Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest can the figure of McMurphy be said to offer realistic alternatives to the conformity of America in the 1950s?

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This essay will show that the character of McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (16) does offer realistic alternatives to the conformity of 150s America. The essay will achieve this through an examination of the culture of the time, how the author of the novel, Ken Kesey, developed the McMurphy character so as to become a symbol of non-conformity and how through similar developments, the non-conformity of ideals, principals and thoughts became a reality during the 150s and 160s of American counter culture. The essay will also demonstrate that although McMurphy can be seen to be ultimate symbol of enforced authoritarian conformity at the end of the novel, the influence of his particular brand of non-conformist ideals continued to be carried forward in those patients who managed to ‘free’ themselves from the restraints of the institution. Yet the essay will also demonstrate that ultimately the system against which those of the institution are rebelling, continues to survive as the dominant influence in society. At the time during which the novel is set, it is important to understand the social and cultural environment in which a majority of Americans were living, in order to appreciate those social ‘norms’ against which McMurphy can be seen to be rebelling.

America of the 150s was a nation undergoing significant economic, social and political changes which, following the Depression of the 10s and the War years of the 140s, left the country as a whole in a state of paradoxical flux. This can be seen to have been demonstrated in the election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 15, who despite turning his attentions to politics following the Second World War - during which he had been a General and Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces for the Invasion of Europe in 145 - disliked politics and politicians equally. His was an administration which oversaw a marked increase in urbanisation, a growth in corporate business, a religious revival, economic expansion and consumer growth . Yet contrary to a feeling of safety which might have been expected to have arisen during such potentially prosperous times, Americans were paranoid. They feared that all that they had gained through years of depravity was being threatened, mainly through the perceived growth of Communist idealism and via the scare mongering of what came to be known as McCarthyism that ended in a seven years “witch hunt” , that as a result the nation was in grave danger of losing this comfortable lifestyle. It was feared that society was under threat from those who wished Americans to conform to the limitations of carte blanche governmental control and thus deprive the people of the freedom and democracy that they cherished. As such, the ward in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ can be seen as a metaphor in as much as it is a microcosm of society in which its inhabitants, prior to the admittance of McMurphy, are held within the authoritarian jurisdiction of Nurse Ratched and, like the world outside, it is a jurisdiction and authority that is built and thrives upon fear. It is only following the arrival of McMurphy that this authoritarian control becomes threatened, as it transpires that a majority of the patients have volunteered to enter the controlled environment of the institution - just as the nation ‘outside’ has democratically volunteered for it’s own controlled environment through the election of its leaders - as the patients cannot live within the accepted norms of the social agenda that exist in the outside world. Therefore the patients can be seen to represent the fears of the American people who are perceived to be turning in growing numbers away from governmental control through fear that their recognised system has become too oppressive, only to discover that there is no tangible alternative to a controlled and autocratic existence. This sense of paranoia is best indicated by the opening words of the book ‘written’ by Chief Bromhead, the novel’s deaf without speech - ‘Dumb Indian’- narrator. They’re out there he claims, meaning that they - those who control the world outside - do not pose a threat to those inside the walls of the institution, as those controllers of the faceless machine Chief calls ‘The Combine’ are only interested in ‘manufacturing’ mass produced consent to sociological conformity. However, what the government of the United States has failed to recognise is the change in expectancy of that society which it has been elected to represent. 150s Society was being culturally challenged throughout America via the advent of Rock ‘N’ Roll, teen-age angst movies, the work of artists such as Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock and by play-writes such as Arthur Miller, all of which can be seen to have protested against the restrictions of the capitalist ethos and the sense of prevailing chaos of the new-atomic age. It is out of this chaos that the character of McMurphy emerges and brings with him the external maelstrom of one who has not conformed in a manner in which that society sees fit and demands of it’s inhabitants.

Randall Patrick McMurphy is the protagonist of the novel. He represents the antithesis of all that control in any form represents via his enthusiasm, vitality and energy, hence the irony in his initials of RPM or Revolutions Per Minute. He appears to be a man out of control and represents the counter-culture of the American nation prevalent at this time. The fact that he allows the court proclaim him to be a “psychopath” so as to escape a prison work farm, is testament to the fact that he is clearly shrewd and determined to escape the oppressive outside world from which he has been sent. It is also clear that any member of a recognised society is taking a gamble in stepping out of that society’s confines. Therefore Kesey has made McMurphy a “gambling fool” who is being punished for breaking the established order required by those who govern. He is also a man free from what he sees as to being any form of guilt, hence his reluctance to take a shower upon his admittance and merely acts naturally as he introduces himself to his fellow patients. So naturally in fact that one of the first things that Chief notices that is particular to this new admission, is that he laughs naturally. It is the first genuine laugh that Chief has heard in years and clearly marks McMurphy as being somewhat different to those within the institution and therefore within society. However, within the confines of recognised normality, that which exists on the ward is anything but ‘normal’ as the usual role of the white dominant male has been replaced by that of the white dominant female with the assistance of coloured aides. Thereby asking the recurring question as to what is normal? As the novel progresses, the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy develops into what can be seen as a battle between bureaucracy and free-will. It is in this that McMurphy is most used to illustrate the alternatives to conformity. Although he can be seen to recognise the need for rules in life as much as there is a need for rules in cards, McMurphy is of the opinion that these rules need not be inflexible. This is illustrated in the game of Monopoly which takes place on the ward in which the patient Martini is given some leeway as to how the game is conducted. Yet to Nurse Ratched, rules -concerning the volume of the music on the ward for example - are set in stone and will not, rather than cannot, be changed . Hence the issue of the Baseball match in which, though McMurphy eventually loses the ‘democratic’ vote of the ward having first tried to change ward policy, he can ultimately be seen to have beaten the system as all of those who voted with him sit down and imagine that they are watching the ball game and are thereby not getting on with their designated chores, thus bringing the ward, and the interior world of the ward, to a standstill. This unorganised act of insubordination demonstrates that the power of popular support can override the decisions of the minority which control such ill informed altruistic policies. The issue also offers the first realistic opportunity for the patients to have a say in what goes on within their society in connection with matters pertaining to the outside world. This in turn changes the parameters of their perceptions and embodies a desire for change that is taking place within American society.

The fishing trip further emboldens the patients as they can be seen to overcome their fears of venturing outside the confines of the institution. Though McMurphy originally sees the organisation of the trip to meet his own personal needs, the opposition provided to his proposal by Nurse Ratched can be seen to have undermined her authority. This is especially true when the ward Doctor is included in the expedition. What Kesey seems to be saying here is that should only a small amount of officialdom be willing to listen to the voices of the people, then significant change can be invoked for the good of the majority. The number of patients far outweigh the number of staff, yet all are held within the authoritarian conformities imposed by the minority number. This can be seen to be representative of the world at large when transferring the numbers of patients to those of the people and those of the ward staff for those of government officials. Yet with the inclusion of the Doctor, the trip goes ahead despite the warnings of The Big Nurse, which have nothing to do with her ‘fears’ for the safety of the patients but rather of Ratched losing control over ‘her’ ward and the way in which it is run. Again this can be seen as a demonstration of the power of popular consensus over bureaucracy. The accepted norms of social conformity - all be it within the limitations of the ward - are being openly challenged and it is authoritarian control which can be seen to conform to the will of the mass. The fear of the outside world to such wholesale change is illustrated on the fishing trip, with the stop at the gas station when the patients are encouraged to use their illnesses so as to achieve their aims. That an overall change is possible however is demonstrated in the change of attitude of those at the dockside, who had been overtly hostile to the group before setting sail, yet welcoming and warm when seeing that no harm had been done and that the group had acquitted themselves well in bringing back such an impressive catch of fish, despite expectations to the contrary. This shows that all new ideas set out by the minority of non-conformists might not necessarily be bad ideas despite any preconceived interpretations, but that in order to find out the majority should at first be willing to listen before casting any such ideas aside. This section of the novel sees the patients confront society and as such, can be seen to transform them into a self reliant body who are worthy of respect as men and as equals to their immediate contemporaries, in this case the fishermen. There is also the religious significance of this section to be taken into consideration. McMurphy has been transformed, via the fishing trip analogy, into something of a Christ like redeemer. The trip has changed from a rapidly growing demonstration of open insubordination by those on the ward, into a unit of men filled with a sense of self worth denied to them under the confines imposed by Nurse Ratched. This is all that has ever been desired by the majority of the patients. Therefore McMurphy can be seen as to have understood this better than any psychologist ever could and has given the patients ultimately what they needed. Therefore Kesey is underlining the fact that the needs of the people are ultimately uncomplicated and need only be recognised as such.

Ultimately however, the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, can only be resolved via violence which results in a hollow victory for the system. McMurphy is finally reduced to conformity by an enforced lobotomy, but only after his literal exposure of the system - in the shape of Nurse Ratched’s breasts - to being something unnaturally large, misplaced and omnipotent. The fact that the subjugation of the patients has now been shown as to being nothing other than a sham, McMurphy’s treatment can be seen to have had a positive effect upon the majority as the system loses control of the populace. This is pinpointed by the fact that when she returns to the ward, The Big Nurse cannot speak and, as the novel has progressed, Chief Bromden has found his voice. There is also a sense of bitter irony in the fact that, upon the discovery of Billy Bibbit’s suicide, Nurse Ratched accuses McMurphy of playing God and was ultimately the cause of Billy’s death. It is in fact true to say that the oppressive authoritarian and systematic denial of self esteem imposed on the ward by the Big Nurse was the cause of the suicide and not the attempts at instilling a sense of dignity by McMurphy. To further the religious connotation, Billy can be seen as McMurphy’s Judas, as he betrays him to the Big Nurse by telling that it was McMurphy’s idea to hold the ward party. This goes further however, as it shows that a small group of individuals is only strong whilst it remains united in affecting pro-active changes whilst tackling a society controlled by majority rule.

In conclusion, the character of McMurphy does offer realistic alternatives to the desired conformity of America in the 150s. Yet it also illustrates that the resistance to such conformity must be united in its objectivity and determined in its ideals. This necessary unity can be seen to have manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movements of the ‘50s to such great affect, having been led by “the descendants of slaves, who were themselves only half free … who came out of the shadows to find their own place in the American sun.” The actions of Thurgood Marshall and the unity amongst black Americans in managing to have black student - Autherine Lucy -reinstated at Birmingham University from where she had been barred from enrolling due to her skin colour, underlines the thoughts and feelings of Ken Kesey in writing this novel in that not all of which a controlling body says is right is necessarily correct. The actions of McMurphy also serve to demonstrate that, though the mind can be trained and restricted medically, freedom of thought and action against deliberate oppression cannot be restrained amongst those who seek such freedoms and the actions of the patients following his death, can be seen as a testament to this fact.


Hugh Brogan. The Penguin History Of The United States Of America. London Penguin, 185.

Harold Evans. The American Century. London Jonathan Cape Publishing, 18.

Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. London Picador, 17.

George Brown Tindall & David Emory Shi (Eds.). America. London Norton and Company, 000.

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