Question Samantha Art, Media & Literature
McMurphy as a Christ figure
How is McMurphy a Christ-like figure in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
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The metaphors that Kesey employs to demonstrate McMurphy’s Christ-like status recur throughout the novel. In the early part of the story, his adversary Nurse Ratched punishes McMurphy by forcing him to have electroconvulsive therapy, which he endures willingly – Kesey notes that the procedure requires him to lie down on a cross-shaped table. The fishing trip which he takes the others on deepens the Christ metaphor; McMurphy takes twelve patients along with him, just as Jesus had twelve disciples, and the Chief’s narration remarks after the experience that they ‘weren’t the same’ (Kesey, 1962, p.215), showing McMurphy’s burgeoning leadership. He continues to encourage them to fight back against Ratched, which they begin to do. The party - which is the catalyst for the end events - is the setting for the betrayal of McMurphy’s Jesus figure. Nervous patient Billy is reminiscent of Judas in that, upon Ratched’s discovery of the party’s aftermath, he blurts out that ‘McMurphy did it!’ (Kesey, 1962, p.264). McMurphy then ‘sacrifices’ himself by attacking Ratched; she subsequently has him lobotomised in vengeance. McMurphy is a Christ-like figure because the patients in the ward are in need of someone to ‘save’ them from the situation they are in – without McMurphy’s encouragement, none of them would have found the courage to rebel against the tyrannical regime of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy’s sacrifice, like Christ’s, inspires the patients in their grief, and they do not allow Ratched to ‘rule with her old power anymore’ (Kesey, 1962, p.269). Unlike Christ, McMurphy’s death saves the patients from sins perpetrated against them by society at large rather than their individual sins. Despite this, Chief promotes remembrance of McMurphy’s ideals to the patients, and ultimately uses his memory as the motivation to escape the sanitarium (which he could have done all along).
ReferencesKesey, K. (1962). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. London: Penguin Classics.