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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey

Part I, continued

Part I

Part II

From Bromden’s description of the speeding clock to the end of Part I

Summary

Bromden believes that Nurse Ratched can set the clock to any speed. Sometimes everything is painfully fast and sometimes painfully slow. His only escape is being in the fog where time does not exist. He notes that whoever controls the fog machine has not turned it on as much since McMurphy’s arrival. Later, Bromden explains his captivation with McMurphy’s con-artistry, which he displays while playing cards with the other patients. McMurphy wins hundreds of cigarettes and then allows his opponents to win them back. That night, McMurphy whispers to Bromden and implies that he knows he is not really deaf. Bromden does not take his night medication and has a nightmare that the hospital is a mechanical slaughterhouse. The staff hangs Old Blastic on a meat hook and slashes him open, and ash and rust pour out of the wound. Mr. Turkle wakes him from the nightmare.

Everyone wakes to McMurphy’s boisterous singing in the latrine. When Williams, one of the aides, will not let him have toothpaste before the appointed time, McMurphy brushes his teeth with soap. Bromden hides his smile, as he is reminded of how his father also used to win confrontations with humor. Ratched prepares to reprimand McMurphy for his singing, but he stops her cold by stepping out of the bathroom wearing only a towel. He says that someone has taken his clothes, so he has nothing to wear. Ratched furiously reprimands the aides for failing to issue a patient’s outfit to McMurphy. When Washington, another aide, offers McMurphy an outfit, McMurphy removes the towel, revealing that all along he was wearing a pair of boxer shorts—black satin covered with white whales. Ratched manages to regain her composure with serious effort.

McMurphy is even more confident that morning. He asks Ratched to turn down the recorded music playing in the ward. She politely refuses, explaining that some of the Chronics are hard of hearing and cannot entertain themselves without the music turned up loudly. She also refuses to allow them to play cards in another room, citing a lack of staff to supervise two rooms. Doctor Spivey comes to get McMurphy for an interview, and they return talking and laughing together. At the Group Meeting, the doctor announces McMurphy’s plan for the radio to be played at a higher volume, so that the hard-of-hearing patients can enjoy it more. He proposes that the other patients go to another room to read or play cards. Since the Chronics are easy to supervise, the staff can be split between the rooms. Ratched restrains herself from losing her temper.

McMurphy starts a Monopoly game with Cheswick, Martini, and Harding that goes on for three days. McMurphy makes sure he does not lose his temper with any of the staff. Once, he does get angry with the patients for being “too chicken-shit.” He then requests that Ratched allow them to watch the World Series, even though it is not the regulation TV time. In order to make up for this, he proposes that they do the cleaning chores at night and watch the TV in the afternoon, but Ratched refuses to change the schedule. He proposes a vote at the Group Meeting, but only Cheswick is brave enough—or crazy enough—to defy Ratched, since the others are afraid of long-term repercussions. McMurphy, furious, says he is going to escape, and Fredrickson goads him into showing them how he would do it. McMurphy bets them that he can lift the cement control panel in the tub room and use it to break through the reinforced windows. Everybody knows it will be impossible to lift the massive panel, but he makes such a sincere effort that for one moment they all believe it is possible.

Bromden remembers how at the old hospital they did not have pictures on the wall or television. He recalls Public Relations saying, “A man that would want to run away from a place as nice as this, why, there’d be something wrong with him.” Bromden senses that the fog machine has been turned on again. He explains how the fog makes him feel safe and that McMurphy keeps trying to drag them out of the fog where they will be “easy to get at.” He then overhears someone talking about Old Rawler, a patient in the Disturbed unit who killed himself by cutting off his testicles. Bromden then further describes getting lost in the fog and finding himself two or three times a month at the electroshock room.

At the next Group Meeting, Bromden feels immersed in fog and cannot follow the group as they grill Billy about his stutter and failed relationship with a girl. McMurphy proposes another vote regarding the TV, with the support of some of the other patients. It is the first day of the World Series. Bromden observes the hands go up as McMurphy drags all twenty Acutes out of the fog. Ratched declares the proposal defeated, however, because none of the twenty Chronics raised their hands and McMurphy needs a majority. McMurphy finally persuades Bromden to raise his hand, but Ratched says the vote is closed. During the afternoon cleaning chores, McMurphy declares that it is time for the game. When he turns on the TV, Ratched cuts its power, but McMurphy does not budge from the armchair. The Acutes follow suit and sit in front of the blank TV. She screams and rants at them for breaking the schedule, and McMurphy wins his bet that he could make her lose her composure.

Analysis

Bromden’s reliability as a narrator becomes clear as we realize how incredibly observant he is. Unlike the other patients, Bromden notices how carefully McMurphy sets them up to lose their cigarettes. Moreover, Bromden’s bizarre dream about Old Blastic turns out to be prophetic, demonstrating that his altered states of perception are significant rather than simply crazy. Bromden perceives the hospital not as a place promoting health but as a mechanized slaughterhouse where not only humans, but also humanity, is murdered. Old Blastic is hung on a meat hook and disemboweled, but rust and ash pour from his wound rather than flesh and blood. Bromden’s dreams metaphorically reveal his profound insight into the dehumanizing and mechanizing forces of the hospital.

Bromden’s hallucination that he is surrounded by fog extends to the other patients—he thinks that they are lost in fog too. This is clearly a delusion, but metaphorically it is true. The status quo enforced by Nurse Ratched functions to dull the patients’ senses. Her tight routine makes everything seem to move either too slow or too fast. The too-loud music makes conversation difficult and frustrating. In response to the ever-extending fog, or a clouding of one’s unique thoughts and needs, Bromden describes McMurphy’s actions as dragging the patients out of the fog. By resisting Ratched, McMurphy awakens the patients to their own ability to resist her, and thereby helps them see beyond the fog. Bromden at first does not attribute his rebellious vote to his own willpower, but rather to some mysterious power on McMurphy’s part. Then he later realizes, “No. That’s not the truth. I lifted [my hand] myself.” Bromden is very slowly beginning to see himself as an individual with free will; his recognition that the fog blankets the entire ward is an ironic indication that his own fog is beginning to lift.

McMurphy’s small but continual infractions of the rules are assertions of his own individuality. McMurphy’s defiance encourages the other patients to defy Ratched by gambling for cigarettes. He succeeds in drawing the other patients into rebellion against Ratched’s authority, because she forbids gambling for anything but matches. Furthermore, the incident with the towel reflects McMurphy’s faith in humor as a means to resist Ratched’s authority. Earlier, when McMurphy suggests that the patients laugh at Ratched, Harding scoffs at the idea. Harding asserts that the only effective tool of resistance against Ratched is the penis, the instrument of male violence against dominant femininity. Although McMurphy’s resistance to Ratched’s authority does include a sexual element, McMurphy combines sexuality with humor, not violence. The symbolism of the encounter is heightened by McMurphy’s boxers, a gift from a college student who said that McMurphy was himself a literary symbol. White whales evoke the famous Moby-Dick, a beast associated in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick with a variety of symbolic meanings, including masculinity, unseen power, insanity, and freedom. When McMurphy flaunts these symbolic boxers before Nurse Ratched, he is connected to each of these interpretations, reminding the reader that he serves as a prominent symbol within the novel.

McMurphy’s display of his whale boxer shorts affirms his belief that men should not be ashamed of their sexuality, whereas making the patients ashamed of their sexuality is one of Ratched’s major ways of dominating them. Ratched’s strategy is evident in her treatment of Billy Bibbit, a thirty-one-year-old virgin dominated into celibacy by his mother. Though it is obvious to us that Billy needs to find a way out from under his mother’s shadow, Ratched does the opposite of helping him do this, defining his sexuality in terms of inadequacy and shame. Rather than attempting to cure the patients of their problems, Ratched increases their discomfort as a way of building her own power.

McMurphy’s personal rebellion against Ratched’s authority expands and becomes the patients’ collective rebellion, with McMurphy as their unofficial leader. When McMurphy wins his bet, he does so with the other patients’ help as they all join him in protest. Meanwhile, Bromden’s perceptions of the situation develop and change. When Ratched begins screaming hysterically, Bromden states that anyone who walked into the room at the moment would think they were all crazy. Insanity is no longer a characteristic of the patients alone. Before, Bromden saw the patients as defective. Now, with the help of a unified force against the mechanistic Combine, he is beginning to see the established order as defective as well.

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