|Jul/Aug 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Berkley Press. 1963. 272 pp.
Few characters in American literature are as iconic as Randle Patrick McMurphy, the hero of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But is it possible that McMurphy is not real but a phantom created in the mind of Chief Bromden, the narrator and interpreter of the book?
The story is introduced by the psychotic patient Chief Bromden. Bromden identifies his medical classification as Chronic, meaning he is simply being managed by the hospital staff with little expectation of recovery and release, and the tale is told through his eyes. Bromden's mental condition impacts his perception, distorting both what he observes and how he comprehends the world at large. He suffers breaks with reality during which he hallucinates and impairment of his cognitive abilities when he is connected. As the narrator of the book, Bromden appears to be outside the action observing and reporting to the reader. However, as the story progresses, he becomes interpreter as well, lending sense and meaning to events, and by the end of the book it is clear that he is the main character.
Bromden's primary antagonist is modern society, which he refers to as "the Combine," a designation he gives it because he sees the modern world as a consortium of societal and governmental forces whose goal is to suppress individuality, corrupt humanity and degrade nature through mechanized, unnatural means. In his eyes the Combine is at work everywhere, especially on the ward, where the hospital staff acts as frontline soldiers mindlessly carrying out their agenda to subdue and devitalize the patients.
After being shown to be a narrator who is not just unreliable but unrealistic, Bromden initiates the story by saying (7-8):
It's gonna burn me just that way, finally telling about all this, about the hospital, about her, and the guys—and about McMurphy. I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen. (italics mine)
How literally to take this opening is the question, and it presents a major issue to be resolved from the start. Like a crossroad, the direction the reader takes at this early juncture determines how to view the ensuing events. If the statement is not to be taken literally, then why take the rest of the story literally? If the statement is true, it calls the reality of the story into question and frames it as a fable with none of it being real, but instead a figment of Bromden's imagination conjured up for his own purposes.
Like Alice, the reader goes "down the rabbit hole" very early on seeing alternative ways to understand the novel. Without a tether to objectivity the reader is lost in a forest of possible interpretations. And yet the story was written without such a tether. Kesey challenges the reader to question more than the order, structure and authority of society: he is demanding the reader question perception itself—facts and their interpretation. As the narrator, Bromden is responsible for giving the facts of the story, but he also acts as interpreter offering an understanding of their meaning and significance, and the two roles are quite different. If the story is not factual, why create and relate it? Was Bromden committed, using the story of McMurphy as a way of bringing himself out of his crippling mental illness, or was he never actually in a mental hospital at all? Or is the source Bromden himself: did he invent the saga to give value and voice to his own past? With an unrealistic narrator both facts and meaning are suspect.
As soon as McMurphy arrives the reader is reminded how tenuous the validity of the narrative about to unfold is when Nurse Ratched reminds Nurse Flinn (26):
"You seem to forget, Miss Flinn, that this is an institution for the insane."
A classic writer's convention: Kesey talking to the reader, waving a red flag, and pointing out that these men are insane, particularly the narrator.
When McMurphy enters the story, Bromden hears but does not see him (10):
But this morning I have to sit in the chair and only listen to them bring him in. Still, even though I can't see him, I know he's no ordinary Admission.
This is the first time Bromden is not the initial man on the ward to see a new admission. He has had a psychotic occurrence and is strapped to a chair in the day room heavily medicated. It is unclear if the psychotic event has ended or what effect the medication has had on him, leaving open the possibility that Bromden is still in the throes of the episode (or his medication) and nothing in the book from this point on is anything but a hallucination. And even though he has not yet met or even seen McMurphy, he immediately presents him as superior to the others on the ward, an extraordinary individual with mythic stature (10):
He sounds like he's way above them, talking down, like he's sailing fifty yards overhead, hollering at those below on the ground. He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don't slide; he's got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes.
McMurphy too is uncommonly insightful with knowledge of Bromden no one else has: he is the only one who does not accept Bromden's deaf and mute act; as soon as they meet, McMurphy knows Bromden can hear and speak. Not even the medical professionals in the hospital realize this. Truly, McMurphy is remarkable if not outright superhuman (20):
Nobody like him's ever been on the ward before.
And it seems more than coincidental that just as McMurphy supposedly appears on the ward, Bromden has reached the point of giving up and retreating into the fog, possibly for good, the ultimate capitulation to the Combine. McMurphy's arrival causes him to pause if for no other reason than curiosity (39):
One of these days I'll quit straining and let myself go completely, lose myself in the fog the way some of the other Chronics have, but for the time being I'm interested in this new man—I want to see how he takes to the Group Meeting coming up.
The group meeting is where the McMurphy mythos begins in earnest with him acting out and giving vent to Bromden's frustration at his own passivity, impotence and surrender. McMurphy does not, however, participate in the discussion of the men's psychological issues. He is still appraising the situation according to Bromden, who explains McMurphy's reticence with curious intuition (46-47):
McMurphy sits forward in his chair a couple of times during the meeting like he might have something to say, but he decides better and leans back. There's a puzzled expression coming over his face. Something strange is going on here, he's finding out. He can't quite put his finger on it. Like the way nobody will laugh. Now he thought sure there would be a laugh when he asked Ruckly, "Whose wife?" but there wasn't even a sign of one. The air is pressed in by walls, too tight for laughing. There's something strange about a place where the men won't let themselves loose and laugh, something strange about the way they all knuckle under to that smiling flour-faced old mother there with the too-red lipstick and the too-big boobs. And he thinks he'll just wait a while to see what the story is in this new place before he makes any kind of play. That's a good rule for a smart gambler: look the game over awhile before you draw yourself a hand.
Bromden goes from recounting the story, watching McMurphy and reading him the way any observant person would, to becoming an omniscient narrator stating what McMurphy is thinking. And these two pieces of narration are connected by Bromden interjecting his own interpretation of what is happening on the ward. Strikingly Bromden entwines McMurphy, himself, and his own unique take on events into one single braid.
At the very beginning Bromden conveys the account of McMurphy with astuteness beyond his role as narrator or even interpreter. Bromden exhibits an acumen concerning McMurphy that implies a knowledge and insight closer to that of composer than observer. This is telling, and would make sense if Bromden is creating the character of McMurphy as the story develops, conveying, explaining, and defining him, weaving him from the fabric of his own psyche.
When the group meeting is over, after the men are done "tearing into poor Harding" (53) and they disperse, McMurphy and Harding encounter each other face to face for the first time, and yet (54):
Each man seems unaware of the other. I can't even tell if Harding's noticed McMurphy at all.
After a group meeting where McMurphy is introduced and sweeps everyone into the vortex of his powerful personality and Harding is humiliated over his relationship with his wife, they are unaware of each other? This meeting is central to the progression of the story. It is essential to Bromden that Harding interacts with his fantasy, because Harding is the voice of reason—intelligent and educated—the intellectual among the men. He educates McMurphy on the way things work on the ward and by extension society. Harding's rationalism contrasts Bromden's fantastical view of the world. Harding is on the ward for behavioral reasons (he had trouble adjusting on the outside); he is not cognitively impaired like Bromden, who clearly has problems with perception. Harding's viewpoint provides a necessary contraposition to Bromden's, and McMurphy's interaction with Harding validates McMurphy, in Bromden's mind, among the men on the ward. It is McMurphy who initiates the first meeting with Harding and begins their association—almost as though Bromden pushes McMurphy at Harding, and Harding has no choice but to respond, drawing him to the McMurphy mirage (55):
Harding's head turns with a jerk and his eyes find McMurphy, like it's the first time he knows that anybody's sitting in front of him.
Harding and McMurphy come to complement each other as do Harding and Bromden later in the book when Bromden no longer needs McMurphy and takes his place as Harding's counterpart. But at first, Harding does not even see McMurphy.
As McMurphy begins to take control of the ward, he candidly tells the men who he is and what his intentions are (78):
"The secret of being a top-notch con man is being able to know what the mark wants, and how to make him think he's getting it."
"And what I deduce you marks need is a big fat pot to temptate you... Hey-yah, comin' at you, guts ball from here on out..."
A con and a fantasy work the same way: each is designed to fit the specific situation and meet the needs of the one who devises it. McMurphy does just that, giving Bromden and the men on the ward what they need—a chance at the fat pot. Only this pot is not cigarettes and money, it is manhood, self-esteem and control. And from here on out the illusion of McMurphy, the brazen con artist dangling the fat pot before the men, plays itself out with the men falling for his schemes. According to Bromden the reason the men succumb to McMurphy's guile is they see him as a hero the likes of which no one has ever seen on or off the ward (89):
But the new guy is different, and the Acutes can see it, different from anybody been coming on this ward for the past ten years, different from anybody they ever met outside.
Bromden's description of the men's awe of McMurphy handily fits his portrayal of McMurphy. Bromden attributes to mentally ill men whose thoughts he is not privy to the reasons they accept McMurphy as Bromden assembles the storyline from the perspective of both the main character (McMurphy) and the peripheral characters (the men on the ward) like any author would. And yet as someone unsure of his own mental acuity, he simultaneously questions the reality of what he sees; the night Blastic dies, for instance, Bromden witnesses it all, explains what he sees with his tainted perception, and then poses the quintessential hallucinator's question (87):
But if they don't exist, how can a man see them?
Bromden has complete control over the character and story of McMurphy. He shapes them to fit his needs both immediate and long-term. McMurphy perfectly fulfills the necessary requirements for a surrogate to confront the Combine by proxy until Bromden regains his "size" and is able to leave the hospital: McMurphy is white (Bromden learned through his father's experience a Native American cannot win against the Combine); he is a scarred bar fighter and street brawler (to fight against a colossal enemy); he is a psychopath (completely outside the Combine with no connections to it); he is not married and has no family (no familial or tribal responsibilities); he is an artist, painting pictures and writing in a beautiful hand (creativity giving him an advantage over the Combine); he is a confident, successful gambler (to take on the Combine is a huge gamble for enormous stakes—the fat pot of freedom and manhood); he is a sexual powerhouse (to confront "Mother" Ratched and her emasculating tactics); but most importantly, as a non-living entity, a character made-up and fitted for this task, he has absolutely nothing to lose; Bromden can push McMurphy at the Combine without regard for his welfare. McMurphy has no future except to be destroyed by the Combine, a sacrificial lamb to save the men on the ward (if they are willing) and free Bromden—foreshadowed by the "dead man's hand" (aces and eights) tattooed on McMurphy's shoulder.
McMurphy also seems to be a composite of the men on the ward: he has the artistic hands that expose Harding's struggle with his sexuality; the sensitivity that keeps Billy Bibbit under the control of his mother; the size that Bromden lost and desperately wants to regain; the willingness to disrupt the ward that got Taber crushed by Nurse Ratched; and by late in the story as his fight with the orderlies begins, he has become tired to the point of exhaustion like Pete. McMurphy's characteristics are forged by and imprinted with the need of the men on the ward.
Dr. Spivey, too, is a bellwether for McMurphy's existence. From the first group meeting where McMurphy is present, Dr. Spivey falls under the spell of the classic charming psychopath. As an experienced psychiatrist, he would clearly see what McMurphy is, a ward manipulator, as Nurse Ratched does and not succumb to his wiles. He goes so far as to become one of the men during the fishing trip, while McMurphy steals the boat and runs the trip the way he runs the gambling on the ward. And when the men return with the boat, Dr. Spivey leaps to the fore and defends McMurphy saving him from any consequences including possible criminal charges.
It is highly unlikely Dr. Spivey would fall for McMurphy's ploys, especially to the extent of becoming part of one like he does on the fishing trip. He does provide, however, a critical counterpoint to Nurse Ratched, being used by Bromden to confirm his creation among the hospital staff. By the time McMurphy is on the Disturbed ward getting electric shock treatment, Dr. Spivey appears with Nurse Ratched, the two in agreement, authorizing the treatments for McMurphy, all of which Bromden claims to witness in a moment of lucidity when returning to consciousness after his shock therapy. And Dr. Spivey's refusal to accept any responsibility for Billy Bibbit's death, rejecting the demand that he resign, suggests the possibility that Billy may have killed himself for reasons not connected with McMurphy's involvement, given that Dr. Spivey, as supervising physician, would clearly be responsible if McMurphy were a real patient and been allowed the leeway he had on the ward against the better judgment of a highly-respected professional like Nurse Ratched.
From the moment Bromden becomes aware of McMurphy, he identifies him with his own father, and this is a recurring theme. The similarities between the two men are remarkable: both are physically big (Papa tall—his Native American name is Tee Ah Millatoona, the Pine-That-Stands-Tallest-on-the-Mountain—and McMurphy broad); both are big personalities (outgoing, boisterous and unafraid); both are leaders (Papa a Chief, McMurphy the "Bull Goose Loony" on the ward); both are from cultures outside of modern society (Papa the full-blooded Columbia Native American, McMurphy a psychopath who fights and fornicates too much); both are sapped by relationships with women (Papa by his white wife whose last name he takes, McMurphy by Big Nurse); both take on the Combine directly (Papa by initially trying to stop the sale of tribal lands for the hydroelectric dam, McMurphy by undermining order on the ward). And while the course of their lives parallels each other, the most compelling trait they share is the fateful way they come to their end—both destroyed at the hands of the Combine. The ways McMurphy and Bromden's father are alike are beyond coincidence and a normal comparison of two separate men from such disparate cultures and backgrounds.
The correlation between the two is deeply significant and explains Bromden's situation and mindset, shaping his view of the world at large and how he interprets events on the ward. Bromden is in the hospital because he is overcome by the fog after his father is destroyed by the Combine; it is the McMurphy illusion that gets Bromden out, providing cover while he becomes big again and releasing him from the fog to escape. Like a ghost Bromden's father haunts him, until McMurphy, a wraith himself, brings Bromden back to life and sets him free.
The differences between Bromden's father and McMurphy are advantages that give McMurphy a better chance to survive a skirmish with the relentless Combine, i.e., being white and having no family ties. Even being a drinker but not an alcoholic is helpful, because it gives McMurphy the joy and release of liquor without the dissipation and enslavement of addiction. But are these disparities improvements: are they the result of Bromden correcting the weaknesses that caused his father to fail in an attempt to create a more suitable protagonist to war with the Combine? Since McMurphy does not fail—he wins his battle, bringing Bromden and the men on the ward a triumph over the Combine Bromden's father was unable to achieve for his people—it remains a compelling possibility, and would explain McMurphy's refusal to neglect the men and focus on his own needs right to the end, including putting off his escape until after Billy's date with Candy the night of the party on the ward.
When Bromden is hiding in the latrine from the orderlies, he looks at himself in the mirror and wonders how McMurphy can be what he is given how enormous he is. And again Bromden attributes mythic stature to an itinerant gambler, brawler, carnival huckster, and all around eight-ball. Bromden looks at his own face and has an epiphany (153):
...That ain't me, that ain't my face. It wasn't even me when I was trying to be that face. I wasn't even really me then; I was just being the way I looked, the way people wanted. It don't seem like I ever have been me. How can McMurphy be what he is?
I was seeing him different than when he first came in; I was seeing more to him than just big hands and red sideburns and a broken-nosed grin. I'd see him do things that didn't fit with his face or hands...
Bromden is peeling away the mask that is his face, the persona forced on him by the Combine. This epiphany includes McMurphy, of course, as Bromden adjusts the image of McMurphy accordingly. Bromden portrays McMurphy as also trapped in his own persona, pointing out that he has more and different capabilities than are expected of him, just as Bromden is more than a deaf-mute with a broom and a mop. Bromden has overlaid his own newly-recognized self with this progressively-sketched picture of McMurphy, identifying with him and unifying their personas. And as he becomes capable of encountering the real world directly, Bromden sees everything anew (154):
I was seeing lots of things different... For the first time in years I was seeing people with none of that black outline they used to have, and one night I was even able to see out the windows.
Along with sight, all of Bromden's senses return to him crisp and sharp: hearing, taste, feeling, and smell come flooding back, immersing him in sensations he has not experienced in years. Having recovered his senses, Bromden can perceive the ward, the hospital, and the country outside with renewed vigor and clarity. As he now functions fully physically, he can begin the process of regaining control of his mind, hoping to ultimately reach a point where he no longer needs the imaginary McMurphy to hide behind.
When in the pool, Bromden is standing near McMurphy listening to his conversation with the lifeguard, and Bromden comments (160):
McMurphy must of been standing in a hole because he was having to tread water where I was just standing on the bottom.
Bromden must be aware of the difference between McMurphy's height and his own. And how could he be standing in a hole in an indoor swimming pool? Bromden has united himself with McMurphy, and is not seeing a clear difference between them, which is the case with McMurphy as a product of Bromden's mind.
After McMurphy finds out that Nurse Ratched has the most input over his release date, he becomes a model patient, scrubbing the latrine and sitting back in group meetings and not disrupting the proceedings. During this time Bromden suffers a relapse; while in the library he says (171):
I want to look at one of the books, but I'm scared to. I'm scared to do anything. I feel like I'm floating in the dusty yellow air of the library, halfway to the bottom, halfway to the top.
At this point McMurphy fades into the wallpaper, losing not just his status and influence but his substance, and concurrently Bromden's view of material reality once again skews. Then, after McMurphy is informed that most of the men on the ward are voluntaries, he takes a carefully planned step and puts his own freedom at risk. McMurphy buys cigarettes knowing they will be kept by the nurses and, fully aware of what is at stake, he smashes through the glass of the nurses' station to grab them. Deliberately provoking Nurse Ratched, now that he knows how much power she has, is irrational and exhibits McMurphy as the manifestation of Bromden's internal need for a catalyst to act in his stead.
Before the incident, Bromden senses something is about to happen. He has the same ringing in his head he had before a football game in high school, and it signals a significant event is approaching. How can he sense or anticipate that McMurphy will make a momentous move, especially one that is against McMurphy's own interests and completely out of character unless Bromden is constructing him as he goes? Once McMurphy again confronts Nurse Ratched, the ringing in Bromden's head stops, indicating the McMurphy invention has regained its purpose and restarting Bromden's passage toward completion.
After the fishing trip when Nurse Ratched points out to the men on the ward how much money McMurphy has acquired through his many gambits, planting the idea that he is just a con man playing them for suckers, Bromden once more expresses his view of McMurphy as godlike (255):
I still had my own notions—how McMurphy was a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine... how he was too big to be bothered with something as measly as money...
And though Bromden's confidence in his creation temporarily falters, he is ultimately brought back to full affirmation as McMurphy reminds him he has done everything he said he would including make Bromden "man-sized again" (257). But more informative is that when the men point out McMurphy is "always... winning things" (257), McMurphy protests by saying (258):
"Winning, for Christsakes," he said with his eyes closed. "Hoo boy, winning."
McMurphy is clearly not winning but expending his essence on behalf of the men, as would any chimera invoked to aid emotionally destitute people in need of empowerment. And this brings Bromden to a turning point (258):
...without thinking about being cagey or safe or what would happen to me—and not worrying about anything else for once but the thing that needed to be done and the doing of it.
Bromden moves into action as McMurphy takes on the orderlies, and for him there is no turning back. Bromden is becoming whole, and his vitality carries him through the resulting consequences—a trip with McMurphy to the Disturbed ward and electric shock therapy.
As the two men line up for the shock therapy, McMurphy takes the lead and attempts to protect Bromden, telling him (270):
"Take 'er easy. I'll go first. My skull's too thick for them to hurt me. And if they can't hurt me they can't hurt you."
Apart from the stunning revelation that if McMurphy cannot be hurt, Bromden cannot be hurt (the two apparently one), it is Bromden who should be reassuring McMurphy, since he has received two-hundred shock treatments and McMurphy none. But the character of McMurphy, created to protect Bromden until he can take care of himself, comforts Bromden giving him the ability to handle the shock as never before.
But before Bromden comes to, while he is still under the effect of the electricity, his mind wanders back to his childhood and a game he played, Tingle Tingle Tangle Toes, while his beloved Grandmother chanted a nursery rhyme that includes the title of the book (272):
...one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo's nest... O-U-T spells out... goose swoops down and plucks you out.
A verse also refers to Mrs. Tingle Tangle Toes "catching hens," and Bromden reveals (273):
I like the game and I like Grandma. I don't like Mrs. Tingle Tangle Toes, catching hens. I don't like her. I do like that goose flying over the cuckoo's nest. I like him...
The children's game and nursery rhyme are unmistakable references to Nurse Ratched (Mrs. Tingle Tangle Toes, catching hens—the feeble, helpless men on the ward—rabbits as Harding calls them) and McMurphy, the Bull Goose Loony who flies over the ward and plucks Bromden out—off the ward and out of the hospital. This last longing look at his childhood occurs just before Bromden comes out of the shock treatment, and it points to the illusory nature of the tale of McMurphy and its conclusion when Bromden escapes.
McMurphy himself foretells the end of the fantasy by giving Bromden a message muffled by the rubber hose in his mouth just before his shock begins. When Bromden comes back to consciousness after his treatment, he realizes what McMurphy said—"Guts ball" (275). Guts ball is the indicator the con/fantasy has begun (78), and it now signifies its end as Bromden is complete (275):
It's fogging a little, but I won't slip off and hide in it. No... never again...
I saw an aide coming up the hall with a tray for me and knew this time I had them beat.
With his senses now intact and his mind clear, he sees more than his immediate surroundings; he reenters the real world, having been restored to life after ten years of running and hiding from the Combine (276):
If you don't have a reason to wake up you can loaf around in that gray zone for a long, fuzzy time, or if you want to bad enough I found you can come fighting right out of it. This time I came fighting out of it in less than a day, less time than ever. And when the fog was finally swept from my head it seemed like I'd just come up after a long, deep dive, breaking the surface after being under water a hundred years. It was the last treatment they gave me.
The result of this transition is McMurphy is no longer required. Bromden has reached a point where he can confront the Combine directly without McMurphy to run interference for him.
During the party on the ward, the McMurphy fiction reaches its climax and begins to wane. Harding remains conspicuously on the edge of the action, explaining (285):
"These things don't happen," Harding said to the girl solemnly. "These things are fantasies you lie awake at night dreaming up and then are afraid to tell your analyst. You're not really here. That wine isn't real; none of this exists. Now, let's go on from there."
"These things are Thorne Smithian daydreams!" Harding said.
James Thorne Smith, a fantasy writer from the 1920s and 1930s, who experienced a posthumous resurgence of popularity in the 1950s, is called on to frame what's happening on the ward. Why? What is happening on the ward, specifically during the party, that requires the perspective of a fantasy writer to elucidate and understand it? Parallels to various Thorne Smith works can be drawn (i.e., The Nightlife of the Gods), but the most compelling is McMurphy as Lazy Bear in Thorne Smith's children's book Lazy Bear Lane. As Lazy Bear takes the aged and impoverished Peter and Mary back to their childhood and into a land of bounty, McMurphy transforms the lives of the men on the ward from desolate emotional poverty to fullness and plenty—and of course Lazy Bear is a creature written for children who believe in magic. Harding reveals the essence of McMurphy through the lens of make-believe: rejuvenation requires a childlike belief in the magic brought by McMurphy, a fanciful character authored by Bromden.
Bromden's incredulity during the party foreshadows the end of the fable (292):
I had to keep reminding myself that it had truly happened, that we had made it happen.
The men on the ward made it happen, with the help of McMurphy, but not solely by his efforts or insistence, as McMurphy is fading in significance. And the seriousness of what has happened with the party hits only Harding and Bromden; McMurphy does not see the coming repercussions as he is being disconnected from his surroundings. Though inebriated, Harding devises a plan to save the men on the ward, and the plan calls for McMurphy to be blamed and escape. Like the Old Testament scapegoat, McMurphy will take on himself the sins of the men and be driven out of their midst; and like the scapegoat, who would be cast into the wilderness, McMurphy will become a fugitive running from the law.
Here a meaningful shift takes place: Bromden comes to identify with Harding, the voice of reason, and Bromden has no qualms about expelling McMurphy to fend for himself, as he no longer needs McMurphy. Bromden has become big again and feels in control of his senses and reason (flawed though it still is), McMurphy having concluded his role in returning Bromden to fullness. And each man on the ward has an excuse not to accompany McMurphy in his escape; he is now alone, separate from the others, receding into nothingness.
The spirit of the McMurphy fiction is then summed up just before the men fall asleep without the plan being put into action. McMurphy asks why he is not like the other men on the ward, even though he too is different (294):
"I'm different," McMurphy said. "Why didn't something like that happen to me? I've had people bugging me about one thing or another as far back as I can remember but that's not what—but it didn't drive me crazy."
Harding explains, clarifying why McMurphy is necessary (295):
"It is us." He swept his hand about him in a soft white circle and repeated, "Us."
You are here, Randle Patrick McMurphy, you exist because of "us," to help, protect, and empower "us." McMurphy has done all these things, and having completed his mission he fades away.
In the end though only Bromden who created it can put to death the McMurphy illusion; and with the shadow of his material self falling across McMurphy, blotting out his image and "leaving only a black space" (308) where the McMurphy phantasm had been, Bromden concludes the dream by appearing to commit a mercy killing. Instead it is the final act of self-love and self-fulfillment as Bromden is now complete and McMurphy vanishes.
Now Bromden demonstrates who he has been throughout the story: he, not McMurphy, is the smart gambler who looks the game over awhile before drawing himself a hand. After looking the game over for ten years, Bromden draws his hand and escapes. He now knows how to play the hand as well: he knows no one will be looking to recapture him; he knows how the Combine operates; he knows the strategies of the Combine's foot soldiers; he knows where he belongs in the world; and he is big enough to handle it all.
After his escape, in the most enlightening moment of the entire story, Bromden catches a ride with a truck driver and displays his true self. He slips easily and effortlessly into a yarn about being a Native American wrestler who crossed the Mob and ended up in a mental hospital. He is so natural and convincing, the driver loans him ten dollars on his promise to mail the money back to him. A few weeks on the ward with a real live McMurphy would not give Bromden this ability. Slick and polished, smooth and skillful, he is a genuine storyteller with the instincts and self-assurance of a hustler.
More revealing than his abilities as a fabulist, though, is where he intends to go, which shows that his vision of the world has not changed (311):
I've even heard that some of the tribe have took to building their old ramshackle wood scaffolding all over that big million-dollar hydroelectric dam, and are spearing salmon in the spillway. I'd give something to see that.
Just the visual of a brand-new, expensive hydroelectric dam with a handful of Native Americans spearing salmon from "ramshackle wood scaffolding" illegally erected on the dam indicates Bromden's mental state—he is not connecting with reality. The notion that men from his tribe are spearing salmon on the dam is Bromden asserting his perceived victory over the Combine on two levels: electricity gives the Combine its energy with the dam defacing the natural world to provide it; and electricity was used to subdue Bromden and the men on the ward as electric shock therapy—as the source of electricity the dam is the embodiment of the power of modern society, being used to defile both nature and the individual. Bromden's boast in defiance of the dam is a delusion, displaying that in his mind he is still in a different place, another world—the world McMurphy came from—a world where individuals have value and power, where people wander free and decide their own destinies, where men drink, fight and fornicate too much, a world that is big—a world of myth.
As the story concludes, the tale of McMurphy makes Bromden big again not to perpetuate his flawed, delusional perception of the world or to cure his clinically-diagnosed madness, but to restore his soul. Like a true fairy tale, McMurphy serves to provide a sanctuary from the real world, a respite from the bitter realism that Bromden's culture is long gone and in doing so allows Bromden to accept these developments and reconstruct his place in society. The antidote for the destruction of the soul is the liberation of the soul as the story of McMurphy so powerfully and poignantly attests.
The significance of this alternative interpretation then is that McMurphy is not another person bringing the example of how to live to the men on the ward, living, fighting and fornicating vicariously for them; he is a part of each one of them, and his power is there to be accessed and used by each individual. It is Bromden, the narrator, interpreter and creator of McMurphy, who carves out the path by manifesting this part of himself and modeling the transformation that will renew and regenerate the men as they actualize the McMurphy fiction, each man on his own plotting his own course. Chief Bromden plays the winning hand by refusing to make peace with modern society and submit to a slow, grinding death at the hands of the Combine and its machinery. And even though he cannot destroy the Combine the way it destroyed his father, Cheswick, Blastic, Billy, and all the others, his resistance affords a different kind of victory: he is free to roam the outskirts of society and explore its periphery, engaging the Combine on his own terms, expressing the McMurphy that was always a part of him, a natural man exulting in a life of his own choosing—the ultimate fat pot.