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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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The scene opens with an example of the black humor (humor
also marked by the grotesque and the ironic) that we'll see
often in the book. The Chief remembers one Christmas when
Santa Claus visited the ward. It's likely the intruder was just a
fat old man with a red nose, but in the Chief's remembrance he
represents the generous spirit of Christmas, and as he is nabbed
by the aides and imprisoned, (to leave six years later "clean-
shaven and skinny as a pole") we wonder: if the hospital can
destroy even Christmas, how can anything good survive?

Through the Chief's warped vision we see the control the Nurse
maintains over the ward. She even masters time, occasionally
making it go so fast that the view out the window turns from
morning to night in seconds, then slowing it to a snail's pace.
She likes to speed things up to make pleasant activities pass
more quickly, and slow things down for unpleasant events, like
the death of a patient next to the Chief. Of course the Chief is
describing a familiar phenomenon-bad times seem to pass
more slowly than good-but his "untrue" description reminds us
of a deeper truth.

Today is different, though, because McMurphy is there. Time
moves at a normal pace; even the fog is gone. Nurse Ratched's
shift ends and another nurse arrives, and McMurphy plays
cards with the patients. When he complains about the music
being piped into the room, threatening to turn it off, he's
warned that causing trouble will make him forfeit his bet.
Meanwhile, the comparison of the piped music to a waterfall
causes the Chief to remember a waterfall near the Indian
village where he grew up: again, his memories of his Indian
youth are clear and precise compared to his fog-shrouded
present. (We'll see, too, the eventual-and important-fate of
that waterfall.)

As the Chief describes McMurphy playing cards, we receive
additional insights into the new patient's character. He brags
about his skill at the game, hamming it up like a riverboat
gambler. But after a string of victories, he arranges to lose all
his winnings. The patients understand what he's done, but
they're still pleased: McMurphy's generosity has given them a
little self-respect.

Now it is time for the patients to take their sleeping pills, but
McMurphy disrupts this routine, too: the sight of him scares
the night nurse into dropping pills and spilling water, and in the
confusion, McMurphy is able to hide some of the drugs in his
palm. As a result, the Chief for the first time in years will go to
bed without being under the influence of sedating drugs. Just as
important, McMurphy tricks the Chief into revealing that he
isn't deaf and dumb: he can at least hear.

As McMurphy undresses, we see his shorts-black satin covered
with white whales. He tells Chief Bromden the shorts come
"from a co-ed at Oregon State, Chief, a literary major. She
gave them to me because she said I was a symbol." A symbol,
in literature, is a person or object that stands both for itself
and for something else-another person, another object, an
idea. For example, in the descriptions of the electro-shock
therapy, the focus on the cross-shaped table and the electric
crown of thorns are intended to symbolize Christ's crucifixion:
the patients undergoing treatment there are in some way
similar to Christ in their innocence and their suffering. And
more elaborate symbolism specifically linking McMurphy to
Christ comes at the end of the book. Now we're given another
clear example of a symbol: the undershorts McMurphy is
wearing are intended to remind you of Herman Melville's
classic American novel, Moby Dick (itself a work of symbolism
more complex than anything in Cuckoo's Nest), in which
Captain Ahab chases an enormous white whale at the eventual
cost of his ship and his life. Is McMurphy like the obsessed
captain? Like the whale-a force of nature that can never be
captured or known? Or is Kesey having a joke on literary
majors and professors who spend too much time looking for
symbols and who take them too seriously when they find them?
After all, the whales are not real whales, just images on a pair
of silly undershorts. McMurphy may sometimes resemble
Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick, even Christ-but it's wise to
remember that first and foremost he is McMurphy.

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

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