Personifying Good and Evil
On the opposing side, Christlike imagery fills Bromden’s descriptions of the hospital. The catatonic Ellis is nailed to the wall each morning in order to keep him upright, and patients receiving shock therapy are hooked up in a similar fashion (with accompanying caps that are referred to multiple times as a crown of thorns). While it is easy to see the suffering of the patients as being Christlike, it is important to remember that this is Bromden’s descriptions, and not Kesey’s. Bromden sees the noble sacrifice of the patients against the faceless Combine, but seems not to truly understand the suffering of the individuals underneath.
In his article “The Breasts of Big Nurse: Satire versus Narrative in Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’,” Laszlo Géfin criticizes director Milos Forman’s assertion that the Ratched of his film was more humanized than the monster portrayed in the novel. Géfin states instead that the Ratched of the novel is not only the victimizer of the patients in the hospital, but also a victim herself. Yet Bromden’s reductive worldview does not allow for the nurse’s allegorical characteristics to be submerged in a human portrayal, just as McMurphy’s human failings (his racism, misogyny, anger, exhaustion) are ignored so he can fulfill the role of the patients’ savior.
After the sympathetic Billy Bibbit commits suicide at the climax, Kesey pulls back the veil of satire that has informed most of the novel up to this point. The game has stopped being fun, there is no prize left to win or worth winning. The patients (most of whom are in the hospital voluntarily) sign themselves out and return to the world at large. The audience is given one last glimpse at both Ratched and McMurphy, Bromden’s avatars of evil and good. Yet they are no longer the towering, larger-than-life figures that served to inspire and terrify both the patients and the audience. Ratched is bruised and broken, unable to speak or flash her evil smile and capable only of written communication. McMurphy, lobotomized after attacking Ratched, is a waxen doll unable to move. Tellingly, the remaining patients refuse to acknowledge the husk wheeled back into the ward as their leader. Instead, they guffaw that it is a poor simulacrum, a creation designed to fool them into thinking the unsurpassable McMurphy has been brought down.
Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.
Literary criticism of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.