Randle Patrick McMurphy is a red-haired, wild American of Irish descent. He unself-consciously engages in brawling, gambling, chicanery, and exercising his carnal nature. His primitive inclinations mark him as an iconoclast in a world that increasingly values conformity. His anti-authoritarian attitude has already caused him a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Marines, a punishment subsequent to his leading a successful escape from a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War.
McMurphy is interred at the hospital for "diagnosis and possible treatment," reads Nurse Ratched, who continues: "Thirty-five years old. Never married. Distinguished Service Cross in Korea, for leading an escape from a Communist prison camp. A dishonorable discharge, afterward, for insubordination. Followed by a history of street brawls and barroom fights and a series of arrests for Drunkenness, Assault and Battery, Disturbing the Peace, repeated gambling, and one arrest — for Rape."
It is perhaps part of McMurphy's innate nature that he does not adhere to social strictures. It is also reasonable to assert that his imprisonment during the Korean conflict deeply impacted his distrust of authority. The fact that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading an escape serves as a foreshadowing of events later in the novel, but could also serve to create a more complete understanding of his character's motivations.
Although not foreign to hard physical labor, McMurphy chafes at his assignment to a prison work farm and looks forward to his confinement to a mental hospital as a pleasant way to spend the rest of his sentence for brawling. The violence of fighting is as natural an activity for men in a natural state as is the desire for sexual relations. McMurphy's run-ins with the law for statutory rape he declares preposterous, as his fifteen-year-old female "victim" lied about her age and initiated the sexual interlude.
Upon his arrival at the hospital, McMurphy encounters Dale Harding, identified as the "bull-goose loony." The interaction between the two presents an interesting contrast between the salt-of-the-earth, everyman philosophy of McMurphy and the more intellectualized, academic, and effete point-of-view of Harding. Harding's abstract arguments in defense of Ratched are easily defeated by McMurphy's empirical observations of her manipulations of the men in the ward.
McMurphy observes that Ratched's tactics are intended more to ensure her authority than benefit the patients, and that the most glaring example of this tactic is using the men to spy and report on each other. The other men realize that McMurphy is correct, and begin to dedicate their admiration and allegiance to him. When McMurphy restrains from questioning Ratched in an attempt to appease her and thus expedite his release, the men, particularly Cheswick, see it as a betrayal. Cheswick's subsequent suicide and McMurphy's introduction to the castrating wife of Harding serve to convince McMurphy that he is the leader, albeit reluctant, of another escape. This escape is not from a Communist POW camp, however. McMurphy must assist the men that need to escape the conforming attitudes and restrictions that society is imposing on them.
McMurphy increasingly becomes identified with Christ, from the crucifixion on the electroshock therapy table preceded by the patient "washing his hands of the whole affair" to the echoes of the Last Supper when Billy Bibbit engages in sexual relations with Candy Starr. Like Christ, McMurphy sacrifices himself for the benefit of the group, and in doing so, he loses his free will. Chief makes it clear that McMurphy is not acting on his own when he brutally attacks Ratched, but in accordance with the wills of the other patients.
The continued references to McMurphy's tired appearance also point up the effects of his sacrifices for the patients. Harding explains to McMurphy that he has helped them regain their sanity at the risk of losing his own. McMurphy has ceased to be himself and is being forced to be what the others think he is. They can recognize themselves only through him, and he must continue to give them something to emulate.
The name Randle Patrick McMurphy forms the acronym "RPM," which is also the acronym for "Revolutions Per Minute" — the measurement for the speed at which a phonograph record is played. Like the phonograph record, McMurphy is a whirling dervish; yet a man also being "played" by the Combine, destined to spin around and around without ever reaching a worthwhile destination.