In Ken Keseys One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, laughter truly is the best medicine. Before McMurphys arrival, there was almost no laughter within the asylum, and the patients performed chores and daily routines like robots, without emotion. Upon McMurphy's arrival, however, the insensate mood of the patients took a turn for the better. With McMurphy's guidance, the patients learned to laugh at jokes and at themselves, eventually becoming able to correct their inadequacies. By learning their inner-strengths and interacting with each other in a consolidated manner, the patients were able to overpower Nurse Ratched and break her hold on them. As the story progresses, the patients realize their potential, overcome the belief that they are mentally ill, and eventually become able to live independent lives, all due to McMurphy and his laughter.
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Mental health is defined as a state of psychological well-being in which an individual possesses the ability to function in society and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life. In such a society, "people freely, even humorously use these terms to not only define others, but themselves" (Leon). This may mean that people usually judge others relatively by their own mental state. As the patients in the ward share similar personalities, they believe that they are mentally ill, and this reflects their views on others around them and vice versa. McMurphy and his laughter help the patients realize that mental health is reflected by a view of oneself. When McMurphy first steps into the ward, all the patients immediately notice him as soon as his handcuffs are removed, because he jumps for joy and thanks the guards. McMurphy asks to see the "bullgoose loony" and wants to challenge him, giving McMurphy immediate popularity amongst many of the patients. He jokes around with everyone and the patients eventually grow to like him and start to lead different, more exciting lives. McMurphy's vitality is loved by many of the patients as his outlook on life is appealing (Tanner). The patients like McMurphy and associate with him, learning to laugh at jokes and to express themselves to others. The ability to express emotions is a valuable asset provided by McMurphy to the patients, as the patients use this newfound skill to loosen Ratched's hold on them.
Nurse Ratched wants everything in her ward running smoothly, to the extent that anything even remotely out of place frustrates her a great deal (Discovering Authors). She strikes fear in all of the patients until McMurphy is committed to the ward. As the story progresses, the patients express their wants and suggestions to Ratched, and when she does not accept, they circumnavigate her wishes and find a way to throw her off balance. This first occurs when McMurphy and the other patients want to watch the World Series and the nurse won't let them, calling for a majority vote. The patients are terrified of Ratched and many do not vote to watch it, but even with this setback, McMurphy sits in front of the TV and pretends to watch baseball on the TV screen. The patients find this extremely funny and chant out plays with him, using laughter to allow themselves to get closer to each other. Without McMurphy and his laughter, this would not have been possible, because the patients would not have dared to engage in such open emotion, as they were used to catering only to Ratched's commands.
McMurphy uses humor and laughter to battle Ratched in every opportunity he finds. When Ratched makes him clean the toilet bowls in the bathrooms, he scrubs them once and tells the black boy that the bowls are clean enough. The black boy pleads to Ratched and she personally inspects the toilets with a mirror and reprimands McMurphy, who replies only with wisecracks and laughter. He sings, dances, and makes comments that completely throw Ratched off balance. The patients see the effect that his actions have on Ratched, and like electrons attracting a proton, they follow, sticking with McMurphy whenever they have the chance. "McMurphy's singing, like his laughter, his booze, and his sexuality is capable of 'joggling the wiring in all the walls'" (Wallace). McMurphy persistently taunts the nurse and her attendants with wisecracks and laughter, succeeding in turning the ward against Ratched (Discovering Authors).
After many incidents, Ratched finally puts her foot down and decides to give McMurphy Electro-Shock Therapy. He also realizes that he is committed to the ward and temporarily stops his mischief and fun. However, McMurphy soon grows tired of listening to Ratched and begins to once again act like his former self. He gets many of the patients to go on a fishing trip with him and even though Ratched does not agree, she is forced to let them go as even Dr. Spivey falls for McMurphy's charm and volunteers to go with them. The patients sing and laugh and realize that they can truly live independently, and upon realizing this, McMurphy decides to go even further. He invites a few girls, and they spend a night at the ward, partying with music, dancing, and drinking alcohol. The morning after the party, Ratched catches Billy in bed with one of the girls and unintentionally coerces him to commit suicide by threatening to tell Billy's mother what had happened. McMurphy gets extremely irate and strangles Ratched in his anger. As a result, she orders McMurphy lobotomized. This sacrifice plays a great deal in helping the patients at the ward realize their achievements and many of the patients check out of the hospital. "McMurphy helps the people in the ward find their way back from the fog and return back to the real world" (Lupack). McMurphy's laughter and jokes, along with his personality, cause a great change in the patients of the ward and he helps them cure their "mental illness".
Laughter is also integral in helping the patients in the ward realize their independence. "In a world without laughter, the inmates are suspicious of McMurphy, whose big wide-open smile makes everyone uneasy" (Wallace). This statement is obviously true because smiling is not enough to get the patients to trust McMurphy. Only with his laughter and charm is McMurphy able to penetrate the patients' fortresses of solitude. Laughter is extremely contagious, and getting even one patient to trust McMurphy is enough to influence all of the members of the ward. Although it takes time, McMurphy is finally able to remove or mitigate the fears that most of the patients have for Ratched. "Indeed, McMurphy, clearly resembles the typical comic book superhero who uses his secret powers and physical strength to defeat the evil scientific villain" (Wallace). He first uses his charm to become acquainted with Dr. Spivey, who works with Nurse Ratched. This is an extremely important move as it helps McMurphy have a say in what goes around in the ward. Dr. Spivey is the reason that the patients are able to play basketball, gamble with cards, and even go on a fishing trip. With Dr. Spivey as his ally, McMurphy is also able to challenge Ratched with great success, as she seems to be intimidated by him and his potential to cause chaos in her otherwise perfect ward. Near the end of the novel, Ratched gets genuinely scared by McMurphy and attempts more aggressive measures. These methods do not work for McMurphy and she ends up turning him into a vegetable in order to destroy his influence on the patients, but ironically only succeeds in destroying his body. McMurphy's spirit and meaning live on, and even when he's not around mentally, his lessons are able to help the patients overpower her and attain their freedom.
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McMurphy not only helps the patients learn to overcome their weaknesses and become independent, but he also teaches them to live in a society. Chief Bromden is a prime example of McMurphy's feat, because at the start of the story, Bromden pretends to be completely deaf and unaware of his surroundings. By the end of the novel, however, he is able to become completely independent and leaves the ward by force, hitchhiking his way to freedom. "Bromden's growth towards health and a comic understanding of himself and his society grows and develops in the course of the novel, and in the end, he emerges as a complete and strong individual" (Wallace). Dale Harding is also a great example of the work done by McMurphy. Before McMurphy's arrival, Harding is absolutely scared of Ratched as she knows a great deal about his major weaknesses and shortcomings. McMurphy quickly realizes that Ratched is exploiting the patients' weaknesses and turning them against each other, so he gets Harding to understand that. In return, Harding helps McMurphy rebel against Ratched. This is an essential mutualistic relationship, as Harding was the leader before McMurphy's arrival and with Harding following McMurphy, all the other patients followed. Near the end of the novel "when the nurse lies to Harding about McMurphy's return, he checks himself out of the hospital" (Telgen). He was also able to overpower Ratched and escape, and he attained this courage by indulging in the laughter and character of McMurphy.
McMurphy plays an essential part in helping the patients attain independence, the ability to co-exist with others, realize their weaknesses, and live amongst others in society. McMurphy's attitude is essential in overpowering Nurse Ratched, because his laughter and humor help the patients bond with each other. With this bond, they become a bundle of sticks, unable to be broken by Ratched, as opposed to a single stick. Laughter is a key part in uniting the patients and with this newly acquired unity, the patients become stronger, unable to be influenced anymore by Ratched. "In the course of the novel, good finally subdues evil, and although McMurphy loses his life, most of the inmates in the asylum go free, their health and vitality restored" (Wallace). Although McMurphy's sacrifice was huge, it was not in vain, as the patients realized how independent they had become after McMurphy's arrival and that they could co-exist in society, something which Ratched viewed as not possible.
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