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  • Sanity and Responsibility:Big Chief as Narrator and Executioner

In the more than twenty years since its publication, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has elicited continuing critical debate about. McMurphy as the novel's hero. Readings fall roughly into two camps: one, because downplaying aspects of McMurphy's racism, sexism, and paternalism, approves of him as a vital, positive figure and the novel's hero; the other, condemning McMurphy, attacks Kesey for glorifying a despicable individual. Those readers who affirm McMurphy's heroism argue that he valiantly confronts the forces of dehumanism and mechanism in our society-forces represented by what Big Chief calls the "combine." But even recent readings that praise McMurphy have the task of either palliating or ignoring what have been seen as McMurphy's racist and sexist biases.1 Readers condemning McMurphy have pointed both to his language (he calls blacks "coons" four or five times and Washington "a nigger") and to his actions (he seems to take sadistic pleasure in bloodying Washington's nose in a basketball game and in hitting the orderly [End Page 203] in the shower room). Other readers have accused McMurphy, and Kesey himself, of sexist attitudes: the "bad" women (Big Nurse, Billy's mother, and Harding's wife) are bitches, and the "good" women are prostitutes with hearts of gold. Readings that emphasize racist and sexist attitudes blame Kesey for creating stereotypical characters who are used to convey a white macho-paternalism that degrades women and blacks.2

Emphasis on either McMurphy's positive character traits or his negative ones is largely responsible for the novel's continuing controversy. Readers, lining up on one side or the other, have produced an interpretative stalemate. However, a shift of critical perspective from McMurphy to Big Chief provides a way around this deadlock. For such a reading, Big Chief must be seen as the novel's central character whose narrative records his own movement toward self-reliance and sanity.3 But, second, this seemingly positive narrative reveals the ward members' and Big Chief's manipulation and destruction of McMurphy.

Most readings render the plot of the novel in approximately the following form. McMurphy arrives on a static ward where all the ward members have been cowed into conformity. He immediately wants to challenge the power of Big Nurse—first as a means of winning a bet but later in behalf of the ward members. Just before Cheswick's suicide, however, McMurphy finds out that Big Nurse has control over the length of his stay in the asylum. So he decides to conform. But after a time he begins to understand that his rebellion is terribly important to the ward members, and so he resumes his challenge to Big Nurse's control. He succeeds until he fights Washington for attempting to abuse George, another ward member. As a result of this confrontation and of his refusal to conform to the rules of the ward, he receives a number of shock treatments. Finally after Billy Bibbitt's suicide, McMurphy cannot control his hatred of Big Nurse, whom he attempts to strangle. This act of rebellion gives Big Nurse the power to order McMurphy's lobotomy. When McMurphy is brought back to the ward, Big Chief smothers him because the Chief feels that the lobotomized form is not really McMurphy and that Big Nurse will use it as an example to make her ward members conform. After he kills McMurphy, Big Chief escapes from the hospital to spread McMurphy's word of rebellion against conformity. Such a summation of the novel's plot relies heavily on McMurphy as the central character and hero, making Big Chief McMurphy's sidekick—a sort of Tonto figure. [End Page 204]

There is, however, evidence against this reading of the novel. In an interview after the release of the film version of Cuckoo's Nest (during the production of which he "walked off the set" in disagreement with Milos Forman), Kesey stressed that "it's the Indian's story—not McMurphy's or Jack Nicholson's" (Grunwald 4). Kesey's insistence was not simply the result of his disagreement with Forman. While working on Cuckoo...


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