Another thing: I’m in this place because that’s the way I planned it, pure and simple, because it’s a better place than a work farm. As near as I can tell I’m no loony, or never knew it if I was. Your nurse didn’t know this; she’s not going to be looking out for somebody coming at her with a trigger-quick mind like I obviously got. These things give me an edge I like. So I’m saying five bucks to each of you that wants it if I can’t put a betsy bug up that nurse’s butt within a week.
On his first day on the ward, McMurphy explains to the inmates that he is not afraid of what Nurse Ratched could do to him—even send him for electric shock—because he’s not really insane but just chose the hospital over the work farm. Because of his subterfuge, he thinks he will be able to outsmart her. McMurphy’s words show his supreme, perhaps foolhardy, self-confidence and belief that he will control his experience and emerge unscathed.
The secret of being a top-notch con man is being able to know what the mark wants, and how to make him think he’s getting it.
Over a blackjack game, McMurphy characterizes himself to the men as a grifter who excels at assessing other people’s weaknesses to get what he wants from them. While McMurphy does cheat the men out of money, he mainly harnesses his talent in service to them. Nurse Ratched becomes his primary target—if he gets under her skin, the men will see that she is not omnipotent and can no longer dominate them.
He stops laughing and whispers, “Why, you sure did give a jump when I told you that coon was coming, Chief. I thought somebody told me you was deef.”
After only a few days on the ward, McMurphy determines what no one else has seen in ten years: Bromden only pretends to be deaf and dumb. Here, McMurphy’s words to Bromden reveal his clear observance and keen understanding of human nature. McMurphy behaves as an instigator who thinks that Bromden will be a key figure in his plans to shake up the ward.
“But I tried, though,” he says. “Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much now, didn’t I?”
After McMurphy unsuccessfully tries to lift the control panel, he congratulates his own effort. This scene reinforces McMurphy’s efforts to antagonize Nurse Ratched. Like the control panel, she appears stronger than McMurphy, because she holds all the power, but he won’t give up. In this way, he contrasts favorably with the other inmates, who accept the status quo out of fear of being punished for any insubordination.
You got to swallow your pride sometimes and keep an eye out for old Number One.
McMurphy talks with the men about aborting his plan to antagonize Nurse Ratched since he found out that she can keep him in the hospital past his original sentence. At this point, McMurphy values self-preservation more than he values victory, and he sees his battle with Nurse Ratched as a game he wants to win by getting his personal freedom. However, once he realizes that his continued resistance can lead the men to rediscover themselves and their masculine pride, he changes his mind.
I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn’t able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you see a funny side to things.
Bromden explains that when the men head out on their fishing expedition, they try out acting brave and strong, but they are only faking. They need McMurphy to teach them how to laugh again. In the novel, laughter—a natural and contagious expression of amusement and joy—symbolizes movement toward freedom and restoration of health. Bromden knows that when the men can laugh again, they can be strong and independent.
He insisted it wasn’t hurting him. He wouldn’t even take his capsules. But everytime that loudspeaker called for him to forgo breakfast and prepare to walk to Building One, the muscles in his jaw went taut and his whole face drained of color, looking thin and scared[.]
Nurse Ratched tries to break McMurphy by repeatedly sending him for electric shock therapy, but as described here by Bromden, McMurphy refuses to let her know that the treatment affects him or to even take the knockout pills that will keep him from feeling the pain. To McMurphy, any sign of weakness means that Nurse Ratched wins. Instead, he continues to provide a strong role model for the men, hoping to imbue them with that trait.
She saw that McMurphy was growing bigger than ever while he was upstairs where the guys couldn’t see the dent she was making on him, growing almost into a legend. A man out of sight can’t be made to look weak, she decided, and started making plans to bring him back down to our ward.
Nurse Ratched has kept McMurphy on the Disturbed ward and treated him with electric shock therapy in hopes of diminishing him, but to her dismay, and as explained here by Bromden, McMurphy only grows into more of a legend for the men on the ward. In his absence, his stature continues to increase in size and strength. He becomes a powerful symbol of resistance, one that has the ability to inspire the men. As McMurphy now seems to be winning the game, Nurse Ratched decides to counter the legend with the reality of McMurphy’s destruction and send a strong message of deterrence.
A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal make as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn’t care any more about anything but himself and his dying.
Bromden describes the sound McMurphy makes after he’s pinned to the floor after attacking and strangling Nurse Ratched. He saved the other men since they finally see Nurse Ratched in a weakened position, but he also brought about his own doom. She still wields authority in the hospital, and McMurphy’s attack has given her the right to unleash her full powers of retribution. She has already hinted at lobotomizing him, and he knows what his future holds.
I pushed past the other patients to stand beside Martini. “Sure, they can do things like scars and broken noses,” I said. “But they can’t do that look. There’s nothin’ in the face. Just like one of those store dummies, ain’t that right, Scanlon?”
Bromden comments on McMurphy’s facial expression after he returns to the ward as an empty shell after his lobotomy. This passage underscores the inhumanity of the lobotomy procedure, which steals a person’s identity but leaves the recognizable body behind. Devoid of his essence and lacking his lively, irreverent personality, Bromden and his friends can hardly recognize McMurphy. The McMurphy they once knew vanished even if Nurse Ratched has left him in the ward as a cautionary tale.