“The outsider in society is rejected because they represent a threat to the values and stability of that society.”

“The outsider in society is rejected because they represent a threat to the values and stability of that society.” Exploring the ways William Shakespeare, Ken Kesey and Emily Bronte present the outcast in The Tempest, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Wuthering Heights, respectively, in view of this statement.

In Wuthering Heights, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Tempest, each male protagonist is cast in a role of an outsider to society. Bronte accomplishes this by using Heathcliff’s race as a catalyst for social exclusion. While Kesey presents the character of McMurphy as a free thinking anti-authoritarian who rebels against the conformist ideals of early 1960s America; he is also shown to be a man without place in the world. Shakespeare also presents Prospero as an alienated character; although it is through his journey, as an outcast, that he addresses his own flaws and is able to return to society. Furthermore, each writer presents clear connections between the outcast characters and the themes of power and authority, confinement and revenge.

In Wuthering Heights, Bronte describes Heathcliff’s dwelling as a ‘misanthropist’s heaven’, introducing the idea that he is an outsider to society. This is further enforced by his appearance as a ‘dark skinned gypsy.’ Lockwood counteracts this notion of vagrancy by commenting that he is ‘in dress and manners a gentleman’ which suggests that he is rather educated and of high status. Furthermore, by the year 1801 Heathcliff has amassed a fortune and property that would grant him high status. However, his lack of parentage and dark skin still exclude Heathcliff and it is apparent throughout the novel that he  cannot be accepted as part of the microcosm of Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange,  or society as a whole. Although, Bronte’s novel does attempt to draw sympathy towards Heathcliff as the outsider; through reinforcing that his rejection is a consequence of his love for Catherine and her love for him.

Hindley’s bitterness towards Heathcliff is routed in childhood resentment and manifests in several ways. Hindley is jealous of his sister’s affection towards Heathcliff and this results in his bullying of him; which leads to Heathcliff’s alienation as young adult. In Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film adaption Heathcliff is played by a black actor and exclusion is fore-grounded through a focus on race issues. Hindley’s mistreatment of Heathcliff is made blatantly evident in a scene where he tells Mr Earnshaw ‘He’s not my brother, he’s a nigger!’ The use of racism as a cause for Heathcliff’s rejection is much more prominent in Arnold’s film than in Bronte’s novel; therefore the reader’s sympathy is derived from a combination of factors rather than empathy towards race issues. Mr Earnshaw’s affection for Heathcliff also places him over Hindley as the favourite son. As Hindley feels he is cast out by his father, his anger mounts and he views Heathcliff to be a threat to the stability of the Earnshaws; an issues which develops across the story.

Heathcliff’s position as the outsider also causes him to be confined, on several levels, within the novel. Hindley refuses to let a relationship develop between his sister and Heathcliff – which restricts him emotionally. Hindley also displaces Heathcliff from being an Earnshaw family member to a servant, physically contained, within the Heights. Hindley further curbs Heathcliff’s intellectual growth as he halts his education.  This action destroys Heathcliff’s chance to be with Catherine; as she states in her pivotal speech to Nelly that ‘to marry Heathcliff would degrade me.’

Heathcliff’s confinement contributes to his desire for power and authority in the second half of the novel. In childhood Heathcliff lacks power, but he is depicted as cunning (bribing Hindley into giving him his colt) a trait shown to develop in his adult life. Heathcliff’s lack of power suggests the reasoning behind his scheme to become landlord of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange; by becoming owner of the buildings he is no longer without a place in the world. Consequently, Heathcliff holds the authority to determine events surrounding him. This includes the marriage between Cathy to his son, Linton, and raising Hareton in a similar way to himself. In holding the dominant position of power Heathcliff is no longer an outsider, yet he still presents a threat to the characters.

The presentation of an outsider in Wuthering Heights also shows the destructive power of revenge. Heathcliff’s treatment of Hareton, after his father has passed, is carried out as a retribution for the abuse he suffered himself as a child; having experienced the difficulties a lack of education will bring he perpetuates this action punishment. Hareton gradually becomes an embodiment of Heathcliff in the second generation of Wuthering Heights; inarticulate and cruel, he is seen as unsuitable for the object of his affection. There are further echoes of Heathcliff’s otherness in Hareton when Cathy mocks him for trying to learn how to read; ‘…bumbling over the pronunciations and cursing…’, This situation is a reference to Heathcliff’s request that Nelly make him presentable to Catherine; an act for which he encountered mockery. Contrasting with Heathcliff’s persona, Hareton is forced into an outcast position because of another outcast. While he presents no threat to society, within the novel, Heathcliff’s attitude towards him is grounded in his own exposure to rejection. This, in turn, is also reflective of Mr Earnshaw’s lack of affection to Hindley; thus allowing Bronte to present a dangerous cycle of exclusion. This pattern also links to The Tempest through Antonio’s usurping of Prospero’s Dukedom and his banishment to The Island, again reflected in Prospero taking The Island from Caliban and enslaving him.

Upon Heathcliff returning from self-imposed exile to Wuthering Heights he presents a threat to the established equilibrium. He is both challenged and disturbed by the concept of Catherine no longer being his love – but Edgar’s instead. However, Catherine’s mental stability is also threatened as she is unable to choose between loving Edgar and Heathcliff. Bronte uses Catherine’s choice of suitor as a symbolic representation of Victorian attitude towards marriage. Marrying for money and status, personified by Edgar Linton, would be seen as more customary than wedding Heathcliff for love; choosing the latter in Victorian society would be perceived as controversial. Furthermore, the danger of Heathcliff’s inclusion within society is revealed through his opportunity for her to love him again as this leads to her untimely death. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Billy Bibbit’s suicide presents another scenario in which an outsider’s inclusion leads to tragedy. Nurse Ratched ironically tries to place blame on McMurphy and accuses him of ‘playing with human lives like a god’. But it is through her own manipulation of Billy that causes his death. Ratched’s cruel actions are justified as they are supported by a larger consensus and the blame is displaced to McMurphy; whose only intent was to help the patients.

In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy’s initial commitment to the institution introduces a generalised perception of sanity to the novel. On The Outside, McMurphy is an outcast due to his disregard for authority and unorthodox, masculine, tendencies (gambling and womanising). McMurphy’s attitude and behaviour cause him to be viewed as dangerous and deemed ‘insane’. Consequently his actions lead to him being admitted to the confined environment of the hospital. On The Inside his activities and the fact he is technically sane exclude him further. Nurse Ratched becomes determined to change his unconventional personality to one that conforms to obeying the rules like the other patients.

Bromden comments that ‘the hospital was out in the country’ which emphasizes the patient’s isolation from mainstream civilisation. Another characteristic of the hospital is illustrated through patients being committed as sane but the institution itself destroying their sanity; a notion highlighted through the rumour that the Chief was ‘normal’ until subjected to EST which caused him to become mute. Therefore, it can be considered that although an individual may not conform to certain social expectations it is the act of being excluded that results in them being perceived as a threat to society.

The misuse of sexuality can also be seen as a threat to society when the outsider exploits this act and uses it as weapon to challenge traditional values. This is exemplified by McMurphy’s previous crime, the statutory rape of a fifteen year old girl who claimed to be seventeen, resulting in a sentence at the Pendleton work farm. Through McMurphy’s comment that the girl ‘was plenty willin’’ Kesey portrays that the action was not a crime as both were in mutual agreement to the act. Therefore, in this instance, it could be argued that fornication is only viewed as wrong because a governing body decide the activity has to be confined within a law; whereas on a moral level McMurphy has not committed a crime because the girl consented. Nonetheless, McMurphy appears to have little insight to his actions and therefore his disregard can be seen as a lack of responsibility and a threat to established principles.

The notion of sexual confinement links to Caliban and Ferdinand in The Tempest through the character Miranda. Whilst McMurphy pursued what he desired, he justified his action by pleading the girl consented. However, when Miranda does not respond to Caliban’s advances he tries to rape her; which suggests he should be placed as an outcast for his savagery. In contrast, Ferdinand gains Prospero’s approval to be with his daughter as he is willing to conform to his expectations of withholding intimacy until after marriage.

The power and authority held by Nurse Ratched within One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest allows her to exercise control over the male patients; they respond to restriction by expressing that they are ‘victims of a matriarchy’. This illustrates how the subversion of male/female stereotyping operates in relation to power. Contextually this could be linked to developments in birth control, the advancement of women’s liberation and rights, resulting in an empowered Western female race during 1960s America. As women were able to pursue careers, The Big Nurse’s domination of the patients could be considered as her career goal. This is supported by feminist critic P. Darbyshire who said of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest thatKesey’s vision of her ultimate ‘conquest’ is not a progressive allegory of ‘individual freedom’, but a reactionary misogyny which would deny women any function other than that of sexual trophy.’ Furthermore, other feminist critics of Kesey note that The Big Nurse is used to present the fear of growing female empowerment at the time the novel was written.

In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest a parallel is also drawn between mental and physical castration as a means to control the outsider. When first discussing The Big Nurse with Harding, McMurphy labels her as a “ball cutter”, conveying that she is out to emasculate the patients of the ward. This view is shared by Bromden; when Rawler commits suicide, by cutting off his testicles, he comments that ‘all the guy had to do was wait.’ After McMurphy’s EST is unsuccessful, Ratched also suggests ‘an operation’ be performed on him – to which McMurphy responds ‘it wouldn’t be any use to lop ‘em off’ implying the uselessness of an individual exposed to either operation. Perhaps by using a metaphor, of castration, Kesey is expressing an exaggerated view of the measures the American government would take to force those who do not conform, to expected societal values, to obey the rules.

The outsider’s desire for power and inclusion in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest contrasts with Wuthering Heights. Popular culture iconography is also employed to present McMurphy as the outsider. This is illustrated when he is introduced wearing a leather jacket and cap; symbolic of a growing biker culture in 1960s America which was often associated with breaking the law. When McMurphy sings ‘…my moneys my own and them that don’t like me can leave me alone’ it also shows a disregard for how others view him and that McMurphy embraces his role as an outsider; which juxtaposes Heathcliff’s pursuit of power to grant him status and create a sense of belonging. When McMurphy takes the patients on a fishing trip, they too embrace their role as outsiders to scare the workers at a gas station; referencing the 1950s/60s counter culture Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ were active in.

A further contrast with Heathcliff is illustrated through McMurphy expressing no desire for personal revenge. When McMurphy strangles The Big Nurse, Bromden states that ‘we couldn’t stop him because we were ones making him do it’ showing McMurphy does not care not for the act of revenge, but rather for the will and need of the patients; it is personification of their revenge and not his. In this scene Kesey presents McMurphy as a combination of both individuality and conformity. Kesey again draws on popular culture references to the outlaw via a cowboy persona; ‘push up his cap with one finger like it was a ten-gallon Stetson…and when he walked across the floor you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile.’ This description allows the final, poignant, image of McMurphy to be that of the outcast or rebel. However, by describing his pace as ‘slow, mechanical gestures’ (symbolic of Ratched’s movements) Kesey shows McMurphy has ultimately been forced to conform to something against his wishes – yet arguably retains the symbolism of a more heroic cause; the patients struggle for freedom and individuality.

Kesey seems to conclude that once confined an individual is never truly free. This could also be read in relation to the patients being outcasts and never being able to fully integrate back into society again. Although at the end of the novel McMurphy has destroyed Ratched’s regime – she is still alive whilst he is dead. Furthermore, Chief Bromden, who could be seen as an embodiment of McMurphy’s message of freedom, may have been returned to the hospital. At the end of the first narrative segment, whilst hid in a broom cupboard, Bromden states that ‘It’s gonna burn me just that way, finally telling about all this, about the hospital, and her, and the guys – and about McMurphy.’ By employing this narrative structure, Kesey leaves it a mystery at what point in the novel’s time-frame this monologue takes place. However, as Bromden mentions McMurphy, it can be interpreted that after his escape, Chief was brought back to the hospital. Additionally, Harding, a possibly homosexual patient McMurphy has a positive influence on, says he ‘wants to leave the hospital with his wife waiting for him’. This evidences that although he no longer feels guilty about his sexuality it is still repressed, as he lacks the courage to be open about it on leaving the hospital. The concept of McMurphy’s battle against authority as being unwinnable is also foreshadowed earlier in the novel when Scanlon states his bleak hypothesis of ‘dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t’.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Propero’s journey can be considered to mirror that of McMurphy’s. Propero’s desire for knowledge leads to his exile from Milan, which could be seen as an equivalent to being on The Outside. However, as Prospero is not native to The Island he is still, in a sense, an outsider. This corresponds with McMurphy’s foreignness inside the hospital of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest because of his sanity; whereas he is also exposed to rejection on the outside because of his behaviour.

While Prospero is the least confined of the characters within The Tempest, Ariel and Caliban are confined by their servitude and represent different aspects within the theme of confinement and being an outsider. Caliban represents forced servitude as Prospero exploits Caliban’s weaknesses to further undermine him, similar to how Ratched is able to use the patients weaknesses against other patients during the ‘pecking party’. However, Ariel’s willingness to be Prospero’s servant does lead to his eventual freedom. This correlates with the patients adopting the outcast guise, via committing themselves to hospital, but it does not help them become ‘normal’ until the arrival of McMurphy.

On another level Caliban presents a stark contrast to Heathcliff; whilst Heathcliff’s education was stopped because of his love for Catherine – Caliban’s is taken away after his attempted rape of Miranda. As such, Heathcliff’s life was changed out of a desire for love, not animal lust like Caliban. Therefore, Heathcliff’s exclusion can be viewed as unnecessary as he wanted to pursue something seen as normal. Although Caliban is mostly presented as dim-witted through descriptive adjectives such as ‘puppy headed’ and ‘moon calf’, in Act III scene ii his soliloquy about The Island reveals an appreciation of nature and a more articulate side to the character. This sensitivity leans towards Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ and the idea of the ‘noble savage’ which is portrayed as brutish yet civilised through an embracement of nature.

In conclusion some final key points should be considered in relation to the overall theme of the outsider. Towards the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest , when McMurphy fails to escape the hospital, Chief Bromden states that ‘he would have come back anyway’. For, it was McMurphy’s willingness to seek revenge for the patients that led to his ultimate confinement of death through Nurse Ratched’s authority. Revenge is also pivotal within the narrative of The Tempest and propels Prospero’s plans to reclaim his power as Duke of Milan. However, at the end of The Tempest Prospero forgives Antonio and the royal party; it is then suggested he resumes his role as Duke and is re-integrated back into society. This presents a contrast between Prospero and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. In Prospero’s ‘We are such stuff’ monologue in Act IV scene i, Shakespeare shows Prospero renouncing desire for revenge. The melancholic mood created in this speech is very similar to when Heathcliff states ‘I feel a change coming, but I cannot describe it…’ However, Heathcliff holds onto his resentment and desire for revenge throughout his life. When he states that ‘I have lost the faculty of enjoying their [Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange] destruction’ Bronte conveys the weariness Heathcliff’s lifelong quest for revenge, power and inclusion has brought him. His only release is through death which would reunite him with Catherine, his companion and true love; Heathcliff dies alone and still an outcast in the world of Wuthering Heights.

It is evident that the nature of the outcast, located within texts, operates across the themes of power and authority, confinement and revenge; which are traced to specific events. The motifs which drive the narrative allow the outcast to function in a role which is rejected because of the threat it poses to a social order; which is underpinned by traditional values and stability. It may also be concluded/considered that the themes in which the outsider is entrenched are fundamental in preventing integration into society and leads to an eventual demise of character.

Farran Golding, March 2013.

None of the above may be reproduced without written consent.


Studied Texts

Shakespeare, William (1623). The Tempest. Isaac Jaggard & Edward Blount.

Bronte, Emily (1847) Wuthering Heights. Thomas C Newbury.

Kesey, Ken (1962). One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Signet.

Critical Readings

Montaigne, Michel de (1580). On Cannibals. Brace College Publishing.

Darbyshire, P (1995). Reclaiming ‘Big Nurse’: a feminist critique of Ken Kesey’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Publisher Unknown, sourced from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8705603


Arnold, Andrea (2011). Wuthering Heights. Film 4.

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