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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Summary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The part Native American narrator of the novel, Chief Bromden, has been a patient living in one of Oregon’s psychiatric facilities for nearly a decade. From the opening paragraph on it is evident that he is a paranoid man, one suffering from delusions and seeing things. The Chief’s outlook on the world around him is controlled by a deep rooted fear of something he refers to as ‘the Combine’, a mass collective that exercises control over society and forces mankind to conform. Chief Bromden often pretends that he is both deaf and dumb and, despite his six foot seven inch stature, endeavors to go through life unnoticed.

The male only facility consists of two distinct patient classification systems;

  • Acutes, the patients who can potentially who can be cured of their symptoms. And,
  • Chronics, the ones who cannot be cured of their symptoms.

Nurse Ratched, a hard-edged ex-Army nurse, runs the hospital with prison-like rule and order. Daily, at the scheduled group meetings, she encourages Acute patients to turn on each other, using the vulnerabilities of their peers to their benefit. The patients who refuse to follow her rule are from time to time subjected to electroshock treatment performed with electroshock therapy machine.

Some of these poor creatures have even been lobotomized. This is the tactics that Ratched continues to deploy, despite it being considered outdated and inhumane by thought leaders in the medical community.

When a man by the name of Randle McMurphy arrives to the hospital, after being transferred from Pendleton Work Farm, the Chief recognizes that he has something special, unusual about his personality, something unlike the others. McMurphy slyly enters the ward and introduces himself to the others as a gambler with a fierce popularity with the ladies.

Shortly after attending his first group meeting, McMurphy coyly states to the other patients that Nurse Ratched is a ‘ball-cutter.’ They tell him that there is absolutely no crossing her, and insist that she is in complete control at all times. A betting man, McMurphy claims that he can make the Nurse lose her temper within the week.

Initially, the interactions between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched prove to be highly entertaining for the other patients. However, McMurphy’s defiance soon encourages them all to begin to rebel. McMurphy’s bet lies with a lost vote to watch the World Series on television, as it airs during chore time.

To express his protest, McMurphy sits in front of the blank television instead of completing his delegated chore tasks. Slowly, other patients begin to join him. This angers Nurse Ratched and she yells at the men. The Chief states with certainty that anyone looking on from the outside would surely think they’ve all gone mad – including Ratched.

In Part II, McMurphy boastfully taunts Nurse Ratched and her staff. As the others look on, they anticipate his being sent to the ward for the Disturbed. However, this never happens. Nurse Ratched keeps in with the others hoping that they will soon view him as cowardly. McMurphy soon realizes that patients who have been sent to the hospital involuntarily must remain there until the staff determine that they’ve been cured of their afflictions.

This means that McMurphy is at the complete mercy of Nurse Ratched and must appease her if he ever intends to leave. Unfortunately for him, however, the other patients have begun to view him as their leader and are dismayed when he stops standing up for them.  Patient Cheswick, depressed that McMurphy is not joining him in his fight against Ratched, drowns himself in the pool.

His death proves to McMurphy that he has unknowingly shouldered the burdens of rehabilitating his fellow patients. He also begins to bear witness to the heinous truth of electroshock therapy and is horror-struck by the ramped abuse of power by the facility’s staff. Feeling pressured by the obligation he now has to the others, and fearing for his own life, McMurphy begins to crack.

Nevertheless, in Part III, he arranges for himself and ten others to go on a fishing trip. He hopes to teach them how to defuse the unfriendliness of the world outside of the hospital and teaches them to be manly as they catch fish without help. Later in the novel, he arranges for Billy Bibbit to lose his virginity to prostitute Candy Starr.

Back in the hospital, in Part IV, McMurphy rebels again. This time he gets involved into a physical fight with the aides in a bid to defend George Sorenson. The Chief steps in to help him and the pair are both sent to electroshock therapy. McMurphy does his best to pretend as though the shock therapy has no effect on him, causing his reputation as a hero to flourish.

Nurse Ratched wants the others to see him as weak and feeble so she parades him around in his post shock state. The patients plead with him to escape, but he has made plans for Billy that evening and refuses to let him down. McMurphy bribes the night aide, Mr. Turkle, to sneak Candy and another girl into the ward and the men party. Harding pleads McMurphy to escape with the girls, running away to Mexico. However, drunk and stoned on marijuana, McMurphy passes out.

The next morning, the nurse’s aides discover the mess the men have left, and violence ensues. When Ratched discovers Candy and Billy, she threatens to inform Billy’s mother. Billy lives in fear of his mother, and he gets extremely shocked afraid and ashamed. This causes Billy to fall into a fit of hysterics, and he slashes his own throat, bleeding out and dying before he gets help. Angered by the loss of his friend, McMurphy attacks the Nurse, tearing open the front of her dress and trying to strangle her. She gets revenge on him by having him lobotomized. McMurphy is catatonic when he is returned to the ward.

Despite this, Nurse Ratched is no longer able to control the ward as the patients begin to either check themselves out or transfer to other wards. Not wanting his friend to suffer any longer, Chief Bromden puts a pillow over McMurphy’s face and suffocates him, allowing him to die with a trace of dignity instead of living out his life as a reminder of Nurse Ratched’s power. Feeling a sense of renewed strength, Chief then escapes through a broken window.

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The Main Characters

Chief Bromden:  Chief Bromden is the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is stated that he is the half-bred son of the Chief of the Columbia Indians. He suffers from hallucinations and intense paranoia; ailments that he has received many electroshock therapy treatments for. He has resided in the hospital for over a decade – far longer than any of the other patients.

Bromden has a tainted view of modern society, believing it to be oppressive and ruled by a collective that he refers to as the Combine. He believes that the Combine sends those who refuse to conform to the mental hospital in order to be reprogramed or beaten until they break. The Chief tells the saga of the mental hospital while strengthening his cognitive abilities and rediscovering himself.

Early on, Chief Bromden receives the nickname “Chief Broom” because he is always instructed to sweep the halls of the facility. He sees himself as being weak, a belief that is likely exaggerated due in part to his constant hallucinations and desire to shield himself from reality. Towards the end of the novel, his perception of himself changes and he discovers the strength to not only defend his friends, but also to stand up for himself.

Randle McMurphy: Randle is regarded as the protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is a large man, with a fondness for card games and boxing. He is covered in tattoos and as a scar across his nose. Previously. McMurphy was sentenced to six months of hard labour at a prison work farm, however, after receiving a diagnoses as a psychopath – for too much fighting and fornication – he was sent to the hospital. He did not contest this transfer, believing that a hospital stay would be much more relaxed than the prison.

McMurphy serves as the unlikely hero in the story, he is the dominating force that challenges the establishment and stands up for those who are victimized. He is representative of freedom, sexuality and determination; all dominant characteristics that contrast those of the patients around him. As the Chief later speculates, McMurphy is not insane, but rather attempting to manipulate the system to his advantage. Later on, McMurphy clearly shows remorse for having believed that the hospital would be a better place for him than the prison farm. He has seen the true power that Nurse Ratched holds over the infirmed and knows that he cannot leave until she says so.

Nurse Ratched: Nurse Ratched is not only the head of the ward, but also one of the most hated villains in all of popular culture. She is the main antagonist of the novel, and a former army nurse. She rules over the mental ward with an iron fist and shows no sign of femininity or humanity. She is stiff, patronizing and mean. Ratched chooses her staff based on how easily they will submit to her commands, furthermore, she degrades her patients by deploying psychologically manipulative tactics engineered to destroy them from the inside out. It is her objective to leach the humanity from the patients left in her charge.

Dale Harding: Dale is an educated man, and the president of the Patient’s Council. Under his guidance, McMurphy learns the reality of life at the hospital. Despite having married a woman, Harding is openly homosexual. He exhibits tremendous difficulty dealing with the outside world’s damning views on homosexuality and commits himself to the hospital in order to hide. His rehabilitation and re-emergence of his sense of self worth are indicative of the success of McMurphy’s fight against Ratched and the establishment. Harding checking himself out of the hospital opens the flood gates for other cured patients and encourages them to leave.

Billy Bibbit: Billy is meek and shy. He has a horrible stutter and appears to be drastically younger than his age. Billy Bibbit has spent his entire life under the pressure of his domineering mother – a close personal friend of Nurse Ratched. Billy checked himself into the hospital voluntarily as he was unable to cope with the world or the people living in it. Despite being able to leave at will, Billy commits suicide after Nurse Ratched threatens to out his behaviour with a prostitute to his mother.

Doctor Spivey: Doctor Spivey is mild mannered, and has an addiction to opiates. The Nurse uses this to her advantage, choosing him to be the doctor on her ward because she knows that he can easily be controlled. However, after McMurphy’s arrival, the Doctor, like the others, begins to stand up for himself. He is often seen supporting McMurphy’s ideas.

Charles Cheswick: Charles was the first patient to show his approval and support for McMurphy’s revolt against Nurse Ratched and her militant regime. Cheswick proves to be a man who talks more than he acts, and later drowns himself when McMurphy does not stand with him when Cheswick finally gains the inner strength to stand up to Nurse Ratched. It is his death that awakens the fight in McMurphy and forces him to recognize that conformity is not the answer.

Candy Starr: Candy is a gorgeous, young and vibrant prostitute. She joins McMurphy and the other men on a fishing trip, and then comes back to the hospital for a late night party.

George Sorenson: Nicknamed ‘Rub-a-Dub George’ due to his extreme fear of dirt, George is a large man and a former seaman. He is recruited by McMurphy to be the captain of their fishing trip. McMurphy comes to George’s defense one day and is sent for electroshock therapy.

Pete Bancini: Pete is one of the patients, because ehe suffered severe brain damage during birth. Pete is constantly telling the other patients and the staff that he is tired, and at one point in the novel remarks that he was born dead.


Woman as Evil Tormentors: The exception being Candy and Sandy, the prostitutes, the other females in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are regarded as uniformly menacing and chilling beasts. Chief Bromden, the novel’s narrator, and McMurphy, the protagonist, are often heard referring to the suffering endured by the mental patients as being akin to emasculation or castration at the hands of Nurse Ratched and the female supervisor of the hospital. The profound fear of women is a central feature of the book. All of the male characters of the novel appear to be in agreeance with Harding, who states, “We are victims of a matriarchy here.”

More specifically, many of the patients in the all-male mental hospital have had their sense of self worth destroyed by domineering females. For example, the mother of Chief Bromden is described as being a castrating woman; so much so that her husband adopted her last name and she transformed a strong leader into a weak and crumbling alcoholic.

In the opinion of Bromden, his mother excelled herself emotionally, building herself up as she put them down, similar to how Billy Bibbit’s mother treats him like a child and refuses to allow him to mature sexually. Through his sexual encounter with Candy, the prostitute, Billy is able to briefly gain confidence and self worth. This is symbolic of him finding his manhood, until Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother and drives him to kill himself.

Several more explicit references to castration are made in the novel, further reinforcing the author’s idea the symbolic “castration” of the male patients performed by Nurse Ratched. When Rawler, a patient confined to the Disturbed ward, kills himself by cutting off his own testicles, the Chief states that ‘all the guy had to do was wait’ suggesting that the facility would have castrated him eventually. The mental hospital, run entirely by females, treats only male patients, signifying that women have the underlying ability to rob even the strongest men of their masculinity.

Towards the end of the novel, after having received three shock treatments, Nurse Ratched suggests that McMurphy should have ‘an operation.’ She is referring to a lobotomy, but McMurphy beats her to the punchline by asking if they are to castrate him. Both a lobotomy and a castration have the potential to strip a man of his freedom, individuality and ability for sexual expression.

The Destruction of Impulses in Society

In his novel, Kesey calls upon mechanical imagery to represent a modernized world and biological imagery to represent nature. Through the use of mechanisms and machinery, society is able to control and overpower natural impulses. The hospital, largely representative of society as a whole, is entirely unnatural. Nurse Ratched and her aides are often describe as robotic and mechanical.

In a dream, Chief Bromden sees his fellow patient Blastic disembowelled. Only rust spills, not blood, further supporting his belief that the hospital has taken the life and the humanity from him. Bromden affirms that the institution treats those in its care unnaturally.


The Fog Machine

As part of his delusion, Bromden regularly sees a haze of fog. Fog is a natural phenomenon that clouds the way the world is seen, and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fog is used to symbolize lack of awareness and to offer an escape from reality. As Bromden slips further and further into his delusions, the fog gets thicker. He begins to believe that there are fog machines hidden in the vents of the ward and the staff are using them as a method of mind control.

Even though the fog can be considered to be frightening at times, he starts to see it as a safety net – it enables him to hide in plain sight. Outside of the obvious meaning of the fog for Bromden, it represents the state of mind that Nurse Ratched forces upon her patients, with her strict routine and demeaning treatment.

McMurphy’s Boxers

The boxer shorts worn by McMurphy are black satin and patterned with white whales and red eyes. He states that they were given to him by a literature major, claiming that he is a symbol himself. The shorts are richly symbolic. The white whale represents Moby Dick, one of the strongest symbols in American literature.

A common belief is that the whale is a phallic symbol, which suggests that McMurphy has strong sexuality. Moby Dick is also representative of pure evil, inspiring Ahab’s obsession. In the novel, McMurphy is to Nurse Ratched as the Whale was to the Captain.

The Electroshock Therapy Table

The table used for electroshock therapy is loosely associated with crucifixion. It is described as being shaped like a cross, with straps across the head and the wrists. Furthermore, the table acts similarly to the public crucifixions of the Roman era. The Acutes who were destroyed by electroshock therapy act as examples of what will happen to anyone who attempts to rebel against the ruler of the institution. One patient even comments that he has been nailed to the wall.


Famous Quote: “Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn’t it?”

In this quote, Dale Harding states that a man who seems insane to other people might frighten them and manipulate them because they fear him.

“I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen”

Spoken by Chief Bromden in Part I. This passage provides the audience with a brief look into the delusions and paranoia the man is afflicted with. From this, we gather that it is not likely that he views the world as an average, every day person would. He asks the audience to consider the validity of his words with an open mind, even if they appear to be outlandish or impossible.

In Popular Culture – the Play and the Movie

The popular book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was eventually adapted into a Broadway play.

In 1975, the book was turned into a movie of the same name. Directed by Milos Forman, it starred Jack Nicolson and supporting cast Louise Fletcher, William Redford, Will Sampson and Brad Dourif.

Touted as being one of the greatest films of all time, it is the second movie to have ever won all five major academy awards.

Key Facts

Complete Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Written By: Ken Kesey

Type of Publication: Novel

Genre: Allegorical novel; Protest

Original Language: English

Time Written: 1950’s; Stanford University

Date of Initial Publication: 1962

Narrated by: Chief Bromden (aka Chief Broom) who retells the tale of his experiences after having escaped from the mental ward.

Point of View: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the first person view of Chief Bromden. He tells the story as he recalls is, however, given his history has a mental patient, his objectivity is somewhat compromised.

Time and Setting: 1950’s, a mental hospital in Oregon.

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