How does Kesey present McMurphy’s growing influence on the ward and hint at the novel’s conclusion in the passage ‘the vote is closed’…’crazy as loons’ (p162-5)? This passage focuses on McMurphy obtaining the deciding vote from the Chief on watching the ‘ball game’ and then the patients watching the ‘blanked out TV’. It is crucial in the plot of the novel because it shows the first successful communal resistance against the nurse, but is also, I think, one of the more subtly written sections of the book.We can start to gauge Mac’s growing influence by looking at the Chief’s reaction to him. Bromden first comes into the passage as McMurphy tries to gain the last vote. The Chief’s hand is described initially as moving inexorably on ‘hidden wires’.
This is highly reminiscent of his description of the Combine – e.g. machines ‘hidden in the walls’ – and hints, I think, at a truth the Chief is unwilling to admit (shown by the retraction of his statement:’No, that’s not the truth.’): that Mac’s growing influence seems very much like that which the Nurse (previously the controller of the ‘hidden’ machines in the wall) has lost. McMurphy appears to be turning into his nemesis.
I think that this shows, through the Chief’s inherent aversion to authority, just how much Mac has. Very interestingly, Bromden describes McMurphy as ‘standing over me in the mist’. This cannot be in a physical way, since the Chief is exceptionally tall, but relates, I think, to the way the Chief describes size as a product of authority (his father ‘shrunk’ as his mother ‘grew’ when their village was sold). Kesey shows us Mac’s influence even through the nuances of the Chief’s narrative.McMurphy’s influence on the other patients forms the greatest part of this passage.
He is described as ‘reach’ing and ‘grab’bing through the mist for them. These are both active verbs, showing his move towards the patients and the basis for his influence being treating the individual as something intrinsically worthwhile. At the same time ‘grab’ suggests an element of desperation and violence, showing that Mac’s influence is unstable and has a definite degree of force in it, albeit in a benevolent, charismatic, and well-meaning way. However we also see (indeed we just witnessed in the preceding passage) just how he already demands the respect of those patients who can vote and understand him, and it might well be the frustration of not being understood that makes him angry.McMurphy’s influence on the Nurse, the diminished power, is the greatest indicator of his new-found influence. Kesey uses several comparisons between Mac and the Nurse to show McMurphy’s growing power.
These are particularly well placed to show the continuance of a power transfer between the ‘Bull Goose Loonies’. For example, Mac is described as ‘getting bigger and bigger and getting red in the face’, reminiscent of the Nurse in the opening passage of the novel.The Nurse’s speech is particularly interesting. The progression of her vocabulary is one of assurance to desperation, moving from ‘The vote is closed’ to ‘the voting is closed’ to ‘the meeting was closed’ – a flurry of semantics to enforce her rule by changing what she meant. ‘The meeting was closed’ of course contains an implicit admission of defeat, and shows that McMurphy has turned even her own meeting against her.
Her speech at the miscreants is similarly characterised by desperation: the flummoxed pauses (‘…’), the resorting to her position rather than her native wit (‘jurisdiction and control’) and finally abandoning reason altogether, using the imperative ‘you men – Stop this’, showing also her failure to appreciate the group dynamics by addressing them as a collective, not as the individuals she was so adept at breaking down. Kesey stops reporting her speech after this by referring to her ‘hollering and squealing’.
Such words remind us of pigs and could be seen to dehumanise the Nurse, but I would suggest they do something else; that in getting angry, getting overridden by an emotion, the Nurse does in fact show herself to be more human, less mechanic. We see her as a little closer to her patients (‘the whole bunch of us were as crazy as loons’), and so the Combine she represents is again shown to be an essentially unthinking social force which McMurphy subdues by simply ignoring it. The Nurse’s representation of the Combine can be taken further – ‘she’s holding up a fist, all those red-orange fingernails burning into her palm’ could be taken as a metaphor showing the key way McMurphy takes power from the Nurse.McMurphy is quintessentially red. His hair is constantly referred to as such, and it is a colour he associates himself with particularly in this passage (e.g. ‘I need me a .
.. red hot’).
As such he is represented by the Nurse’s fingernails. The clenched fist shows that as the Combine oppresses him, he is driven deeper and more damagingly into it, simply by being what he is. This reinforces McMurphy’s basically physical nature. During the second part of this passage, Mac doesn’t say more than a dozen words, whilst the Nurse launches into a monologue on what (ironically) he should be doing. McMurphy’s resistance is honed finely into an area he can win in; in just the same way as the Nurse used her meetings as a place to hammer home her authority.
McMurphy has created a new assembly, and interestingly the two share certain features.We are told earlier that in the Nurse’s meetings the patients are tripping over each other to participate (to their cost) in the process. We can see the same thing here: ‘Then Cheswick goes and gets him a chair, and then Billy Bibbit goes, and then Scanlon and then Frederickson and Sefelt’. The clauses are very cleverly shortened here – first ‘and gets him a chair’ is removed, then ‘goes’, finally even ‘then’ is taken away, leaving everyone to come at once. McMurphy’s influence is seen as stronger than the Nurse’s now though because he needn’t even give the prompt of the book and doesn’t abuse the power he has to humiliate his fellow patients.Yet even at this point, the zenith of McMurphy’s power, there are hints at his downfall, his conclusion. The most obvious, of course, is not being able to watch the game.
In this we see a victory, but only because of its failure. In the same way McMurphy’s death frees the patients, but at the cost of his own freedom, and just as it was the switching off of the TV that rallied the troops, so it was McMurphy’s death, not life, that finally galvanised them into action. The Nurse also gives him a ‘warning’, but this is not really very sinister until she gets her act together in the next part of the novel. This passage is, I believe, one of the best in the book.
It works on a highly symbolic level and is pivotal in McMurphy’s political advances against the Combine.