Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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What is the importance of humor and laughter in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

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The importance of humor and laughter in Kesey's novel is to communicate the true feelings of the patients. They are all in a mental facility, but they still want to talk about their feelings, even if it seems like nothing to anyone else. The only way for them to do this is through humorous dialogue and actions.

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Throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey uses Chief Bromden’s narration to illuminate how humor becomes a unifying, empowering force among the patients in the novel. When McMurphy arrives, he brings a contagious energy to the ward that directly conflicts with the controlling environment under Nurse Ratched’s authority. While Nurse Ratched uses cruelty to strip the men of their humanity, McMurphy uses humor to remind his fellow patients what makes them human.

Soon after his arrival, McMurphy memorably states, “when you lose your laugh you lose your footing” (Kesey 65). With this mantra in mind, Kesey illustrates how laughter is the physical expression of feeling alive, and humor is therefore necessary for survival in a world of cruel injustices. Chief Bromden reveals how McMurphy’s attitude influences the mood of the ward:

It didn’t make any difference that the power was shut off in the Nurse’s Station and we couldn’t see a thing but that blank gray screen, because McMurphy’d entertain us for hours, sit and talk and tell all kinds of stories ... There were times that week when I’d hear that full-throttled laugh, watch him scratching his belly and stretching and yawning and leaning back to wink at whoever he was joking with, everything coming to him just as natural as drawing breath, and I’d quit worrying about the Big Nurse and the Combine behind her. (Kesey 139)

Chief Bromden continues, describing McMurphy as “strong enough being his own self,” and it is this strength that empowers him and the other patients in the ward on their individual journeys toward self-realization. In Bromden’s case, when McMurphy realizes that he is not actually deaf and dumb, he helps him find his voice and, ultimately, the motivation to escape the ward for good.

In Kesey’s novel, humor is an essential emotion that symbolizes camaraderie among the patients. It is a force that fuels the men in the ward to rebel against Nurse Ratched and the rigid and regressive environment that drains them of their identities. McMurphy’s refreshingly rebellious personality and outrageous sense of humor inspires the patients to take back control. Laughter gives them back their sanity, and accordingly, the patients gain self-awareness, power, and freedom.

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Humor is important as soon as McMurphy enters the Ward. His humor and ability to make jokes is what sets him apart from the other patients.

Chief Bromden notes,

There’s something strange about a place where the men won’t let themselves loose and laugh, something strange about the way they all knuckle under to that smiling flour-faced old mother there with the too-red lipstick and the too-big boobs. And he thinks he’ll just wait a while to see what the story is in this new place before he makes any kind of play. That’s a good rule for a smart gambler: look the game over awhile before you draw yourself a hand.

McMurphy is different from the others for many reasons, such as the symbol of humor and laughter. He does not have the same fear as the others and doesn't take things very seriously. By turning everything into a joke, he has a sort of power.

This power of humor helps McMurphy later in the novel when he smashes a window. He pretends he did not see the glass and turns it into a joke. This saves him from being sent to the Disturbed ward at that time and humiliates Nurse Ratched.

He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.

Eventually, McMurphy is able to spread his laughter to the others on the Ward. Chief notes that it is the first time he's heard genuine laughter.

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In Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, laughter shows that the men on the psych ward are growing towards health and independence. When Nurse Ratched is in control of the ward, the men rarely laugh. However, when McMurphy arrives, he tries to make the men laugh and demonstrate increasing independence from the nurse. As Chief says:

"I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn’t able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things" (page 203).

In other words, McMurphy tries to build the men up to the point where they can laugh, an act of independence that shows they don't believe everything the nurse and their doctors say. At the beginning of the book, the men aren't able to laugh at all because they are under the control of the nurse and their doctors.

As the book goes on, many of the men grow healthier and are able to laugh. For example, when they go on the boat trip, they laugh together. As Chief says,

"I could...see McMurphy surrounded by his dozen people, and watch them, us, swinging a laughter that rang out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave" (page 212).

Chief describes laughter almost as a force that shows the men's will to assert their independence and find happiness. The men are able to do so in spite of the nurse, who pins warnings about bad weather on the bulletin board before their trip. Therefore, laughter is a sign of the growing health of most of the men, including Chief, and their movement away from the nurse's unhealthy and paralyzing control. 

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