Shrinking McMurphy: Why He Dies

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Randle McMurphy enters the psychiatric ward of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a stark contrast to the stunted men around him. He is described as bigger than they are both literally and in the sense that he, unlike the powerless patients around him, has no hesitation in standing up to the oppressive nature of the Big Nurse.

Over time, however this difference in size adjusts; as McMurphy empowers the patients to take control, represented by their change in "size," he grows progressively smaller and weaker as his life force is transferred to them. McMurphy's death is consistent with this transfer of power and is necessary as it indicates the complete empowerment of the patients, especially Bromden.

McMurphy's' first view of the ward exhibits a group of emasculated men, diminished both physically and sexually. The lady responsible for this is the ball-cutter, Nurse Ratched who the patients agree is "too big to be beaten" (101). McMurphy cannot understand why a man as physically large as Bromden cannot stand up to the Nurse, but Bromden explains: "I'm way too little. I used to be big, but no more."

The Nurse strips away their strength, their freedom, and their masculinity, using tactics such as group meetings to pit the patients against each other. No-one, save McMurphy seems to be able to stand up to her after being continually subjected to her dominating will. So strong is her hold on them that even those that aren't committed remain, for they "don't have the guts to leave" (168).

The large McMurphy very quickly manages to attack the Big Nurse's stronghold, fighting the environment she has created and attempting to restore the patients' masculinity. He begins this change by introducing sexuality to the men through his cards, as well as laughter through his entertaining stories. His first major victory against the Big Nurse occurs when he stages a protest over the power struggle she begins over watching the World Series on TV. Pretending to watch the game, McMurphy soon has the whole ward acting along with him, causing the nurse to lose her cool. This victory ,initiated by McMurphy, leaves the patients feeling empowered and united.

Anticipating the continued support of McMurphy and other patients after the Worlds Series event, Cheswick later decides to protest the rationing of cigarettes. Having failed to elicit a response from both McMurphy and the others, he drowns himself in the pool in an apparent suicide. Bromden mentions that Cheswick "never had looked big- he was short and fat." Cheswick, like the other patients, was not large enough at this point to function alone and required the continued support and guidance of McMurphy.

After this incident, McMurphy takes a renewed interest in the patients, trying to make them laugh, bringing back their sexuality, and making them ‘bigger' still. He is quite successful at this- Harding begins flirting with the nurses, Billy no longer writes his "observations" in the log book, and Scanlon goes as far as to break the glass at the nursing station; even the doctor is affected and voices his opinions at the group meeting for the first time. McMurphy even manages to make Bromden speak, which proves significant for Bromden talks of his father, a man who parallels McMurphy and the men in that the Chief's wife grew grown in strength while the Chief lost it. Similarly, the significant initiative and effort on the part of McMurphy in guiding the men begins to take its toll.

One of McMurphy's most successful accomplishments with the men occurs on the fishing trip he organizes in which the men can finally be men, as Bromden comments. The patients seem to grow physically as they fish, no longer led by McMurphy but beginning to function alone. "He showed us what a little bravado and courage could accomplish, and taught us how to use it" (203) Bromden comments. Thus he empowers them to help themselves, however at a cost. As the patients grow in strength and self-esteem, McMurphy's strength seems to dissipate, for Bromden notes that "McMurphy looked so beat and worn out, where the rest of us looked red-cheeked and full of excitement" (216). It seems that any gain McMurphy makes with the patients takes an equal toll on him.

When they return to the ward, the Nurse, once again, manages to seize control, however Bromden has undergone a marked change. In a fight initiated by McMurphy to defend George against the aides, Bromden picks up and throws one of them to the side, exhibiting his newfound physical strength. Incidentally, as the men once again unite against the aides, and Bromden discovers his power, McMurphy is badly beaten by the Black boys, and the loss of the large stature he had when he first arrived is made more evident. He is further diminished during the ensuing electroshock treatment he receives as punishment, although he does not let on to the others. This allows them to model his behaviour without the fear for the consequences they would have endured had they seen the effects on him.

By McMurphy's last night, the size reversal between him and the patients is almost complete. While the men drink and laugh, and Billy regains his sexuality, McMurphy curls up like a "tired little kid" (259) and falls asleep amid the bustle of the men around him. After undergoing a lobotomy as punishment for the party, McMurphy, already diminished to the stature of a child, is left a vegetable with nothing physical left to offer. However, in order for Bromden to escape as they had planned, one last exchange must occur.

McMurphy's death under the hands of Bromden signifies the flow of lifeforce, allowing Bromden who is already physically large, to usurp his spirit. In killing him, Bromden grows bigger than he ever was, evident when he finds McMurphy's hat too small, and in his ability to lift the control box to break the window. McMurphy can therefore live on through Bromden, which is consistent with the Christian undertones of the book. Although the other men could arguably continue without the death of McMurphy, it is necessary in the final transformation of Bromden.

As the men regain their masculinity, McMurphy shrinks in size and ability. He teaches them how to live, for although he initiated most situations, as the men grow they began to act by themselves. Thus McMurphy's death is necessary in bringing closure which allows them to continue on alone, for in dying, he gives up everything he possibly can, and the transformation of all the patients is complete.

All references made to
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: New American Library, 1962

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