One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Randle McMurphy

From the moment of his appearance in the novel, Randle McMurphy is set apart from all of the other characters. His confident, “iron-heeled” walk and raucous laughter announce his presence, contrasting vividly with the atmosphere of oppressed docility. Chief notes that McMurphy’s is the first real laugh that has been heard on the ward in years. McMurphy immediately proclaims his love of gambling and women, and announces his intention to become the “bull goose loony” on the ward. He is physically large and strong as well, with all the traits of a natural leader. From the beginning, the other patients are fascinated by him. This is because he embodies all of the qualities which they have lost through their experiences in the world, particularly in the carefully controlled totalitarian state that is Nurse Ratched’s ward. He is masculine, sexual, and a fierce individualist, who by his very nature cannot submit to society’s pressure to conform.

McMurphy symbolizes rebellion against society’s oppressive forces. Throughout the course of the novel, he models this rebellion for the other men until they begin to internalize it for themselves. In this way, he is a healing force, far more healing than anything the hospital has to offer. His presence clarifies the reality of the hospital—that it is not a place of rehabilitation or care, but rather of enforced conformity and outright sadism. At first, McMurphy is motivated mainly by self-interest, feigning insanity because he thinks the hospital will be an easier life for him than the Work Farm. His natural leadership qualities quickly lead, however, to a sense of responsibility for the other patients on the ward. When, out of self-preservation, McMurphy refuses to support Cheswick’s show of rebellion and Cheswick then commits suicide, McMurphy steps up to the role he has been thrust into. When he shatters the glass of the Nurse’s Station at the end of Part 2, he is symbolically embracing his role as a martyr for these men.

From this point on, McMurphy is...

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