One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest


Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "A man can be destroyed but not defeated." There is indeed much to be said for this statement, as it can be taken to mean many things. Initial impressions are that Hemingway is speaking of personal honour, and how no man can have his honour taken away from him forcefully. No matter how great the suffering, or how undignified the death, the very nature of honour is that it is something that can only be lost through fault of the man. Hence the quote, you can "destroy" a man, but you cannot defeat his spirit. The quote can also be taken to suggest martyrdom; while the man himself may be dead, his cause and influence lives on in the hearts and minds of others. Lastly, the quote could be taken as describing someone who was defiant and true until the end, never relenting, even in the face of death or worse. All of these things can be said, in varying degrees, about the character of McMurphy in Ken Kesey?s One Flew Over The Cuckoo?s Nest.

The initial impression the reader gets of McMurphy is that of a roguish, liberal, free spirited, street wise, non-conformist and rather extroverted man - we immediately feel he is going to be a thorn in Nurse Ratched?s side. The Big Nurse is order and control, and in her eyes McMurphy could potentially be the harbinger of mayhem and disorder in her ward. He threats that which she works so hard maintain. Nurse Ratched seems only mildly concerned however, as she too recognizes McMurphy for what he is after observing him briefly with the other patients and the effect he has on them. Some of the patiens become excited, and even emboldened by McMurphy?s presence, while others appear frightened after recognizing the threat he poses to the stability they take refuge in. Nurse Ratched seems as if she has encountered his kind before, citing the term "manipulator" in reference to McMurphy and others like him. We can only assume she has conquered such patients before, as she seems very confident she will conquer ths one.

As McMurphy settles into the ward, things begin to change. His influence over the other patients is interesting, and rather heartwarming to behold. Emboldened by McMurphy?s influence, they begin to assert themselves in certain ways, such as standing up to the Big Nurse, or even making demands. Of course, Cheswick had always done this, but it was never taken seriously by anyone, least of all Nurse Ratched. McMurphy encourages freedom of speech and thought, a concept Nurse Ratched perceives as unstable and dangerous elements to be introduced to a mental ward. As this continues, cracks in Nurse Ratched?s iron-tight control over the patients begin to show. McMurphy seems to blissfully disgregard Nurse Ratched?s position of authority, and being unacustomed to this, she gradually starts to show the strain in subtle, but no less noticeable ways. Hemingway?s quote comes to mind when studying McMurphy?s numerous "victories" over Nurse Ratched; although McMurphy often does not get his way with the nurse, he never shows defeat in any way, nor even acknlowledge that there was a contest of sorts. This is what distresses Nurse Ratched the most - she can never truly win over McMurphy, as nothing she does seems to so much as dent his spirit.

Nurse Ratched?s inability to ever truly win over McMurphy, no matter what the circumstances, is arguably no better examplified in the incident involving McMurphy wanting to watch the World Series on television. Although Nurse Ratched has turned the television off, McMurphy sits and watches anyway, as if it didn?t matter whether it was on or off. As the other patients grow braver, they too follow McMurphy?s example and infuriate the Big Nurse by doing as McMurphy does - simply sit and watch the television. This tactic is very effective, as it is the only part in the book where we see such a display of anger from the Nurse. The fact that they never got to watch a minute of baseball is trivial.

Nurse Ratched knows that if she can?t beat McMurphy directly, then she can get to him by quelling any support he has among the other patients. She devises a number of strategies to do this, among them are trying to