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Aragorn Louis most probably perfectly captured the relationship between McMurphy and Ratched in saying, “Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.” In relation, if McMurphy is the light, and Ratched the dark, then we see that we can understand both only in relation to one another. In a sense, what makes these two characters so great, so appealing to the readers is the fact that they are taken in context with one another. Neither McMurphy nor Ratched on their own portray the message that Kesey wants to send-but together they do so perfectly.
McMurphy’s philosophy of life is contingent upon sexuality, freedom, and determining his own fate. In a sense-he serves as the foil and true antithesis of Nurse Ratched and her personality. One of the major clashes that occurs with Nurse Ratched happens in their confrontation after his shower and when he has his bath robe on. In first arriving at the hospital, he never received a uniform, and so when Ratched tells him to take off his robe-we see a moment of tenseness as Ratched thinks he is going to strip nude. This poses a setback for Ratched because of her sexual repression. She’s always shied away from the sexual aspects of life. She’s felt that her breasts were too large and that they made her too womanly. A former Army nurse, Ratched represents the Combine-the mechanization and automation of society. She represents all that is and should be perfect. Her uniform is always neat and kept properly. Her glass is perfectly clear. But in this, McMurphy’s sexuality finds a hitting point. Sexuality involves passion, grace, lust, and love. Ratched’s automation is the opposite-it is monotony. Here we see a major conflict that lasts throughout the novel. The final showing of this lies in McMurphy’s ripping of Ratched’s shirt. In exposing her and ruining her perfect uniform, he wins the ultimate battle. She has been violated beyond what she could control sexually, and she has lost control she’ll never be able to regain.
But in some sense, the two can never coexist because they are so much alike. Both have an egotistical and controlling personality. Nurse Ratched walks into the room ‘with a gust of cold’ and from then on all we see is her complete automation and control of the ward. Even in her manner of speech we see her level of control. For example when people speak out in the meetings she does not ask them to wait their turn or be quiet but instead tells them to do so. Just in these subtle maneuvers she has maintains a hold on them. The members of the ward feel as if they need Nurse Ratched to make decisions for them, despite their constant complaining about how they hate it there. McMurphy cannot coincide with Ratched exactly because of this reasoning-he cannot stand to be controlled by another. McMurphy has a naturally domineering personality. He values freedom and self-determination above all, and Ratched finds power in taking that away from the patients.
Throughout the novel, we see a slow progression in the shift of power from Ratched to McMurphy. Because of the nature of McMurphy’s actions, he is able to rouse the patients into what he wants done. He convinces them that they are ‘no crazier than the average asshole on the street’ and in doing so empowers them. But no matter how they feel, they do not act until McMurphy makes the first move, and psychologically this makes McMurphy an enabler. He allows others to express their true selves. But like Ratched, McMurphy wants to control the fates of the patients. Whose method is right in trying to improve the lives of the patients is for the reader to decide. Is Ratched trying to do what’s best for her patients-or is she just feeding her ego by taking control? Is McMurphy really trying to better the lives of the patients-or is he just trying to get out and boost his ego? In the end, it appears that McMurphy wins. Yes, Ratched’s shirt does get torn and she does get her retaliation, but McMurphy will be a part of the patients’ lives forever. He serves as a martyr for their cause and they will never forget him.
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