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McMurphy, Rebel with a Cause in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest


Ken Kesey's experiences in a mental institution urged him to tell the story of such a ward. We are told this story through the eyes of a huge red Indian who everyone believes to be deaf and dumb named Chief in his novel "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". Chief is a patient in an Oregon psychiatric hospital on the ward of Mrs Ratched. she is the symbol of authority throughout the text. This ward forms the backdrop for the rest of the story. The men on the ward are resigned to their regime dictated by this tyrant who is referred to as 'the Big Nurse', until McMurphy arrives to disrupt it. He makes the men realise that it is possible to think for themselves, which results in a complete destruction of the system as it was. Randle P. McMurphy, a wrongly committed mental patient with a lust for life. The qualities that garner McMurphy respect and admiration from his fellow patients are also responsible for his tragic downfall. These qualities include his temper, which leads to his being deemed "disturbed," his stubbornness, which results in his receiving numerous painful disciplinary treatments, and finally his free spirit, which leads to his death. Despite McMurphy being a noble man, in the end, these characteristics hurt him more than they help him. He forms the basis to my study of rebellion.


The Narrator, Chief Bromden comments that it was not he who originally decided to adopt the act of being deaf and dumb but others who treated him as if he were deaf and dumb, which illustrates that the way a person is depends upon the society around him. Indeed, Chief Bromden's father told him:


"If you don't watch it people will force you one way or the other into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite just out of spite."


This is very much emphasised in the book: Kesey strongly suggests that the residents of the ward in his novel are there because they could not cope with the pressures put on them by society to conform, and that their madness is caused by others, rather than originating within the men themselves. Kesey also deals with the ineffective way in which these men are 'treated' for their various aliments. He constantly alludes to the way that the institution, in particular 'Big Nurse' attempts to dehumanise these men, illustrating the fact that it is deemed better that these men have no signs of individuality so that they will fit into society more easily. The author does not portray them then in a derogatory light or laugh at them, but rather seems to look on them as victims of society's oppression, and sees society as the root of their problems. These men appear to be on the ward just so that they are kept out of the way, rather than being treated. This is a reflection of how society will sometimes attempt to opress and attempt to ignore a radical thinker or rebel rather than confronting their problems. This is strongly the case of McMurphy.


McMurphy begins challenging the system in small ways, such as asking that 'ward policy' be changed so that they can watch the world series, and is shocked to find the men so unwilling to vote. Another more symbolic example is his attempt to lift the control panel, a feat which he will clearly be unable to achieve; but he makes the point that he tried, which is more than any of the other men would think to do. This shows one of the important personality traits of McMurphy and that's stubbourness. Another of his character traits is his wild temper. At Various times it aids him in his battle with the "Big Nurse" for control of the mental ward. However, his temper eventually works against him.


Upon McMurphy's arrival in the ward he establishes himself as a con man and a gambler. One of his first bets with the other patients is to see if, within a week, he can put "a bee in [Nurse Ratched's] butt, a burr in her bloomers. Get her goat. Bug her till she comes apart at those neat little seams". McMurphy makes this bet after he learns about the Disturbed Ward where "assaultive" and "potential assaultives" are sent, and also about the "shock shop" where Electro-Shock Therapy is administered to unruly patients. Since McMurphy is "not in the habit of losing", he wants to be certain that he can get away with harassing the Big Nurse without receiving any of these punishments. He is told by a fellow patient, "as long as you don't lose your temper and give her actual reason to request the restriction of the Disturbed Ward, or the therapeutic benefits of electro-shock you are safe. But that entails first and foremost keeping one's temper. And you? With your red hair and black record? Why delude yourself".This shows that McMurphy is already perceived as a man with a temper after only one day on the ward.


McMurphy displays this temper throughout the novel, but one incident finally gets him into trouble. During an argument with one of the black aides to the Big Nurse, a punch is thrown and a fight breaks out. This is what the Big Nurse has been waiting for; an excuse to send McMurphy to the Disturbed Ward. Upon his arrival here, he is administered with Electro-shock therapy as punishment. The Big Nurse is able to get the upper hand in her battle against McMurphy when he allows his temper to take over. When McMurphy is committed to the Disturbed Ward, he has the opportunity to return to his old ward as long as he admits to being wrong. This would give the Big Nurse the final victory, but McMurphy is too stubborn to allow that to happen. As a result, he receives numerous Electro-Shock Therapy treatments. Each time he comes to, the Big Nurse offers him the chance to apologize and to admit that he was at fault, but he tells her "she could kiss his rosy red ass before he'd give up the goddam ship" If McMurphy admitted he was wrong, he could avoid the Electro-Shock Therapies. However, he is too stubborn to allow the Big Nurse to win the war so easily. This is quite admirable but at the same time he is killing himself for no real cause just to be proved right.


Throughout the novel, another rebellious characteristic is examined, through McMurphy's free spirit. He wishes to live his life on his own terms, not that of the social norm, and he spreads this mentality to the others. He "serves as an energy source and inspiration to...his fellows. They become less lethargic...but mainly, they become able and willing to struggle for life" (Hicks, Criticism). This is one reason why the others look up to him so much. He helps them regain some control over their lives during his stay on the ward. McMurphy does this by teaching them how to laugh again, saying 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". McMurphy also radiates his rebellious nature to the others by standing up against all the ward policies that he disagrees with. He does not wish for his life to be dictated to him by rules and restrictions, which is why he challenges the Big Nurses authority.


At the end of the novel, McMurphy attacks the Big Nurse, and consequently receives a lobotomy. Although his mind is taken away, his body still struggles to stay alive. Knowing that McMurphy would not want to live his life in that state, Chief decides to kill him. This task is more difficult than he anticipates, because "the big, hard body had a tough grip on life. It fought a long time against having it taken away. This shows that McMurphy's free spirit and stubbornness is so strong and deeply anchored, that even though his mind is gone, his body continues the fight to stay alive. We have seen his stubourness most markedly before, in his attempt at moving the control panel. This control panel is a representation of the 'Combine', which Chief believes mechanically controls the patients of the ward via the devices which he momentarily sees inside the tranquilliser pills which they are given. Whilst it is true that his hallucinations are mere hallucinations, they are in fact representative of what is happening on the ward; even though the men are not being controlled by electronic devices, they may as well be because they have been deprived of the ability to think for themselves to such an extent.


Kesey noticed that the system worked by disallowing freedom of any kind; freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and even freedom of thought. Fred Madden wrote: 'For Kesey, any sort of conformity means a loss of individual sanity.' this view forms the basis of my essay. This idea is very much illustrated in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" but particularly through McMurphy. However in McMurphys' case he is eventually caught by authority and his rebelliousness it destroyed. In so much as due to his lack of conformity he eventually loses sanity. As we have seen McMurphy is a very obvious rebel, continually kicking against authority. However we can also look at it in a slightly different light: That he is no true rebel but simple mentally insane. After all, we do not know if he really deserves to be placed on this ward or not. It does appear at first that he has been wrongly admitted however we have very little background knowledge of McMurphy and he could in fact have a severe mental disorder which makes him act in the way he does. This would not make him a rebel whatsoever since he is not conscious of his actions. This is rather debatable. I feel that McMurphy becomes more and more neurotic, the more time he spends in the clinic. Shows that it is this that is making him insane as he ends up towards the end of the novel and he did not start off in this state, needing treatment.


Another aspect of McMurphys' character that might be looked upon as not being that of a rebel is that he is not completely anti-conformist: when he realises that nurse Ratched can decide whether he should be relocated or kept institutionalised he falters in his striving for non-conformity and personal identity. This causes Cheswick, who was beginning to learn to become less dehumanised, to lose hope and commit suicide. McMurphys' increasing despair can clearly be seen when, given the chance to escape, he 'accidentally' oversleeps after the party. Having been in the institution for a length of time, he too has become dehumanised. The theme which all modern works, where characters display some kind of nervous ailment, share is that the character's afflictions are not perceived as being entirely their own fault but to a certain extent caused by events in their lives or the society around them. Hence we can see this novel as a warning: when society thinks it is helping it can often be causing people to become rebellious and hateful of the system.


However hard it is to perceive the inner sentiments of a character through another's eyes, I do feel that McMurphy is mentally sane and is driven by his hatred for authority. His aim throughout the novel is to help rescue at least one of the men from their soporific conformity. By the end of the novel he has managed to release many of the patients back to their normal senses. Hence his actions have not been in vane even after loosing his life. This, along with all the other aspects of his character make a strong case for him to be held as the archetypal rebel. McMurphy's self-sacrifice on behalf of his ward-mates echoes Christ's sacrifice of himself on the cross to redeem humankind. McMurphy's actions frequently parallel Christ's actions in the Gospels. McMurphy undergoes a kind of baptism upon entering the ward, and he slowly gathers disciples around him as he increases his rebellion against Ratched. When he takes the group of patients fishing, he is like Christ leading his twelve disciples to the sea to test their faith. Finally, McMurphy's ultimate sacrifice, his attack on Ratched, combined with the symbolism of the cross-shaped electroshock table and McMurphy's request for "a crown of thorns," cements the image of the Christ-like martyrdom that McMurphy has achieved by sacrificing his freedom and sanity. The 'glitches' in his character, his slight acts of conformity, show that he is still human and still in touch with his senses. If these did not exist we could full rightly say that he is clinically insane and hence would only be able to state that his condition gives him rebellious tendencies and not class him as the archetypal rebel.


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