Discussing Ken Kesey’s Presentation of McMurphy & The Big Nurse

An essay on the presentation of McMurphy and The Big Nurse in Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Generic title, choosing to focus on the contrasts between the characters. 2013

Write about Ken Kesey’s presentation of McMurphy and The Big Nurse in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.

”He who marches out of line hears the beat of a different drum.”

In Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest the central characters McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, also referred to as The Big Nurse, are presented in great contrast. Whereas McMurphy represents ideals such as freedom, The Big Nurse, opposes these with her oppression of the ward. Throughout the novel McMurphy and The Big Nurse can be seen as opposing forces representing the Inside v the Outside.

Upon his arrival on the ward McMurphy’s appearance suggests much about his character. Bromden states ‘This guy is redhead with a tangle of curls from under his cap, been needing cut a long time…’ implying a rebellious nature as in the 1960s long hair was considered a sign of disregard for authority. Bromden continues stating that McMurphy is ‘broad across the jaw, shoulders and chest, a broad white devilish grin…’ Indicating McMurphy can defend himself and is accustomed to fighting, which is further suggested by Bromden noticing where ‘a seam runs across his nose and one cheekbone where somebody laid him good in a fight’ and his ‘big and beat up hands’. However, his ‘broad white devilish grin’ suggests a friendly side to McMurphy which quickly emerges as he begins shaking hands and introducing himself to the patients. The Big Nurses’ presentation is polarised to McMurphy. Her face is described as ‘smooth, calculated and precision made’ and ‘like a baby doll’ suggesting she is artificial, clean and strange; whereas McMurphy’s experiences are physically visible and seemingly worn with pride.

Each character’s embracement of their gender and sexuality also presents a contrast. When Bromden sees inside The Big Nurse’s bag he sees ‘no compact or lipstick or woman stuff’ and also says that she is bitter about her ‘big, womanly breasts’. Whilst The Big Nurse is resentful  and attempts to repress her femininity, McMurphy’s appearance is defined by  stereotypical  masculinity   and he  fully embraces his sexuality from the moment he arrives on the ward by; showing Cheswick his nude playing cards and explicitly stating one of the reasons he is on the ward is because he ‘fucks too much’. McMurphy is also overt in his sexuality by expressing confusion of what deems him psychopathic; ‘I mean whoever heard tell of a man gettin’ too much poozle?’ The Big Nurses repression of sexuality ultimately leads to the success of McMurphy’s final act of rebellion. By ripping open her shirt at the end of the novel he exposes her gender and attempt to deceive the patients; in the aftermath of the incident she is not   able to regain power.

In the Big Nurse’s first meeting with the doctor’s about McMurphy she classes him as a ‘ward manipulator’ which presents an  irony as this is what she is doing on the ward through drugs and implied threat. She also states a previous patient, named Mr Taber, was a ‘ward manipulator’ was subjected to EST, serving as a foreshadowing of McMurphy’s fate.

During one of Bromden’s hallucination’s he feels that The Big Nurse is able to ‘set the ward clock at whatever speed she wants’. She can ‘freeze it’ or make it move ‘syrup slow’. Her supposed time control presents The Big Nurse as having God like power which is emphasised further by the patients’ inability to defend themselves or speak out against her. This can be linked to Prospero’s magic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest as it allows him to have complete control over Caliban. In another meeting when the doctors try and label McMurphy she describes him as ‘simply a man and no more’ implying McMurphy cannot win his struggle.

Nurse Ratched is also presented as an omnipresent force through the glass window in the nurses’ station. Her ability to see everything the patients do and her nickname of The Big Nurse may draw inspiration from the depiction of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. McMurphy’s breaking of this window at the end of Part II and throughout Part III is symbolic of him breaking the oppressive boundaries Nurse Ratched has in place to control the patients.

Throughout the novel Kesey presents McMurphy as not only a leader but a Christ like figure to the patients. He unifies them against the black boys when playing basketball, he inspires Harding to break the window of the nurses’ station and he ultimately shows Chief the way to escape the hospital. The allusions to McMurphy as a Christ like figure begin in Part III with his gathering of twelve patients, for the fishing trip, and can be seen symbolic of Christ’s twelve disciples. McMurphy’s EST would have been prevented if he had acknowledged his violent actions and felt remorse;   similar to how Christ would have been spared crucifixion for admitting he wasn’t the son of God. The strongest and most evident parallel drawn by Kesey is of McMurphy being strapped to the cross shaped table and asking ‘Do I get a crown of thorns?’

In conclusion, McMurphy’s actions throughout One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest demonstrate the power of choice. His ultimate sacrifice for the patients still results in his message living on as Bromden’s act of mercy prevents him from becoming another of the Big Nurse’s tools to instil control and fear.

Farran Golding, March 2013.

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