One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey’s use of symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest transforms the novel and the hospital within the novel a microcosm of society, a battle between the sane and insane, the conformist and the non-conformist. Randle McMurphy’s arrival influenced the lives of almost every person, whether patient or employee. Whether or not his motives and actions were moral or good-hearted is difficult to conclude, however. On one hand, he undoubtedly saved the patients from losing their souls, so to speak, to Nurse Ratched and her ward. Without him, they would not have been able to stand up for themselves or grow a sense of self-appreciation and competence. On the other hand, there was a price to pay for these freedoms. McMurphy’s and Billy Bibbit’s deaths showed just how much control The Big Nurse had on her patients. The role each character plays in this showdown symbolizes the realistic confrontations between the mentally unstable and the rest of society that has been going on for centuries.
Randle Patrick McMurphy is a powerful, intelligent man, a true non-conformist. He comes to the mental institution to avoid the tedious work forced upon him at the prison he was assigned to. His playful, jolly attitude towards the patients surprises them since they have not seen such contention since they came to the ward. It is obvious from the beginning of the novel as to McMurphy’s most superficial motives. He is a con man, constantly making bets with naïve, mentally ill men. The fact that he never tries to outsmart or cheat them, however, makes him respected and admired by the patients. McMurphy’s tattoo, a poker hand with ace’s and eight’s, the “dead man’s hand”, symbolizes both his obsession with gambling and his eventual death. Despite his consistent attempts to make a profit, McMurphy’s main concern is the welfare of his new friends in the hospital. He sees how they can no longer think for themselves or demand their civil rights. Even beyond that, he cannot fathom the fact that many of the patients voluntarily checked themselves into the ward, and may leave at any time. McMurphy starts out as somewhat conceited and self-absorbed. As the novel progresses, he becomes a role model for the other patients, showing them how to take control of their own destinies and rebelling against the overwhelming power of the “Combine”. The fishing trip is a key example of his influence on his peers. Nurse Ratched’s repeated warnings about the dangers of the sea and the accidents that had occurred recently scared most of the patients into refusing to go on the trip. As more and more newspaper clippings went up describing wrecked boats, McMurphy started to mock these warnings, coaxing more and more patients into going on the trip. Before McMurphy came to the ward, such rebellious trips would never have happened, even if they wanted to go. McMurphy’s initiative and leadership paved the way for so many others.
McMurphy’s death shows the ultimate sacrifice that he is willing in order to make his friends aware of the suffocating environment that they choose to live in. When he fights Washington, the worker that sprayed soap on Sefelt despite knowing that he always refused to bathe with soap, he showed how much he has evolved during his stay in the hospital. No profit awaits him by protecting Sefelt. He also knows that if he does attack him, Nurse Ratched would almost certainly destroy him. He does it simply because he knows that no one else was about to step in and help. McMurphy’s punishment, electroshock treatment, killed the one thing that he was so proud of – the control he had over himself.
One could argue that McMurphy was a Christ figure, a martyr that died for his followers. There are many references to Christ and the Bible in the novel. He takes twelve people on the trip, reminiscent of the twelve disciples. The table used for the electroshock treatment is built in the shape of the cross, with McMurphy tied to it as if he was nailed to a crucifix.
They put the graphite salve on his temples. “What is it?” he says. “Conductant,” the technician says.