Intended for a general audience, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been popular with high school and college students because of its vivid prose, its sharply drawn and readily comprehensible characters, and its theme of self-reliance and self-respect.
This theme can be clearly seen in Kesey’s presentation of McMurphy as a Christ figure. McMurphy is crucified on a cross-shaped table when he undergoes electroshock therapy. The party that he and the others have on the ward is a kind of Last Supper, with pills and codeine-laced punch taking the place of bread and wine. Candy is a Magdalene, Billy Bibbit is a Judas, Nurse Ratched and her staff are Pharisees, and the twelve people whom McMurphy takes on the fishing trip are Disciples. Yet, there is a significant difference between McMurphy’s story and the Christian Gospels. According to the Gospels, when a storm blew up on the sea of Galilee, the Disciples awakened Jesus, who miraculously calmed the waters. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when McMurphy’s followers on the fishing trip ask for help, he stands in the doorway and laughs. In the Christian worldview, salvation comes by the grace of God; in McMurphy’s worldview, salvation can only come from within each individual.
A gambler, brawler, ladies’ man, and drifter, McMurphy also resembles figures from folklore such as the Roving Gambler and the Wagoner’s Lad, about whom he sings his first morning on the ward. He reminds Harding of the Lone Ranger. In an era when even the West has been settled and civilized, McMurphy makes Nurse Ratched’s ward a last frontier. The great American Dream that he pursues is the existential authenticity of nonconformity, or even of madness. (True madness, unlike neurosis, has its own authenticity, at least in this novel.) The worldview that presents nonconformity as such an unquestioned ideal divides the world and the people in it absolutely. Individualists are “good guys,” and representatives of restraining or civilizing forces are oppressive “bad guys.” Readers must decide whether such an antithetical worldview is a simplification that clarifies important truths or an oversimplification that distorts reality.
Paradoxically, this novel, which so clearly challenges oppression, uses sexist and racist language. Even more significant is that the novel generally characterizes women and African Americans unsympathetically. While the little Japanese nurse on the Disturbed Ward might provide an attractive role model for young female readers, the novel’s most vivid characterizations of women are all negative: McMurphy’s nymphomaniac, underage lover; the stereotypical prostitutes with hearts of gold and minds of plastic; and overwhelming, mechanistic, hypocritical, and emasculating figures such as Billy Bibbit’s mother, Chief Bromden’s mother, and, above all, Nurse Ratched. Similarly, although the African American night orderly, Mr. Turkle, is presented as relatively benign, he is also shown to be an incompetent substance abuser; and although Nurse Ratched’s day orderlies—Washington, Williams, and Geever—are presented as victims of oppression themselves, they are also characterized much more emphatically as hate-filled, perverted, sadistic instruments of oppression in their turn. While the novel’s language referring to minorities and women surely may be taken as representative of the American society in the late 1950’s, the pattern of these characterizations is unfortunate and not in keeping with the novel’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment of Chief Bromden’s problems with cultural assimilation and its championship of oppressed persons in general.
Personifying Good and Evil
On the opposing side, Christlike imagery fills Bromden’s descriptions of the hospital. The catatonic Ellis is nailed to the wall each morning in order to keep him upright, and patients receiving shock therapy are hooked up in a similar fashion (with accompanying caps that are referred to multiple times as a crown of thorns). While it is easy to see the suffering of the patients as being Christlike, it is important to remember that this is Bromden’s descriptions, and not Kesey’s. Bromden sees the noble sacrifice of the patients against the faceless Combine, but seems not to truly understand the suffering of the individuals underneath.
In his article “The Breasts of Big Nurse: Satire versus Narrative in Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’," Laszlo Géfin criticizes director Milos Forman’s assertion that the Ratched of his film was more humanized than the monster portrayed in the novel. Géfin states instead that the Ratched of the novel is not only the victimizer of the patients in the hospital, but also a victim herself. Yet Bromden’s reductive worldview does not allow for the nurse’s allegorical characteristics to be submerged in a human portrayal, just as McMurphy’s human failings (his racism, misogyny, anger, exhaustion) are ignored so he can fulfill the role of the patients’ savior.
After the sympathetic Billy Bibbit commits suicide at the climax, Kesey pulls back the veil of satire that has informed most of the novel up to this point. The game has stopped being fun, there is no prize left to win or worth winning. The patients (most of whom are in the hospital voluntarily) sign themselves out and return to the world at large. The audience is given one last glimpse at both Ratched and McMurphy, Bromden’s avatars of evil and good. Yet they are no longer the towering, larger-than-life figures that served to inspire and terrify both the patients and the audience. Ratched is bruised and broken, unable to speak or flash her evil smile and capable only of written communication. McMurphy, lobotomized after attacking Ratched, is a waxen doll unable to move. Tellingly, the remaining patients refuse to acknowledge the husk wheeled back into the ward as their leader. Instead, they guffaw that it is a poor simulacrum, a creation designed to fool them into thinking the unsurpassable McMurphy has been brought down.
Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.
Literary criticism of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.