Randle McMurphy

’s Role As A Savior In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cookoo’s Nest Essay, Research Paper

Randle McMurphy’s role as a savior in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest

Thesis Statement:Through his laughter and struggle with the Big Nurse, Randle McMurphy shows the other characters in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest that they can think and act for themselves.


A.Preview main points

B.Thesis statement

II.Ward before McMurphy’s actions

A. Overbearing Nurse Ratched

B. Submissive patients

C. McMurphy’s call to action

III.Power of laughter

A.Initial use

B.Affecting patients

C.Affecting Nurse Ratched

IV.Power struggle with Nurse Ratched

A. McMurphy’s choices and actions

B. Nurse Ratched’s responses

C. The McMurphy paradox

V.Ward after McMurphy

A.Patients independence

B.Nurse Ratched shattered

C.McMurphy dead


A.Review main points

B.Restate thesis

There are many types of oppression in the world today. People are oppressed because of race, sex, religion, and income, to name a few. One reason that many individuals do not readily recognize, however, is oppression based on, and of the mental state of a person. Laughter and thought, along with a new point of view can help those who are mentally oppressed to realize their state and to act against the oppression and oppressors. Ken Kesey gives readers a clear example of this situation in one of his better known novels. Through his laughter and struggle with the Big Nurse, Randle McMurphy shows the other characters in One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest that they can think and act for themselves.

Before McMurphy arrives on the ward, Nurse Ratched is in complete control of the patients. They do exactly what she wants them to and instead of helping them to leave the ward, she keeps them there by making them feel insecure about themselves. They spy on each other and write “theraputic information,” as Nurse Ratched puts it, in a log book for the supposed help of their peers. However, all the patients know that the Big Nurse is simply attempting to get enough information to send the patients to the Main Building where they will be subject to many terrors- shock therapy and lobotomy being the worst (Kesey 14). Another way the Big Nurse and the others in charge control the patients is by taking away the patients humanity by labeling them not as “people,” but by the type of insanity they have (Malin 39). This fear keeps many of the patients who would have left the ward long ago stuck in an inescapable situation because they fear the world that the Big Nurse has labeled them out of (Sullivan 229). McMurphy first surveys the scene in the ward, he is immediately aware of the control the Big Nurse possesses and how she has turned the patients against one another (Kesey 24).

As McMurphy senses the patients’ submissiveness and willingness to stay under Nurse Ratched’s control, he feels compelled to challenge her position. Nurse Ratched understands his challenge and realizes that it is a major threat, “I’m afraid?that is exactly what the new patient is planning: to take over” (25). This passage foreshadows many of the future events in the book. McMurphy will challenge the nurse to help the patients see that there is another possible way to do things because he believes that they should be individuals, not simply walking robots under the control of an all powerful head nurse.

Laughter is one of McMurphy’s strongest weapons against Nurse Ratched. Initially, laugher gives him “safety” against the nurses attempts to take away his humanity and spirit, but as long as he can laugh, the Big Nurse cannot make him like the other patients- scared of the world and of each other (Tanner 32). As the narrator puts it, “He’s safe as long as he can laugh, he thinks, and it works pretty fair” (Kesey 113). McMurphy continues to keep a calm, happy, laughing demeanor that the patients see. They begin to understand the “safety” he has from the Big Nurse and slowly start to take the chance of laughter. In the end, this spreads to the other patients and works as an opposite to the control Nurse Ratched possesses. The more the patients laugh, the more human they become (Tanner 39).

McMurphy inevitably falls into a power struggle with Nurse Ratched. He vies for control over the patients by engaging in a sort of “game” with the Big Nurse. He continuously does things to bother or annoy her, but nothing to the extent of being considered a problem by the higher authorities. For instance, he lines the inside of the toilet with obscene comments for her to see (Kesey 90). He doesn’t want Nurse Ratched to be able to use her weapons, but at the same time, must continue to fight against her. The more he fights against the Big Nurse, the less he is able to back down.

As the struggle continues McMurphy must make a choice. He finds out that there is a difference between those patients who are committed, forced to stay in the ward until the head nurse feels they are ready to face the world, and those who are voluntary (161). McMurphy must decide to continue the fight and risk never being released or to become sly and “cagey” like the patients were at his arrival (186). This choice is the major turning point in the book.

While McMurphy is pondering his fate, Nurse Ratched continues to act as she has the entire time. She must keep up appearances and not look weak so that the patients will continue to respect and follow her. She knows that McMurphy is trying to publicly embarrass her and that embarrassment would mean a win for McMurphy and a major loss her. She must also continue to entice him to act even more profanely so that she will be able to give him shock therapy, or worse, a lobotomy. McMurphy decides to continue his campaign against Nurse Ratched and to attempt to free the other patients. He shows them how to be themselves and how to interact in society by simply being someone from society who will accept and befriend them.

McMurphy is somewhat of a paradox. He, on one hand, helps the patients to find themselves and to fight authority and control, but on the other hand, he himself is a controlling figure. The major difference between him and the Big Nurse is that he nurtures, but makes those he controls think for themselves, while Nurse Ratched controls without question, smothering free thought (Sullivan 278).

McMurphy’s effort to save the patients ends up being a Pyrrhic victory for himself. Through his guidance and thought all of the patients that were reachable were “saved.” They found the strength necessary to leave the ward and broke the bonds they had to Nurse Ratched. She is totally powerless over the patients that McMurphy helped by the end of the novel. McMurphy, however, sacrifices himself for the rest of the patients. He must resort to force to win, and in doing so lets the Big Nurse use her weapons on him. He is lobotomized and killed out of pity by another patient (307).

Randle McMurphy enters a ward full of patients who do not have any respect for themselves and do not have the strength to function in society because of oppression by a controlling Nurse Ratched. He gives the patients a reason to try to find the power to leave and a yearning to once again experience the life of a “normal” person. Through the power of laughter and his struggles with Nurse Ratched, he is able to show them that they had the strength to live in the everyday world all along, they just could not find it because of Nurse Ratched’s control.

Works Cited

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest. New York: The Viking Press, 1964.

Malin, Irving. “Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.” Critique. (Febuary 1962): 81-84. Rpt. in One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Ed. John Clark Pratt. New York: The Viking Press, 1973. 429-434.

Martin, Terrence. “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest and the High Cost of Living.” Modern Fiction Studies. (Spring 1973): 43-55. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1976. 314-316.

Sullivan, Ruth. “Big Mama, Big Papa, and Little Sons in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.” Literature and Psychology. (January 1975): 34-44. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Eds. Carolyn Riley and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1976. 278-279.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

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