To the Editor:
I would like to comment on Fred Madden's "Sanity and Responsibility; Big Chief as Narrator and Executioner" (MFS 32 : 203-217). Madden's basic premise is one that is all too often ignored in discussions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: that the men on the ward are primarily responsible for McMurphy's "destruction." Nonetheless, Madden uses this insight to build an argument that strikes me as utterly perverse, one of the more curious readings ever to appear in Modern Fiction Studies. Though I cannot respond to everything in Madden's essay, I do think several points should be addressed.
Madden argues that the men are responsible insofar as they exert a "group pressure" that drains McMurphy of his exemplary self-reliance. Whereas most readers see McMurphy's decision to help the men as heroic, Madden argues that for Kesey it is an act of capitulation. McMurphy is "conditioned" into accepting his sacrificial role; he ends up "conforming" to group pressure in the manner of a robot; he is ultimately to be compared to Big Nurse herself. Madden is very blunt about all this: "What Kesey is advancing, cynically and unromantically, is the necessity for a person to look after his own individuality. It seems likely that Kesey sees McMurphy as a more positive figure when he first arrives on the ward than when he sacrifices himself for the ward members at the end" (209-210). According to Madden, it is the Chief who truly embodies self-reliance at the end, a self-reliance achieved by moving away from McMurphy's example and by understanding how the men have manipulated both McMurphy and himself: "[Bromden] cries after McMurphy's death because he realizes that both he and McMurphy not only have been used by the ward members but also have accepted the roles that the members have provided for them—executioner and victim" (215).
I cannot believe that any reader prior to Madden has felt this way about the Chief's tears. Nor can I believe that any previous reader has felt that the Chief rejects McMurphy at the end of the novel. The perversity of Madden's reading is most obvious here, but it is pervasive. Madden will not acknowledge that McMurphy chooses to help the men despite the obvious dangers to himself. [End Page 299] But of course Madden will not acknowledge what is really at issue here. In Madden's view, McMurphy's "bind" is that "if he conforms to Big Nurse's demands, he loses his status as a ward 'hero'; if he rebels against her, he may be committed forever" (208). This is a serious misreading of McMurphy's dilemma. If he conforms, McMurphy will indeed lose his "status"; but there is also the problem of what the men will lose. McMurphy's guilt at this point in the novel (Part Two) involves his growing awareness that the men will never improve if things go on as they are. It is McMurphy's concern for the men that leads him to break Big Nurse's window and renew their "game." By denying this concern, Madden effectively denies McMurphy's tragic dilemma ("damned if you do and damned if you don't"). McMurphy can either save himself and allow the ward to remain as it is, or he can try to change the ward at great risk to himself. Those of us who see McMurphy as a much more positive figure at the end than at the beginning are responding to McMurphy's tragic decision to commit himself to the second option. Madden thinks that McMurphy sacrifices himself for nothing, but this is because Madden sees nothing positive about the men checking out of the ward at the end. It is true that the men take their problems with them as they leave, for Kesey would not have us suppose that McMurphy's example is a magical cure. But surely it is for the best that the men check out, as they will now have to fend for themselves in the manner McMurphy has recommended all along. Their...