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Redefining the idea of 'insanity' in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest part 2

Updated on May 8, 2013

This is the second part to an article I wrote about how One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest treats the idea of being insane. You can check out part one here.

McMurphy’s frienship with the men drives him to act even more radical than during his first week at the asylum. Building upon his established routines of walking around the showers wearing only shorts to his witty exchanges with the nurse, he sucessfully organizes a fishing trip where he manages to escape the world of the hospital for a while, as well as spend quality time with the men he has come to love. During the trip, there’s nothing false about McMurphy. He sits back, letting his comrades take the center stage. He watches the guys struggle to reel in the fish, the doctor searching confused for his lost glasses while McMurphy laughs:

“Because 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 knows there’s a painful side; he knows [the Chief’s] thumb hurts and his girl friend has bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.”

But soon his laughter and power transcend over to the others and they share a genuine laugh for the first time, the kind of laughter: “ that rang out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave.”

"But now I'm stronger than yesterday"

group therapy sessions ain't so bad now eh?
group therapy sessions ain't so bad now eh? | Source

Inspired by McMurphy’s courage the men grow in confidence and redeem their masculinity. While McMurphy is away receiving electroshock therapy treatments, Harding makes snarky comments during the group therapy session that dumbfounds the nurse. Billy becomes confident enough to take a woman to bed during the secret midnight booze party. During that same fishing trip when the group stop by the gas station, McMurphy shows them that their apparent craziness can be used as an asset. Seeing the guys in their green hospital scrubs, the gas station workers begin to mock them, treating them as if they are pathetic. When the guys remain silent, McMurphy steps in, tells a bluff that the workers should be watching their backs because the men are the most insane criminals from the asylum and it wouldn’t be wise to mess with them. With a renewed confidence, the guys start to act like “cocky as fighting roosters and selling orders to the service station guys to check the air in the spare and wipe the windows and scratch that bird dropping off the hood if you please, just like [they] owned the show.”

scene after the world series victory? not sure...
scene after the world series victory? not sure... | Source

Because of McMurphy’s unconditional friendship, the Chief regains his lost voice and gets the courage to speak for the first time in years. Upon hearing the Chief’s voice, McMurphy shares a story about a time when he too stopped talking because he felt as though he was being treated like an invisible. Chief Bromden confides to McMurphy about feeling indeadequate over his own abilities and how concerned he feels over McMurphy’s safety because he continues to shake up the Combine order. But McMurphy eases the Chief’s worries as well as promises him that he’ll make the Chief return to his “full-size.” McMurphy’s promise becomes fulfilled at the end of the story when the Chief lifts the control panel, breaks the window and escapes the institution. As McMurphy’s humor and charisma enpower the men, it drives McMurphy further away from his true self, until as Boardman writes : “His tragic fate is to become fatally dependent on the men, to act in a way that makes clear that he is under the control of their needs and desires.”

Sacrificial lamb

"We couldn't stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself...It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out" ~ Chief Bromden

In the climax of the novel, McMurphy becomes ‘crazy’ in a sense that he loses sight of himself as a trade off to saving the men. The book appears to be self-aware that McMurphy will become the sacrificial lamb in the power struggle between the men and the Combine. After McMurphy disobeys the nurse, she mentions to the doctors that if they send him away now, the man will appear to be a “saint” and sees that even without McMurphy directly in the ward, his presence “[is] growing bigger than ever…growing almost into a legend”. McMurphy himself, appears to be aware of the sacrifice it will take on him to liberate his fellowship from the society’s clutches. Before his first electroshock therapy session, McMurphy is strapped down to the table in a position as if he were being crucified, McMurphy notes his situation with a witty comment : “Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?” Critics have pointed out that McMurphy can be interpreted as a kind of Christ figure: the twelve men that follow McMurphy down on the fishing trip are reminiscent of Jesus’ twelve disciples, which makes the novel “ in a sense [a] gospel of McMurphy”. After the booze euphoria settles down, the men begin to fear the consequences of their midnight drinking party. Harding makes a suggestion that McMurphy escape the institution with the two whores, but McMurphy refuses to leave unless the guys come along with him. Harding makes an observation that McMurphy has indeed become ‘crazy’ that “There’s something else that drives people, strong people like you, my friend down that road…It is us.”

So is McMurphy a Christ figure? depends...
So is McMurphy a Christ figure? depends... | Source

According to Boardman, the key to McMurphy’s tragic fate lie in that he “[lost] his personality in the other men...[they] turned the independence of Mac into the only kind of weakness that could have destroyed him: the ability to care about others.” It is McMurphy’s feelings of camaraderie for the guys that pushes him to make that final move: violently attack the nurse as if to murder her, dooming him of all chances of leaving the institution without scathe. McMurphy the self-sufficient con man, the individual who said “I’ve got worries of my own…Quit bugging me, goddammit!” goes against his values to work for a cause that will liberate individuals for many generations. The Big Nurse orders a lobotomy for McMurphy, then displays him as a manikin as part of the nurse’s plan to maintain order. However, after McMurphy’s operation most of the men check out of the hospital. Because of their savior’s actions, the men are filled with renewed confidence and feel assured enough that they can face the world on their own. The Chief smashes a panel through the window to escape the asylum, one final proof that the men have grown in strength that the Combine’s forces cannot stop their virility. Demonstrating to society that they are all individuals worthy of a place in the rest of society, the men confirm that they are the victors.

Redefining the idea of 'insanity' in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest part 2 by StellaSee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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