“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a novel written in 1962 by the author Ken Kesey. Kesey wrote the novel while working as an orderly in a psychiatric ward and participating in experimental LSD trails. The novel was a huge success and has since been adapted into a Broadway play in 1963 and a feature film in 1975. The film starred Jack Nicholson as the main protagonist, Randle McMurphy and went on to win 5 Academy Awards. It is still regarded as a classic film today.
The plot of the novel is narrated by a patient in a psychiatric ward, a large Native American man named Chief Bromden. Bromden suffers from hallucinations and is often employed to clean up the ward. The staff and the rest of the patients mistakenly believe that he is deaf and dumb.
One day, a new patient named McMurphy is admitted into the ward. McMurphy immediately clashes with the wards head nurse, the strict and cruel Nurse Ratched. After a daring escape attempt, McMurphy is caught and given electroshock treatment and a lobotomy. He is put into a vegetative state and Bromden smothers him in his bed to put him out of his misery. After this, Bromden escapes the ward and heads north to Canada.
A patient named Chief Bromden handles the narration of the novel. Bromden is a mute, Native American man who has been a patient in a psychiatric ward for many years. As a long-term patient who regularly exhibits good behavior, he is allowed to mop the floors. Most of the residents and workers in the ward assume that Bromden is deaf and dumb and mock him calling him “Chief Broom”.
Nurse Ratched enters. She is an imposing woman whom Bromden considers mechanical and ruthless. She orders some workers to shave Bromden. He protests and attempts to hide but is ultimately found and forcibly medicated. While he is being shaved he begins to hallucinate that he is surrounded by fog being made by machines until he finally loses consciousness.
Bromden awakens in the sunny day room. He is relieved to note that he has not been brought to the “Shock Shop” or the room where the patients are given electroshock therapy. As he wakes he sees a new patient being brought in for admission. The patient, a man named Randall McMurphy is a loud, boisterous Irishman who tells the other patients that he is a gambler and brings out a pack of cards from his pocket. Nurse Ratched orders that he be showered but McMurphy brushes her off, saying that he has already had to be showered for the courthouse and the jail and he’s as clean as can be. McMurphy brags to the others that he is a psychopath but Bromden feels that he gives off an air of lucidity.
In the ward, the younger, newer patients are referred to by the doctors as “acutes” because they are observed to have mental conditions that are more temporary and aren’t expected to be in the ward long. The longer term patients are called “chronics”. They are not expected to recover and rejoin society. Among the chronics are “walkers”, like Bromden who are able to move around the ward and “vegetables” who are confined to their beds. Many of the vegetables were mentally crippled by extreme usage of shock therapy. McMurphy asks the acutes, glibly who their leader is. That is, who they feel is the most mentally ill. A young man named Billy Bibbit who has a stutter introduces McMurphy to Harding, the president of the Patient’s Council. Harding is a thirty-one-year-old college graduate. McMurphy insists that he is the craziest person in the ward now and that Harding will have to step aside for him. After a brief competition, Harding does step aside and McMurphy introduces himself to everybody in the ward. He notices Bromden and Harding informs him that Bromden is deaf and dumb.
In another room, Nurse Ratched readies her hypodermic needles. Another nurse asks her what she thinks of McMurphy. Ratched insists that McMurphy is a manipulator who intends to disrupt the ward. Bromden relates that Ratched runs the ward like a dictatorship. She is agonizingly strict and keeps to an oppressively tight schedule. Her staff was chosen either for their cruelty or their submissiveness. Bromden nicknames the ward “The Combine” where the patients are conveyed in only to be processed and mentally destroyed. She encourages the acutes to spy on one another and rewards them for any secrets they tell her about the other patients. Ratched has also organized a group of henchman out of her orderlies. The orderlies, a group of three black men are referred to by Bromden as the “black boys”.
That morning, a patient named Mr. Taber demands to know what is in the medication that Ratched is giving him. She calmly refuses to tell him and then informs him that if he will not take his medication orally there are other ways of administering it. The black boys take him away.
Later that day, Nurse Ratched calls a ward meeting. None of the patients will look Ratched in the eye except McMurphy who still has his deck of cards. She opens the meeting by talking about Harding’s marital problems. McMurphy makes several lewd jokes that offend Ratched and she retaliates by reading his medical file aloud. She focuses on his arrest for statutory rape. McMurphy sidesteps this by regaling the group with stories about his fifteen-year-old former lover.
A nearby doctor, Doctor Spivey reminds Ratched that McMurphy may be pretending to have a psychosis to get out of going back to the farm where he works. Ratched mentions the idea of a Therapeutic Community, the theory that a person must learn to get along with a group of like-minded individuals before he will be able to properly function in a society. For everything that Nurse Ratched says, McMurphy has a rejoinder. This begins to frustrate her.
After the meeting ends, McMurphy asks if the meetings are always that way, with the patients being encouraged to confess each other’s sins. Harding replies that Nurse Ratched is not a monster but that she is strict. McMurphy insists that Ratched has him by the balls. Harding refutes this, saying that Ratched is an angel of mercy and unselfish. But Harding finally relents and agrees that McMurphy is right but that no one ever says anything negative about Ratched aloud. Doctor Spivey, Harding insists, is even afraid of Nurse Ratched. Harding compares all of the patients to rabbits, and Nurse Ratched to a wolf. Harding says that Ratched uses electroshock therapy, intimidation, and domination to control the patients. McMurphy tells the patients that he thinks that deep down they are all sane and could leave the ward. He bets the others that he can get Nurse Ratched to “crack” within a week.
Part two begins with Bromden relating that Ratched can set the clock on the wall to any speed she wants and that she routinely slows it down to confuse the patients and keep them at her mercy. She also keeps the speakers on the wall playing music all the time. Harding tells McMurphy that she never lets the patients listen to the news on the speakers because she feels that it might upset them.
Around this time, McMurphy tests Bromden by insisting that the orderlies are coming for him. Bromden jumps at the news and McMurphy realizes that the man is not deaf. That night Bromden manages to go to sleep without any medication for the first time in a while. He dreams that one of the vegetables, a man named Blastic is being strung up on a hook and cut open by the orderlies. Instead of blood spilling out of him, however, rust and glass do. The contents of a broken machine. Bromden wakes in a sweat. The next morning he notices McMurphy loudly singing. Bromden wonders why the orderlies are allowing him to do this. He hypothesizes that McMurphy has not been gnashed up by the Combine yet. McMurphy asks one of the patients for toothpaste to brush his teeth and is told that the toothpaste is locked up by Ratched so that it can only be used at certain times. The orderlies tell Ratched that McMurphy is being disruptive and that Blastic died the night before, confirming to Bromden that his dream was at least partially correct.
McMurphy spends the morning hours goofing off and intentionally being confrontational. He teases Billy Bibbit and throws butter at the infamous wall clock. Dr. Spivey arrives to have an interview with McMurphy. Spivey tells the patients that he and McMurphy went to same high school and they begin to reminisce about the schools carnivals. Spivey tells the other patients that they might consider having a similar carnival at the ward. This angers Nurse Ratched and Bromden notices that her hands are shaking although she does not protest. He realizes that she has the power to put the entire ward up to oppose the plan.
McMurphy stays on his guard and keeps a joking manner despite what the orderlies and Nurse Ratched do to antagonize him. He spends the next few days playing monopoly with the patients. Once, at a group meeting, he becomes agitated and chastises the other patients for being cowardly. He wanted to change the cleaning schedule around so that the men would be able to watch the World Series during the day. He expected opposition from the nurses but the rest of the acutes oppose the idea as well. This angers McMurphy and he claims that he is going to escape the ward by throwing the control panel in the bathroom through a window. He attempts to lift the panel but it is far too heavy.
Bromden still hallucinates a fog over the rooms but he insists that the fog makes him feel safe. He thinks that McMurphy is trying to drag himself and the other patients out of the fog where they will be in danger. He feels that the fog comes from the fog machines that he saw during his time in the Korean War. The machines were made to obscure the soldiers surroundings so that no one could see what was in front of them. Bromden recalls that he would often get lost in the fog and end up right back where he started. He wonders when Ratched is going to put them in the fog again. Bromden hears the administrators talking about a patient nicknamed Old Rawler who recently killed himself.
During the next group meeting, McMurphy brings up the World Series again and Ratched reluctantly allows the patients to vote on the matter. McMurphy manages to get all of the acutes to vote in favor but Ratched claims that this isn’t enough and that none of the chronics voted for him. McMurphy takes on the challenge and attempts to rouse at least one chronic to vote in his favor. Bromden is the only one he can get to raise their hand but Ratched claims that the meeting has already ended and that the vote didn’t count.
When the World Series begins, McMurphy stops working and switches on the TV. Nurse Ratched gets angry and switches it back off. She begins to admonish McMurphy but the other acutes, as well as Bromden, surround him and sit down to watch the game, too. Bromden overhears the doctors and nurses meeting to discuss McMurphy and his effect on the other patients. Some of them think that he is too conniving to be truly mentally ill and others think that he is indeed sick and that he may even be dangerous. One doctor, in particular, worries that McMurphy may assault him. Ratched calms their fears by insisting that McMurphy is not extraordinary or special in any way and that he is simply a man and he can be controlled. Ratched also notes that McMurphy was committed involuntarily, so they have all the time in the world to break him.
Outside, the other patients congratulate McMurphy for winning the bet and making Ratched lose her cool. As a result of this triumph, McMurphy begins to get bolder with Ratched over the next few days and begins asking her more probing, sarcastic questions than ever before. Bromden starts to think that McMurphy may be strong enough to escape the combine.
At the next group meeting, the patients begin to bring up more long-standing complaints that they have had to keep silent on before. McMurphy realizes that Ratched is still acting like she has a secret from the rest of them. When the patients visit a local pool, McMurphy chats with a lifeguard. McMurphy mentions that being in the ward is as bad as being in prison. The lifeguard, who is also a patient, suggests that it is actually worse because in prison you at least have a release date. He tells McMurphy that he will be there for as long as Ratched sees fit. With this in mind, that evening McMurphy begins to act better than he has been the past few days. He stops complaining and stops protesting during group meetings.
The strictly scheduled daily life in the ward resumes as McMurphy starts acting better to give in to Ratched. Everything begins to go back to the way it was before he was brought in. Harding’s wife visits the ward and the two fight about small things constantly. His wife, Vera begins to flirt with McMurphy before leaving suddenly. After she leaves, Harding asks McMurphy what he thought of Vera and McMurphy jokes that he liked her figure. Harding is offended by this but McMurphy tells him that he has his own problems to deal with and he cannot think of anyone else.
One day the patients are taken to another building for chest X-rays. While waiting, McMurphy asks the others why they didn’t tell him before that Ratched would be in charge of whether or not he was allowed to leave. Harding admits that he had forgotten that McMurphy was involuntarily committed. Not many of the patients in the ward were involuntarily committed. Just some of the older chronics. McMurphy asks Billy why he is there if he doesn’t have to be and Billy says that he is too weak to leave and begins to cry as the scabs on his wrists open and begin to bleed.
The patients return to the ward and try to calm Billy. Bromden notices that McMurphy seems worried. Another meeting is held that afternoon and Ratched talks about the group’s behavior during the World Series. She notes that she has waited too long to address and it and wants to give the men a chance to apologize. She has taken away privileges to the tub room and claims that it is for the patients own good.
McMurphy doesn’t say anything, but stands up and walks over to the nurses station. He punches the glass and then sarcastically says that it was so clean that he didn’t see it there.
After this incident, McMurphy does unpunished for a while as Ratched knows that she has all the time in the world in which to torture him. The first time that McMurphy doesn’t get his way, he breaks the glass in the nurse’s station again. The other acutes begin to follow his example and act aggressively. McMurphy sets about trying to organize a fishing trip for the patients and Bromden realizes that he wants to go, but he does not want the nurses to realize that he can hear the others talking about the trip. He recalls that over time everyone in the ward had started assuming that he was deaf without him giving any indication that he was. One night, McMurphy gives Bromden a pack of gum and Bromden tries to say “thank you”. McMurphy tells Bromden that he once had a job working on a farm, picking beans. He worked hard and never said a word to the adults that he was working with but he listened to everything they said to him. On his last day there he revealed all that he had heard and this caused an uproar. McMurphy questions whether this is what Bromden is planning.
However, Bromden tells McMurphy that he could never do that because he is not brave enough. Bromden tells McMurphy a little about his past and McMurphy wonders if Bromden, being bigger and stronger, could lift the control panel in the tub room. He hints that Bromden should break out of the ward.
Ratched begins to set into motion her next move in the fight with McMurphy. She sets up a meeting without McMurphy and informs the other patients that he has been stealing money from them. Because of the recent fishing trip and other small things that McMurphy has set up, the patients begin to wonder if she is telling the truth. Bromden himself becomes suspicious and he informs McMurphy that the other patients are beginning to question the fact that McMurphy always managed to win best against them and have reasons for collecting their money.
The men are taken in and showered by lining up naked against the wall and getting hosed down by the orderlies. McMurphy defends a patient who does not want to be cleaned and one of the orderlies punches him in the face. A fight ensues. One of the orderlies manages to get away and go for help. McMurphy and Bromden are taken away to the disturbed ward.
The next morning, McMurphy and Bromden receive electroshock treatment. McMurphy is given several more electroshock treatments that week. Bromden attempts to convince him to surrender his pride to Nurse Ratched so that she will let him back into the regular ward. Bromden returns to the regular ward sooner than McMurphy and realizes that he has become something of a legend for not going comatose from so much electroshock. Ratched realizes that the other patients looking up to McMurphy is bad for her and soon brings him back to the ward. Ratched mentions giving McMurphy an ‘operation’ but does not specify what it is. Fearing the worst, the other patients decide to break McMurphy out of the ward.
However, as they are enacting their plan the orderlies catch them in the act. After they are all brought back into the ward, McMurphy attacks Ratched, ripping her uniform. The orderlies manage to pull him off of her. After this night, Dr. Spivey resigns and several of the voluntary patients sign themselves out of the ward. Nurse Ratched is sent to the medical center for the wounds that McMurphy caused trying to strangle her and another nurse runs the ward. When Ratched returns, Harding asks her when McMurphy will be brought back. She can’t speak so so writes out on a notepad that he will be back soon. Harding tells her that she is full of bullshit and signs himself out of the ward. Ratched finds it difficult to get her ward back into shape.Three weeks after the attempted escape, McMurphy is brought back. He has been lobotomized and is not in a wheelchair as a vegetable. Bromden decides to smother McMurphy with a pillow in the night to put him out of his misery.
Three weeks after the attempted escape, McMurphy is brought back. He has been lobotomized and is not in a wheelchair as a vegetable. Bromden decides to smother McMurphy with a pillow in the night to put him out of his misery. The next day, Bromden lifts the control panel in the tub room and throws it through the window. He escapes and hitches a ride north, thinking that he might go to Canada.
Chief Bromden – a chronic patient at the ward who has been there for years. Bromden is a narrator of the story and a very large Native American man. The other patients in the ward have been misled to think that Bromden is deaf and dumb and he has gone along with it out of necessity to protect his sanity.
The story of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the story of McMurphy’s time in the ward but, as it is narrated by Bromden it is also the story of his own journey back to sanity.
In the beginning of the novel, Bromden represents his own hallucinations as a fog that he sees drifting over himself and other patients. The fog is a remnant from Bromden’s time in the war. The soldiers would often use a fog to hide their greatest atrocities. The fog in the novel represents the combination of medicine and electroshock treatment that the doctors and Ratched use to keep the patients in their care docile and manageable. By the novel’s end, the fog around Bromden has cleared and he is able to find his way back to the real world outside of the asylum.
It is only after McMurphy’s arrival that Bromden begins to realize that he was not the one that started his charade of being deaf and dumb. The other people in the ward (patients and doctors alike) began to treat him that way and he went along with it. He realizes during the course of the novel that going along with this charade has hindered his recovery. The reasons for Bromden’s mental illness are never overtly stated. It is possible that he suffered from PTSD from the war or else it was a chronic condition from his childhood. It is also possible that he was sane upon entering the hospital, like McMurphy, but years of medication and treatment have conspired to break his mind.
Randle McMurphy – a brash, loud, overly sexual red-haired Irishman. McMurphy is admitted into the hospital at the beginning of the novel and immediately starts to try and uproot the status quo. McMurphy is a foil for the repressed Bromden and the mechanical and sterile Nurse Ratched. McMurphy’s freedom, sexuality, and self-determination immediately clash with the oppressed ward. His loudness and openness stun the other patients who have grown used to repression and submission.
McMurphy is said to have been brought in involuntarily after being arrested for statutory rape. Through Bromden’s narration, we are led to understand that McMurphy, who had originally been sent to work off his debt to society on a farm, got himself admitted to the ward in the hopes that it would be an easier stay. After he meets Nurse Ratched he regrets this choice. McMurphy quickly realizes that Ratched can keep him in the ward for as long as she wants, regardless of his release date.
McMurphy’s fate is foreshadowed by the fate of another former patient named Taber, who was given electroshock and lobotomized after he was deemed by Nurse Ratched to be a manipulator. After this Taber ended up in a docile, vegetative state. Early in the novel, Ratched compares the two patients, effectively giving us a preview of what would happen to McMurphy by the end of the novel.
McMurphy’s character is often compared to a Christ-like figure in reviews of the book. This is because he undergoes a type of baptism when he is brought into the ward (the forced shower), begins to gain followers (or disciples) quickly and ultimately pays the price for the freedom of the rest of the men in the ward with his death.
Nurse Ratched – the head nurse in the ward. A cold, mechanical, seemingly heartless woman who treats the patients like they are animals. Ratched is not a clear villain from the beginning. She is not an angry, power mad woman. She is a very mechanical, reserved woman who represents the dehumanization of society in Bromden’s “Combine”. The patients in the ward often refer to her as “Big Nurse” because of her size, although this is also a reference to George Orwell’s “1984” and his oppressive authority, Big Brother.
Ratched maintains her control over the ward in many ways as if she were a dictator and the patients overthrowing her is referred to in the book as a “revolution”.
Before McMurphy’s arrival, the patients would go out of their way to please Ratched by confessing to her their secrets as well as each other’s secrets. This cements her as something of an opposing mother figure to the ward. McMurphy ruffles Ratched by picking up on her weak spots and playing them against her right away. He uses his sexuality to unnerve and throw her off and refuses to give in to her show of fake compassion. At the end of the novel, Ratched is deposed and it is revealed that since McMurphy overthrew her she was never again able to control the ward and gain back the power that she had.
Dale Harding – the former ‘craziest’ patient in the ward before McMurphy’s arrival. McMurphy challenges Harding to something of a contest to see who is the most mentally ill soon after arriving and Harding, showing how easily frightened the patients in the ward have become, gives in quickly. Harding is the president of the patients council and the only college graduate in the ward. Harding’s wife, Vera visits and reveals that she is the dominate one in the relationship, embarrassing him in front of the other patients. Another patient reveals while talking to McMurphy that Harding may be a closeted homosexual.
Dr. Spivey – the head doctor in the ward. Though he gives off an air of authority, Spivey is very easily manipulated by Ratched and McMurphy both, who use him for their own benefit throughout the novel. Ratched uses him to help reinforce her authority to the patients and McMurphy uses him to overrule her. Spivey acts a chaperone on the fishing trip mid-way through the book. After the climax of the book, Spivey resigns and leaves the ward.
Ken Kesey Biography
Kenneth Elton Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado in 1935. The son of dairy farmers, when he was just a boy his family moved to Springfield, Oregon. Kesey graduated from the University of Oregon in 1957 and enrolled in the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1958. In the early 1960’s, Kesey became a volunteer subject for drug studies at Stanford. Primarily studies on the effects of LSD. During this time, aided while working at a Veteran’s hospital, Kesey wrote his best-known work, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.
The book made him a successful author and he continued to dabble in psychoactive drugs using the money from his fame. In 1965 Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession and fled to Mexico after faking a suicide. Eight months later he returned to the U.S and was arrested again. He then served out his jail term.
Kesey’s second novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion” was published in 1964. In the early 1970’s, the rights to “One Flew” were purchased from Kesey for twenty-thousand dollars. While involved in the production of the movie at first, Kesey later left the set due to a dispute over the money he was paid for the rights and the casting. Kesey later claimed never to have seen the movie after it was made. Despite this, the movie went on to win five Academy Awards and is still considered a classic.
Kesey married a woman named Norma in 1956 and the two went on to have three children, one of whom tragically died young in 1984.
In 1992, Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes and by 1998 he was alleged to be very weak from bad health and old age. In October of 2001, Kesey had surgery to remove a tumor on his liver. He died of complications from the surgery the next month at age 66.