Necessary in order for the patients

Death is inevitable for all, but it is the sacrificial deaths that are told and retold throughout history, their glory unravaged by time. From the Bible to summer blockbusters, sacrificial deaths are revered and honoured. In Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Randall Patrick McMurphy’s sacrificial death is necessary in order for the patients of the ward to complete their evolution into autonomous individuals.

When McMurphy arrives in the ward, he witnesses countless cries for help from the emasculated and repressed patients. Over the years, the men of the ward have been controlled by the big nurse, who Harding admits to be “the master of forcing the trembling libido out into the open”. (68) Harding himself is a hand-talker, but he often “wrings his” white, feminine hands “like a fly” to repress his emotions. (58) His rarely used laugh is “like a nail coming out of a plank”. (59) In a ward devoid of any integrity and strength, the men are not willing to help each other simply because “as soon as a man goes to help somebody, he leaves himself wide open”. (121)

As McMurphy goes on to discover, “there are only a few men on the ward who are committed”, and although they could check out, they just don’t have “the guts”. (167, 168) Seeing the need of the patients, McMurphy begins to lead them out of their shells, whether by defying the big nurse: “running his hand through the glass” to take forbidden cigarettes; or by bringing back masculinity and laughter to the ward: initiating the male bonding fishing trip “where men are men and boats are boats” and wheedling “a skinny laugh out of some Acute who’d been scared to grin since he was twelve”. (172, 177, 175) He provides moral support for the patients, entertaining them “for hours, [sitting] and [talking] and [telling] all kinds of stories”. (129) Through his effort, McMurphy slowly brings out each man, teaching them to be their own person, teaching them to not fear individualism.

The recovery of the patients with McMurhpy’s help is evident in the later parts of the novel, signifying his role as their shepherd. With McMurphy’s support, the patients collectively bested the big nurse, sitting in front of a blanked-out TV set and pretending to watch baseball while “she’s ranting and screaming behind [them]”. (128) Chief Bromden states “now that McMurphy was around to back them up, the guys started letting fly everything that ever happened on the ward they didn’t like”. (145) Not only did they fight for their rights, they were improving and restoring themselves as well.

“Harding began flirting with all the student nurses, and Billy Bibbit completely quit writing what he used to call his “observations” in the log book”. (177) Chief Bromden also observes at one point that outside the window, “the leaves were hitting the fence and turning into birds and flying away”. (199) Here, the dead leaves represent the patients’ original states and the birds the new state. McMurphy is helping them to fly towards freedom and away from the big nurse. The men were on their way to becoming individuals.

However, there are hints of McMurphy’s rapidly fading strength as the novel draws to its end. On the way back from the fishing trip, the Chief sees that “the windshield reflected an expression that was allowed only because [McMurphy] figured it’d be too dark for anybody in the car to see, dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there wasn’t enough time left for something he had to do …” (218) Later on, he realizes that “it was [the patients] that had been making [McMurphy] go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes”. (267) The bottom line is, while the patients were on their way to becoming individuals, they would always rely on McMurphy if he remained alive.

The men have already spent years of their lives following the big nurse, and to have them switch and follow another leader without ever becoming their own person would be deeply unsatisfying. They cannot always have someone to look to if they are to evolve into autonomous individuals. Reliance entirely upon McMurphy is a dangerous thing, and the classic example of this is Cheswick, who commits suicide by drowning himself after McMurphy takes a break from always backing him up. Another option would have been for McMurphy to leave the ward, but if McMurphy merely left, the patients would always be waiting his heroic return.

McMurphy’s death eliminates these possibilities, and completes the novel with hope. In fact, soon after McMurphy’s death, the men begin to act according to their wills without help from others. The big nurse loses “her patients one after the other” as Harding “signed out and was picked up by his wife, and George transferred to another ward”. (269) And of course, after hiding for so long, the Big Chief throws the panel that McMurphy couldn’t lift through the window and escapes to freedom. (271) The evolution of the patients finally completes after McMurphy’s sacrificial death. He sacrifices his life so the patients could get theirs back. It is only with McMurphy’s sacrificial death that the patients of the ward are able to complete their evolution into autonomous individuals, and that is precisely why his death is a necessary one.

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