Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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Analysis of McMurphy's character portrayal in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Summary:

McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is portrayed as a rebellious, charismatic figure who challenges institutional authority. He symbolizes individuality and resistance against oppressive systems, often clashing with Nurse Ratched. His character highlights themes of freedom, control, and the impact of institutionalization on human spirit.

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What is unusual about McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy's unusual in that he doesn't conform. Everyone else in the institution subscribes to its petty rules and regulations without a moment's hesitation, but not Randle. He follows the beat of a different drum; he answers to himself and no one else.

That includes Nurse Ratched. All the other inmates are somewhat scared and intimidated by her; but once again, McMurphy breaks the mold. He's prepared to challenge and undermine her authority at every available opportunity.

Nurse Ratched's dealt with some pretty difficult patients over the years, but none quite as challenging as McMurphy. She realizes early on that he's a serious threat to her authority and to the smooth running of the institution. That's what makes him such a danger. And that's what makes him so unusual.

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What is unusual about McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

What isn't unusual about McMurphy?  The word "unusual" takes on a much different meaning in a mental institution.  I spent the first half of the book just trying to decide whether he was truly mentally ill or not.  Or whether many of those inside were.  Clearly, some of his compatriots needed to be institutionalized, but McMurphy was a match for Nurse Ratched, and the others enjoyed watching them go back and forth, with McMurphy winning a good deal of the time.  If he did have mental issues, they didn't affect his intelligence or awareness of himself and those around him.

His voice and laughter were commanding, they had a presence that gained attention, both positive and negative from those around him and the hospital staff.

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How is McMurphy portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

When we first meet McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the narrator, Chief Bromden, tells us that he is "no ordinary Admission" (Kesey 10). McMurphy, who counters figures of authority with brashness and swagger, is not the type of man who would "slide scared along the wall" or respond to directions with "a weak little yes" (Kesey 10-11). Rather, we find that he is a strong, capable individual with a gambling habit and a tendency to break the law (Kesey 11). Bromden describes McMurphy's arrival at the institution by noting the many ways that he is dissimilar to both the patients and staff, and he gives a description of McMurphy that signals a sort of awe. Consider, for example, the way in which Bromden characterizes McMurphy in the beginning of the novel:

The way he talks, his wink, his loud talk, his swagger all remind me of a car salesman or a stock auctioneer—or one of those pitchmen you see on a sideshow stage, out in front of his flapping banners, standing there in a striped shirt with yellow buttons, drawing the faces off the sawdust like a magnet (Kesey 12). 

In this excerpt, we see that McMurphy is a rather playful individual, as signaled by his tendency to wink at other characters, and his attitude has an air of performance. He draws attention wherever he goes, and he interrupts routines. His persona, as Bromden points out, is much like "a magnet" (Kesey 12). As such, we can safely assume that McMurphy has the ability to attract attention and to influence others. The description Bromden provides, notably, does not portray McMurphy as a trustworthy figure, but it does point to McMurphy as a figure of disruption and potential power.

Additionally, we see that McMurphy is an observant character within the novel, and a character for whom strength and masculinity play an important role. After the group meeting on the ward, McMurphy suggests that the practice of dissecting each patients' problems and tendencies (a practice guided by Nurse Ratched) is ultimately damaging and emasculating; moreover, he argues that Nurse Ratched intends for group therapy sessions to make the male patients feel weak. Harding, another patient on the ward, responds to McMurphy's observations:

“You are right,” Harding says, “about all of it.” He looks up at the other patients who are watching him. “No one’s ever dared come out and say it before, but there’s not a man among us that doesn’t think it, that doesn’t feel just as you do about her and the whole business—feel it somewhere down deep in his scared little soul” (Kesey 37). 

In Harding's response, we see that McMurphy has a bold, confrontational style--one which, importantly, the other patients seem to lack. Furthermore, we find in the exchange that McMurphy appears to have an inner, masculine strength that the other patients on the ward do not possess (and that they cannot possess, McMurphy's stance suggests, due to group therapy sessions which promote turning on one another and tearing one another down). In the passage, McMurphy is juxtaposed against Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward, and we might see this as an early example of McMurphy's masculine, anti-authoritarian energy conflicting with Nurse Ratched's ordered, feminine energy.

When we examine McMurphy's character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it is wise to keep in mind that we see him through Bromden's eyes, and as a narrator, Bromden has the ability to shape our understanding and interpretation of McMurphy.

Source: Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Signet Books, 1962.

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Is McMurphy portrayed as a Christ figure in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

When we talk about Christ figures in literature, we are not necessarily talking about the historical Jesus or any sort of religious connection, but rather we are talking about an archetype, or common character pattern where newer characters exhibit similar traits to previously established characters. Rather than an exact template, archetypal characters exhibit enough traits from the pattern to establish a connection, but there may be some variations from other versions. So, if we set aside religion and spiritual belief for a minute, what are Christ's traits as demonstrated through his biblical narrative? He sacrifices himself for the good of others, he resists tyranny and oppression, he has disciples or followers, he performs miracles, etc.

So, while there are certain traits of Christ's which don't apply to Randal P. McMurphy (like being good with children or literally walking on water), there are many that do. For example, some of Christ's well-known parables are about fish and fishing (i.e. "I will make you fishers of men), and many of his followers are fishermen. McMurphy arranges an illicit fishing trip for the residents of the ward. Many of these residents have come to follow McMurphy and be inspired by him (his "disciples"). McMurphy performs some "miracles" (like making the paralytic Ellis walk), and he continuously resists the tyranny of Nurse Ratchet and the oppressive ward staff (as Jesus resisted the tyranny of the Romans).

McMurphy is a self-professed degenerate gambler and womanizer, and he readily admits petty crimes like the ones that got him locked up. At first glance, Christ does not resemble a criminal like McMurphy, but remember that many of Christ's actions (organizing followers and preaching to them) were considered blasphemous and illegal by the governing Romans at the time. Christ was an outlaw too.

The biggest sign of a Christ-figure archetype in literature is a character sacrificing oneself for the greater good. This one's not quite as clean in McMurphy's case since he is not necessarily "sacrificed," but he does give up a chance to escape in order to attack Nurse Ratchet, who he blames for Billy Babbit's suicide. McMurphy's resulting lobotomy and vegetative state inspires The Chief to escape. The Chief smothers McMurphy in an act of mercy and to carry his spirit along to freedom (a sort of resurrection?), and he lifts the tub room controls which McMurphy could not previously budge (a miracle?) in order to make his escape. So, it could be argued that McMurphy sacrificed himself for the good of The Chief.

While certainly not a one-to-one correlation, a strong argument can be made for McMurphy demonstrating a number of traits which would make him a Christ-figure archetype.

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