Many critics believe Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, intends McMurphy to be a heroic, martyr-like figure. Based on your knowledge of The Journey of the Hero, do you agree or disagree...

Many critics believe Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, intends McMurphy to be a heroic, martyr-like figure. Based on your knowledge of The Journey of the Hero, do you agree or disagree with this theory? If so, track McMurphy's journey, making sure to cite each specific phase. Make sure to list the shadow as well. Cite incidents from the story to support your answer. 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ken Kesey was the very personification of the anti-establishment movement that took root during the 1950s and exploded during the turbulent era of the 1960s and early 1970s.  That his protagonist in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randal Patrick McMurphy should similarly represent the anti-establishment movement within the context of Kesey’s story seems entirely appropriate.  Literary interpretations, of course, are subjective; opinions can differ considerably regarding an author’s intent with regard to characterizations.  In the case of McMurphy, however, it seems safe to conclude that Kesey intends this individual to represent heroic nonconformity, and his eventual death at the hands of his closest friend in the mental war as the supreme act of martyrdom. 

McMurphy’s journey through life has been marked by instances of disobedience and noted inability to conform to standards as dictated by others.  During one scene in Kesey’s novel, a doctor is preparing to interview McMurphy, but first has a nurse read to him from McMurphy’s file:

“Thirty-five years old. Never married. Distinguished Service Cross in Korea, for leading an escape from a Communist prison camp. A dishonorable discharge, afterward, for insubordination. Followed by a history of street brawls and barroom fights and a series of arrests for Drunkenness, Assault and Battery, Disturbing the Peace, repeated gambling, and one arrest—for Rape.”

McMurphy’s autobiography reads like that of rebellious individual unable to exist with the confines of civilization.  His most notable act was leading an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea, for which he was awarded one of the nation’s highest honors.  His heroism in defying captivity and communist indoctrination, while highly commendable in one context, however, does not translate well to another context – that of American society.  Just as he rebelled against his North Korean captors, so did he rebel against the United States Army, resulting in his Dishonorable Discharge, and from society as whole, evident in his history of criminal arrests.   Additionally, his arrival at the mental ward is the product of his unwillingness to abide by the rules of the prison camp to which he had been sentenced.  His ruse, pretending to be psychologically unstable in order to get out of work, is sufficiently transparent that the prison doctor has attached to McMurphy’s file a note to which the psychiatrist interviewing him draws McMurphy’s attention:

“I am interested, however, that the doctor at the work farm added this statement: ‘Don’t overlook the possibility that this man might be feigning psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm.’ ”

Again, McMurphy’s history of defiance against all forms of authority is apparent.  Eventually, however, his impatience with structures intended to define the patients’ day-to-day existence grows increasingly frustrating, resulting in his expression of anger at the others for refusing to back him up in his efforts at watching the World Series:

“It happened at one of the group meetings. He got mad at the guys for acting too cagey—too chicken-shit, he called it. He’d been taking bets from all of them on the World Series coming up Friday. He’d had it in mind that they would get to watch the games on TV, even though they didn’t come on during regulation TV time. During the meeting a few days before he asks if it wouldn’t be okay if they did the cleaning work at night, during TV time, and watched the games during the afternoon. The nurse tells him no, which is about what he expected. She tells him how the schedule has been set up for a delicately balanced reason that would be thrown into turmoil by the switch of routines.”

McMurphy’s journey in life is bereft of examples of an ability to conform to standards and routines.  He simply doesn’t have it in him.  That he is subjected to electroshock therapies intended to control his rebellious nature and to punish him for his transgressions and eventually lobotomized is representative of the futility Kesey suggests existed in trying to buck the system.  McMurphy had come to represent an existential threat to Nurse Ratched’s order, with patients increasingly emboldened to resist her tyrannical regime.  After she orders McMurphy to be lobotomized, the Chief, the story’s narrator, cannot stand the thought of this symbol of independence and anti-establishment fervor remaining in the ward as a constantly visible symbol of the establishment’s triumph in quelling dissent.  As Kesey has the Chief observe at the end of the story,

“I watched and tried to figure out what he would have done. I was only sure of one thing: he wouldn’t have left something like that sit there in the day room with his name tacked on it for twenty or thirty years so the Big Nurse could use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system. I was sure of that.”

The Chief’s final act of defiance, in which he succeeds in escaping from the mental ward, is the one victory for nonconformity and for those willing to defy authority.  McMurphy, however, died a martyr and a model for others to emulate, at the risk of their own lives.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When the movie Cuckoo's Nest with Jack Nicholson was made,Randal Patrick McMurphy was, indeed, portrayed as the protagonist; however, sources reported that Kesey intended for the narrator, Chief Bromden, to be the heroic figure as he is the man who conquers the inner and exterior obstacles to his freedom and sense of self.

Nevertheless, there are several actions of McMurphy which can be attached to The Journey of the Hero as it delineated.

1. Limited Awareness of the Problem - When McMurphy arrives in the mental ward, he is elated because he believes staying there will be much easier than being in prison. He goes to where the Acutes are and is "grinning and shaking hands with everybody."
2. Increased Awareness of the Need for Change - After he is on the ward for a while, McMurphy realizes the dynamics of the patient/nurse relationship are not what they should be, nor is the doctor/nurse relationship proper. Clearly Nurse Ratched intimidates all who work and reside there.
3. Fear Resistance to Change - Aware, as Chief expresses it, that "Big Nurse get reals put out if anything keeps her outfit from running smooth," McMurphy is a little wary of resisting authority; however, he asks the men why they allow her to dominate them so. Harding explains that they are rabbits and Nurse Ratched the wolf; he also points to the fact that the Nurse can send them to the Shock Shop where they receive electric shock treatments.
4. Overcoming Fear - McMurphy tells the men "I've never seen a woman that I thought was more man than me." He begins to challenge Big Nurse's authority.
5. Committing to Change - Calling the nurse "Rat-shed," McMurphy comes out with nothing but a tight towel around him. Then, he whistles, "Sweet Georgia Brown, and a few other things to anger the Big Nurse.
6. Experimenting for Change - Feeling confident that he has rattled Nurse Ratched, McMurphy talks and laughs through breakfast, joking and prodding Billy Bibbit. Later, he asks Nurse Ratched if she could lower the volume on the radio, but she refuses.
7. Preparing for Major Change - With the co-operation of the psychiatrist, McMurphy has Dr.Spivey suggest a carnival in the ward. But, the nurse finds objections to it. Finally, when his cigarettes are confiscated, McMurphy ¨blows up big as a house¨ and breaks through the glass at the nurse's station by punching his fist through it. When she refuses to let the men watch the World Series, they stare at the blank screens.
8. Big Change with Feeling of Life or Death - After McMurphy's defiant action, the other inmates work up the courage to vote for a fishing trip. McMurphy smuggles into the ward two prostitutes after getting the orderlies drunk. Later, McMurphy gets into a brutal fight with the orderlies and they beat him and strap him down. 

9. Accepting the Consequences of the New Life - Later, McMurphy gets into a brutal fight with the orderlies and they beat him and strap him down.
10. New Challenge and Rededication - When McMurphy has the prostitute visit Billy again, the Big Nurse discovers him with her in the morning. She humiliates the weak boy so much that Billy cuts his throat. Incensed by this death of Billy, McMurphy tears open Nurse Ratched's blouse, screaming, 

¨Playing with human lives--gambling with human lives--as if you thought yourself to be a God

11. Final Attempts (last minute danger) McMurphy tries desperately to choke the Nurse to death. Finally, he is beaten down, crying out as he is beaten down.

12. Mastery - Although McMurphy is killed, he has succeeded in terrifying the Big Nurse so much that she ¨jumped back two steps¨ when the men approach.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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