The Role Of Laughter In One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest By Ken Kesey
If the metaphor “laughter is the best medicine” reigns true, there is no wonder why Nurse Ratched takes exhaustive measures to keep laughter out of her ward. In an effort to keep her ward under control, Nurse Ratched strips patients of comfortable environments, such as the environment to laugh in. When an individual is no longer capable of laughing, he is also no longer capable of being in control of himself. This happens when a greater authority has the power to deny a person of their laughter; which, inevitably, denies him of his freedom. Ken Kesey conveys the idea that laughter and freedom go hand in hand throughout his novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey portrays laughter as a parallel to freedom through various literary symbols and imagery in order to illustrate how the power of laughter can free a man who is under the control of an unjust authority.
Before our protagonist even arrives in the book, Kesey paints a picture of a cold and grim world, where a single figure seems to have complete authority over the men of the ward. Nurse Ratched, the antagonist of the book, is closely described in allusion to the character “Big Brother” (from George Orwell’s 1984) through her own nickname, the “Big Nurse”, coined by the narrator Chief Bromden. She is seen as oppressive and all-knowing, with complete control over every aspect of her ward. Her correlation to the term “Big Brother” is a definitive point of her being the antithesis to freedom in the novel. She is able to act like “an angel of mercy” while at the same time shaming the patients into submission; she knows their weak spots and exactly where to peck. As Nurse Ratched continues to gain complete control over the men, they lose their freedom, and thus their ability to act on their own.
When McMurphy arrives, he is a stark contrast to the previous happenings of the ward. Before McMurphy arrives in the ward, there is no laughter there. Chief Bromden describes McMurphy's laughter as 'free and loud' and spreading 'in rings bigger and bigger till it. . . lap[s] against the walls. ' He then realizes that 'it's the first laugh' he's heard for years. McMurphy's laughter is an indication of his freedom and his spirit, and freedom and spirit are two traits which the patients under Nurse Ratched's care have been denied. At first, everyone on the ward is 'stunned dumb' by McMurphy's laughter. Even through all the confusion of the laughter, this is where the patients’ admiration for McMurphy begins.
Even though McMurphy is new to the ward, he knows that the actions of Nurse Ratched have severely interfered with the patients’ minds. McMurphy notices immediately that the men on the ward never laugh, and stunningly makes the connection of laughter and free will. “You know, that's the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing. A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him up and down till he can’t laugh anymore, and he loses one of the biggest edges he’s got on his side. ” (p. 70). McMurphy explains the correlation of laughter and freedom to the other patients, and how laughter is the biggest weapon against Nurse Ratched’s attempts at their freedom. McMurphy proceeds to teach the men to laugh, not through active lesson, but by teaching by example.
By part 3 of the book, McMurphy has been with the patients long enough for them to trust him, however apprehensive some may be. McMurphy decides to take the men on a fishing trip, to explore life outside of the ward, and experience freedom. While on the boat, everyone catches large fish and gets drunk. This is the first true taste of freedom the men of had since being admitted to the ward. As the patients work to reel in a fish that is caught, McMurphy is “laughing. . . just standing at the cabin door, not even making a move to do anything”. Here, McMurphy’s laugh is the push for the men to work on their own, embracing their free will and proving that the men don’t need Nurse Ratched to function. It is because of McMurphy’s laugh, that unlikely characters like Harding jump into action in “in graceful motion, like he’s been boating fish all his life” in order to accomplish the mission of reeling in the fish. After the men finally prove to themselves that they can perform on their own, they join McMurphy in laughing. “It started slow and pumped itself full, swelling the men bigger and bigger. . . I could see. . . McMurphy surrounded by his dozen people, and watch them, us, swinging in laughter that rang out on the water…”. Now that the men have seen their own power, an attribute that was once specific to McMurphy, the ability to laugh, is seen amongst every patient. The men have broken free of the Big Nurse’s control, and are not afraid to laugh and be free anymore.
The theme of dependence is prominent throughout the novel. But McMurphy has never been dependent before, and because of this, is seen as a hero who has the ability to fight against unjust authority. McMurphy and his own freedom is the driving force behind the other patients, and the quest for their own. Laughter in the novel, is used as a novelty, being used in junction with independence. McMurphy, through the use of laughter, has taught the patients to act on their own. Moving away from the tight mold that Nurse Ratched has tried to keep them in, which will in turn, heal the men. Laughter is used as medicine in the novel, not for their body, but strictly for their mind.