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Free Study Guide-One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey-Free Notes
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Randle P. McMurphy

McMurphy is a charming and handsome man, with long red sideburns and a tangle of curls. He is "broad across the jaw and shoulders and chest" and is tall. He also has a "devilish grin" and a voice that is "loud and full of hell". He is used to having his own way and is a natural leader. He tells the patients that he is used to being "top man" and quickly assumes that role.

McMurphy is a gambling Irishman and convict, who grows tired of laboring at the Pendleton prison farm. To escape prison life, he feigns insanity and gets himself involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in Oregon. He tries to bring about a change at the hospital, for he does not like the fact that grown men act like "rabbits" and are scared of the Big Nurse. He tries as hard as he can to "get her goat", by not doing the duties he is given. He even disrupts her group therapy sessions by hogging the limelight.

McMurphy is also a sly creature. When he learns that an involuntarily committed patient cannot get out of the hospital unless the Big Nurse thinks the patient is fit enough to leave, he backs down and tries to be a model patient. By this time, however, the patients have come to rely on his leadership, so much so that Cheswick, one of his most ardent followers, drowns himself out of despair. McMurphy has a change of heart after he learns that most of the patients have voluntarily committed themselves and stay out of choice. He decides he must become their savior and show them they can function outside the hospital. He makes his comeback statement by smashing the glass of the Nurse's station. Thereafter, McMurphy slowly becomes a force that is driven not by this own will but by the needs of forty other patients.

McMurphy takes the back seat on the fishing trip, letting others brave the storm and emerge as heroes in order to gain courage and self-reliance. When the Nurse tries to drive a wedge between the patients and him, he proves himself by coming to the aid of George, fighting the Black orderlies. This aggression lands him in the shock shop for several treatments. When he is returned to the ward, he continues to try and make the inmates self-sufficient. He proves to them that Nurse Ratched is really powerless when he tears open her shirt and exposes her large breasts. She retaliates by having him lobotomized. When he is returned to the ward after the surgery, he is a vegetable.

It is important to notice how McMurphy steadily becomes weaker as the other patients become stronger. He serves as a tool in bringing freedom to the other mental patients and in exposing the Nurse for what she really is. As a result, McMurphy stands for all that is good and natural; he opposes Nurse Ratched, who is the symbol of repression and evil. Although his fool-hardy and self- damaging acts liberate the others, he is destroyed in the end. In this sense McMurphy is compared to Christ, who lays down his own life so that others may live. When Chief Bromden kills him and escapes, McMurphy's mission is accomplished.

Nurse Ratched

The Nurse is a large, cold, unemotional woman whose "face is smooth, calculated, and refined". Although she has baby blue eyes, a small nose, and large breasts, she is not feminine. She carries a wicker bag, which is filled with pills, needles, forceps, and the likes. Nurse Ratched has the power to cut a man down by just looking at him. She succeeds in emasculating the men on her ward. She makes the patients suffer guilt pangs and often succeeds in turning one against the other because "she has a genius for insinuation". They are the "rabbits", and she is the "wolf" that controls them.

The Nurse has the authorities on her side. She also has the Shock Shop to use in keeping the patients under control. Another weapon she has on her side is "time". She tells her staff that McMurphy is an ordinary man and given "time", he too will settle down like the other patients. She is just as sly as McMurphy and realizes that if she gives him too much punishment, she will only turn him into a martyr or a hero. She, therefore, bides her time, choosing carefully what step to take next. When McMurphy fights the Black orderlies over George's enema, she has repeated shock treatments administered to him. When he rips open her shirt to expose her large breasts, she has him lobotomized. Although she defeats McMurphy, turning him into a vegetable, the Chief wins a victory against her power by killing McMurphy and escaping from the hospital and her control.

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