Critic Janet Larson describes the wisdom of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey as “explicitly secular” (Larson). She writes that the novel “has been taken by many as a propagandist story for the flower child revolution” (Larson). Robert Faggen, author of the introduction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, points to Randall P. McMurphy as the revolutionary, counter cultural epicenter of the novel: “what [McMurphy] brings to all attempts to make him conform to any code or system is wildness of laughter and bawdiness” (Faggen). In his Paris Review interview with Faggen, Kesey says that it’s the writer’s responsibility to say “fuck you, God,” (Faggen) essentially declaring his work as rebelliously anti-religious. But for all his rebellious qualities, Randall P. McMurphy consistently demonstrates the characteristics of a true Christ figure. Despite signs to the contrary, does One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest actually deliver a Christian message?
Randall P. McMurphy is the character who pushes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest into the realm of the counterculture with his bold rejection of authority and his revolutionary and wild nature. Faggen argues that McMurphy’s unwillingness to accept authority is actually embedded in McMurphy’s name:
“as McMurphy’s initials suggest, ‘Revolutions per Minute,’ he is the hit record that tries to keep any authority from becoming an authority for too long” (Kesey).
From Bob Dylan to The Beatles, music and records are at the center of the counter-cultural movement of the 60’s; in invoking this record player comparison, Faggen pegs McMurphy as a similarly revolutionary figure of the culture. Faggen documents Kesey’s reverence for musical counter-cultural icons in his Paris Review interview when Kesey cites The Beatles and Bob Dylan as “great artists who teach us how to love” (Faggen). Kesey’s respect for these musicians provides concrete evidence that Faggen’s “RPM” speculation could be true. Earlier in the interview, Kesey describes McMurphy as “Shane that rides into town, shoots the bad guys, and gets killed in the course of the movie” (Faggen). McMurphy is a maverick, bucking the reign of the big nurse and bringing life, action, and emotion to the white-washed ward. McMurphy’s maverick spirit and his push towards a return to raw humanity closely parallels the spirit of the literary counterculture, particularly that of the Beats. Here, Faggen argues McMurphy’s uncanny similarity to legendary Beat author Jack Kerouac’s character Dean Moriarty, who is described in Kerouac’s masterwork On the Road as someone whose “intelligence was…shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness…a wild yea-saying overbust of American joy” (Kerouac). Furthermore, Kesey names Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, another iconic Beat writer, as some of his biggest inspirations, saying that he joined them, “at that time still unproven crazies,” on “the wild road” (Faggen). Kesey added of Kerouac that “his life’s work will stand for centuries” (Faggen).
The Beats’ clear influence on Kesey and the way the spirit of the counter-cultural movement of the 50’s and 60’s is infused into Kesey’s work are both important because a lot of the thinking of that time period challenges or even rejects Christianity. In The Asia Journal of Theology, Daniel Chandler writes that
“the Beat generation comprised a vanguard signaling a significant shift occurring in contemporary American religious consciousness; this dramatic change was confirmed by a rejection of institutional religion [and] a questioning of Christian values” (Chandler).
Kesey seems to share the mindset of the Beats, in that he seems to believe it is his role as a writer to question Christianity and God. Kesey says in his Paris Review interview that It’s the job of the writer in America to say,
“Fuck you, God, fuck you and the Old Testament that you rode in on, fuck you. The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful” (Faggen).
In some ways, Kesey seems to infuse this rebellious, “eff you” spirit into McMurphy’s character. McMurphy challenges accepted traditions and certainly “kisses no ass.” But McMurphy directly contradicts this anti-Christian attitude in the fact that he is an undeniably strong Christ figure.
Randall P. McMurphy’s status as a Christ figure is made clear through the inverse relationship he develops with Bromden, the Indian narrator of the novel. The inverse relationship between the two characters is this: as Bromden grows more and more alive, McMurphy becomes more and more dead, until his death at the end of the book. Upon closer examination, it becomes obvious that, in some way, McMurphy is giving up some of himself in order for Bromden to become more alive again.
This chart illustrates what I’ve called the “Life/Death Lines” of both McMurphy and Bromden. As the Life/Death Line approaches the top of the page, that character is becoming more conscious and more alive; as the Life/Death Line approaches the bottom of the page, that character is getting closer to death. I marked major plot events chronologically and plotted each character’s level of consciousness at that point in the novel in order to create the lines. The fishing trip is the point that marks McMurphy’s rapid decline towards death, while Bromden begins an aggressive upward curve towards life; this is significant because this scene is wrought with Christian symbolism. McMurphy leads 12 inmates on the fishing expedition; Jesus led 12 disciples. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says to his disciples,
“come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Suggs, Sakenfeld, Mueller).
While Jesus is referring to fishing for men’s souls to show them the Christian faith, the idea is that Jesus is going to fundamentally change his disciples. McMurphy fundamentally changes the inmates on the fishing trip. Before the trip, most were passive or cowardly; after, the men are laughing as they drink beer and confident in themselves like they’ve never been before. McMurphy fishes for the inmates’ souls and converts them to a higher degree of consciousness. The Life/Death Lines also create a cross, them most iconic symbol of Christianity. The Life/Death Lines visualization addresses one of the most fundamental Christian principles: the idea that Jesus died so that others may live. The underlying tenet of the entire Christian faith is that Jesus sacrificed for the sins of the human race. McMurphy gives of himself to Bromden in the same way that Christians believe Jesus gave himself for the human race.
We’ve exposed a fundamentally contradictory problem in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: while Kesey seems to use McMurphy as an instrument for employing the spirit of the counterculture and the Beats, and therefore anti-Christian thinking, McMurphy is also a strong Christ figure. A possible answer to this problem can be found in Kesey’s Paris Review interview with Faggen. Kesey observes that sometimes it’s dangerous to assume that God is the ultimate authority against which to rebel. He says that maybe the real God isn’t the one who rules over formal institutions like religion and government; maybe God isn’t “the big fascist in the sky” (Faggen) against whom he, the Beat generation, and the broader counter-culture are rebelling. Kesey’s novel suggests that that God, a bad God or even an antichrist, is the oppressive Combine. But the good God is McMurphy, someone who “[provides] a sprinkle of mischief and chaos to keep things from becoming mud all over” (Faggen). Randall P. McMurphy can at once be both rebellious and a true Christ figure, because McMurphy seems to be the Jesus Christ in which Ken Kesey believes: one who is rebellious, one is human, and one who’s relentless, vivacious energy throws off the shackles of the Combine, even if only for a moment.
Chandler, Daniel Ross. “The Beat Generation and Buddhist Religion.” Asia Journal of Theology 21.2 (2007): 312–324. Print.
Faggen, Robert. “Ken Kesey, The Art of Fiction No. 136.” Paris Review Spring 1994. Paris Review. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Larson, Janet. “Stories Sacred and Profane: Narrative in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”” Religion and Literature 16.2 (1984): 25-42. JSTOR. University of Notre Dame. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/40059244.pdf?acceptTC=true>.
Suggs, M. Jack , Katharine Doob Sakenfeld and James R. Mueller. “The Gospel According to Mark.” In The Oxford Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. 30-Oct-2015. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195290004/obso-9780195290004-div1-1232>.