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It is important to notice that the Chief is described as a half-breed. His father is an Indian and his mother is White, but he takes his mother's American last name, which suggests the Themes of white and female domination. It is also important to notice that he is the patient who has been in the ward for the longest period, suggesting that he is more insane than most of the others. Yet, he is sane enough to successfully pretend to be a deaf mute, for it gives him an advantage. Because of his pretended disability, Bromden stands apart as a passive observer, never entering into the action in Chapter I. In spite of his silence, he is obviously stubborn enough to go against the staff, for he has been given frequent shock treatments.
The Chief associates size with power. He sees powerful people as "big" and the others as "small". He sees the Nurse and McMurphy as "big" people. Since he feels powerless, he sees himself as small, although he is 6 feet 7 inches in height. When McMurphy enters the hospital, the Chief knows that he is no ordinary man; he is drawn to him, as are all the other patients. Even the Nurse senses that he is different and decides that he is a "manipulator", like Max Taber had been. She "cured" Taber by electrically shocking him into submission, a foreshadowing of what will happen to McMurphy in the end.
Everyone at the hospital is scared of Nurse Ratched, including patients and staff; even Dr. Spivey, the ward doctor, is afraid of her, for she regularly blackmails him about his drug addiction. She has carefully chosen and groomed her subordinates to suit her purpose. This is especially true of the three Black orderlies, who she uses to maintain order and control; "they are in contact (with Nurse Ratched) on a high-voltage wave largish of hate." Not only does she have the power to transmit her thoughts to the orderlies, she also has the power to turn the inmates against each other. She does not need to do anything but make insinuations, and they are at each other's throats.
During the group therapy session, McMurphy sees the pecking party at work on Harding; the patients know his weaknesses and try to tear him apart. When McMurphy asks the patients why they behave so cruelly, Harding responds that they do it for the Nurse, who is a selfless woman doing everything for their benefit. McMurphy, however, recognizes that Nurse Ratched is a "ballcutter", one of the kind of "people who try to make you so weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to." Harding and all of the other patients know this about Ratched, but refuse to acknowledge it out of fear of her.
Harding tells McMurphy that all of the patients are "rabbits" who need a "fox" to teach them to live, for they have difficulty adjusting to their "rabbithood". They know that if they do not toe the line, they are likely to be given shock treatments. The Chief has been shocked more than 200 times. Even Ruckly and Ellis have been treated in the same manner. The first reference to Christ comes in at this point. Ellis has been given an overdose of shock therapy; as a result he appears to be "nailed" to the wall, reminding the reader of the crucifixion of Christ. Later, McMurphy will become a Christ-figure as he sacrifices himself for the good of his fellow patients.
Almost immediately, McMurphy refuses to conform to hospital rules and decides to make things difficult for Nurse Ratched. He appears in front of her in only his undershorts, which really upsets her. They have white whales on them and seem to evoke an image of Moby Dick. The Nurse is like Moby Dick, big and unbeatable, a power beyond human control. McMurphy tries to defeat her, but cannot do so in the end. Instead, he only has minor victories along the way. His first success against the Nurse comes when he gets the inmates to stop work and sit in front of the television, staring at a blank screen that should be showing the World Series.
McMurphy is just the opposite of the Nurse. She concentrates on the patients' weaknesses and tries to subdue them by preying on their insecurities. She makes them believe that they are broken machines and the hospital is their "repair shop." McMurphy tries to make his fellow patients laugh and forget their problems. He concentrates on their strengths. The nurse is a symbol of the Combine and accepts, without question, all of its repressive rules. McMurphy has never lived inside the confines of the Combine, for he is his own man, freed from society's conformity. The Nurse is a big woman, totally organized and in control of herself and her emotions.
McMurphy, on the other hand, is not large like Bromden, but he stands for all that is natural and real. He is impulsive and emotional and does not plan things the way the Nurse does; but in his unplanned actions, he tries to get the patients to be themselves and to be self-reliant instead of depending on others. He truly wants the others to benefit from his efforts, although he had initially come to the hospital with the intention of financial gain. McMurphy's sense of individuality and self- assurance draws the patients to him, and they start following his lead in opposing the Big Nurse.
The episode of the control panel shows the patients that McMurphy is sincere in his efforts and that he is on their side. He loses the bet to lift the panel and throw it out the window, for he is physically too small to accomplish the task. Later, when the Chief is sane again, he is able to lift the control panel. McMurphy, however, has made a good effort, which impresses the patients. When they vote in favor of him the second time, the Nurse realizes that the war has begun and McMurphy's crusade is in full swing. She determines to immobilize him one way or another. McMurphy is determined to teach the other patients self-reliance before this happens.
In Part I, as in the rest of the novel, Kesey causes the reader to empathize with the patients and criticize Nurse Ratched and the rest of the repressive "Combine". McMurphy is depicted as a likable fellow, who is powerful and knowing. Also, everything is colored through the Chief's narration to the patients' benefit. Even Bromden's paranoia and McMurphy's bullheadedness do not stand in the way of their being sympathetic characters. On the other hand, everything about Nurse Ratched is depicted as being despicable, including her appearance, her methodology, and her power. When the Nurse switches off the power to the television set, it is indicative that a battle for power has begun between her and McMurphy. It will be a hard battle, for the Nurse has the Combine (the symbol of restriction and repression) on her side, but McMurphy has the patients (the symbol of the individual and freedom) behind him. McMurphy himself becomes the real symbol of natural and rugged individualism.