The role of the hero in Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is played by Randle P. McMurphy, a wrongly committed mental patient with a lust for life. The qualities that garner McMurphy respect and admiration from his fellow patients are also responsible for his tragic downfall. These qualities include his temper, which leads to his being deemed “disturbed,” his stubbornness, which results in his receiving numerous painful disciplinary treatments, and finally his free spirit, which leads to his death. Despite McMurphy being noble man, in the end, these characteristics hurt him more than they help him. Throughout the novel, McMurphy displays that he has a wild temper. This temper aids him in his battle with the “Big Nurse” Nurse Ratched for control of the mental ward. However, his temper eventually works against him.
Upon McMurphy’s arrival to the ward he establishes himself as a con man and a gambler. One of his first bets with the other patients is to see if, within a week, he can put “a bee in Nurse Ratched’s butt, a burr in her bloomers. Get her goat. Bug her till she comes apart at those neat little seams” (Kesey, Nest 69). McMurphy makes this bet after he learns about the Disturbed Ward where “assaultive” and “potential assaultives” are sent, and also about the “shock shop” where Electro-Shock Therapy is administered to unruly patients. Since McMurphy is “not in the habit of losing” (Kesey 68), he wants to be certain that he can get away with harassing the Big Nurse without receiving any of these punishments. He is told by a fellow patient, “as long as you don’t lose your temper and give her actual reason to request the restriction of the Disturbed Ward, or the therapeutic benefits of electro-shock you are safe.
But that entails first and foremost keeping one’s temper. And you? With your red hair and black record? Why delude yourself” (68).This shows that McMurphy is already perceived as a man with a temper after only one day on the ward.McMurphy displays this temper throughout the novel, but one incident finally gets him into trouble. During an argument with one of the black aides to the Big Nurse, a punch is thrown and a fight breaks out.
This is what the Big Nurse has been waiting for; an excuse to send McMurphy to the Disturbed Ward. Upon his arrival to the Disturbed Ward, Electro-Shock Therapy is administered to McMurphy as punishment. The Big Nurse is able to get the upper hand in her battle against McMurphy when he allows his temper to take over.A second important personality trait of McMurphy is his stubbornness.
It is part of his fighting spirit as he will not accept defeat. This is portrayed when McMurphy makes a wager with the other men that he can lift a large control panel. Despite everyone’s doubts, he tries to lift it, and fails.
Following his defeat, he tells the others, “but I tried thoughgoddammit I sure as hell did that much, now, didn’t I” (111). This shows his fighting spirit, taking the challenge and not admitting total defeat, but it shows his stubbornness as well. He attempts the impossible and refuses to listen to anybody who doubts him.When McMurphy is committed to the Disturbed Ward, he has the opportunity to return to his old ward as long as he admits to being wrong. This would give the Big Nurse the final victory, but McMurphy is too stubborn to allow that to happen. As a result, he receives numerous Electro-Shock Therapy treatments.
Each time he comes to, the Big Nurse offers him the chance to apologize and to admit that he was at fault, but he tells her “she could kiss his rosy red ass before he’d give up the goddam ship” (242). If McMurphy admitted he was wrong, he could avoid the Electro-Shock Therapies. However, he is too stubborn to allow the Big Nurse to win the war so easily. Throughout the novel, McMurphy’s free spirit is demonstrated. He wishes to live his life on his own terms, not that of the social norm, and he spreads this mentality to the others. He “serves as an energy source and inspiration tohis fellows. They become less lethargicbut mainly, they become able and willing to struggle for life” (Hicks, Criticism 234).
This is one reason why the others look up to him so much. He helps them regain some control over their lives during his stay on the ward. McMurphy does this by teaching them how to laugh again, saying that “you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy” (Kesey 212). McMurphy also radiates his rebellious nature to the others by standing up against all the ward policies that he disagrees with. He does not wish for his life to be dictated to him by rules and restrictions, which is why he challenges the Big Nurses authority. At the end of the novel, McMurphy attacks the Big Nurse, and consequently receives a lobotomy.
Although his mind is taken away, his body still struggles to stay alive. Knowing that McMurphy would not want to live his life in that state, a fellow patient decides to kill him. This task is more difficult than he anticipates, because “the big, hard body had a tough grip on life. It fought a long time against having it taken away” (Kesey, Nest 270). This shows that McMurphy’s free spirit and stubbornness is so strong and deeply anchored, that even though his mind is gone, his body continues the fight to stay alive.
In Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, there is one character heroic enough to stand up against the tyranny of the Big Nurse. This character is Randle P. McMurphy. However, it is McMurphy’s own personality traits including his wild temper, his stubbornness and his free spirit which ultimately defeat him.