Christian Symbolism in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Novel by Ken Kesey

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Christianity is the world's most followed religion, pursued by as much as 32% of the population. Followers of Christianity often turn to this religion to follow an individual whom they feel liberated them. This liberation led to new life and immense respect for the being that emancipated them. In society, a greater force often oppresses people and they decay and grow numb to the world around them (1). Consequently, they yearn for a savior, someone to sacrifice themselves to save the majority and give them new life. In Ken Kesey's, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Christian symbolism is utilized to convey the idea that a savior is necessary in saving a withered (1) people, helping them evolve from anguish to ease.

In the novel, one parallel to Christianity in the novel is the character, Randle Patrick McMurphy's martyrdom, which is similar to the actions of Jesus Christ in the bible. There is a plethora of instances in the novel where this comparison is evident. For instance, "You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns. You are touched on each side of the head with wires. Zap! Five cents' worth of electricity through the brain and you are jointly administered therapy and a punishment for your hostile go- to-hell behavior, on top of being put out of everyone's way for six hours to three days, depending on the individual. Even when you do regain consciousness you are in a state of disorientation for days. You are unable to think coherently. You can't recall things. Enough of these treatments and a man could turn out like Mr. Ellis ... Or turn into a mindless organism" (Kesey 53). In this excerpt from the novel, the author uses the symbol of the cross and the crown of thorns to dramatize the fate of McMurphy. The use of symbolism expounds on the destiny of this savior. To elucidate, the cross and the crown of thorns are a symbol of sacrifice in the bible, it illustrates how Jesus Christ willingly renounced himself in order to save his people. Analogously, shock therapy, and other methods of treatment, such as lobotomies (2), holds the same effect in the novel. The literary element evident in the text would be foreshadowing. To delineate, McMurphy made himself susceptible to being wounded (3), he let his enemies turn him into 'a mindless organism', by surgically removing part of his brain (2), to exonerate those imprisoned in the ward. McMurphy's voluntary vulnerability (3) accentuates the idea that a savior must sacrifice himself to free others. Moreover, McMurphy knew the consequences of acting out against the Big Nurse; however, he proceeded with his actions for the prosperity of the ward.

The Big Nurse, or Nurse Ratched is the obvious oppressor in this novel, and Ken Kesey uses Christian symbolism to help the reader come to this conclusion (4). The reader can deduce (4) the sadistic (5) nature of the nurse through descriptions of her. It becomes increasingly evident that the Big Nurse has no desire to help; she solely craves the pain of others (5). The novel states, "Why, see here, my friend Mr. McMurphy, my psychopathic sidekick, our Miss Ratched is a veritable angel of mercy and why just everyone knows it. She's unselfish as the wind, toiling thanklessly for the good of all, day after day, five long days a week. That takes heart, my friend, heart..."(Kesey 47). Multifarious times in the novel, Nurse Ratched is referred to as an 'angel of mercy'; in the bible, Satan often takes the form of an angel to deceive God's people; both of these individuals became well known for their negative reputation (6). Therefore, it is possible that Ken Kesey is trying to make the connection between the two notorious (6) beings. One literary device that assists this idea is verbal irony, more specifically, sarcasm. In the quote, one of the mental patients are seemingly speaking highly of Nurse Ratched, however, they were just poking fun at her punitive (7) nature. Rather than talking about how Nurse Ratched is solely concerned with inflicting punishment (7), the speaker takes a more sarcastic tone by calling her 'unselfish'. Calling Nurse Ratched 'unselfish' was evidently sarcasm because everything she does contributes to her power trip. The juxtaposition of Nurse Ratched, the phase 'angel of mercy', and the verbal irony, makes it evident that Nurse Ratched is the oppressor. Analogously, since everything that was sarcastically said about her was positive, it can be drawn that she is an ornery (8) person. Everyone in the ward knew that how the Big Nurse was treating them was wrong, They were well aware that her bad temper would lead to their demise, yet they needed a savior to help them. Overall, Ken Kesey displayed how the oppressor is viewed in the eyes of the oppressed through sarcastic irony.

An additional crucial connection Ken Kesey makes in relation to Christianity is through the patients in the ward. The patients in the ward are all a symbol for the Disciples of Christ. One distinct example of this symbolism would be through Billy Bibbit. The text states, "" He looked around him. 'He cut his throat,' she said. She waited, hoping he would say something. He wouldn't look up. 'He opened the doctor's desk and found some instruments and cut his throat. The poor miserable, misunderstood boy killed himself. He's there now, in the doctor's chair, with his throat cut.... 'I hope you're finally satisfied. Playing with human lives - gambling with human lives - as if you thought yourself to be a God!" (Kesey 244). Billy Bibbit perfectly conveys the role of the victim that fell at the hands of the oppressor (10). This is most similar to the story of Judas in the bible where both individuals were left powerless (9) due to the dismay (10) caused by a tormenter. Both individuals were so ineffectual (9) that they ended their own lives. In the novel, Billy Bibbit feared being keelhauled (11); the Big Nurse threatened him with the punishment (11) of telling his mother what he had been up to. In both instances, the weak minds (12) of both individuals lead to their demise; their maudlin (12) personalities led to their death. The author uses a metaphor to help swivel (13) the blame for these actions. Nurse Ratched compares McMurphy to God in order to shift (13) the blame from herself to him. The shift in blame is especially evident in the phrase 'I hope you're finally satisfied'. Nurse Ratched was expecting a bellow (14) or holler (15) from McMurphy however he did neither, he did not yell (14) or let out a cry (15). Essentially the message that Ken Kesey is trying to convey in this section is the impact of the strong on the weak.

Quintessentially, Ken Kesey uses Christian symbolism to convey the stances of the oppressor, the oppressed, and the savior in society. He also used Christian symbolism to highlight the idea that a savior must sacrifice himself in order to bring change and help a group of people. One topic that relates to the idea of a leader sacrificing himself would be during the Civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr helped lead this movement; he was well aware that it was a dangerous venture (16), he did not know if he was going to achieve his goal or not (16), yet he still took on the task, the task to lead an expedition (17). He completed (18) his journey (17) as efficiently (18) as he could. With time (19) the task of leading a movement to free a people grew more dangerous. Eventually, (20) Martin Luther King Jr lost his life to his cause, yet the cause did not die. Due to his heft (20) as a leader the movement continued to live. The people now bore the weight (20) that was left by their leader, or savior. Martin Luther King was killed by an oppressor, the majority; in this case, the racist white man. Many of those who were being abused by this group of people knew it was wrong, what their tormentor was doing, but they needed a leader. In essence, a strong savior is needed to bring about change, but the only way things will really be altered is if this individual risks it all and sacrifices their life for the cause.

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Christian Symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a Novel by Ken Kesey. (2022, Dec 07). Retrieved June 14, 2024 , from
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