Randle McMurphy—big, loud, sexual, dirty, and confident—is an obvious foil for the quiet and repressed Bromden and the sterile and mechanical Nurse Ratched. His loud, free laughter stuns the other patients, who have grown accustomed to repressed emotions. Throughout the entire moment of his introduction, not a single voice rises to meet his.
McMurphy represents sexuality, freedom, and self-determination—characteristics that clash with the oppressed ward, which is controlled by Nurse Ratched. Through Chief Bromden’s narration, the novel establishes that McMurphy is not, in fact, crazy, but rather that he is trying to manipulate the system to his advantage. His belief that the hospital would be more comfortable than the Pendleton Work Farm, where he was serving a six-month sentence, haunts McMurphy later when he discovers the power Nurse Ratched wields over him—that she can send him for electroshock treatments and keep him committed as long as she likes. McMurphy’s sanity contrasts with what Kesey implies is an insane institution.
Whether insane or not, the hospital is undeniably in control of the fates of its patients. McMurphy’s fate as the noncomforming insurrectionist is foreshadowed by the fate of Maxwell Taber, a former patient who was also, according to Nurse Ratched, a manipulator. Taber was subjected to electroshock treatments and possibly brain work, which leaves him docile and unable to think. When Ratched equates McMurphy with Taber, we get an inkling of McMurphy’s prospects. McMurphy’s trajectory through the novel is the opposite of Bromden’s: he starts out sane and powerful but ends up a helpless vegetable, having sacrificed himself for the benefit of all the patients.
McMurphy’s self-sacrifice on behalf of his ward-mates echoes Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross to redeem humankind. McMurphy’s actions frequently parallel Christ’s actions in the Gospels. McMurphy undergoes a kind of baptism upon entering the ward, and he slowly gathers disciples around him as he increases his rebellion against Ratched. When he takes the group of patients fishing, he is like Christ leading his twelve disciples to the sea to test their faith. Finally, McMurphy’s ultimate sacrifice, his attack on Ratched, combined with the symbolism of the cross-shaped electroshock table and McMurphy’s request for “a crown of thorns,” cements the image of the Christ-like martyrdom that McMurphy has achieved by sacrificing his freedom and sanity.