Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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How does McMurphy's voice and laughter affect the ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

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Before McMurphy arrives in the ward, there is no laughter there. Chief Bromden describes McMurphy's laughter as "free and loud" and spreading "in rings bigger and bigger till it . . . lap[s] against the walls." He then realizes that "it's the first laugh" he's heard for years.

McMurphy's laughter is an indication of his freedom and his spirit, and freedom and spirit are two traits which the patients under Nurse Ratched's care have been denied. At first, everyone on the ward is "stunned dumb" by McMurphy's "free and loud" laughter. McMurphy later tells the patients that "when you lose your laugh you lose your footing." In other words, when one loses the ability to laugh, one loses the ability to be grounded—to put things in perspective and see them as they really are.

Throughout the course of the story, McMurphy teaches the patients how to laugh again, culminating in the fishing trip when all the patients laugh so that their "Laughter [rings] out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther . . . in wave after wave after wave." The laughter in this moment represents the new-found freedom and spirit of the patients, the seeds of which were planted when McMurphy arrived on the ward, laughing his "free and loud laugh."

McMurphy's hands are described as "big and beat up" whereas Harding's hands are described as "pretty" and "long and white and dainty." McMurphy's hands are a symbol of his masculinity, whereas Harding's hands are a symbol of his femininity. He often traps them between his knees when he notices them gliding around "in front of him free as two white birds." Harding is ashamed of his femininity, which is why he traps his effeminate hands between his knees.

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It's important to remember what the ward was like BEFORE Mack showed up: it was a quiet, humorless place. Men were afraid to laugh, to joke...heck, under Nurse Ratched's iron fist, they were barely comfortable talking at all!

Enter McMurphy. Cracking jokes, having fun (gasp!), and generally stirring things up, especially in the subtle and not-so-subtle ways he defies Nurse Ratched, he has a profound effect on the other men. They are empowered to remember what it was like to be, well, men (or even just human beings), and then act that way.

Harding's hands are described as fluttering and birdlike. Mack's are more rough and worn. I don't want to give away the story should be pretty obvious what this says about each man.

Good luck! Hope you enjoy the rest of the book; it is one of my favorites.

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In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, how does McMurphy's voice affect the ward?

Even before McMurphy is actually seen by Bromden and the other patients, his voice his heard, and it is clear that the way his voice is described says a lot about the kind of character that he is and the impact he will have on the ward. Note how Bromden describes McMurphy's voice:

Talking louder'n you'd think he needed to if the black boys were anywhere near him. He sounds like he's way about them, talking down, like he's sailing fifty yards overhead, holldering at those below on the ground. He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don't slide...

McMurphy's voice is one of the many ways in which he is presented as a character who, unlike patients such as Bromden, refuses to let others dictate who he is and how he should act. Note the description given above of how his voice makes him sound superior to the "black boys" who are trying to chase after him to take his temperature. In particular, for Bromden, who imagines himself to be so small, McMurphy's voice makes him sound "big." The impact of this voice on the ward is to begin to make them think that they can become "big" as well, and that they don't have to accept the way they are treated in this environment.

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