Literary Essay: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Many protagonists are considered heroes, ranging from Hamlet to Hercules. All of these heroes also did something to earn the honoured title. In today’s society modern heroes have been found, one of which is the traditional Western hero. We also have a hero in Jesus Christ, saviour to some, yet a hero no matter what religion those who look upon him follow. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey uses both of these heroes of today, amalgamating them so that his protagonist displayed characteristics of each. McMurphy, the protagonist, is a character aided in creation by those two images with opposing characteristics, yet McMurphy was also given a characteristic that was shared by the two heroes, a willingness to help people.
Randle Patrick McMurphy is portrayed in the novel as similar to the traditional Western hero. Appearing quite early in the book, he immediately gives the impression of being bound to nothing at all; he was shown as unrestrained from the beginning. Chief Bromden, the narrator, presents evidence of this by describing McMurphy’s laugh as “free and loud”(Kesey p. 16). The Western hero is known to be carefree, and so was McMurphy when he was first admitted as he “laces his fingers over his belly without taking his thumbs out of his pockets,”(Kesey p. 16) a very relaxed poise. McMurphy also appears to be much like the Western hero, a risk taker; he would go to meet a challenge, ready to risk a confrontation, usually with the Big Nurse. One such occasion was when McMurphy rose to meet the Nurse’s confiscation and rationing of cigarettes by breaking her window and taking the cigarettes. The Chief comments on this confrontational aspect of McMurphy’s character when he says of McMurphy:
It was this daring aspect of his character that made him even more distinct. Yet another aspect of McMurphy’s character similar to those of the Western hero is that of being a loner, a person who does not build bonds with the people around themselves. McMurphy was a man who enjoyed staying in places that interested him; if the interest disappeared, he would want to as well. Chief Bromden tells us this much about McMurphy’s past:
McMurphy gave us his reasons for coming to the asylum saying that “nobody was left in that Pendleton Work Farm to make my days interesting anymore, so I requested a transfer.”(Kesey pg.17) McMurphy also displays his desire not to remain in one place, not to have to deal with responsibility. Upon being told by his friend Harding that he “may be a wolf,”(Kesey pg. 63) a wolf that would provide a symbol of inspiration for the inmates, his reaction was to say rather emotionally, “Goddammit, I’m no wolf.”(Kesey pg. 63) This showed his reluctance to deal with the responsibility of leading the inmates, a reluctance to be their sheriff and help them in times of trouble on a permanent basis. Although Kesey portrays McMurphy as this modern hero he also includes a sense of past heroes by mixing in some of the characteristics of Jesus Christ, a very old hero.
Kesey portrays McMurphy as similar to Jesus Christ, creating qualities that contrast those of the Western hero. One example of this special portrait is that McMurphy’s disappearance, contrasting Jesus’ death, is what frees the Acutes. It was because of his sacrifice that the men were freed from the oppression of the Big Nurse; they became more like men and less like rabbits under the control of the wolf, Nurse Ratched. Not only did his attack on the Big Nurse and his disappearance help to reinstate the masculinity of the patients, but it also had the effect of weakening Nurse Ratched. This occurrence was shown by the Chief describing the condition of the ward following McMurphy’s disappearance as a place where the Big Nurse “couldn’t rule with her old power.”(Kesey pg. 269) In other words, her authority over the inmates had diminished because of the way their wills were strengthened by McMurphy’s sacrifice. Other images also hinted towards similarities between Christ and McMurphy. The first of these images would be that the “electro-therapy table is shaped like a crucifix,”(Waldmeir) the table upon which the devastating treatments were administered to McMurphy. Another image, again dealing with EST, was the words McMurphy used during the administration of his treatment, “Do I get a crown of thorns?” This parallels the crown of thorns given to Christ before he is nailed upon his crucifix. One of the most important references to the story of Christ was Kesey’s repeated reminder of the importance of hands. In the Bible it was Pontilus Pilate who tried to rid himself of the responsibility and guilt of having to deal with the “King of the Jews.” He did not want see such blood on his hands, and thus, as one Disturbed inmate put it, “I wash my hands of the whole deal.”(Kesey pg. 234) The Christ portrayal is shown again in the way Kesey has the Acutes represent Christ’s Disciples. There are numerous examples of this analogy. One of which is the way one Acute was told to become a “fisher of men.”(Kesey pg. 198) This would make McMurphy a fisher of men, catching disciples to make them like himself, a point that is brought about during the fishing trip at a time when “McMurphy (was) surrounded by his dozen people.”(Kesey pg. 213) Another similarity between the Acutes and the disciples was the reason why they each cared for their leader, he was who he was. The Chief tells as much when he talks of wanting to touch McMurphy “because he’s who he is.”(Kesey pg. 188) Even more proof of this was shown before McMurphy’s return three weeks after his violent behaviour, a number paralleling the three days Christ took to return following his death. The Chief again shows the way they, the Acutes, care for McMurphy when he tells of the Big Nurse’s return to the ward, “We all left the tub room and came out to meet her, to ask about McMurphy.” This display of concern was one without any selfish motives, a display of genuine concern for a man who was more than a friend. The final point that causes the Acutes to be truly parallel to the 12 Disciples is that one of each of their number betrayed their mentor. They were the one’s responsible for his capture and upon realisation of what act had been committed they exacted the cruel punishment of death upon themselves. In the Bible the character was Judas, Kesey creates this parallel in Billy Bibbit. Reading over the section of the novel preceding McMurphy’s actions, we find that Billy is the one responsible for the blame falling upon McMurphy for all that had happened the night of the party, “M-M-McMurphy! He did!”(Kesey pg. 264) Thus McMurphy is given characteristics of Christ, in addition to those of the Western hero, and yet Kesey also gives McMurphy and additional characteristic, one found in both of these heroes.
Kesey brings the two images of Jesus Christ and the Western hero together, through McMurphy as he portrays characteristics of both heroes. Jesus Christ, the Western hero, and McMurphy all show a willingness to help someone. McMurphy was able to help others, as well as himself, in a number of different ways. One of the ways he did this was by being able to sacrifice himself for the benefit and freedom of others. One profound example of this was his fight with the ward attendants, “the black boys,”(Kesey pg. 11) for George’s sake. Yet the ultimate example of this ability to sacrifice himself was his attack on the Big Nurse; the attack being executed in support of the inmates:
We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it? it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting.(Kesey pg. 267)
His attack was not motivated by any possible benefit for himself; his attack was driven by the force of the patients’ need for freedom, as well as his sentimental feelings for them. He had known for quite a while that he was waging a war against an invincible enemy. Chief Bromden tells how McMurphy began looking “the way Papa finally did when he came to realise that he couldn’t beat”(Kesey pg. 150) society, the Combine, or society’s figurehead in the asylum, the Big Nurse. McMurphy gave up his war for a short while upon the same realisation, he realised he was committed, but began the war anew with a renewed fervour. His motives for his actions had changed from those of the Western hero, a “hatred of authority,” “a lust for life,”(Waldmeir) and self-interest, to those of Christ, care and concern for those around him. Thus he continued his war, albeit a war he could not profit from. Instead, he paid the ultimate price, made the ultimate sacrifice, ended his life while his body lived, died as a vegetable because of a lobotomy. This progression in his attitudes is shown through an in-depth look at his story. His first appearance had him described as free-loving and free-spirited. He matched the Western hero for motives, leading himself along in life with his “hard-headed self-interest.”(Waldmeir) All of this was shown when he denied the black boy with the thermometer, and when he laughed:
Thus, the fact that McMurphy did things because he wanted to is shown to us, a “hard-headed self-interest.”(Waldmeir) The change in this attitude is accompanied by a passage of time. Time passed by and he began to care more for the inmates as he became more involved in their lives. His self-interest expanded, and, thus, he began to do things for the patients, although not necessarily for his benefit. As he gains Christ’s characteristics
a new motive subsumes the other three: a feeling of responsibility to and for the inmates of the nest, a desire, or need, to protect their vitals from the nurse’s shears. (Waldmeir)
His actions became motivated by his desire to prevent the inmates from falling deeper into rabbithood, to protect whatever manhood remained in them. McMurphy began to do things for the inmates, sacrificing himself, the way Jesus or the Western hero would have, helping the inmates because he wanted to.
With the aid of the two images, Jesus Christ and the Western hero, McMurphy’s hatred of authority, his self-interest, and his concern for others became apparent. Also apparent was his willingness to help people, something common in both images. Kesey used the images in such a way that the self-consciousness of one and the open hearted quality of the other remained separate from each other, yet stayed in the same character. This technique of keeping opposing characteristics separate from each other in the same character allows a broader more round character to be created. It is something that may be used in many protagonists allowing different types of heroes, that is, heroes that are combinations of others.