Literary Essay: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Many protagonists are considered heroes, ranging from Hamlet to Hercules. All of these heroes also did something to earn the honoured title. In today's society modern heroes have been found, one of which is the traditional Western hero. We also have a hero in Jesus Christ, saviour to some, yet a hero no matter what religion those who look upon him follow. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken Kesey uses both of these heroes of today, amalgamating them so that his protagonist displayed characteristics of each. McMurphy, the protagonist, is a character aided in creation by those two images with opposing characteristics, yet McMurphy was also given a characteristic that was shared by the two heroes, a willingness to help people.
Randle Patrick McMurphy is portrayed in the novel as similar to the traditional Western hero. Appearing quite early in the book, he immediately gives the impression of being bound to nothing at all; he was shown as unrestrained from the beginning. Chief Bromden, the narrator, presents evidence of this by describing McMurphy's laugh as "free and loud"(Kesey p. 16). The Western hero is known to be carefree, and so was McMurphy when he was first admitted as he "laces his fingers over his belly without taking his thumbs out of his pockets,"(Kesey p. 16) a very relaxed poise. McMurphy also appears to be much like the Western hero, a risk taker; he would go to meet a challenge, ready to risk a confrontation, usually with the Big Nurse. One such occasion was when McMurphy rose to meet the Nurse's confiscation and rationing of cigarettes by breaking her window and taking the cigarettes. The Chief comments on this confrontational aspect of McMurphy's character when he says of McMurphy:

He was the logger again, the swaggering gambler, the big redheaded brawling Irishman, the cowboy out of the TV set walking down the middle of the street to meet a dare. (Kesey p. 172)

It was this daring aspect of his character that made him even more distinct. Yet another aspect of McMurphy's character similar to those of the Western hero is that of being a loner, a person who does not build bonds with the people around themselves. McMurphy was a man who enjoyed staying in places that interested him; if the interest disappeared, he would want to as well. Chief Bromden tells us this much about McMurphy's past:

Maybe he growed up so wild all over the country, batting around from one place to another, never around one town… travelling light-footed and fast, keeping on the move.(Kesey p. 84)

McMurphy gave us his reasons for coming to the asylum saying that "nobody was left in that Pendleton Work Farm to make my days interesting anymore, so I requested a transfer."(Kesey pg.17) McMurphy also displays his desire not to remain in one place, not to have to deal with responsibility. Upon being told by his friend Harding that he "may be a wolf,"(Kesey pg. 63) a wolf that would provide a symbol of inspiration for the inmates, his reaction was to say rather emotionally, "Goddammit, I'm no wolf."(Kesey pg. 63) This showed his reluctance to deal with the responsibility of leading the inmates, a reluctance to be their sheriff and help them in times of trouble on a permanent basis. Although Kesey portrays McMurphy as this modern hero he also includes a sense of past heroes by mixing in some of the characteristics of Jesus Christ, a very old hero.

Kesey portrays McMurphy as similar to Jesus Christ, creating qualities that contrast those of the Western hero. One example of this special portrait is that McMurphy's disappearance, contrasting Jesus' death, is what frees the Acutes. It was because of his sacrifice that the men were freed from the oppression of the Big Nurse; they became more like men and less like rabbits under the control of the wolf, Nurse Ratched. Not only did his attack on the Big Nurse and his disappearance help to reinstate the masculinity of the patients, but it also had the effect of weakening Nurse Ratched. This occurrence was shown by the Chief describing the condition of the ward following McMurphy's disappearance as a place where the Big Nurse "couldn't