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Gambling and Taking Risks in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest operates as an entertaining and interesting novel on a pure surface level. There’s a good story, well-developed characters and fresh language. It has all the workings of a good novel, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t just a good novel. It’s a great one, because Kesey uses Chief Bromden’s perspective to let imagery flow out of the novel and have it all come back to one theme: individuality and its repression by society. This idea is highlighted by the image of gambling vs. playing it safe, whether in literal card games or as a way of living. The mental ward’s new patient, Randle Patrick McMurphy, is a self-described “gambling fool” (12)1, while his opposer, “Big Nurse” Ratched, forces the “Acute” patients to play it safe by trying to keep the ward in order with her mechanical routine. As McMurphy influences the men on the ward to be individuals, gambling becomes a part of the everyday routine. Eventually, the men on the ward begin taking gambles outside of card games until the novel’s climax.

The novel begins with Chief mopping and lurking in the background as a quiet observer. Ever since he’s been on the ward until later in the novel, Chief acts as what he calls “cagey” and doesn’t talk, which makes everyone assume he’s deaf and dumb. He doesn’t take the chance of telling anyone because he’s afraid that the staff will punish him after he’s heard enough of their secrets. He mops the ward and submits himself to the fog that he hallucinates. While the other men talk and walk around, they’re not much better than Chief. They play Pinochle and occasionally bet for matches, which is all that Big Nurse allows, but they never enjoy themselves and don’t even let themselves truly laugh. When McMurphy enters the ward, he announces that he “figure[s]…to be the sort of gambling baron on this ward” (19) and that the Army taught him his “natural bent”, which is to play poker. Right off the bat, one can tell that McMurphy is on the ward more because he wants to make money off a new group of people than because of any mental illness.

When McMurphy is getting acquainted with everyone on the ward, Chief notes that “you can’t tell if he’s really this friendly or if he’s got some gambler’s reason for trying to get acquainted with guys so far gone they don’t even know their names” (22). McMurphy is later stopped from acquainting himself with everyone by Big Nurse, who tells him that “…everyone must follow the rules” (25), which would make things easier for everyone. McMurphy replies that he’s told that “…just when [he] figures [he’s] about to do the dead opposite” (26). McMurphy is making his presence felt and showcasing how he lives life dangerously and the sense of enjoyment he gets out of it. If anything else, the men notice he’s satisfied with himself and is always having a good time, even on the dreary ward.

After McMurphy has spent a day on the ward, he knows for certain that he and Big Nurse aren’t going to get along. As he’s wont to do, he begins to question the limits of his behavior before the Nurse sends him up to the Disturbed ward or gives him electroshock therapy. When he asks the other patients that one of them, Harding, says, “Those are the rules we play by. Of course, she always wins…” (73). Harding and the rest of the men know that Big Nurse will always cheat in the game of wills to get her way, so they don’t even bother trying to change things. McMurphy makes a bet with the rest of the men that he can get the best of the Nurse without her getting the best of him before the end of the week. McMurphy notes that he’s “a gambler and [he’s] not in the habit of losing” (74) Soon, the men are playing card games for cigarettes, with McMurphy talking and taking cigarettes and IOUs “like a stock auctioneer” (79), occasionally letting them win. They begin to gamble on everything they can, like butter hitting the clock before breakfast is out then whether or not it will hit the floor before breakfast ends.

McMurphy’s method of living even touches the head doctor at one point when, at a group meeting, the doctor proposes the idea of a carnival on the ward, with Cheswick saying that it would “break the monotony” (109). As the seeds of McMurphy’s influence are being planted, the men on the ward still won’t take any gambles or let loose and have fun (with the exception of McMurphy’s casino), choosing to stay with the mechanical and manufactured routine. As the Acutes begin to gamble more on the ward, the doctor proposes using the old tub room as “…a sort of second day room, a game room” (111), which is a gamble in itself for the doctor, because he knows the nurse will shoot it down. With the help of some forward thinking from the doctor the idea is approved, and the patients begin gambling on more games, even betting on Monopoly at one point and the World Series.

To watch the games, McMurphy proposes at a group meeting that the television time on the ward be changed and it’s put to a vote that the other men are too cagey to actually participate in for cynicism that the Nurse will cheat and get her way. Pissed off at the Acutes, McMurphy bets that he can lift a large control panel in the tub room. They all bet more than they usually do, because they know that McMurphy can’t possibly lift the control panel, and when McMurphy inevitably fails, he give all the Acutes the accumulated IOUs back and says, “But I tried, though…Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, didn’t I?” (125). McMurphy establishes the main difference between himself and the rest of the Acutes with that statement. He’s the only one who will try to do anything, and he has a better time on the ward than any of the other Acutes. If they want their problems to go away, they have to try something first.

At the next group meeting, the Acutes, inspired by seeing McMurphy try something he knew he’d fail at, vote for the TV time to be changed. Chief raises his hand when Big Nurse calls for one Chronic patient to vote, taking a gamble by not being cagey and possibly demonstrating that he can hear and process what’s going on around him. The Nurse says the vote is closed, but the men take a gamble with McMurphy by pretending to watch the game. Chief realizes the “the full force of the dangers [the Acutes] let [themselves] in for when [they] let McMurphy lure [them] out of the fog” (150). McMurphy learns he’s committed to the hospital after talking to the lifeguard at the hospital’s pool and Chief sees he’s “finally getting cagey…the way Papa finally did when he came to realize that he couldn’t beat that group from town who wanted the government to put in the dam…” (174). Chief makes the parallel of his father’s battle against the government to retain the Native American way of life with McMurphy’s battle against Big Nurse to retain his way of life.

As we learn in Chief’s flashbacks, his tribe, lead by his father, was being offered a lot of money to sell land they’ve had for years and let the government put up a dam. Chief’s father refuses and tries to convince the men that keeping their way of life will be better than money, but ultimately fails. When he sees there isn’t anything he could do for himself in the hospital, McMurphy acts cagey for a while and doesn’t try anything the way he did when he first got on the ward. He soon breaks this brief calm by shattering the glass of the Nurse’s Station to grab his
cigarettes after she takes away the game room as punishment for the “rebellion” spurred by pretending to watch the World Series. Even though he knows the danger, McMurphy stops looking out for himself and starts doing things to give the men more confidence. One night, McMurphy gives Chief a stick of gum and, without thinking about being cagey, Chief thanks him. After Chief admits that McMurphy is “bigger” than he is, McMurphy makes a bet to make Chief confident again if Chief promises to lift the control panel in the tub room. The next morning, the morning of a fishing trip McMurphy set up for the Acutes, it’s revealed McMurphy overcharged for the trip and is making a profit off the them without their knowing.

Big Nurse uses this fact to her advantage and knowing that “people, sooner or later are going to draw back a ways from somebody who seems to be giving a little more than ordinary…and begin to wonder: What’s in it for them?” (261), Big Nurse begins to post the Acutes’ financial doings and pointing out that McMurphy’s been gaining since he came onto the ward. The men begin to lose faith in McMurphy and his recent humanitarian actions. Even Chief loses faith after McMurphy bets on his lifting of the control panel, making a sure bet on Chief and taking advantage of the Acutes’ ignorance. Even though faith is lost in McMurphy, he still takes his biggest gamble yet when he starts a fight with one of the attendants, which Chief joins in on, and gets sent up to Disturbed, where he and Chief are given EST. Chief, in a hallucinatory state after being electroshocked, sees himself in a dice “loaded to throw snake eyes and [Chief’s] the load…number six will always be down when he throws” (286). In Craps, “snake eyes” refers to two ones on the die, which is the lowest roll you can get and has been used to mean bad luck.

McMurphy is the “he” in the passage and every while bet he makes is futile with Big Nurse always winning in the end, he makes the bet because it’s both in his nature and he knows will help the Acutes (which basically includes Chief now) individual people. They’re the load that make McMurphy rattle up the rules and make Big Nurse take more extreme measure to “cure” him. After Chief wakes up from his post-electroshock state, he decides he’ll never submit to the fog again and begins talking with the other patients when he comes back to the ward. Eventually, McMurphy returns and throws a party with two whores from Portland to take away the virginity of Billy Bibbit, one of the least confident men on the ward. After Billy kills himself when the Nurse finds him, she notes that McMurphy was “playing with human lives–gambling with human lives–as if [he] though [himself] to be a God!” (318). McMurphy attacks her and is lobotomized, but gives all the men the confidence to be individuals in modern society or to take it upon themselves to move to another ward. Only Chief and a couple other Acutes stay on the ward, until Chief uses the control panel–the sure bet McMurphy had on him–and uses it to run away from the ward.

Gambling is used by McMurphy when he first comes on the ward, first as a way for him to both get money, then to make the patients confident individuals. By the end of the novel, Harding tells Big Nurse she’s “full of so much bullshit” (320), and almost everyone had the confidence to check out of the ward and go into society. Though McMurphy’s bets didn’t work out for old Number One, by the time he smashed the glass in the Nurse’s Station, he stopped caring about himself and started doing things to make Chief and the men, in Chief’s words, big. McMurphy shows them that taking the risk is better than playing it safe, even if there’s a load in the die. Despite what the end of the novel suggests on a surface level, McMurphy won the bet and almost every other bet he made in the novel. Those who make bets and take gambles may lose, but the risk is always worth the payoff.

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