Ken Kesey’s celebrated novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was first staged in 1963. Back then, Kesey had said that the story would be all but forgotten without the play, but it was actually the 1975 film that immortalised the story of renegade criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy.
I love reading and literature has always been my refuge, especially when it deals with mental health. Having battled mental health issues like thousands of people of my generation, I take a keen interest in characters that narrate tales of mental illnesses. I love learning about their battles; there is always a little I have learned from fictional characters overcoming hurdles.
I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I cannot get over how Chief Bromden smothered McMurphy to death. The fall of the state-sanctioned tyrannies of the American psychiatric system was great, but McMurphy’s fall was unacceptable. Heart-wrenching.
While many other deaths in literature have left me heartbroken and teary-eyed over the years, McMurphy’s death felt like a personal loss.
Who is Randle P McMurphy?
A red-haired American of Irish descent, McMurphy is the protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. McMurphy was a Korean War veteran who was a POW during the war and led a breakout from a Chinese camp to be finally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was later dishonorably discharged for insubordination.
McMurphy was sentenced to a short prison term. However, he had himself declared insane so he could be transferred to a mental institution where he expected he would lead the rest of his life in comparative luxury.
Oregon psychiatric hospital, where McMurphy is subsequently transferred to, is ruled by a tyrannical nurse called Ratched. The ‘Big Nurse’ reigns over the hospital and sparks fear among the patients, brutally punishing anyone who dares to oppose her.
However, Ratched’s reign of terror is shaken with the arrival of unruly, disruptive McMurphy. What follows is an infamous power struggle that Ratched and McMurphy engage in.
We learn about their war through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute patient of the hospital who is awestruck by McMurphy’s confidence and jolly nature. In a hospital enveloped in fear, at a place where people are afraid to speak loudly, McMurphy laughs, sings, and winks, and injects life and joy into the patients.
McMurphy leads a revolution to take down Nurse Ratched and correct the power imbalance in the hospital. He refuses to bow down to the nurse’s threats and flouts her rules with impunity. Encouraged and inspired by McMurphy, the other patients join in.
Everything the nurse does to cow McMurphy into submission — from threatening him to finally sending him in for the brutal shock therapy — only fuels his defiance.
Following various acts of rebellion by McMurphy, Nurse Ratched gets him lobotomised in retribution towards the end of the novel. Unable to accept that the once lively, happy McMurphy will have to lead the rest of his life in a vegetative state, Chief Bromden euthanizes him by smothering him with a pillow, before fleeing the hospital forever.
Even after death, McMurphy continues to live on in the hospital as the other patients refuse to obey Ratched. They follow McMurphy’s footsteps and learn to revolt.
The Big Nurse is left weak and fragile, her reign is disrupted and she fails to control the ward any longer.
Richard Gray considers McMurphy “swaggering, bold, and with an incorrigible sense of humor” and an “authentic Irish rebel … who offers the inmates the example and chance of independence.”
Glen O. Gabbard and Krin Gabbard, the authors of Psychiatry and the Cinema, write that McMurphy “becomes a Christ figure for whom shock therapy is the crown of thorns and lobotomy the cross”.
Why I adore McMurphy
I was very timid as a kid. In school and at tuitions, I have often been mocked for being too submissive and malleable.
In school, there was a teacher who tormented me for years by making me believe that I was useless, good-for-nothing, and not worth being considered an important part of the class. Looking back, I think I was a little like Chief Bromden because I heard everything and yet chose to be quiet. I felt downtrodden and subdued.
I wish I had embraced my inner McMurphy then.
As a child, I was so convinced that the only way to lead a healthy life is by giving in to the role that has been earmarked for me by society. I believed I was a misfit in most of the roles I played, because I could not conform to societal norms, and this feeling did not really subside as I grew up. As a young woman too, I found it difficult to be myself.
Even years later, when I battled certain mental health issues, it felt like checking into the self-pity of that Oregon ward. I felt like my illness (and society’s beliefs about someone who is depressed) is going to control my life like Nurse Ratched controlled the patients. I thought I had no say, no opinions. Society still believes that anyone with mental health issues is “mad” or “insane”.
Then came Cuckoo’s Nest. And McMurphy arrived.
There is one moment in the novel when he says to the other patients: “What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average a**hole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it.”
This was perhaps the turning point. The patients, and I, began to believe that being labelled “insane” can actually be used as a kind of power or an instrument to defy societal perceptions.
I do not blame myself for being the way I was as a child because dealing with being pressured by our personal Nurse Ratcheds is never easy — be it the repressive school teacher or society as a whole. But I am glad that today I am a different person — someone with an opinion, someone who can revolt and protest against what is wrong. What is funny is, when I think deeply, I realise that my character was shaped more by fictional characters than people who really exist.
McMurphy’s impression of free will and enjoying one’s life inspired me to free myself. I know that I must live the life I wish.
I think everyone has one or more Nurse Ratcheds in their lives. I have had mine, and maybe I will encounter more Nurse Ratcheds who will try to bring me down in the future, but I now know how to allow my McMurphy side to take over. I know how not to be submissive to life’s obstacles.
Till his last breath, McMurphy had not stopped trying.
“Well, I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that,” he said.
(The opinions expressed here are the author’s own)