“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden, who is a half Native American and half white resident of an insane asylum. We see very little at the beginning of the story until the main focal point of the narrative enters: Randle Patrick McMurphy, a red haired and wild Irishman who disrupts the status quo on the ward. He’s a convict who convinces the authority of a work farm that he is insane so that he might serve his sentence out at a mental hospital rather than the work farm. I could rattle on about the plot and underlying symbolism of authority and how it contains an underlying political, hippie-esque message of anti-establishment, but what would be the point? This is completely obvious to anyone who takes the time to read the novel (or watch the movie for that matter.) No, what I want to talk about is the secret meaning underlying all of this. Be fair warned: this review contains spoilers! If you haven’t read it and want to do so without knowing the ending beforehand, do not continue reading.
Admittedly, it took me a while to get use to the style of the writing. It’s written in a heavy dialect. The “could ofs” made me cringe at first, but I got use to it being a characteristic of the voice of the narrator. In many cases, it’s written in present tense as if we are hearing the thoughts of the narrator as he is presently experiencing what is going on around him. But this doesn’t hold to be true in all cases. Sometimes, he even goes into flashbacks of his childhood.
Chief Bromden is crazy in every sense of the word. He has trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. He describes many events that are very surreal such as during the time everyone is asleep, he believes that the night crew come in, pull a lever which causes the entire floor of the bedroom to move downward to another level, such as a basement of the ward, where there is a crew of strange human like creatures working in a boiler room. He once mentions the belief that the medicine administered to the patients on the ward contain tiny microscopic computer chips that are designed to melt when come in contact with human flesh and he continuously references “the fog,” which he says the military use to use. he even says that he knows how the fog is created, he remembers the machines from his military days. In one scene where he and McMurphy are being taken for a shock therapy treatment, he believes there is a man hooked up to a wire which is fastened between his shoulder blades and the wire pulls the man away, much like an electric coatrack.
In one of the flashbacks to Chief Bromden’s childhood we see the young Bromden at his home. There’s some white men who have come to negotiate buying the tribe’s land. They stand there, talking amongst themselves. I believe they do acknowledge little Bromden once amongst themselves, wondering where the father is (his father was the chief at this time and he was the one that they needed to talk to) but even when he speaks to them, it is as if they don’t hear him. Almost as if they can’t even see him at all. At this point, I came to a theory that I later started to doubt, but then took back up and reconsidered in light of the entire narrative: Chief Bromden, whom we see the whole of the story through the eyes of, doesn’t exist. He’s actually a figment of his own imagination. And, of course, in his own eyes he does exist, just as each one of us exist in our own eyes. You could say that each one of us is a figment of our own imagination, or a figment of our own imagining. How we see ourselves might not always be how the rest of the world sees us. So, it could be seen as a philosophical statement in this sense.
On the outer level of meaning, this event is being related to explain why the chief stopped talking: because even when he did talk, no one acknowledged him. So, he just gradually grew tired of it to the point where he gradually stopped talking. Everyone treated him as if he couldn’t talk or even hear, so he stopped talking altogether, and then everyone believed that he truly was deaf and dumb. Moving further along, we see a definite link between him and McMurphy (there’s a possible homosexual attraction that he feels toward McMurphy.) This link becomes even more apparent when McMurphy becomes the first person that he opens up to with the fact that he actually can talk. When he does this, McMurphy isn’t the least bit surprised that he can talk. Is this a realistic reaction? The secret is kept between the two of them for the majority of the duration of the novel. And when he opens up to the other inmates at the ward with this, it isn’t even so much a coming out, they barrage him with questions, and he starts answering them. He just starts talking to them, and they react as though he’d been talking the whole time. Now, why would someone ask a deaf and dumb person questions? Why would you ask something from someone you don’t believe can talk, maybe can’t even hear? Is this realistic? There’s something much deeper going on here.
Like I said before, there’s a definite link between McMurphy and the Chief. This is apparent even from the beginning. But the full significance doesn’t really come out until the end. After a party involving drugs, alcohol, and a failed escape plan, McMurphy is taken away, only to be brought back onto the ward having been lobotomized. All the other residents say that that isn’t McMurphy. They can’t believe that it’s him, they don’t want to believe it’s him. McMurphy represents freedom, he represents the Messiah from the Iron Fist of the Big Nurse. he showed them freedom, that they can fight for their freedom, that they are human beings and should be treated as such. He can’t be in this condition, the hero can’t go out like this! Well, in a sense, it’s not McMurphy. That is to say, it’s not the McMurphy that they know. This is just a corpse that happens to still be breathing at the moment.
The connection grows deeper still. The Chief knows that McMurphy wouldn’t want to be left like that for days, or even years. He does a final favor for him: that night, he gets up and smothers him with a pillow. Chief Bromden kills McMurphy. Then, Scanlon (one of the other residents) encourages him to make a break for it. At first, the Chief is reluctant and isn’t sure how he would even manage an escape, but then Scanlon tells him that McMurphy told him weeks ago how to escape. It all goes back to McMurphy helping the Chief regain his physical strength. The Chief lifts the control panel in the tub-room and throws it through the window, breaking the glass and making his escape through it. Are we to think it’s complete coincidence that not long after McMurphy helps the Chief regain his physical strength, he looses his own?
So, my original argument was that Chief Bromden is a figment of his own imagination. How does this play into it? Well, like I said, the connection goes further, in a way he does exist. The connection between the two characters (Chief Bromden and Patrick McMurphy) is that only one of them truly exists. When the Chief killed the weakened version of McMurphy and used his strength to make an escape, it symbolized him killing the weaker part of himself and breaking free of the prison of his own mental restraints (he was, after all, in a mental institution.)
Upon discussion of these ideas with a friend of mine, another possibility came up: perhaps it is McMurphy that doesn’t exist and he is imagined by the Chief. This idea would actually make more sense. It makes more sense in the fact that it becomes less philosophical and esoteric and more tangible.
Either of these ideas may sound pretty out there, but it is explicitly mentioned by the author on two occasions in the chapter before the last one (during the party.) Both are pieces of dialogue from the character, Harding. Those two snippets of dialogue are as follows:
“These things don’t happen. These things are fantasies you lie awake at night dreaming up and then are afraid to tell your analyst. You’re not really here. That wine isn’t real; none of this exists. Now, let’s go on from there.”
“It isn’t happening. It’s all a collaboration of Kafka and Mark Twain and Martini.” (Martini is one of the other characters.)
The Chief has an association between McMurphy and his own father; he mentions early on that McMurphy reminds him a lot of his own father and later, toward the end during an hallucinatory dreamlike experience after shock therapy, he makes a connection between the two characters, almost confuses them, though this isn’t explicitly stated in the text itself, it is implied in an abstract manner.
If the Chief imagined McMurphy, it’s not surprising that he would use characteristics of someone he knew, i.e. his father. McMurphy represents the strength of the Chief and by extension everyone on the ward (he encourages everyone to fight for their rights.) Then when the Chief regains his strength, he outgrows a need for McMurphy (an imaginary friend), he kills this side of his brain, that is to say, when he regains his strength on the conscious level of his mind, he is no longer in need of the subconscious creation of his mind, so he kills it, he is killing the weakened version of himself.
When McMurphy was given the chance to apologize for his actions and not undergo the shock therapy treatment, why did this not apply to the Chief? It was almost as if the two were being treated as a single person. Given that the nurse didn’t know that the Chief could talk, why didn’t she at least reason with him in some way? She just gave McMurphy a chance to apologize and then his decision affected both characters. Coincidence? Or was the Chief causing all these issues on the ward, and then attributing it to the alter-ego of “McMurphy” in his head? (Note: we do see the entire world through the Chief’s eyes, so what anyone else in the story perceived wouldn’t be in the text.)
We’re left with the Chief escaping and returning to his hometown, musing over returning to places he knew as a child. The final statement of “I been away a long time” gives a sense of finality but also a sense of continuance. With all of the strange ideas of the Chief, the reader is left to wonder what really happened. As the first chapter concluded, “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t and maybe that’s part of the sense of wonder and art in the whole thing.