hesitance for killing Duncan to which Lady Macbeth responds by continuing to question his manhood and sense of pride and honour. As his manhood is continually questioned he eventually weakens, and gives in to Lady Macbeth: “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none”
Lady Macbeth’s persistent questioning of her husband’s masculinity, similar to the way in which Nurse Ratched emasculates her patients on the ward succeeds. This reflects the power held by Lady Macbeth, as women were generally viewed as being obedient to men, when in fact; Macbeth is being pressured into the submissive role commonly attributed to women at the time in which the play was written. Macbeth questions whether they will be caught, yet succumbs to the plan when he realises that as a female is questioning his courage he must act, otherwise he will be deemed as being less courageous than Lady Macbeth and essentially a coward.
Although it is clear that Lady Macbeth and Nurse Ratched are similar in their obsession for power and control, there is a difference in the fact that Lady Macbeth begins to regret her actions unlike Nurse Ratched: ‘What, will these hands ne’er be clean’
Whilst she is asleep, she suffers an attack of conscious, unbeknownst to herself. She questions whether her hands will ever be clean, in other words meaning ‘washed of guilt’. The use of the word ‘ne’er’ emphasises the guilt and remorse she is feeling as she questions whether she will ever be able to forgive herself. Her heavy-laden guilt cannot simply be got rid of, as she comes to terms with what she and her husband have committed. This is in complete contrast to Nurse Ratched who does not display any feelings of regret or remorse throughout the novel, implying that she is a much more heartless individual. The regret shown by Lady Macbeth would suggest that power simply became an obsession for her as she saw the opportunity for Macbeth to become King and strived to achieve it perhaps without too much thought, whereas Nurse Ratched is fully aware of the power and fear she has over her male patients throughout, displaying the sharp contrasts in ways power and assertiveness can be placed over males from a female perspective.
As the play continues, her domineering personality is reflected as she asks the spirits to assist her plans for the murder, and asks for the removal of her femininity, ‘unsex me here’ as she realises that she holds less power as a women in the context of her situation, also reflecting her strong sense of identity and ambition for power. Joost Daalder, a literary critic claimed that Shakespeare used Macbeth to show why ‘women should not attempt to cross over into the male domain.’ The critic suggests that Lady Macbeth’s attempts to remove her femininity in order to succeed only led to severe consequences for herself and others around her. This would imply that it is perhaps unnecessary for her to do so, as women still have the ability to gain power in other ways.
Finally, towards the end of the play, the revelation is made that ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped.’ As Macduff reveals his Caesarean birth, Macbeth realises he can be killed. Ultimately, this reflects the overall residing power that women will always have over men, the ability to give birth. Similarly, in the poem ‘Pope Joan’ Duffy states that ‘the closest I felt/to the power of Godâ€¦/lifting me, flinging me down,/as my baby pushed out/from between my legs.’ This also supports the idea that the gift of birth is the most influential rule over men, as Pope Joan feels as close to God and at her most powerful when giving birth. The notion of childbirth truly reflects how females can exert their authority, especially over other men in society.
In conclusion, the three texts certainly look at the power and authority that can be displayed by women, especially to those who are inferior to them in terms of stability and belief. Additionally, they all present the notion of women having dominance over men, an idea which would have been frowned upon within the context of when the texts are set. Male figures of authority have continued to display their assertiveness throughout time, and yet the three texts challenge the commonly held beliefs and ideals that surround men holding the most power within society. It is clear that many key figures in society often assert their power and authority in morally wrong ways, causing harm to others. This could raise the idea that ‘too much power can lead to corruption’. Furthermore, abusive relationships unfortunately exist in abundance in today’s society, often where one individual will a have a greater exertion of power over the other as they are weaker or more vulnerable in a similar fashion to poems such as Mrs Beast and Queen Kong. Many of the issues involved within ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The World’s Wife’ in regards to power and authority can still be applied today, and it this notion which still makes relevant to read today.
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