One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
After breaking the glass at the Nurses’ Station, McMurphy is back to his old troublemaking ways. Even Doctor Spivey begins to assert himself with the nurse. The aides put a piece of cardboard where McMurphy broke the glass, and Ratched continues to sit behind it as if it were transparent—she looks like “a picture turned to the wall.” Ratched rejects McMurphy’s petition for an Accompanied Pass, which is a permission to spend time outside the ward while attended by another person. McMurphy wants to leave the ward with a prostitute he knows from Portland, Candy Starr. As a result of Ratched’s denial, McMurphy shatters the replacement glass pane, claiming he did not know it had been replaced. Bromden notes that the nurse shows signs that her patience is starting to wear down. When the glass is replaced again, Scanlon accidentally smashes it with a basketball, which she then throws away.
Doctor Spivey grants McMurphy’s request for a pass to take a fishing trip with nine other patients, accompanied by two of his aunts. Men begin to sign up for the trip, each paying McMurphy ten dollars for the boat rental. Meanwhile, Ratched pins newspaper clippings about rough weather and wrecked boats on the bulletin board. Bromden wants to sign the list, but he is afraid to blow his deaf-and-dumb cover, realizing that he has to “keep acting deaf if [he] wanted to hear at all.” He remembers that when he was ten, three people came to his home to talk to his father about buying the tribe’s land. When Bromden spoke to them, they acted like he had not said a word. This memory represents the first time in a long time that he has remembered something about his childhood.
Geever, an aide, wakes Bromden and McMurphy in the middle of the night when he scrapes off the wads of gum under Bromden’s bed. He tells McMurphy that he has tried for a long time to find out where Bromden, as an indigent patient, could obtain gum. After he leaves the dorm, McMurphy gives Bromden some Juicy Fruit, and Bromden, before he can think of what he is doing, thanks him. McMurphy tells him that when he was a boy, he took a job picking beans. The adults ignored him, so McMurphy silently listened to their malicious gossip all summer. At the end of the season, he told everyone what the others said in their absence, creating havoc. Bromden replies that he is too little to do something bold like that.
McMurphy offers to make Bromden big again with his special body-building course. He offers to pay Bromden’s share of the fishing trip fee if he promises to get strong enough to lift the control panel in the tub room. He tells Bromden that the aunts who will accompany them are in reality two prostitutes. When McMurphy notices Bromden’s erection, he states that Bromden is getting bigger already. Right then, McMurphy adds Bromden’s name to the list. The next day he persuades George Sorenson, a former fisherman, to take the last slot.
When Candy arrives at the hospital—without Sandy—the men are transfixed by her beauty and femininity. Ratched threatens to cancel the trip because all the patients cannot fit into Candy’s car, and they do not have a second driver. In doing so, she discovers that McMurphy lied about the cost of the rental to make a profit off the other patients. She tries to use this information as part of her typical divide-and-conquer strategy, but the other patients do not seem to mind. McMurphy then persuades Doctor Spivey to come with them and drive the second car. When they stop for gas, the attendant tries to take advantage of them. McMurphy gets out of the car and warns him that they are a bunch of crazy, psychopathic murderers. The other patients, seeing that their illness could actually be a source of power for them, lose their nervousness and follow his lead in using their insanity to intimidate the attendant.
Bromden marvels at the changes the Combine has wrought on the Outside—the thousands of mechanized commuters and houses and children. When they get to the docks, the captain of the boat does not allow them to take the trip, because he does not have a signed waiver exonerating him should any accidents occur. Meanwhile, the men on the dock harass Candy, and the patients are ashamed that they are too afraid to stand up for her. To distract the captain of the boat, McMurphy gives him a phone number to call. When the captain goes to call, McMurphy herds the patients onto the boat. They are already out to sea by the time the captain realizes the number belongs to a brothel.
While on the boat, everyone catches large fish and gets drunk. When they return to the dock, the captain is waiting with some policemen. The doctor threatens to inform the authorities that the captain did not provide enough life jackets, so the policemen leave without arresting anyone. After a short fistfight, McMurphy and the captain have a drink together. The men on the dock are friendly with the patients when they see their impressive catches and after they learn that George is a retired fisherman. Billy is infatuated with Candy; when McMurphy notices this, he arranges a date for them at two in the morning two weeks later, on a Saturday night.
Everyone is in high spirits when they return to the ward, but McMurphy seems pale and exhausted. They had taken a detour to pass by an old, run-down house where McMurphy lived as a child. Caught in a tree branch was an old rag, a remnant from the first time he had sex, as a ten-year-old with a girl who was perhaps even younger than he. She gave him her dress to keep as a reminder, and he threw it out the window, where it caught in a tree branch and remained to this day. Bromden remembers seeing his face reflected in the windshield afterward and remarks how it looked “dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there was not enough time left for something he had to do.”
McMurphy’s rebellion grows more overt as the patients begin to defy Ratched on their own terms. McMurphy still maintains a somewhat humorous edge to his resistance, as his request for an Accompanied Pass demonstrates. By asking to be let out for a day to consort with a prostitute, McMurphy both asserts his sexuality and reminds Ratched that she has failed to emotionally castrate him. By gaining Spivey’s approval for the fishing trip, McMurphy demonstrates to Ratched that he does not deem her the highest authority on the ward. Nurse Ratched can only resist his growing influence by trying in vain to frighten the other patients with the newspaper clippings, which fail to suppress them and their newfound individual thinking.
Meanwhile, Bromden begins to attain greater self-knowledge through McMurphy’s influence. He remembers the racist government agents coming to his house, and he realizes the origin of his sense of inadequacy and invisibility. Bromden feels himself becoming stronger as he talks to McMurphy and slowly becomes a man in his own eyes. McMurphy’s offer of Juicy Fruit to Bromden illustrates the value of good relationships between the patients, and Bromden’s decision to speak demonstrates the extent to which goodwill has helped to heal his wounds.
In contrast, Geever’s discovery of Bromden’s gum is a reminder that the hospital continues to function like a totalitarian state. The patients are still subject to strict supervision and the invasion of their privacy. Once faced with the conniving Geever, Bromden knows that McMurphy will keep his most precious secret: that he is not deaf and dumb. McMurphy’s own childhood experience of playing mute shows that the two of them are more similar than they might appear.
McMurphy’s own program of therapy for the other patients involves reviving their faith in their sexuality. He notes, jokingly, that Bromden’s erection is proof that he is getting bigger already. McMurphy presents the patients with a woman who can reawaken their repressed sex drives; the pretty Candy Starr, unlike Nurse Ratched, exudes sexuality. McMurphy seems to recognize that the patients, Billy in particular, can become individual, powerful men only if they can experience sexual feelings without the sense of shame that Ratched and the rest of the ward seem to inculcate.
During the trip, two unpleasant experiences threaten the therapeutic value of the outing but ultimately lead to the greatest individual development for the patients. First, when the gas station attendant disrespects them, McMurphy rescues them by showing how their stigmatized identity as mental patients can be used to their advantage. Instead of being made to feel afraid, they can now intimidate others by exaggerating their insanity. McMurphy, in effect, teaches them how to cope with the outside world in a different way, to reject the previously unsuccessful approach of conformity. However, the patients still depend heavily on McMurphy to lead them. When they arrive at the docks,they are too timid to answer the insults of the seamen by themselves.
The second experience that initially seems detrimental, but is actually beneficial, occurs when McMurphy tests the patients by refusing to help them once they are out to sea. Like Christ taking his twelve disciples to the sea, he forces them to fend for themselves, and they find, to their surprise, that they do not actually need his help. They begin to see themselves as men, not as feeble mental patients. When they return to the docks, they realize that they not only have proven something to themselves, but they have proven something to the seamen with their impressive catches. In turn, the seamen act politely and respectfully, in remarkable contrast to their earlier rudeness.
Yet, while the mental state of each patient is improving immensely, the strain of responsibility for curing the patients of their society-generated insecurities has clearly begun to wear McMurphy down. McMurphy’s exhaustion seems to stem from something other than the trip alone, and Bromden’s description of his expression in the car foreshadows McMurphy’s eventual submission. Significantly, this expression occurs in conjunction with McMurphy’s childhood memory of being sexually dominated by a woman. Despite all of the fervor and individuality that McMurphy conveys, he also has experienced a distortion of his male sexuality due to a woman’s dominance. In his increasing strain, we see that the strength which makes McMurphy so well equipped to combat the mechanistic society of Nurse Ratched—his humanity—is also a weakness that may ultimately lead to his total exhaustion.
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