Mack Essay, Research Paper
“Do I look like a sane man?” That’s the question Randall Patrick McMurphy asks during his first Group Meeting, and there’s no question that for most readers the answer will be a quick and resounding “Yes.” McMurphy’s sanity takes the ward by storm: none of the patients have met anyone like him, except perhaps the Chief, who sees in this red-headed Irishman a hint of his Indian father’s humor and bravery. Where the other patients are timid and quiet, McMurphy is cocky and loud; where they are unable to do more than snicker, his healthy laughter shakes the walls; where they are sexually repressed, he is a self-proclaimed (and, by the evidence, genuine) champion lover. Years of hard living are etched in his face; to the hallucination-prone Chief, even his hands can transmit power to make the Chief’s own hands larger. The title McMurphy claims, Bull Goose Looney, with its connotations of strength and freedom, seems perfectly suited for him.
Much of Cuckoo’s Nest is devoted to showing how McMurphy teaches the rest of the patients to be sane. What does this sanity consist of? Above all, it is the ability to laugh, both at yourself and at a world that is often ludicrous and cruel. Says Chef Bromden, “He knows 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.” He may brag, but he never takes himself too seriously. When George Sorenson refuses to shake his “dirty” hand, McMurphy doesn’t take offense, merely jokes, “Hand, how do you suppose that old fellow knew all the evil you been into?” And he accepts himself. Where Harding is embarrassed by his “feminine” hands, McMurphy is at ease with his gentler side- his fine handwriting, for example.
Another mark of the sane man is sexual health, for both McMurphy and Kesey see power in sexual terms. One of the ways the Nurse and other members of the Combine destroy men is by making them impotent; the Chief’s return to sanity is signalled in part by an erection; Billy will defeat his domineering mother (and Nurse Ratched) when he loses his virginity to Candy. Equally important is a disregard of society’s rules and conventions- it’s no coincidence that the same girl who first taught McMurphy about sex also taught him that rules (in this case the rule that every sexual encounter must be followed or preceded by marriage) need not be obeyed. Whether he is brushing his teeth with soap powder, letting Martini play his own wild style of Monopoly, or watching a non-existent baseball game on a blank television screen, McMurphy never lets rules- or even common sense- stand in the way of good fun.
Cuckoo’s Nest is set in Oregon, and it is very much a novel of the American West: the dream of the free and open frontier is contrasted with the drab and regimented world of the hospital. And just as Chief Bromden recalls the Indian past, McMurphy is in many ways a modernized version of a hero of the old West. He’s described repeatedly as a movie cowboy, striding towards a showdown, and at the end of the novel, as the Lone Ranger leaving the town he has saved from the bad guys. He may lack a college education, but he has native intelligence: he knows a pecking party when he sees one.
This, then, is the McMurphy who enters the ward at the start of the book. But he is not a static character; he changes considerably during his time at the hospital. The court that sent him to the hospital ruled him a psychopath; while his diagnosis is so obviously harsh even Dr. Spivey doubts it, we may suspect that it contains just a bit of truth. Among the characteristics of a psychopathic personality are extreme self-centeredness and a disregard for moral and social responsibilities. Certainly McMurphy shows some of those characteristics in the early portion of the book. He came to the hospital only to seek an easier life than he had at the work farm, and at first the battles he fights are fought solely in pursuit of that easy life. They may benefit the other patients, but first they benefit him: it’s McMurphy who wants to play cards in the tub room, who wants to watch the World Series. Even the Chief suspects that McMurphy has escaped the Combine because he has “no one to care about, which is what made him free enough to be a good con man.”
The same strong instinct for self-preservation that makes him break the rules also makes him obey when he discovers Nurse Ratched’s power to keep him in the hospital. But then something happens. One of the patients, Cheswick, who has idolized McMurphy, grows despondent when McMurphy surrenders. He kills himself. McMurphy begins to see that, against his will, he has been saddled with the responsibility of being a hero to men who desperately need a hero. The rest of the book shows him slowly but steadily rising to that responsibility, teaching the other patients- through basketball games and fishing trips- not to let their fears paralyze them. Unfortunately, his generosity is still mixed with a desire for personal gain: he lets George Sorenson go on the fishing trip for $5, not for free; he makes the Chief keep his bargain to lift the control panel so McMurphy can win bets; he demands money from Billy for Candy’s visit. This residue of greed convinces the patients that McMurphy was never anything more than a conman. Only the Chief understands the truth: that at great cost to himself, McMurphy has become the hero the patients require. Their need for him is what keeps his worn out body and spirit going; it’s what pushes him to fight for George in the shower, suffer shock treatments, refuse escape until Billy has his date with Candy, and, finally, suicidally, attack Nurse Ratched.
Throughout the book, but particularly in the scene where the Chief and McMurphy undergo shock treatment, parallels are drawn between McMurphy and Christ. While for some it may verge on blasphemy to call this gambler and sinner Christlike, it is true that McMurphy has sacrificed himself for others. In the end the Combine scores what seems to be a complete victory over him; a lobotomy has destroyed him even before the Chief puts an end to his life. Only through the Chief and the other patients who, thanks to McMurphy’s courageous example, leave the hospital to fight the Combine elsewhere, does McMurphy live on.
A ratchet: a piece of machinery. That’s one of the most important clues to the character of the Nurse who bears a similar name. Nurse Ratched (the name also carries unpleasant echoes of rat and wretched) has transformed herself from a human being into a machine that demands complete control and perfect order from everyone. For the book’s other major characters, McMurphy and Chief Bromden, we’re given detailed accounts of their life before they entered the hospital. For Nurse Ratched we’re given only the barest outlines: that she is about 50, unmarried, a former Army nurse. Why so little? Because the hospital is her life: she has shaped it in her image, it has shaped her in its image.
So powerful are the Chief’s descriptions of the Nurse as a mechanism of terror, able to swell to tractor size and control the hospital with beams of hate, that it’s easy to see the Nurse as the embodiment of pure evil. And because the world of the Cuckoo’s Nest is in many ways a cartoon world, with good and evil clearly defined, that view is in large part correct. Still, Cuckoo’s Nest would not be so effective a criticism of the modern world if its characters didn’t bear some resemblances to the people we see around us every day. The Nurse is not insane: she could not have risen to her position of power if she were. Nor is she unique in her drive for complete control-she represents forces that influence all of us.
If we were to visit the ward on one of the public relations man’s tours, we would probably see the Nurse simply as the strict middle-aged lady Harding describes, the lady the PR man calls Mother Ratched. She smiles, speaks softly to her aides, bids good morning to her patients. She appears to have the best interests of her ward at heart. She is the voice of common sense: after all, her patients are mentally disturbed; they need some control in their lives.
The Nurse’s menace comes from the fact that she has convinced herself that if some control is good, complete control is better. In fact, it’s essential, and any threats to it must be destroyed. By putting her goal of complete power ahead of everything else, she perverts the good intentions of the hospital, hiring aides who abuse the patients, and doctors too timid to cure anyone, setting patients spying on one another and turning a useful therapeutic technique, the Group Meeting, into an orgy of shameful psychological back-biting. She destroys the patients’ confidence in themselves so they will never be strong enough to leave her.
There’s no question that the repression of sexuality is an important part of the Nurse’s tactics. She has denied her own sexuality by hiding her large breasts beneath a stiff white uniform and McMurphy points out that no one could become sexually aroused by her. If, as Harding says, the patients are victims of a matriarchy, Nurse Ratched is certainly the head matriarch. But even McMurphy comes to see that the Nurse’s sexual repression is only part of a larger problem- desire for complete control over nature and man that the Nurse shares with much of the modern world.
Our guide to the world of the Cuckoo’s Nest is the towering Chief Bromden, son of a Columbia Indian Chief, Tee Ah Millatoona (The-Pine-That-Stands-Tallest-on-the-Mountain), and a white woman, Mary Louise Bromden. In many ways One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is as much the Chief’s story as it is McMurphy’s, and he is as much its hero. For all of the battles McMurphy fights in the ward are fought by the Chief as well; of all the patients, the Chief shows the greatest courage in fighting against the longest odds, and it is only because of his final victory that we are able to hear the story of Cuckoo’s Nest at all.
The Chief may seem at first an impossible narrator to know. A man who has for years pretended to be a deaf-mute, his mind is a jumble of seemingly random, terrifying sights and sounds: people swell and shrink according to their power over others; like machines, they shoot electric beams at those who stand in their way. In moments of greatest stress, the Chief’s mind becomes entirely clouded by a dense fog. Only when he recalls his Indian boyhood are his thoughts at all clear, and even these happy memories tend to be shattered by his fear of the present.
Yet as we come to make sense of the Chief’s visions and nightmare, we see they paint a weirdly accurate picture of the hospital and of the illness that sent him there. He has been damaged by an organization he calls the Combine; in fact, the Combine is just his unstable view of forces that affect every one of us. In the modern world, machines destroy nature, efficiency comes before beauty, and robot-like cooperation is more valued than individual freedom. As an Indian, the Chief was particularly vulnerable. His white mother forced her husband and son to take her name; she helped arrange the sale of the Indian village for a government hydroelectric dam. After these childhood defeats, come many others. Though intelligent and schooled, he can only find menial jobs. His experiences in World War II are so frightening they form the basis for his hallucinations of the fog machine that operates on the ward. He sees his father “shrink”- in his mind, the diminishing is a literal, physical one- from a proud Indian Chief to a man stripped of his name, able to live only off charity from the government that ruined his life. By the time we meet him, the Chief, too, is “small,” though his height remains six- feet seven inches. To the aides he is a baby, a household object, as evidenced by their nickname for him, Chief Broom.
McMurphy arrives at a crucial point in the Chief’s life. The Chief has endured years in the hospital, years of self-imposed silence, years of abuse. He’s undergone over 200 shock treatments. Clearly, he is a strong man. But now, we see, his strength is near its end. He tells us, “One of these days I’ll quit straining and let myself go completely, lose myself in the fog.” McMurphy’s arrival at first seems able only to postpone that day slightly. The Chief is entertained and impressed by the new patient, who reminds him of his father, but he’s also frightened of him. The freedom that McMurphy offers is as much a threat as it is a blessing- and the Chief reacts to it as he does to all threats, by cowering in the fog. In fact, by the time McMurphy is battling for his right to watch the World Series, the stress within the Chief is so great it seems he will at last lose himself in the fog completely. It’s easier to be lost than to be sensitive to all the pain and injury the Combine has caused, pain and injury that neither he nor anyone else can heal.
But the Chief does not lose himself. Instead, he raises his hand to vote with McMurphy. This is a tribute to McMurphy’s strength of character, but it is also a tribute to the Chief’s. For as the Chief’s hand rises, he at first claims McMurphy is pulling it with invisible strings, just as Nurse Ratched might have. Then he corrects himself: “No. That’s not the truth. I lifted it myself.” The fact is that the Chief possesses his own reserves of courage- it just took McMurphy to remind him that they were there.
Once this breakthrough is made, the Chief slowly but steadily heals. The fog and the hallucinations come less often, and he is able to remember more of his past and to think about it rationally. With McMurphy he gives up the pretense of being deaf and dumb, allowing himself to share his pain with someone. He recognizes that despite life’s anguish, he has to laugh- a sure sign of sanity.
Gradually, too, the man who said he could help no one realizes he must help his rescuer. As the Chief is regaining his power to fight back against the Combine, McMurphy is losing his. When, in the shower, McMurphy fights to protect George Sorenson, the Chief joins in, even though he knows it will lead him to another appointment on the electroshock therapy table. The Chief is able to survive even this: there will be no more fog.
At the end of the book, the roles of McMurphy and the Chief are reversed. McMurphy is weary and near defeat; the Chief has gained strength. Just as the Chief can lift the control panel McMurphy couldn’t, he will make the escape McMurphy cannot. After the Chief has smothered his friend out of love for him, he tries on his cap- and finds it’s too small. The Chief has regained his true size, and he will be able to fight the Combine on another battlefield.
The best educated of the men on the ward, Dale Harding is president of the Patients’ Council when McMurphy is admitted to the hospital. He serves a useful purpose, both for McMurphy and for us: while the Chief with his hallucinations may give us an unusual insight into the hospital, Harding gives us the sorts of rational explanations we’re used to hearing. It’s Harding who tells McMurphy how Nurse Ratched is able to maintain her power, how electroshock therapy works, what a lobotomy does to people. It’s Harding who gives the new patients and the reader the understanding of the matriarchy Nurse Ratched directs.
Clever and well-read, Harding can talk smoothly about psychiatric theory and make joking allusions to the works of William Faulkner. Yet he is proof that intelligence alone is not a sufficient defense against oppression. Harding lacks courage, and lacking courage he can only use his intelligence to deny unpleasant truths, to flee from battles. When McMurphy points out the viciousness of the Nurse and her Group Meetings, Harding defends them eloquently, snidely condemning McMurphy for his lack of education, even though he knows (and later admits) McMurphy is completely correct. Harding seems to stand on the sidelines watching each act of rebellion McMurphy undertakes, hopeful that the new patient will fail. Perhaps his feeble status is indicated most vividly in his laugh- or rather, in his inability to laugh: the sound he makes is painful, “like a nail being crossbarred out of a plank of green pine.”
As with so many of the patients, Harding’s problem is in large part sexual: ashamed of his effeminacy (symbolized by his graceful, uncontrollable hands), he is terrified of his wife and her accusations of homosexuality and weakness.
Harding’s transformation over the course of the book is almost as striking as the Chief’s. Thanks to McMurphy, he comes to realize that effeminacy is not his real problem: the real problem is his fear of it. Following McMurphy’s example he is able to overcome his fear, to add courage to his intelligence. The healed Harding is in his way nearly as strong a man as the Chief. He sees the necessity of McMurphy’s escape and makes plans for it, and when, unhappily, the escape fails and McMurphy is lobotomized, Harding is able to take on McMurphy’s role as card sharp, jokester, and constant irritant to Nurse Ratched. He comes to deserve the title that he couldn’t win at the book’s start, but which McMurphy bestows on him at the end: Bull Goose Looney. And he is able to leave the hospital in the dignified way he wanted to leave it, met by his wife, ready to start a new life on the outside.
Perhaps the saddest of all Nurse Ratched’s victim in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Billy Bibbit, for he comes so close to not being her victim at all. Sensitive, intelligent, he begins the novel seeming to everyone a mere boy, though in fact he’s more than 30 years old.
The most obvious symptom of the illness that has placed Billy in the hospital is his stutter, which, like the Chief’s fog and Harding’s fluttering hands, grows worse when he is under stress. The stutter forced him out of college and lost him the girl he wanted to marry; interestingly, Billy shares this speech defect, along with an innocence of spirit and a final doom, with another famous Billy of American literature, the title character of Melville’s Billy Budd- the second obvious reference to Melville in the novel. (The first of course is McMurphy’s whale-decorated shorts.)
The stutter, however, is a symptom of a more serious disease: Billy’s inability to grow from a boy into a man. Manhood is defined in this book largely in sexual terms, and the fact that Billy has not lost his virginity though he is past 30 shows that he hasn’t taken command of his life in other ways as well. As he admits, he lacks guts. The reason? He has been dominated by a mother who will not let him grow up (perhaps, it is hinted, because his growing up would be a sign of her own growing old). Definitely a member of Harding’s matriarchy, Mrs. Bibbit has pushed Billy into the hospital; her good friend Nurse Ratched does her best to keep him there.
Just as Billy’s plight is defined sexually, so is his recovery. At first he is embarrassed by McMurphy’s lewd jokes; soon he is flirting with the nurses and making jokes himself. When McMurphy’s prostitute friend, Candy Starr, visits the ward, Billy alone knows how to make her feel at ease with the sort of attention she’s used to: a wolf whistle. And on the fishing trip it’s obvious Billy is more interested in Candy than he is in salmon.
The attempt to achieve a final cure for Billy brings us to the climax of the novel, as McMurphy arranges for him to lose his virginity to Candy. This arrangement ends disastrously. After enjoying a successful night together, Billy and the prostitute are discovered. For a few minutes, McMurphy’s cure seems to have worked. Billy grins fearlessly at Nurse Ratched and wishes her a good morning without stuttering. But in seconds her anger reduces him to a weak “gutless” child again, tongue-tied, begging for her mercy, blaming the situation on everyone but himself. He can’t stand this retreat back to the boy he was before; he commits suicide, as he had twice before threatened to do. His death sends McMurphy into his final, fatal battle with the Nurse.