Cry of the Noble Savage

Society corrupts people. It requires people to live under such rigid conditions that they are suffocated by the false rules and regulations of the civilized world. These unnecessary restraints only destroy the human being, because man is by nature pure, good, and innocent--a noble savage. Therefore, an individual should be allowed to grow freely. One could certainly say that this statement and other beliefs of Jean Jacques Rousseau are clearly mirrored in Ken Kesey's gutsy novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It tells the story of a "noble savage"--Randle Patrick McMurphy--who refuses to succumb to the rules of society and thereby has a great influence to those around him. By examining the happenings in a mental institution where McMurphy resides, Kesey reflects upon Rousseau's ideas of the society having a corrupting influence on man's free spirit. Kesey uses the "Combine," a mysterious organization that has rigged the mental ward with devices for spying and control, Nurse Ratched, the head nurse of the ward who reinforces the rules, and the noble savage McMurphy, the uncompromising individualist, to reinforce his idea that man ought to be allowed to grow freely.

Kesey uses the Combine, presumably the directors of the hospital, in his novel to represent society. Chief Bromden, an Indian whom everyone believes to be deaf and dumb, sees the Combine as an organization that has huge machinery set up underneath the floor of the ward. The Chief says,"The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes"(40). First, the Combine has the patients follow a strict and dull daily routine that basically allows them no time for themselves. Furthermore, it has people like Nurse Ratched and the black boys watching over the patients, making sure they don't think for themselves. Then, just as a final protective measure, the Combine sends the more zealous patients to the Shock Shop, which Chief describes as a "filthy brain-murdering room" (20), for electrotherapy. The treatment leaves them virtually as dummies. The Combine makes sure all of the patients come out nice and well-behaved, ready to become part of their ideal society. Just as Rousseau believes that modern society destroys the individual because of its rigid rules, the Combine works as a miniature society that tries to wipe out all existing individualism of the patients.

Another reflection of Rousseau's ideas is the character that symbolizes the evil that occurs when society becomes oppressive: Nurse Ratched, the head nurse of the ward. She is the one who enforces the rules dictated by the Combine; therefore, in Kesey's opinion she is the government. She sits behind a glass wall, coldly examining her patients. In addition, there are all sorts of mechanical devices in her nurse station she can use to control and manipulate the patients, such as the clock and the radio. She wants everything in perfect order. Like a machine, Chief says, "[with] precise, automatic gesture" (11), she manipulates the patients. When facing big, brawling, and boisterous McMurphy, she firmly maintains control, spreading rumors about him and ultimately sending him up to Disturbed and the Shock Shop. What Nurse Ratched and the Combine want are rules and discipline, and when McMurphy threatens to destroy the system, Nurse Ratched does her best to prevent him from doing so. For example, she tries her best to thwart any idea McMurphy brings up at meetings. Her skills, her "fantastic mechanical power"(265), serve as the hand that grips individuals ever so tightly in the arms of society.

In this microcosm of society, unapologetic Randle Patrick McMurphy steps into the shoes of Rousseau's vision of the common man--a noble savage. As a man who arranges himself to be brought to the ward because it has better food and shelter, McMurphy refuses to surrender to Nurse Ratched's strict dictatorship because he still has the knowledge of freedom. The first time Bromden sees McMurphy, he knows McMurphy's "no ordinary Admission"(15). First, McMurphy sets off to break down Nurse Ratched's wall of self control. Using various stratagems, such as swaggering around in his underwear, McMurphy quickly unnerves her and causes her to loosen her grip. Also, he works at bringing laughter back to the bleak ward, thus giving the other patients the power to stand up for themselves. He encourages them to vote to watch a baseball game, he takes them on a fishing trip, and he takes them on a wild ride through a night, helping them break free of conformity. Chief notices that the patients "[can now] see some good in the life around [them]" (216). Ultimately, McMurphy succeeds in making the patients see and respect their individuality by teaching them how to enjoy life. Most importantly, because of his efforts, Nurse Ratched and the Combine no longer have power over these free spirits. The other patients have become nobles savages as well. These ideals cannot be achieved without a cost. As a result of his endeavors, McMurphy dies, but of a noble cause indeed.

In conclusion, one can very well see that Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glowing reiteration of Rousseau's ideas. The Combine, like society, demands too much from the individual and virtually forces human beings into insanity. Conformity leaves no room for the individual to grow by himself. Nurse Ratched, like the law enforcers of society, relies too much on rigid rules to control man's independent nature; she is just another machine created by the Combine to further suppress the free development of each patient. But for every Nurse Ratched there is a McMurphy, a noble savage who refuses to obey, who, unlike others, chooses to rebel and by doing so changes the lives of others. Rousseau was an advocate of freedom of the individual, as is Kesey as he tells the story of how one man salvages the lives of many others. True, the noble savage dies, but with his death what also dies is Nurse Ratched and the Combine's power over the patients. Individualism has triumphed, and as a result society no longer has a corrupting influence over the patients: they are free. They have flown over the cuckoo's nest.