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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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This, then, is the McMurphy who enters the ward at the start of
the book. But he is not a static character; he changes
considerably during his time at the hospital. The court that sent
him to the hospital ruled him a psychopath; while his diagnosis
is so obviously harsh even Dr. Spivey doubts it, we may
suspect that it contains just a bit of truth. Among the
characteristics of a psychopathic personality are extreme self-
centeredness and a disregard for moral and social
responsibilities. Certainly McMurphy shows some of those
characteristics in the early portion of the book. He came to the
hospital only to seek an easier life than he had at the work
farm, and at first the battles he fights are fought solely in
pursuit of that easy life. They may benefit the other patients,
but first they benefit him: it's McMurphy who wants to play
cards in the tub room, who wants to watch the World Series.
Even the Chief suspects that McMurphy has escaped the
Combine because he has "no one to care about, which is what
made him free enough to be a good con man."

The same strong instinct for self-preservation that makes him
break the rules also makes him obey when he discovers Nurse
Ratched's power to keep him in the hospital. But then
something happens. One of the patients, Cheswick, who has
idolized McMurphy, grows despondent when McMurphy
surrenders. He kills himself. McMurphy begins to see that,
against his will, he has been saddled with the responsibility of
being a hero to men who desperately need a hero. The rest of
the book shows him slowly but steadily rising to that
responsibility, teaching the other patients-through basketball
games and fishing trips-not to let their fears paralyze them.
Unfortunately, his generosity is still mixed with a desire for
personal gain: he lets George Sorenson go on the fishing trip
for $5, not for free; he makes the Chief keep his bargain to lift
the control panel so McMurphy can win bets; he demands
money from Billy for Candy's visit. This residue of greed
convinces the patients that McMurphy was never anything
more than a conman. Only the Chief understands the truth: that
at great cost to himself, McMurphy has become the hero the
patients require. Their need for him is what keeps his worn out
body and spirit going; it's what pushes him to fight for George
in the shower, suffer shock treatments, refuse escape until Billy
has his date with Candy, and, finally, suicidally, attack Nurse

Throughout the book, but particularly in the scene where the
Chief and McMurphy undergo shock treatment, parallels are
drawn between McMurphy and Christ. While for some it may
verge on blasphemy to call this gambler and sinner Christlike,
it is true that McMurphy has sacrificed himself for others. In
the end the Combine scores what seems to be a complete
victory over him; a lobotomy has destroyed him even before
the Chief puts an end to his life. Only through the Chief and the
other patients who, thanks to McMurphy's courageous
example, leave the hospital to fight the Combine elsewhere,
does McMurphy live on.

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

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