By J. Francis Wolfe

Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy in the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (via Fogs’ Movie Reviews)

Randle Patrick McMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Hank Stamper of Sometimes a Great Notion: two men of incredible strength whom Kesey brings to their knees. Why?

Ken Kesey is responsible for some of the most outsized heroes of contemporary literature — not in the literal sense, as with Chief Bromden, but in a sense of character, of will, of unrelenting doggedness. Randle Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hank Stamper from Sometimes a Great Notion are of this mold: hard-headed, iconoclastic and rugged specimen with a psychological will as strong as their physical prowess. Yet despite the seemingly superhuman strength of both, they each meet tragedy. In the process of their respective battles, both men become exhausted in every sense of the word.

Take, for instance, the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest just after the men return from their boat trip. The patients — up until that point weak and ineffectual — are reveling in their manliness while McMurphy seems drained:

Then — as he was talking — a set of tail-lights going past lit up McMurphy’s face, and the windshield reflected an expression that was allowed only because he’d figured it’d be too dark for anyone in the car to see, dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there wasn’t enough time left for something he had to do.

Hank Stamper, having endured the pressure of an entire town — and, eventually, many members of his own family — finally confides in Joe Ben, the affable and perpetually positive foil, that he too is worn out:

“A guy gets fed up,” Hank said. ... “Fed up to his ears. Forever going down the street and hearing the locks snap shut in front of him like he was some kind of bogey man. Real tired, you know what I mean?”

Ken Kesey (via Oregon Live)

For all of their bluster and egotism, both characters find themselves exhausted beyond comprehension — so much so that they nearly go against their very nature and consider doing something completely unfathomable by giving up. But why was Kesey, a man who battled the social mores of his time as much as anyone, so fond of building up characters so strong and indefatigable only to allow them to be torn down by the very things they were fighting against?

The rationale is simple: Until we, as readers, see these characters as flawed and sometimes weak, we have a very difficult time relating to them. McMurphy is especially reminiscent of a comic book hero or TV cowboy, though this could also be said of Hank. It is only after we see these characters in their moments of weakness that we can really believe that they could be real people.

First edition cover of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (via Wikipedia)

First edition cover of Sometimes a Great Notion (via GoodReads)

There is another reason as well, one founded in the Christian symbolism that Kesey so often imbues his novels with. Both characters, though more clearly McMurphy, are Christ-like figures that must sacrifice themselves — or at least some part of themselves — in order to save those around them. McMurphy allows himself to be lobotomized by Nurse Ratched, but only after he demonstrates to the other patients how to permanently regain their manhood. While Hank does not lose his life, he does lose just about everything else. Joe Ben, Henry, Lee and Viv all leave in one way or another, and it is in the end that Hank has to give birth to a new conception of himself in order to succeed in the very task that had left him so completely worn. Ironically, it is only in the realization that no man could possibly be so strong that he ultimately finds the strength to carry on.

In both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey wants the reader to understand that there is always a cost in railing against society, a cost that the individual must pay in order to better the world. Fighting the establishment is a noble task, but it takes a heavy toll, one that Kesey clearly believes is worth paying if true change is to be realized.

J. Francis Wolfe is a freelance writer and a noted dreamer of dreams. He aspires to one day live in a cave high in the mountains where he can write poetry no one will ever see.

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