R.P. McMurphy is not an average mental patient stuck on a ward at an institution. In fact, McMurphy is one of the most unique patients the ward in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has ever seen. While most of the men on the ward committed themselves, McMurphy opted to be placed in the institution in lieu of fulfilling his sentence to spend time on a work farm. McMurphy is a burly man, with remarkable confidence. The other men idolize him and fear him all from the very first moment that they spend in his presence. At the beginning of the book, McMurphy toys with Big Nurse and the other staff at the hospital. He figures he might as well have some fun with them, since he is under the mistaken impression that he has only “x” number of days until he is released. Soon, however, he comes to realize that he is at Big Nurse’s mercy if he ever wants to be free again. Prior to this realization he was an inspiration, someone that others were in awe of and attempted to emulate. When McMurphy realizes that he is destroying his own chance to be free and continues down this path anyway, he effectively becomes the savior of the ward. Like Christ’s decision to die for the sins of man, McMurphy gives himself up for the freedom of the other men on the ward.
On several occasions throughout the book, the similarities between McMurphy and Christ are revealed through McMurphy’s interactions with the other men in the ward. For example, when McMurphy takes Chief by the hand and tells him that he will make him whole again, the scene’s imagery alone serves as a reference to Christ. McMurphy makes Chief, a Native American with a broken spirit and rampant insecurities, his project, embodying all who need to be saved. At one point, McMurphy grips Chief by the hand and Chief, deluded though he may be, feels that McMurphy’s blood is pumping directly into his own arm. It seems to Chief like McMurphy is literally giving up his own blood to make him whole again.
Later in the book, another example of McMurphy’s Christ-like behavior in the presence of Chief occurs when Chief is admiring McMurphy’s arms, commenting on the fact that they are similar to how his own were when he played football as a young man. Chief is in awe of McMurphy, and thinks, “I ought to touch him to see if he’s still alive.” Once again, this is a scene in which McMurphy’s character is heavily influenced by Christ. Chief comments on the similarity between McMurphy’s arms and his own, recalling how Christ was created in the likeness of man. People are encouraged to see Christ in themselves and in each other: He was brought into this world a mere mortal so that He could spread The Word in a way mankind could easily relate to. McMurphy is just a man, like any of his friends on the ward.
At another point in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Chief emulates the “doubting Thomas” reaction to the resurrection of Christ. He feels that he must be in physical contact with McMurphy in order to believe in him; this recalls Thomas’ need to place his hand in Christ’s wounds to feel for himself that the holes are real.
McMurphy’s cross is not an easy one to bear: although he is not wholly accepting of his fate, he is aware of it. He knows that if he continues on as he has thus far, he will become the primary focus of Big Nurse. The men will be free to witness his strength and her weakness, and will therefore grow as men and as people, free to take pride in their lives. Each time he is called in for shock treatments “he pale[s] and dread flicker[s] across his face”. In this moment, he is saying in his own way that “if this is what needs to be done for them then so be it, but I wish that wasn’t the case”.
Before he was betrayed by Judas, Christ went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he fell to his knees and prayed to God to allow him to avoid the death he knew was forthcoming:
“O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will. O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”
Like Christ, McMurphy knows what has to be done, but does not necessarily want to go forward to do it. McMurphy has not had a particularly enjoyable path in life: Christ was forced to carry a cross and wear a crown of thorns, and McMurphy has endured hours of shock treatment and a lobotomy. Both of these men save others by enduring unthinkable torture.
The deaths of Christ and McMurphy are also more similar than one might initially think. When Christ died, he set mankind free. Many believe that Christ’s death will allow mankind to enjoy eternal life. His death was a gift for the world, but release from the torment he endured was a gift to Him, as well. McMurphy’s death is a gift for him, because he will not spend the rest of his life as a puppet for Big Nurse. It is also a gift for the other men on the ward, because McMurphy dies trying to show them the best way to live.
The correlations between Christ and McMurphy abound throughout “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Throughout the novel, Kesey references this connection through numerous images, events, and interactions. McMurphy frequently proves himself worthy of his status as a savior. In the end, he truly does set the men on the ward free, granting them life just as Christ did for all mankind.
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