Gambling and Taking Risks in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest operates as an entertaining and interesting novel on a pure surface level. There’s a good story, well-developed characters and fresh language. It has all the workings of a good novel, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t just a good novel. It’s a great one, because Kesey uses Chief Bromden’s perspective to let imagery flow out of the novel and have it all come back to one theme: individuality and its repression by society. This idea is highlighted by the image of gambling vs. playing it safe, whether in literal card games or as a way of living. The mental ward’s new patient, Randle Patrick McMurphy, is a self-described “gambling fool” (12)1, while his opposer, “Big Nurse” Ratched, forces the “Acute” patients to play it safe by trying to keep the ward in order with her mechanical routine. As McMurphy influences the men on the ward to be individuals, gambling becomes a part of the everyday routine. Eventually, the men on the ward begin taking gambles outside of card games until the novel’s climax.

The novel begins with Chief mopping and lurking in the background as a quiet observer. Ever since he’s been on the ward until later in the novel, Chief acts as what he calls “cagey” and doesn’t talk, which makes everyone assume he’s deaf and dumb. He doesn’t take the chance of telling anyone because he’s afraid that the staff will punish him after he’s heard enough of their secrets. He mops the ward and submits himself to the fog that he hallucinates. While the other men talk and walk around, they’re not much better than Chief. They play Pinochle and occasionally bet for matches, which is all that Big Nurse allows, but they never enjoy themselves and don’t even let themselves truly laugh. When McMurphy enters the ward, he announces that he “figure[s]...to be the sort of gambling baron on this ward” (19) and that the Army taught him his “natural bent”, which is to play poker. Right off the bat, one can tell that McMurphy is on the ward more because he wants to make money off a new group of people than because of any mental illness. When McMurphy is getting acquainted with everyone on the ward, Chief notes that “you can’t tell if he’s really this friendly or if he’s got some gambler’s reason for trying to get acquainted with guys so far gone they don’t even know their names” (22). McMurphy is later stopped from acquainting himself with everyone by Big Nurse, who tells him that “...everyone must follow the rules” (25), which would make things easier for everyone. McMurphy replies that he’s told that “...just when [he] figures [he’s] about to do the dead opposite” (26). McMurphy is making his presence felt and showcasing how he lives life dangerously and the sense of enjoyment he gets out of it. If anything else, the men notice he’s satisfied with himself and is always having a good time, even on the dreary ward.

After McMurphy has spent a day on the ward, he knows for certain that he and Big Nurse aren’t going to get along. As he’s wont to do, he begins to question the limits of his behavior before the Nurse sends him up to the Disturbed ward or gives him electroshock therapy. When he asks the other patients that one of them, Harding, says, “Those are the rules we play by. Of course, she always wins...” (73). Harding and the rest of the men know that Big Nurse will always cheat in the game of wills to get her way, so they don’t even bother trying to change things. McMurphy makes a bet with the rest of the men that he can get the best of the Nurse without her getting the best of him before the end of the week. McMurphy notes that he’s “a gambler and [he’s] not in the habit of losing” (74) Soon, the men are playing card games for cigarettes, with McMurphy talking and taking cigarettes and IOUs “like a stock auctioneer” (79), occasionally letting them win. They begin to gamble on everything they can, like butter hitting the clock before breakfast is out then...
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