One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest features many allusions and references to Christian religion. Most obvious is McMurphy's martyrdom at the novel's climax. But this incident is foreshadowed throughout the novel with a series of direct references to events recounted in the New Testament.
While McMurphy's actions and attitudes are at first glance more Dionysian than Christian in that he emphasizes gambling, womanizing, and drinking over spirituality, his messianic qualities are apparent from his initial entrance into the ward. His laughter — representative of the human spirit — is contrasted with the snickers the patients hide with their hands and the disingenuous laugh of the Public Relations man. The machinations of the Combine trap their spirit. McMurphy's laughter, however, is described by Chief Bromden as "free and loud and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it's lapping against the walls all over the ward
. This sounds real. I realize it's the first laugh I've heard in years."
Later, Chief describes McMurphy's laughter during the fishing excursion: "Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water — laughing at the girl, at the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier and the bicycle rider and the service-station guys and the five thousand houses and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. He knows there's a painful side; he knows my thumb smarts and his girl friend has a bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won't let the pain blot out the humor no more'n he'll let the humor blot out the pain."
In the comic-book universe created by Kesey, life is polarized between pain and laughter, much like the Christian faith teaches that life is either sin or salvation. But as the Christian faith preaches that all humans are sinners capable of salvation, McMurphy instructs his disciples that life's miseries are redeemed through laughter, which is depicted as the ultimate rebellion.
The first blatant reference to Jesus Christ occurs when Chief introduces the Chronic patient Ellis. The recipient of many electroshock treatments, Ellis adopts a pose of crucifixion by spreading his arms against the wall, reflecting the shape of the electroshock table and directly alluding to Christ nailed to the cross. Chief reemphasizes this posture when he relates Harding's explanation of electroshock to McMurphy: "You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns."
Later in the book, Ellis mimics Christ's instruction to his disciples when he tells Bibbit before leaving to fish to be a "fisher of men" — a phrase preceding the conversion from other religions to Christianity. It is perhaps a coincidence that Ellis's name is the phonetic spelling of the first two letters of the acronym for lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a synthetic psychotropic drug that sometimes results in religious delusions in those who ingest it. As noted previously, Kesey was among the civilian population that the U.S. government used for its human experiments of the drug.
The number of men accompanying McMurphy on the fishing excursion is twelve, just like the number of Christ's disciples. The bravado displayed by the patients following the gas station incident is revealed by Chief to be a bluff, much like the actions of Christ's disciples prior to his crucifixion. During the actual fishing, however, the patients embrace their identities while McMurphy retreats into the background. This sequence serves as a Pentecost of sorts as the patients finally embrace the spirit of McMurphy much like the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit following Christ's crucifixion. When the boat is lacking enough life jackets for everyone, McMurphy takes one for himself to allow the patients most in need of asserting their own individuality to go without.
Christ's sabbatical in the desert and triumphant return are reflected in McMurphy's period of playing it safe and toeing the line to appease Nurse Ratched. When McMurphy returns to his old self, he forces his hand through the window of the nurses' station, which can be taken either as a metaphor of Christ's clearing the merchants from the temple or his last vestige of human glory when he returns to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Christ's trial and punishment is echoed when McMurphy and Chief are removed to the Disturbed Ward where a patient repeats the words of Christ's reluctant adjudicator, Pontius Pilate: "I wash my hands
." McMurphy lies down arms outspread on the table and refers to the administration of electroshock conductant as the anointing of his head with "a crown of thorns."
Any retelling of the New Testament Gospels, however, would not be complete without the inclusion of the Last Supper, a betrayal by a loyal follower, and death and resurrection. The party held in the ward resembles Christ's Last Supper complete with transubstantiated wine — a narcotic cough syrup spiked with vodka — and the Mary Magdalene-like presence of the two prostitutes Candy and Sandy. Bibbit's betrayal does not lie so much in his attempts to lay the blame for his sexual interlude with Candy on McMurphy as it does with his subsequent suicide. Judas committed suicide after betraying Christ to the Roman soldiers. Bibbit, on the other hand, betrays McMurphy by abandoning the spirit of rebellion and self-realization by killing himself out of fear of his mother's rapprochement.
Realizing that his efforts will be forgotten if he simply escapes after Bibbit's suicide, McMurphy attacks Ratched. This final, violent act — out of character with Christianity — is the sacrifice McMurphy makes to guarantee his martyrdom. Ratched cruelly lobotomizes him, relinquishing him of his very identity. Realizing this, Chief suffocates him, escapes, and lives to relate his gospel of the life and works of McMurphy.
As noted by critic Gary Carey, however, the parallels between Christ and McMurphy "should not be pushed too far," noting that their respective martyrdoms "have quite different meanings." While Christ died to redeem the sins of the individual, writes Carey, McMurphy's death is to save the patients from the sins society perpetrates against them.
Like the superheroes in comic books, McMurphy differs from Christ in that he weakens as his followers grow stronger. Indeed, McMurphy adopts the language of the B-movie cowboy or comic-book hero rather than a religious or even spiritual leader.