This question is answered through the investigation of five specific aspects of McMurphy’s life in the asylum: McMurphy’s arrival into the asylum, his healing miracles, the change and truth McMurphy brings, his followers, and lastly, McMurphy’s death. These aspects in the novel will bring the revelations of McMurphy’s Christ-likeness and unlikeness, closer to the requirements of the research question. In each phase of McMurphy’s life, I assessed the extent to which Kesey portrayed McMurphy as a Christ-figure, keeping in mind the intentions of the author, as well as its effect on the American society in the 1960s. While using this novel as a primary resource, I also explored secondary resources like study guides, published interviews, journal articles, literary criticism and the Internet.
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The essay concludes that Kesey has portrayed McMurphy as a satirical Comic Christ. Kesey eases into the idea of McMurphy as Messiah. McMurphy becomes increasingly Christ-like as the plot progresses, indicated by the increasing intensity of the allusions from simple unobtrusive allusions in his arrival, to pronounced biblical allusions to Christ in his death. While McMurphy becomes more of a Christ-figure, he still retains the essence of his character throughout the novel – his irreverent nature. Through the portrayal of McMurphy as a Comic Christ, Kesey echoes his anti-establishment feelings throughout the novel. This influences the readers’ perspective, particularly the straight-laced American society of the 1960s, on issues such as conformity and individuality. Kesey encourages readers to adopt a personal sense of morality, as the views of the majority may not necessarily be the best.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey captures the anti-establishment sentiments of America in the 1960s through the arrival of anarchist R.P. McMurphy at a mental asylum in Oregon, the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ of the title. Using McMurphy’s conflict with Nurse Ratched and the ‘Combine’, this classic deals with issues prevalent in its era.
The supposition that Kesey shapes McMurphy after the archetype of Jesus Christ resounds in much of the literary criticism written on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This essay aims to ascertain the extent to which Kesey models McMurphy after Christ. It also aims to examine the effect this has on plot development and readers’ reactions. It will do this by answering the question: Many critics believe that McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is deliberately portrayed as a Christ-figure. To what extent does Kesey portray McMurphy as a Christ-figure?
A Christ-figure is an individual who displays certain Christ-like traits, and is comparable to Christ of the Bible. The character may possess divine qualities such as the ability to perform miracles. He may also bring new truths with him, and fight for justice by defying authority. The Christ-figure is often a martyr, sacrificing himself for the liberation of others. This can be seen as his ultimate act of love.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy is a parallel of Jesus in some aspects. In order to define the extent to which Kesey wants us to look at McMurphy as a Christ-figure, this essay will delve into five distinct aspects of McMurphy’s life: McMurphy’s entrance into the institution, his miracle healings, the revelation of truth and changes McMurphy brings with him, McMurphy’s disciples and McMurphy’s death.
The significance of McMurphy’s entrance into the asylum.
The novel begins with McMurphy’s entrance into the psychiatric ward. Bromden, who narrates the story from his perspective, describes McMurphy as “no ordinary Admission” An ‘Admission’ would normally be given an ‘Admission shower’, where Kesey hints that the “black boys” rape the ‘Admissions’ with a rectal thermometer. In 1960s America, where racial discrimination was still at its peak, African-Americans were viewed as the dregs of society. Particularly in the South, African-Americans were subject to harsh treatment. In the 1960s, the rape of the new ‘Admissions’ by the “black boys” emphasizes their vulnerability and weakness. Unlike the usual ‘Admission’ who submits with a “weak little yes”, McMurphy brassily refuses the ‘Admission shower’. His strength and assurance marks him as the odd one out.
McMurphy is in full control of the situation and is not easily pushed around. This is apparent when he tells the “black boy”, “Get back away from me with that thermometer, Sam”. Not only does he command Sam confidently and boldly, he also calls him by his name. In contrast, one “black boy” describes Bromden, who is a foil to McMurphy, as “big enough to eat apples off my head an’ he mine me like a baby”. Bromden’s timid and submissive nature highlights McMurphy’s assertive personality, making McMurphy seem larger than life despite being physically smaller than Bromden in reality.
McMurphy’s sanity amidst a ward of mentally ill patients makes him superior. In spite of this, McMurphy enters the ward humbly, shaking everyone’s hand. This humble act implies that McMurphy regards everyone as an equal, despite being a cut above the rest.
At this point in the novel, it would never occur to readers that McMurphy is an archetype of Christ. Kesey makes no hint of McMurphy as a Christ-figure. McMurphy’s entrance into the psychiatric ward is dissimilar to Christ’s entrance into the world, apart from having a powerful presence, which is hardly a character trait exclusive to Christ.
McMurphy is vastly different from Christ. He is a sex addict convicted of having sexual relations with a “child of fifteen”, as well as a “gambling fool”with a deck of cards showing “fifty-two (sex) positions”. The courts ruled that he was a psychopath who “fights and fucks too much”. McMurphy owns boxer shorts with “big white whales”resembling Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is possibly perceived as a phallic pun, though, it can also symbolise the omnipresent and all-powerful nature of God , reinstating McMurphy’s character as a Christ-figure that is unabashedly sexual. However, McMurphy’s profanities make him an unusual Christ-figure, as he engages in the vices that Christianity teaches against.
In The Comic Christ and the Modern Reader, Richard B. Hauck presents the notion that ‘The Christ-figure Metaphor Hunt’ is played between the reader and the author, whereby readers search for clues that prove a character is an imitation of Christ. In an effort to hide the clues, the author may purposefully assign conflicting character traits, creating a character with moral ambiguity. Perhaps it is this thrilling game, together with the humour American readers find in irony, which allows this classic to withstand the test of time.
The effect of McMurphy’s healing miracles.
A common trait of Christ-figures in literature is the ability to perform miracles. McMurphy accomplishes two healing miracles that bear slight resemblance to the miracles Christ performed during his lifetime.
Ellis, who was once an ‘Acute’, becomes a ‘Chronic’ after being sent to the ‘Shock Shop’ to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. “Now he’s nailed against the wall in the same condition they lifted him off the table for the last time, in the same shape, arms out, palms cupped, with the same horror on his face.”Ellis’ position corresponds to the position of a crucified person. Crucifixion, practiced by ancient Romans, is a means of punishment for criminals. Not only does it strip a person of his dignity and life, it also serves as a warning to society on the ramifications of crime. Nurse Ratched uses Ellis as an instrument to show others what they can become if they rebel. Unlike a crucified person who dies shortly after, Ellis’ persistent suffering occurs daily. After McMurphy tells Ellis to arise because a grown man should not be “sloshin’ in his own water”, Ellis responds by momentarily stepping away from his crucified position Like Christ, McMurphy alleviates other’s suffering. His ability to evoke a response from Ellis demonstrates his power to release a person from the grips of evil that is embodied in Nurse Ratched.
However, McMurphy is no infallible god. He does not manage to successfully heal Ellis. It is noted that Ellis’ miracle is rather short-lived, as he returns to the original crucified position. If Kesey were to attribute Christ-like sovereignty to McMurphy at this point, it may have upset readers in 1960s America. From a strict Christian perspective, it is considered blasphemous that a mere human with his shortcomings should be compared to Christ. Kesey gradually eases into the idea of McMurphy as a saviour, instead of blatantly shocking readers by turning a contemptuous man into a saviour overnight.
In the subsequent miracle, McMurphy prompts muted Bromden to speak, by offering him a piece of gum. Bromden opens his mouth to thank him This corresponds with Christ’s miracle when he caused a mute to speak by casting out a demon within him. In this case, it is not the demon that prevents Bromden from speaking. Rather, it is the fear of the ‘Combine’ that suppresses his words, which McMurphy successfully manages to dissipate. While Ellis’ miracle does not last, Bromden’s transformation is permanent. He begins to communicate increasingly with the ‘Acutes’ under McMurphy’s influence.
Relating back to Kesey’s own experiences, from 1960 to 1961, he volunteered for government drug experiments at Menlo Park Hospital. After which, he became a psychiatric aide in the same ward. Having spent his time as both patient and staff, Kesey’s intimate knowledge of the patients’ circumstances aroused a deep sense of empathy for them. In his letter to Babbs titled “PEOPLE ON THE WARD”, Kesey identifies the patients by their “empty eyes”. This presents a poignant image; instead of seeing their soul through the windows of their eyes, all Kesey sees are “dilapidated organs, grinding through their organ duties”, as if living in the mental institution robs patients of their essence, just like how Ellis and Bromden deteriorate from ‘Acutes’ to ‘Chronics’. This hints Kesey’s dislike for mental institutions, and his hopes for a saviour for redemption.
Another interpretation is that these miracles are metaphors for the political situation in America in the sixties. Patients are referred to as “mechanical puppets”controlled by Nurse Ratched. The mental illnesses that she inflicts upon patients either rob them of the ability to express or confine self-expression, which Kesey reveals through the suffering Ellis and muted Bromden respectively. Ellis and Bromden represent society, and the ‘Combine’, the government. Perhaps Kesey feels that the government suppresses one’s individuality, and McMurphy is a projection of his desire to free society from the expectation to conform.
The impact of the revelation of truth and changes that McMurphy brings with him.
Not only do McMurphy’s miracles encourage self-expression, McMurphy leads by example, audaciously expressing his views that differ from society. Though McMurphy and Christ are similar in this respect, the revelations and change each brings is different. Before Christ’s arrival, the Pharisees had established numerous rules for what was considered ‘rest’ on the Sabbath. Jesus defied the rules by healing a man on the Sabbath, telling the Pharisees, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!”Jesus redefined ‘rest’ on the Sabbath and taught them that doing good works on the Sabbath is far more essential than adhering to rituals. This is one of the many instances where Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ interpretations of rules.
McMurphy, likewise, questions the rules by exposing the intentions of Nurse Ratched. Contrary to Harding’s angelic depiction of Nurse Ratched as a “sweet, smiling, tender angel of mercy”, the sibilance in “sweet”, “smiling” and “mercy” brings out a hissing sound, like that of the serpent in Genesis, that led to Adam and Eve’s downfall. From this, readers can gather that she may not be who she appears to be. Like the serpent, she might possess evil motives.
Furthermore, McMurphy likens therapeutic sessions to a “peckin’ party”, where one chicken is ripped to “shreds, blood and bones and feathers”. He reveals that Nurse Ratched does not have the patient’s welfare in mind. She initiates the fights by taking the first peck “where it hurts the most”, in an attempt to weaken them into compliance. Explosive words in the description of the therapeutic sessions are uttered with force, emphasizing her bestiality.
This novel is possibly a medium to voice Kesey’s political dissatisfaction. In 1950s America, Eisenhower, a five-star military general and right-wing conservative, served his term as President. It was an era of conformity under his leadership. Kesey, however, did not conform to societal standards, but rebelled against conservative societal norms of his time. In a society where the typical American man had strict religious views, Kesey’s behaviour was controversial. Through the exposure of Nurse Ratched’s wicked intentions, Kesey encourages Americans to question policies implemented by the government. Evidently, Kesey was not the only one who thought that some rules would stifle one’s individuality. Anti-establishment feelings were becoming rampant, with Hollywood movies like ‘Rebels Without A Cause’.
Another revelation that McMurphy brings is that the patients are not the rabbits they believe to be. According to Harding, “The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must learn to accept it as a law of the natural world… (The rabbit) knows his place. He most certainly doesn’t challenge the wolf to combat.”This is similar to the messages that Christ preached about the meek inheriting the earthand turning the other cheek when one is wronged. Similarly, the inmates’ behaviour is Christ-like. They believe they are not going to win by fighting, and do not retaliate against the ‘Combine’.
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However, McMurphy proves that the rabbits can overcome the wolf. He alters institutionalised policies by Nurse Ratched, regarding the viewing of World Series, the use of the tub room for the ‘Acutes’, as well as cigarette rationing. The message Kesey brings is different from Christ. Kesey preaches that one must assert himself in order to save his life, contrary to biblical teachings that one must lose himself in order to save his life.
During the sixties, the rabbit metaphor allowed society to view themselves as Kesey does. Having progressed from the fifties, America was going through a series of rapid changes. This decade saw the rise of the counterculture – the civil rights movement, gay liberation, sexual revolution and Beat Movement. Kesey was part of the Beat Generation. In the context of the institution, the ones who submit to Nurse Ratched are the mentally insane “rabbits”. Conversely, readers perceive McMurphy, who challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority, as sane. Through this setting and Harding’s metaphor, readers view the conformists of society through Kesey’s eyes. Kesey makes readers ponder, “Is it insane to challenge rules and authority? Could it be that the mentally insane are, in fact, the ones who subject themselves without question to authorities?”
The likeness of Christ’s disciples and McMurphy’s followers.
Besides revealing truths that instil confidence in the patients, McMurphy also empowers them when he “(leads) the twelve of (them) toward the ocean”, to become “fishers of men”- just as Jesus did. This is a direct allusion to Jesus, who takes his twelve disciples fishing.
McMurphy’s disciples are empowered with laughter, and manage to find humour amidst calamity. Their laughter “rang out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther… in wave after wave after wave.”This is like McMurphy’s laugh which “spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it’s lapping against the walls all over the ward”. The imagery of vast space that their laughter reaches emphasizes its genuineness. It is unrestricted and liberating. This is contrasted with the snickers the patients make with their fistsearlier on. Their laughter seems controlled, as if it forced within the confines of their hands, implying its falsity. Laughter is a source of sanity and strength to McMurphy, who believes that “you have to laugh at the things that hurt you… just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy”and that one “can’t really be strong until (he) sees a funny side to things”. Laughter is a means of salvation and freedom from oppression. Unlike Christ’s ‘fishers of men’ who spread the message of salvation, McMurphy’s ‘fishers of men’ are called to spread the redemptive power of laughter to mankind.
By drawing a parallel to Christ’s followers, Kesey casts McMurphy’s followers in a favourable light. McMurphy’s disciples, who indulge in laughter, resemble The Merry Pranksters – a group in the Beat Generation who indulged in pleasures atypical of society. Kesey promotes the message that what is deemed socially unacceptable may not necessarily be wrong. Right and wrong is not determined by the views of majority; but rather, by the consequences of the act.
McMurphy empowers his followers with boldness. To the gas station servicemen who give them condescending looks, McMurphy lies that they came from the “criminal-insane ward”, with Billy Bibbit who was an “insane knife artist that killed three men” and so on. This causes everybody to call orders to the service-station men, “just like (they) owned the show” They stare at people at a stop light, intimidating them. It is noteworthy how antithetical to Christ, McMurphy uses immoral means, like fabrications, to empower his disciples. Perhaps it is for Kesey to remind readers that McMurphy is still a flawed human. In his attempt to humanise a saviour, Kesey relates that one does not have to be Christ or immortal to possess the same self-sacrificial love that knows no bounds. Although McMurphy maintains his profane disposition, he becomes increasingly Christ-like; not only in character, but also in the experiences they share.
McMurphy’s dubious moral standards are juxtaposed with his Christ-likeness, to reveal what Kesey feels are the more important aspects of being a saviour. Kesey and The Merry Pranksters rebelled against authority by experimenting with hallucinogens and their sexuality. Like non-conformist McMurphy, they took to worldly pleasures. Due to the religious surge in post-WW2, readers of the sixties would have frowned upon the seemingly unprincipled lives of The Merry Pranksters and McMurphy. By presenting McMurphy as a secular Christ-figure, Kesey upholds that the positive contribution one brings to society overrides the importance of strictly adhering to biblical rules. McMurphy is proof that a morally flawed character can bring monumental benefits to his community.
The meaning in McMurphy’s death.
The events leading to McMurphy’s death accentuate his Christ-likeness. Because McMurphy fights the aides to protect George, Nurse Ratched sends him to be electroshocked. Electroshock treatment is likened to a crucifixion, with a cross-shaped table Before McMurphy’s crucifixion, he says, “Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?”This is comparable to Christ’s crown of thorns. Furthermore, a man announces: “I wash my hands off this whole deal” an echo of Pontius Pilate’s words before he executed Christ. This foreshadows McMurphy’s eventual death.
Before the crucifixion of Christ, Jesus had his ‘Last Supper’ with his disciples. The traitor Judas Iscariot was amongst them. McMurphy’s ‘Last Supper’ at the asylum is celebrated with alcohol and his hiring of two whores, one of whom Bibbit loses his virginity to in the ‘Seclusion Room’ Following Nurse Ratched’s discovery and threats of telling his mother, Bibbit identifies McMurphy as the mastermind behind this. He then commits suicide by “(cutting) his throat”, unable to handle the guilt. A parallel can be drawn to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and then hung himself out of remorse
McMurphy, upset about Nurse Ratched’s strong influence over Bibbit, smashes through the glass and rips her uniform down the front, exposing her breasts In doing so, McMurphy brings his final revelation of the truth that Nurse Ratched is merely human, changing the patient’s mechanical perception of her forever. From then on, she “couldn’t rule with her old power”, as she could “no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman”
McMurphy pays for this with his mind – the very thing that defines his life. Nurse Ratched sends him for a lobotomy that leaves him a “Vegetable. Bromden refers to him as “it”, knowing McMurphy is already dead inside, and “mashed the pillow into the face” to find that “the expression hadn’t changed from the blank, dead-end look the least bit”. The term “mash” connotes violence in the merciful act of killing McMurphy. The paradox of mercy killing is redolent of the Roman centurion who drove a spear through Christ’s side, relieving his suffering by quickening his death. McMurphy dies as a crucified person would: by suffocation. He could have undertaken his plan to escape and live, but chose to die for the inmates’ sake. Likewise, Christ died on the cross to save mankind.
The 1960s society would have a thorough comprehension of the torture endured by Christ, a fundamental concept of Christianity. A Christ-like death for McMurphy effectively evokes sympathy in readers. Hence, it is likely that the readers’ respect for McMurphy, who sacrifices his very being, far outweigh their feelings of disapproval regarding McMurphy’s profane antics.
Just as Christ resurrected from death, McMurphy resurrects in his disciples. They become more assured, and are “no more rabbits” as Harding says. As a result of his death, “everything was changing”: almost everyone either signed out or transferred out and the new nurse “gave the guys a chance to change a lot of the ward policy”
Of all his disciples, McMurphy is kept most alive in Chief Bromden. McMurphy transfers his powers to Bromden, who becomes stronger as McMurphy becomes weaker. Previously, the plot is seen through Bromden’s unclear fogginess, which gradually disappears towards the end as he gains clarity of mind. The schizophrenic is even able to distinguish between delusions and reality, when he says “There was little brown birds occasionally on the fence; when a puff of leaves would hit the fence the birds would fly off with the wind. It looked at first like the leaves were hitting the fence and turning into birds and flying away.”At the end, he courageously confronts the unhappy past that caused his insanity, by looking “around the gorge”, “just to bring some of it clear in (his) mind again”, rather than hide behind fog and muteness like he had done before. Narrating the story from Bromden’s perspective allows readers to observe his transformation.
In Robert Faggen’s interview with Kesey during one of his visits to Kesey’s Oregon farm in 1992 and 1993, Kesey recounted an event he witnessed: In order to stop the dam project in Portland, an Indian ran into an oncoming truck that carried the materials the government would use to build the dam. The Indian, who did everything he could to protect his land, prompted Kesey to realise “the notion of what you have to pay for a lifestyle” Kesey’s message resounds throughout the novel, even more so after McMurphy’s death. Freedom comes at a cost, but its benefit is far-reaching.
The novel is replete with allusions of McMurphy to Christ. Despite McMurphy’s distinctive presence being evident in the beginning, there is no hint of his Christ-likeness at that point. On hindsight, Christ came blamelessly and without sin as a baby, to a world full of sinners. In this respect, he was superior to society; yet he entered this world humbly in a manger. While it is no rarity for humans to possess either an air of superiority or humility, it is uncommon for one to be both superior and humble. It is fair to say that the characteristics of McMurphy are somewhat reminiscent of Christ. While the first miracle that McMurphy performs on Ellis lasts only for a moment, the subsequent miracle sparks a transformation in Bromden. Further on, McMurphy begins to bear a greater resemblance to not only Christ’s character, but also to specific experiences – he brings truth and change to his community, and takes his followers on a fishing trip. McMurphy’s death is another allusion. After McMurphy finishes his ‘Last Supper’, one disciple betrays him. This leads to his crucifixion, mental death through lobotomy and finally his physical demise; with his resurrection portrayed through Chief Bromden.
The series of inconspicuous allusions intensify as the plot develops. However, while McMurphy learns to be more Christ-like, he is different from Christ. Kesey shapes McMurphy as a crude and profane individual, making him a satirical Comic Christ.
Kesey uses McMurphy’s journey to Christ-likeness to address significant issues such as conformity and individuality, the triumph of good over evil, freedom from oppression. These are recurring themes in most of Kesey’s works, namely Zoo and Sometimes A Great Notion. McMurphy, as a Christ-figure, brings this novel to a whole new level of sacrosanctity, which is apt, considering it holds these themes that are important to Kesey. Uneven forces will always exist in this world, good and evil, the strong and the weak, the dominant and the meek. As such, these issues remain relevant in modern times.
The interpretation of this novel has been largely dependent on my perception of who Christ is. Kesey, who held interest in psychic phenomena, use of the I-Ching, Eastern religions and the Bible, may not have had the same idea of Christ as others when writing the novel; but as with all literary works, interpretation is open to its readers. Given the vast number of religions and cultures, each individual has differing perspectives on Christ’s character. Whether he adheres to Christianity, Judaism, Atheism or any other religion, new syntheses can be created regarding these key themes. After all, as Kesey teaches us, each man is entitled to a mind of his own.
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