A Review of Madness in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Novel by Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: A Study in Madness

While madness is not a topic unique within Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, one character's apparent madness plays a significantly more crucial role than the others. Randle McMurphy demonstrates irrational behaviors that suggest a lack of a sense of self-preservation, as well as other confusing behaviors. However, McMurphy's seemingly unfounded decision to support a group of ward patients are rooted in love, and perhaps to a minor extent greed, but on the whole, McMurphy achieved a symbolic status within Kesey's novel that represented the time old struggle between weak and strong in an entirely new light.

Although McMurphy may not really be described as mad in a conventional sense like his fellow ward patients, his behavior of putting those patients before himself do determinedly - especially considering his personality - seems irrational. McMurphy, upon entering the asylum, appears to be an entirely conceited individual. Later on, he fights to improve the standard of life for others while he suffers. His shift to a good-Samaritan state of mind does seem outwardly irrational. After all, McMurphy's "cowboy bluster and [his] sideshow swagger" (66) behavior certainly does not meet the traditional temperament guidelines of a sanguinary person. Yet, he proves again and again, from impromptu fishing trips to enduring electro-shock therapy "long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes" (318), that he is putting the ward patients before himself simply because he cares for them. Why someone so self-conceited would care for a group of mentally ill patients is confusing; however, by examining McMurphy's motives, his behaviors became clear.

By combining his final gift along with his absence, McMurphy achieved his goals as well as serving as the catalyst to the destruction of the Big Nurse's "therapeutic" regime. Patients left the ward, gaining the autonomy that McMurphy encouraged them to seize. The main doctor resigned. As for the remaining patients, their lives changed for better or for worse,can't that had been his goal all along, using his 'irrational' love as a weapon. On a less literal level, Kesey's use of faux madness within an asylum offers a new perspective on authority versus rebellion, and the resulting success of the underdog, which is a common trope among stories. Additionally, his false madness served as an excellent example of juxtaposition between himself and the narrator, Chief Bromden. The sane and cocky man who strolled through the asylum doors died as a mindless shell of his former self. Chief Bromden, who had learned courage and became a dynamic character directly because of McMurphy escapes through the hospital window and forged onward into a new life. Thus, because McMurphy achieved his selfless goals, he won his conflict even as he lost himself. In short, if McMurphy had not loved the patients as much as he did - which was his unfortunate madness - life on the ward would have gone on, placid and unperturbed.

Initially, McMurphy's determinedness to improve the patient's lives appears innocently benevolent. He opens up a game room for them, organizes a fishing trip, and on a deeper level, served as a source of hope and courage to the patients. However, his ventures were not without criticism. The Big Nurse attempts to defame him numerous times, bringing up money as a key motivator for him. As she points out, he earned nearly three hundred dollars by gambling and, regarding the fishing trip, he received "quite a few other benefits without having paid a nickel.." (265) His love for the patients was intertwined from the money he earned from them. Or at least, that is the image that the Big Nurse paints of him; though true towards the beginning of his stay, several events occur that contradict her perception of him. Throughout the novel, McMurphy offers the patients glimpses of life outside the asylum for them "to live... For all of [them] to dream [themselves] into" (258) to foster a new curiosity for the upside world that they might later pursue. Not only that, but McMurphy also served as a role model for them. He gave them a sense of "hardboiled strength" (243) that cracked like eggshells after he left, which wasn't often. It's difficult to provide people with emotional strength without genuinely caring for them and their well-being. And while significant, the dreams and sense of false bravado he gave them pale to the final and most profound gift he had to give. Monetary interest aside, love was the single driving factor behind McMurphy's decision; "it was [their] need that was making him push himself" (381) to attack the Big Nurse following Billy Bibbit's suicide. It was an act that earns him a lobotomy and ultimately cost him his life. And yet, McMurphy makes it out of vengeance and out of grief, knowing full well of the consequences. But by sacrificing himself in order to exact revenge for the death of a boy he platonically loved, his selfless acts to the rest of the group no longer seem irrational. McMurphy acted only out of love, not a romantic one, but a love that a parent might have for their child. In the end, McMurphy's greatest significance arose after his lobotomy and subsequent death.

For this reason, Randle McMurphy's madness serves as the most influential kind, even within an asylum. His unnaturally caring attitude toward the ward patients reflects the love he had for them, which was the main cause for his actions, and by successfully destroying the Big Nurse he was the sole contributor to the biggest plot twist in the novel. So yes, perhaps McMurphy was the maddest man in that ward, and although he proffered so much of his mad advice to the patients, his finest piece of advice he gives them is that one has to laugh "just to keep the world from running [them] plumb crazy" (250), which is fine advice to fictional patients and readers alike.

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A Review of Madness in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a Novel by Ken Kesey. (2022, Dec 07). Retrieved June 15, 2024 , from
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