The saying “be the bigger man” can be applied to many scenarios. It often refers to being the person who takes charge or to being the person who ends an argument. But why do people associate size with taking charge? This is a question that arises in Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story is told from the perspective of patient in a mental ward, nicknamed Chief by patients and nurses, who has been in an asylum for fifteen years of his life. When Chief is describing his or other people’s size, he is portraying their confidence and their power within the ward.
That is why at first, he sees himself as small, McMurphy as huge, and Nurse Ratched as the “Big Nurse”; ultimately, as he himself regains his self-confidence, he sees himself as much bigger than McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, both of whom he comes to see in their true human dimensions. Although he is 6’7″, Chief sees himself as puny compared to the rest of the patients and staffin the ward because he is powerless and is pushed around by everyone in the hospital. Frequently the aides, also known as the “black boys,” make Chief mop the floors of the ward.
While mopping the floor and watching the Big Nurse walk by, Chief thinks, “I let the mop push me back to the wall”(4). He is pushing the broom away from Nurse Ratched, showing how terrified he is of her, but it also projects how Chief sees himself. In his mind, he is being controlled by a mop which is an inanimate object. He thinks that he is so insignificant, even an object can tell him what to do. This affects how he views his size as is evident when Chief describes his first handshake with McMurphy. When McMurphy comes to the ward, one of the first things he does is hake all of the patients’ hands including Chief’s. Looking back on this, Chief states, “The [McMurphy’s] fingers were thick and strong closing over mine, and my hand commenced to feel peculiar and went to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it”(23). Chief pictures himself as a “stick” that is much smaller than McMurphy. In reality, he stands much taller than McMurphy; however, in Chief’s mind, size is simply based on confidence. McMurphy is this new patient who stands up to the Aide the Nurse, something no one else had ever done.
As a result, Chief sees the much more confident McMurphy as so much bigger than he actually is. When McMurphy comes into the ward, Chief looks up to him as a large, muscular man because he is able to manipulate the patients within the ward almost like the Big Nurse. He manages to steal the control from Nurse Ratched, who used to be the biggest person on the ward, so Chief sees him as bigger now. After the power battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched has been going on for quite a while, McMurphy makes a huge move. After she takes away the patients’ cigarettes, he rebels and takes them back.
He does this by smashing the window to the Nurse’s Station with his hand, reaching in, and grabbing the cigarettes at the end of Group Meeting. “But here he[McMurphy] comes and he’s big as a house.. then[he] ran his hand through the glass… He got one of the cartons of cigarettes”(172). This passage is a direct correlation between size, confidence, and power. Right before McMurphy makes one of his biggest moves within the ward, Chief describes him as as “big as a house. ” During this moment, McMurphy is at a peak for his confidence, power, and size within the ward.
He holds so much power above the Nurse that he is at the top of the power hierarchy. The patients all look up to him and would listen to him over Nurse Ratched, and Chief translates this supremacy into size. With all of his power, McMurphy is able to convince the Big Nurse to let him and all the other Acutes go on a fishing trip. After the excursion, Chief is talking to Billy about planning a date with Candy. During the conversation, Chief thinks, “I still had my own notions – how McMurphy was a giant come out of the sky to save us… how he was too big to be bothered with something as measly as money”(231).
Chief portrays McMurphy as a giant who is so great and confident he does not even care about money. Money is something only humans have to deal with, but to Chief, McMurphy is so much more than human. He is able to do what he wants and Chief envies this. He still sees himself as small while McMurphy is huge, overpowering, and free. McMurphy is able to defy Nurse Ratched’s orders, which seems like an amazing feat to Chief because she is also one of the largest people on the ward. Chief sees Nurse Ratched as this large and in charge woman, and he even capitalizes her name for most of the book because she holds so much power and confidence.
During one of the Group Meetings before McMurphy arrives, Nurse Ratched is using her tricks to make the patients admit how they feel and say what they had done. She says, “Am I to take it that there’s not a man among you that has committed some act that he has never admitted? ‘ She reached for the log book. ‘Must we go over past history? ‘”(45). After using the tactic of fear, all of the patients start talking about everything they had done. At this point in the book, Nurse Ratched holds all the power within the ward. She can make the patients do almost anything she wants them to do.
Chief has always seen Nurse Ratched the same; he sees her as a scary, powerful nurse who has control over his life. The first mentioning of Nurse Ratched is at the very beginning of the book. Chief hears her coming and thinks, “I know it’s the Big Nurse”(4). It is not the context of the quotation or what happens in the quotation that matters. It is what Chief calls the Nurse. Because she is the one in charge of the entire ward and holds the most power, at that moment, she is known as the “Big Nurse. ” Not only does she literally have the word “Big” in her name, but it is capitalized, which adds onto her repeated motif of size.
Unfortunately for her, Chief is able to change his perception of her “almighty” power. As Chief gains confidence on the fishing trip, he gains size over McMurphy and the Big Nurse who do not seem so big anymore. While on the boat of the fishing trip, Chief gains confidence as he is with the calmness of nature and the joy of his fellow patients. He thinks, “It[the laughter] started slow and pumped itself full, swelling the men bigger and bigger. I watched, part of them, laughing with them–and somehow not with them. I was off the boat, blown up off the water and skating the wind with those black birds”(214).
Almost instantly the freedom of being outside the ward changes Chief. He sees himself as “blown up”, which in his eyes means he is seeing himself grow and become more confident. After the relaxing fishing trip and finally talking after 15 years of being mute, Chief feels more confident and powerful than ever. However, he still has not seen his increase in size within the ward. This is the case until McMurphy points it out to him after the trip. He says to Chief, “It appears to me you growed ten inches since that fishing trip”(231).
When Chief looks down at his body he thinks, “I looked down and saw how my foot was bigger than I’d ever remembered it, like McMurphy’s just saying it had blowed it twice its size”(231). After gaining so much confidence, Chief finally sees himself as a bigger man. No one except McMurphy has been able to make Chief feel this big in all the 15 years he has lived on the ward, and he is able to overcome his fear of Nurse Ratched with help from a party thrown on the ward. McMurphy throws a party, and Chief once again feels liberated, but this time it is with the help of the alcohol.
Chief thinks, “Actually drunk, flowing and grinning and staggering drunk for the first time since the Army, drunk along with half a dozen other guys and a couple of girls–right on the Big Nurse’s ward! “(263). Chief feels free within the ward which is something he has not experienced except for on the fishing trip. He specifically states that it is Nurse Ratched’s ward which makes it extremely important to him. He has finally freed himself of her power and can see that she is not that large. This allows him to free both himself and McMurphy but in very different ways.
After McMurphy has a lobotomy and the Big Nurse regains control of her ward, Chief plans to leave. He has built up all of this courage and finally sees himself as the size he actually is. His final move before leaving is killing McMurphy to put him out of his misery. Chief wants to take something of his so he will always have part of McMurphy with him, so he takes his hat. “I reached into McMurphy’s nightstand and got his cap and tried it on. It was too small, and I was suddenly ashamed of trying to wear it” (279). This is Chief’s moment of realization where he comes to the conclusion that he is actually much bigger than McMurphy ever was.
He has gained all the confidence he can and is about to relieve himself of all of Nurse Ratched’s power once he escapes. Now that McMurphy is dead, he holds no power whatsoever, so the hat is too small on Chiefs, now, large head. However, Chief is ashamed of how he has come to take over McMurphy’s role of the biggest person, but he then realizes he doesn’t have to wear it. He does not have to take over McMurphy’s role just because he has found his new power and confidence. McMurphy will always stay the bigger man in his heart. For most of the novel, Chief sees the other patients and nurses around him as large and much bigger than he is.
The way his brain visualizes size is through the amount of power and confidence that person has. This corresponds with why he sees McMurphy as a giant, Nurse Ratched as this huge, terrifying, and “Big” character, and he sees himself as insignificant and small. However, as the book comes to a close, he comes to terms with how big he really is because he gains confidence with help from McMurphy. Sometimes, all it takes for someone to realize their full potential is time and friends. Whether that is a break from school to hang out with family or waiting for that one person who can be the bigger man to come and change your life.