McMurphy’s Downfall – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s N
October 17, 2005
This novel is narrated by Chief Broom, the son of an Indian chief, who pretends to be a deaf mute as a protection against a society which denies his dignity as a human being. Many of his comments on conditions in the hospital ward and in society, while are not literally true, are accurate metaphors for the social regimentation against which the novel protests.
The action of the novel begins with the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a rambunctious and free-spirited roisterer who has chosen to come to the mental hospital to avoid completing a sentence at a prison farm. He is instantly and deliberately in conflict with Nurse Ratched, “Big Nurse,” whose object is to reduce the patients on her ward to abject conformity. As many of these patients have deliberately chosen to stay in the hospital to avoid the pressures of life outside, she has met with little resistance until McMurphy’s arrival. Almost immediately McMurphy becomes a focus of hope for the patients who have been emasculated by Big Nurse and by their fears of the outside world. Passage after passage suggests that Kesey envisions McMurphy as a Christ figure who must sacrifice himself to bring life to the other patients.
McMurphy’s efforts to give the other patients a sense of joy in living culminates with a drunken party he arranges on the ward; a featured guest is a prostitute who provides Billy Bibbit, a painfully shy and insecure man aged 30, with his first sexual experience. When Big Nurse discovers Billy with the prostitute, she overwhelms him with guilt, causing his suicide.
McMurphy attacks Big Nurse, but he is pulled away and lobotomized. When McMurphy is returned to the ward, Chief Broom smothers him so that he cannot be used as a trophy of Big Nurse’s victory. He then throws a huge control panel through a window and escapes, an action symbolizing his restoration to manhood and independence through his contact with McMurphy.
The cartoon imagery Kesey uses to paint his “Walt Disney world” is evident when looked for. Scanlon is described at one point as “constructing a make-believe bomb to blow up a make-believe world” (31), an example of a much-used cartoon ploy (think of Bugs Bunny pulling a bomb out of thin air and handing it to Daffy Duck) wherein, in the make-believe cartoon world, no one ever gets hurt, just as Scanlon’s bomb only causes damage in his mind’s eye.
In another scene Bromden describes the voices of attendants as “forced and too quick on the comeback to be real talk–more like cartoon comedy speech” (33). In cartoon talk one-liners trip over one-liners, as in the first conversation Harding has with McMurphy where witty lines fly back and forth from one “Bull Goose Loony” to another (19). Another comedy technique used in cartoons is violence–make-believe violence in which only temporary damage is done. When the technicians in the novel say of Taber, “Check his head–we may find evidence of a need for brainwork” (35), a funny line in itself, Chief Bromden thinks of “Punch and Judy acts where it’s supposed to be funny to see the puppet beat up by the devil” (35). There is violence in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and death, but much of the violence causes no damage when damage should occur (51).
Even the physical attributes of some Saturday morning loonies seem to closely resemble the characters in Kesey’s novel. For instance, compare Yosemite Sam with McMurphy. Both have the attributes of a satirical American cowboy. Yosemite has red hair and always wears a Lone Ranger mask. McMurphy has red hair and is referred to as a Lone Ranger (295). When he’s upset, Yosemite puffs up and gets bigger. His spurs jangle when he swaggers across the floor. Bromden says of McMurphy, “We make him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap (305). Both characters also have the tendency to break into song. I have to describe Yosemite as “risible and fallible by virtue of his over-aggressiveness” and his easily galled and consternated, anything-you-can-do-l-can-do-better desire to prove his gumption and gusto”. McMurphy