The Endless Cycle--Structure

June 5, 2013
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James Mayer
Mrs. Lamontagne
English 11H
28 April 2013
The Endless Cycle—Structure

Societies, for as long as the ability to think and comprehend was prevalent, have had systems, frameworks, and certainties among them—they have had structure. These structures, I believe, with certainty, have not been impenetrable; have not escaped the world’s ever-changing hierarchies and the deconstruction that will be inevitably thrown upon them. Ken Kesey’s work, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, displays multiple correlations between power and structure, and the many aspects that are at work to deconstruct them. It is clear from the introduction of the novel that the psychiatric ward, where the story is set, is by no means exempt from the structuralism around which our world revolves. The leader of this bureaucracy, a woman by the last name of Ratched, often regarded as “Big Nurse,” along with her own staff and colleagues, uses ruthless psychological techniques to gain complete control over the “patients” that she is attempting to “rehabilitate.” When this absolute power is confronted by another just as maniacal and powerful as its own, the foundation begins to bleed, the cracks in the framework begin to show, and eventually, the structure crumbles…leaving new powers to lay down their own foundations and frameworks—to repeat the cycle.

This, like all other ideas and theories—such as post-structuralism—is of course not fact but a certain way of thinking; of believing that power is never absolute and can always be deconstructed and reincorporated in a new way. Many others may believe that this theory is false; when "deconstruction," as some may call it, occurs, it is not actually in fact deconstruction, but only a falter or low-point of the current structure's power or reign—this could relate to the enlightenment ideas in modernism. The final acts made by protagonist McMurphy near the finale of the novel are attempts to degrade the Big Nurse to a state where she no longer has total control of the ward, but rather is controlled by a democracy of the patients: "He grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined," and when the staff were "prying those heavy red fingers out of the white flesh of her throat as if they were her neck bones, jerking him backward off of her with a loud heave of breath, only then did he show any sign that he might be anything other than a sane, willful, dogged man performing a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not" (Kesey 267). This would obviously degrade and debilitate the Big Nurse's power and reign, but would it be permanent or only a temporary low?
The Big Nurse has one great advantage over any opposing factor: time. Her advantages she creates display a tactic that is has very close relationship to modernism: purpose, design, mastery, hierarchy, paranoia. She has the ability and patience to wait out this period of debilitation until she has repaired her psychology or the physical aspects of the ward. She has endless possibilities as to how she could relay her command upon the ward: she could have a "middle-man," so to speak, that was just as maniacal and deranged as she to act as a representative, to act out her wishes so her fears and weaknesses that McMurphy caused would not be available to be utilized; she could simply relocate all of her current patients, start on a "new slate," and begin the process that she had with her current patients all over again—to regain her hierarchy.
One other point that could be implemented against the final comeuppance of Big Nurse and the argument for postmodernism is that McMurphy was not really fighting the Big Nurse the whole time, but rather the entirety of “The Combine,” the control center that is the psychiatric system—the structure. As one literary critic stated, “The tragic conception, then, rests on McMurphy. Kesey is correct, in addition, to suggest that the conflict is between Mac and the Combine. The Big Nurse is a representative” (Boardman). In that case, it does not matter if Big Nurse is “defeated,” or even killed; the Combine could simply issue a new ward leader to control these patients with techniques of its own. This could be repeated several times until the desired result of the Combine was achieved.
So does all of this mean McMurphy's death was in vain? In one view, yes, it was. As Michael M. Boardman said,
All of the rhetoric of the book is designed to make plausible his final attack on the nurse, an act he cannot avoid, that will destroy him, and yet one that is out of character for the ‘cagey’ Mac. Like most tragic figures, Mac's physical destruction is not identical to his doom. His tragic fate is to become fatally dependent on the men, to act in a way that makes clear that he is under the control of their needs and desires.
His death could be seen as a tragic reminder of what could be done if one chooses to challenge the power of structure and modernism and be defeated. If the patients who remain or come after crack under the pressure of Big Nurse once again, all efforts seem to be at a loss, for she has once again retained control. But could his death and efforts be seen in another light, other than a tragedy?

One product that came out of McMurphy arriving, challenging, and physically and mentally damaging the Big Nurse was that her power and structure were never going to be the same. It is very possible that she could gain even more power from what has happened; incorporate more restrictions and policies to further aid her reign, but nonetheless, this new power will be different from what she has done in the past—a different structure—a repercussion of postmodernism. Her previous hierarchy was deconstructed, and a new one could be instituted. Even though she is still in power, the government of the ward will forever be different. With her mind damaged as much as it is, she is now a new “ruler”; she has to compensate for her weaknesses now, work around them to gain the advantages she had before—she has to rebuild: “She couldn’t rule with her old power any more, not by writing things on pieces of paper. She was losing her patients one after the other” (Kesey 269).

McMurphy used his masculinity to his advantage in breaking down the nurse’s power over the ward, partly by dissolving the nurse’s power over the patients by restoring their masculinity: “McMurphy just looks confused, like he don’t know how to take the outfit the black boy’s handing out to him, what with one hand holding the toothbrush and the other hand holding up the towel. He finally winks at the nurse and shrugs and unwraps the towel, drapes it over her shoulder like she was a wooden rack” (Kesey 90). A literary critic also supports this claim:
Randle Patrick McMurphy, the ostensible hero, romps and rants through the film, making shambles of the nurse's order and gaining the audience's implicit approval. We cheer jubilantly as our lusty protagonist pokes and prods the sexless nurse, inspiring one inmate, Chief Bromden, to assert his masculine prerogative and independence by breaking out of the asylum in the final scene. (Zubizarreta)
McMurphy uses a key concept to post-structuralism and postmodernism: discourse and anarchy. The nurse’s main power over the men of the ward was the “castration” that the nurse implemented upon them, as she does to Billy Bibbit: “’What worries me, Billy,’ she said—I could hear the change in her voice—‘is how your poor mother is going to take this’” (Kesey 264). This was regarding Billy having sex with a woman. She, however, seemed to have little effect on McMurphy: “As we will see, much of the illocutionary behavior of Nurse Ratched (e.g., accusations, threats, and warnings) is geared toward administering controlled doses of fear and guilt. To some extent, McMurphy seems to be immune to these intended perlocutionary effects” (Bernaerts). As history depicts, no one social or political power lasts forever. Sooner or later, an outside power will arrive, causing an internal conflict for power. McMurphy is this power.
Every system has cracks in the walls and foundation, no matter how secure and regulated it seems to be; they always have flaws, and people can always expose and manipulate these. In one case, Chief Bromden uses his “disability” as an excuse to escape the torture they inflict upon him:
Individual needs and desires were becoming less individual; government and corporate powers seemed to be either marginalizing these needs or making them conform to arbitrary moral standards about everything from race to sex to drugs and alcohol (Kesey himself was in and out of court and jail for over a year on the basis of a marijuana possession charge). Bromden's reaction is to withdraw from a society that wants control over him. He retains some sense of himself by pretending to be overcome by Nurse Ratched; this allows him to see and hear things that others do not. For example, he is permitted to clean the staff room during meetings because he is assumed to be deaf. (Currie)
For the longest time, it seems that Chief has been afraid to be himself or to show any emotion for the fear and damage that the nurse has imposed. McMurphy reinstalled his old desires and thought processes that resided deep in his mind from his life before the ward: “’By God, Chief,’ he said, ‘it appears to me you growed ten inches since that fishing trip. And lordamighty, look at the size of that foot of yours; big as a flatcar!’—I looked down and saw how my foot was bigger than I’d ever remembered it, like McMurphy’s just saying it had blowed it twice its size” (Kesey 225). McMurphy does this with many patients: he helps to cure the psychological damage that society and the nurse has put into them. He is breaking down the system from the inside out, instead of the outside in, even after his death:
The Armageddon between McMurphy, good, and Nurse Ratched, evil, results in the annihilation of the good and the triumph of the evil; however, McMurphy's cause is not lost. After him the inmates learn to stand up for their own rights and get a good distance away from the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, either by transferring themselves to other wards or leaving the hospital permanently. (Pashaee)
One factor cannot be escaped. The Big Nurse’s power is destined to break down no matter what, for she has time, but only so much. One day she will cease to live—she will die. How will her power and structure survive once she is dead? Sure, someone else could attempt to take her place and use her techniques, but can anyone compare to the nurse’s immense psychological instability to enact such measures? Possibly, but I find it unlikely. What is more likely to happen is some new power will consume the ward, creating a structural system of its own, maybe a more modern and reasonable one—maybe not. Either way, the nurse’s influence will be a small amount or totally gone once she is dead; she will become but only a terror of those whom she’s debilitated, tortured, and plagued with memories of pain—psychologically and physically.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great example of how power relates to structuralism and deconstruction. It supports the theory that systems, frameworks, definitions, and certainties break down; that structuralist systems are merely fictitious constructs and cannot be trusted to develop meaning or to give order to any system. Every current system is a product of a previously failed one, and this cycle will repeat for as long as life on Earth exists; for as long as there is structure; for as long as there is power.

Works Cited

, Lars. "Interactions in Cuckoo's Nest: Elements of a Narrative Speech-Act Analysis." Narrative 18.3 (Oct. 2010): 276-299. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Jelena Krstovic. Vol. 170. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2013.
Boardman, Michael M. "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rhetoric and Vision." Journal of Narrative Technique 9.3 (Fall 1979): 171-183. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 184. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2013.
Currie, Ian. "An overview of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2013.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: Viking, 1962. Print.
Pashaee, Roshanak. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: a chink in McMurphy's armor." Arcadia - International Journal for Literary Studies 46.1 (2011): 210+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2013.
Zubizarreta, John. "The Disparity of Point of View in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Literature/Film Quarterly 22.1 (1994): 62-69. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 184. Detroit: Gale, 2004.Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2013.

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