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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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THE CHARACTERS

MCMURPHY

"Do I look like a sane man?" That's the question Randall
Patrick McMurphy asks during his first Group Meeting, and
there's no question that for most readers the answer will be a
quick and resounding "Yes." McMurphy's sanity takes the
ward by storm: none of the patients have met anyone like him,
except perhaps the Chief, who sees in this red-headed Irishman
a hint of his Indian father's humor and bravery. Where the
other patients are timid and quiet, McMurphy is cocky and
loud; where they are unable to do more than snicker, his
healthy laughter shakes the walls; where they are sexually
repressed, he is a self-proclaimed (and, by the evidence,
genuine) champion lover. Years of hard living are etched in his
face; to the hallucination-prone Chief, even his hands can
transmit power to make the Chief's own hands larger. The title
McMurphy claims, Bull Goose Looney, with its connotations
of strength and freedom, seems perfectly suited for him.

Much of Cuckoo's Nest is devoted to showing how McMurphy
teaches the rest of the patients to be sane. What does this sanity
consist of? Above all, it is the ability to laugh, both at yourself
and at a world that is often ludicrous and cruel. Says Chef
Bromden, "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 may brag, but he never
takes himself too seriously. When George Sorenson refuses to
shake his "dirty" hand, McMurphy doesn't take offense, merely
jokes, "Hand, how do you suppose that old fellow knew all the
evil you been into?" And he accepts himself. Where Harding is
embarrassed by his "feminine" hands, McMurphy is at ease
with his gentler side-his fine handwriting, for example.



Another mark of the sane man is sexual health, for both
McMurphy and Kesey see power in sexual terms. One of the
ways the Nurse and other members of the Combine destroy
men is by making them impotent; the Chief's return to sanity is
signalled in part by an erection; Billy will defeat his
domineering mother (and Nurse Ratched) when he loses his
virginity to Candy. Equally important is a disregard of society's
rules and conventions-it's no coincidence that the same girl
who first taught McMurphy about sex also taught him that
rules (in this case the rule that every sexual encounter must be
followed or preceded by marriage) need not be obeyed.
Whether he is brushing his teeth with soap powder, letting
Martini play his own wild style of Monopoly, or watching a
non-existent baseball game on a blank television screen,
McMurphy never lets rules-or even common sense-stand in
the way of good fun.

Cuckoo's Nest is set in Oregon, and it is very much a novel of
the American West: the dream of the free and open frontier is
contrasted with the drab and regimented world of the hospital.
And just as Chief Bromden recalls the Indian past, McMurphy
is in many ways a modernized version of a hero of the old
West. He's described repeatedly as a movie cowboy, striding
towards a showdown, and at the end of the novel, as the Lone
Ranger leaving the town he has saved from the bad guys. He
may lack a college education, but he has native intelligence: he
knows a pecking party when he sees one.

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