One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a Biblical Allusion

May 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest features many allusions and references to Christian religion. Most obvious is McMurphy’s martyrdom at the novel’s climax. But this incident is foreshadowed throughout the novel with a series of direct references to events recounted in the New Testament. In Kesey’s novel, life is polarized in the ward between pain and laughter, much like the Christian faith teaches that life is either sin or salvation. Kesey alluding to many biblical stories through one of the main characters, McMurphy, by showing his strength and spirit, references to his disciples and sacrifice, and how his followers carry on his legacy.

As the Christian faith preaches that all humans are sinners capable of salvation, McMurphy instructs his disciples that life’s miseries are redeemed through laughter, which is depicted as the ultimate rebellion. When McMurphy is first introduced, his actions and attitude do not at first seem to show any signs of Christianity, in that he emphasizes gambling, womanizing, and drinking over spirituality. However, later on, some of his messianic qualities are more apparent after his initial entrance into the ward. His laughter, which represents his spirit, is contrasted with the snickers the patients hide with their hands. For the other patients, the machinations of the Combine trap their spirit, whereas with McMurphy, his laughter is described by Chief Bromden as “free and loud and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it’s lapping against the walls all over the ward…. This sounds real. I realize it’s the first laugh I’ve heard in years” (Kesey 12). McMurphy shows his freedom and wholeness of spirit through this loud laughter, and tries to get the other patients to laugh along with him throughout the novel as well.

The first real blatant reference to Christianity and the Bible occurs when Chief introduces the Chronic patient Ellis to McMurphy. The recipient of many electroshock treatments, Ellis adopts a pose of crucifixion by spreading his arms against the wall, reflecting the shape of the electroshock table and directly alluding to Jesus nailed to the cross. Chief tells him, “You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns,” reemphasizing this posture when he relates Harding’s explanation of electroshock to McMurphy. (Kesey 69). In addition, Christ’s sabbatical in the desert and triumphant return are reflected in McMurphy’s period of playing it safe and toeing the line to appease Nurse Ratched. When McMurphy returns to his old self, he forces his hand through the window of the nurses’s station, which can be taken either as a metaphor of Christ’s clearing the merchants from the temple or his last vestige of human glory when he returns to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Another example of alluding to stories from the Bible is how Ellis mimics Christ’s instruction to his disciples when he tells Bibbit before leaving to fish to be a “fisher of men” — a phrase preceding the conversion from other religions to Christianity (Kesey 234).The number of men accompanying McMurphy on the fishing excursion is twelve, just like the number of Christ’s disciples. The bravado displayed by the patients following the gas station incident is revealed by Chief to be a bluff, much like the actions of Christ’s disciples prior to his crucifixion. During the actual fishing, however, the patients embrace their identities while McMurphy retreats into the background. This sequence serves as a Pentecost of sorts as the patients finally embrace the spirit of McMurphy much like the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit following Christ’s crucifixion. When the boat is lacking enough life jackets for everyone, McMurphy takes one for himself to allow the patients most in need of asserting their own individuality to go without.

The party held in the ward resembles Christ’s Last Supper complete with transubstantiated wine — a narcotic cough syrup spiked with vodka — and the Mary Magdalene-like presence of the two prostitutes Candy and Sandy. Bibbit’s betrayal does not lie so much in his attempts to lay the blame for his sexual interlude with Candy on McMurphy as it does with his subsequent suicide. Judas committed suicide after betraying Christ to the Roman soldiers. Bibbit, on the other hand, betrays McMurphy by abandoning the spirit of rebellion and self-realization by killing himself out of fear of his mother’s rapprochement.Realizing that his efforts will be forgotten if he simply escapes after Bibbit’s suicide, McMurphy attacks Ratched. This final, violent act — out of character with Christianity — is the sacrifice McMurphy makes to guarantee his martyrdom. Ratched cruelly lobotomizes him, relinquishing him of his very identity. Realizing this, Chief suffocates him, escapes, and lives to relate his gospel of the life and works of McMurphy, carrying on his legacy just as Jesus’s followers did with him in the works of the Bible.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey manages to turn the story into an allusion to the bible, with his character McMurphy taking on the role of Jesus. He does this by showing how McMurphy’s spirit refuses to break, how he goes through many trials and difficulties, and how he has followers that learn from his teachings and carry on his story even after he has sacrificed himself to martyrdom. All of these elements are key factors that stand out in the book and relate it to Christianity.

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