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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel)

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Recent US paperback edition cover
Recent paperback edition
AuthorKen Kesey
CountryUnited States
PublisherViking Press
Publication date1962
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) is a novel written by Ken Kesey. It is set in an Oregon asylum, and serves as a study of the institutional process and the human mind.

The story was adapted into a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, and a film by Miloš Forman in 1975.

The book's epigraph is:

…one flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.



[edit] Plot introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a direct product of Kesey's time working as an orderly at a mental-health facility in Menlo Park, California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, he received electroconvulsive therapy and took psychoactive drugs as well as the same drugs as the patients to gain a deeper insight into their lives.[citation needed]

[edit] Plot summary

Narrated by the gigantic but docile and schizophrenic Columbian Indian "Chief" Bromden, who has pretended to be a deaf mute for years, this story focuses on the antics of cheerfully rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, a transferee from a workfarm prison to a mental hospital. The all-male asylum is based upon the old Pendleton, Oregon asylum (now the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution). With little medical oversight, the hospital ward is run by the buttoned-up, middle-aged Nurse Ratched (or "the Big Nurse") and her orderlies, whom the Chief describes as resentful black men.

McMurphy constantly antagonizes the Big Nurse and upsets routine. Betting on himself, McMurphy tries and fails to lift a heavy stone plumbing pedestal off the floor of the ward. He runs a card table, captains the ward's basketball team, comments on Nurse Ratched's figure, incites the other patients on the ward to conduct a vote on watching the World Series on television, and organizes a supervised deep sea fishing trip. Although his influence is partly constructive, McMurphy also presents a discipline problem and challenge to the Big Nurse's authority. The Big Nurse repeatedly sends him off the ward for a few days at a time for electroshock therapy on a cross-shaped table and electrodes that resemble a "crown of thorns," as one patient describes it. This is to no effect, as McMurphy is not mentally ill. The Chief, opening up to McMurphy, reveals late one night that he can speak and hear.

One night, after bribing the night orderly, McMurphy breaks into the pharmacy and smuggles bottles of liquor and two prostitute girlfriends onto the ward for a party, including some of the patients. McMurphy persuades one of the women to seduce Billy Bibbit, a timid, boyish patient, with a terrible stutter and no experience with women. Neglecting to clean up before the morning shift arrives, McMurphy and the other patients fall asleep. The staff returns and discovers the aftermath of the party. The staff finds the night orderly and the rest of the ward, in the minds of the patients, comically askew. The Big Nurse finds Billy Bibbit and the prostitute in each other's arms, partially dressed, and admonishes him. Billy asserts himself for first time, answering the Big Nurse without stuttering. The Big Nurse then threatens to tell Billy's mother what she has seen. Billy has an emotional outburst, and once left alone in the doctor's office, fatally slits his own throat. Nurse Ratched angrily blames McMurphy for the loss of life. Provoked, McMurphy attempts to strangle her, ripping off the front of her uniform, and he is removed to the Disturbed ward, where he undergoes a lobotomy.

When McMurphy returns, he is wheeled onto the ward on a bed, in a near-vegetative state similar to its most elderly patients. The Chief realizes that if other patients see McMurphy in that condition, Nurse Ratched will have ultimately "won," demoralizing the patients who were only beginning to assert themselves as men because of McMurphy's influence. Killing McMurphy keeps him from being a reminder of Nurse Ratched's dominance, as another belligerent patient had been lobotomized in the past. Chief smothers McMurphy. Then he lifts and carries the stone plumbing pedestal to the window--which McMurphy found impossible to even lift--throwing it through the window and escaping. Despite McMurphy's ultimate sacrifice, the consequent redemption of the patients, particularly Chief, provides an uplifting conclusion to this story.

[edit] Characters

Chief Bromden: The novel's Native American narrator, the Chief has been in the mental hospital since the end of World War II. Bromden pretends to be deaf and dumb, and he is privy to many of the ward's dirty secrets.

As a young man, the Chief was a high school football star, a college student, and a war hero. It was only after seeing his father, a true Indian chief, humiliated at the hands of the government and his wife, does Bromden succumb to schizophrenia. Bromden believes society is controlled by a large, malignant organization which he calls the Combine. All people must conform like machines. The patients in the hospital are simply machines that have broken down.

Bromden sees people as they seem, not as they appear. While he is a very powerful man of over six-and-a-half feet tall, he thinks of himself as a tiny dwarf. McMurphy and the Nurse, on the other hand, are towering giants. The patients are pathetic rabbits and the aides are emotionless robots. It is only when McMurphy helps him regain his self-respect that he finally stops hallucinating.

Randle Patrick McMurphy: A fun-loving, swaggering convict sent from a prison. He is sexist, racist, forceful, and guilty of battery and gambling (he had also been charged with, but never convicted of, statutory rape. The fact that the girl refused to testify in the case implies that she did not feel taken advantage of, so this does not damage his character for the other protagonists). McMurphy is transferred from a prison work farm to the hospital, thinking it will be an easy way to serve out his sentence. He has a fine time hustling the patients, until he realizes that he is more than a diversion for them; he gives them the lives they are too afraid to live for themselves. In himself he discovers devotion to his friends and capacity for self-sacrifice. In the end, McMurphy overplays his determination to fight Nurse Ratched, which costs him his freedom, his health, and ultimately, his life.

[edit] The staff

Nurse Ratched:

Washington, Williams, and Warren: Three black men who work as aides in the ward. Williams is a dwarf, his growth stunted after witnessing his mother's rape by white men. The Chief says Nurse Ratched hired them for their capacity to hate. They are cruel and vindictive men who are unable to dominate McMurphy.

Dr. Spivey: The spineless ward doctor. While Nurse Ratched managed to drive off all the other doctors, she kept Spivey because he always did as he was told. Harding suggests that the nurse may threaten to expose him as a drug addict, though whether he really is an addict is unknown. McMurphy's rebellion inspires him. He stands up to Nurse Ratched and accompanies the men on their fishing trip.

Nurse Pilbow: The night nurse for the ward. Her face, neck and chest are stained with a profound birthmark. She is intensely Catholic, and, according to the Chief, spends her time off praying for the birthmark to disappear or scrubbing it furiously until her skin bleeds. She blames the patients for infecting her with their evil, and takes it out on them. Both McMurphy and Harding have a crush on her.

The Japanese Nurse: A tiny woman, she runs the upstairs ward, which is reserved for violent or otherwise unmanageable patients. She treats her patients kindly and openly opposes Nurse Ratched's methods.

The PR man: A strange individual who is responsible for the hospital's public relations. The patients suspect he wears a corset and sometimes he laughs hysterically when there are no other staff around. In a nightmare, the Chief sees him cut off the testicles of a dead patient as a trophy.

Geever: The night aide. He is the one who discovers that the Chief is hiding old wads of gum under his bed.

Mr. Turkle: An elderly African American man, he works the late, late shift in the ward. He agrees to allow McMurphy to host a party and sneak in prostitutes one night if the incentive is right. He is a marijuana user, and shares his joint with some of the patients during the party.

[edit] The "Acutes"

The acutes are patients who can still be cured. With few exceptions, they are there voluntarily.

Billy Bibbit: A patient at the institution with an extreme speech impediment. Billy cuts himself and has attempted suicide numerous times. Nurse Ratched is a close friend of his mother, therefore leaving him powerless and almost voiceless. His mother treats him like he is a teenager, though in reality he is actually in his mid thirties. To alleviate Billy's fear of women, McMurphy sneaks a prostitute into the ward so Billy can lose his virginity. Upon being discovered the next morning, Billy speaks for the first time without stuttering. It is only after Nurse Ratched mentions Billy's mother that he loses his new confidence, and resorts back to his nervous ways. Unable to handle the pressure of his fear of his mother, and the control of the Big Nurse, Billy breaks down and takes his own life by slitting his throat.

Dale Harding: The unofficial leader of the patients before McMurphy arrives. Harding is a pretty man who is ashamed of his secret homosexual tendencies. Harding's gorgeous wife is a source of shame for him; he cannot pleasure her, making him feel even less like a man.

George Sorensen: A Swedish man with germaphobia. He spends his days washing his hands in the ward's drinking fountain. McMurphy manages to convince him to lead a fishing expedition for the patients. Afterwards, the staff try to forcibly delouse him, conscious of the mental anguish that they are causing him. The de-lousing is mainly retribution by the nurse rather than medical care. McMurphy and the Chief stop the de-lousing and, because of their actions, end up in the Disturbed ward.

Cheswick: A loudmouth patient always demanding change in the ward, but who never has the courage to see anything through. He finds a friend in McMurphy. When McMurphy is seen to be backing down in his fight against the nurse, Cheswick drowns himself in the swimming pool.

Martini: A patient who suffers from severe hallucinations. He frightens McMurphy by talking about all the people who need McMurphy to see them, that is, the people who need McMurphy to stand up for them.

Scanlon: A patient obsessed with bombs and destruction. Aside from McMurphy and Bromden, he is the only non-vegetative patient there by force, the rest could leave at anytime. It is Scanlon who convinces the Chief to escape.

Sefelt and Fredrickson: Two epileptic patients. Jim Sefelt refuses to take his anti-seizure medication, as it makes his hair and teeth fall out. He is plagued by seizures, which the Chief believes are controlled by Nurse Ratched. Bruce Fredrickson takes Sefelt's share of the medication, because he is terrified of the seizures.

Max Taber: A patient who was released before McMurphy arrived. The Chief recalls how, after questioning what was in his medication, Nurse Ratched had him 'fixed.' He walked out of the hospital a sane man, a tribute to the Combine's awesome and terrible power.

[edit] The "Chronics"

The chronics are patients who will never be cured; they are held at the asylum to intimidate the Acutes and to remind them that they could be in the Chronics' place if they don't comply. Many of the chronics are in vegetative states.

Chief Bromden: (See above)

Ruckly: A hell-raising patient who challenges the rules until his lobotomy. After the lobotomy, he sits and stares at a picture of his wife, and occasionally screams profanities. He is kept in the ward as a reminder of what happens to patients who get out of line.

Ellis: Ellis was put in a vegetative state by electroshock therapy. He stands against the wall in a Christ-like position (arms outstretched, hands cupped), day after day, as if he were nailed there.

Pete Bancini: Bancini suffered brain damage at birth, but managed to hold down simple jobs until he was institutionalized. He sits, wagging his head and complaining how tired he is. The Chief remembers how once, and only once, he lashed out violently against the aides, telling the other patients that he was a living miscarriage, born dead.

Rawler: A patient on the disturbed ward, he says nothing but "loo, loo, loo!" all day and tries to run up the walls. The Chief believes he has been wired to receive radio transmissions. One night Rawler castrates himself while sitting on the toilet and bleeds to death before anyone realizes what he has done.

Old Blastic: An old patient who is in a vegetative state. The first night McMurphy is in the ward, Bromden dreams Blastic is hung by his heel and sliced open, spilling out his rusty guts. The next morning it is revealed that Blastic died during the night.

The Lifeguard: An ex-professional football player, he still has the cleat marks on his forehead from the injury that scrambled his brains. While he is the lifeguard at the hospital pool, he remains in the disturbed ward because he occasionally tackles the nurses. This is fine with him, because he doesn't realize he's in a mental hospital. It is the lifeguard who tells McMurphy that he will stay in the hospital until Nurse Ratched decides he may go, regardless of his original prison sentence.

Colonel Matterson: The oldest patient in the ward, he suffers from severe senile dementia and cannot move without a wheelchair. He spends his days "explaining" objects ("Mexico ... is a walnut."). The Chief believes there is logic to his babbling.

[edit] Supporting characters

Candy: The prostitute that McMurphy brings on the fishing trip. All the men in the ward, including the doctor and the vegetative chronics, are struck by her beauty. Billy obviously has a crush on her, and McMurphy arranges for her to visit Billy in private (after paying McMurphy a fee).

Sandra: Another prostitute and friend of McMurphy, she shows up with Candy on the night of the party. She and Sefelt sleep together (Sefelt has a seizure while they are having sexual intercourse, giving Sandra an experience she'll never forget).

Vera Harding: Dale Harding's beautiful wife, she visits him faithfully, but flirts with the other men while she's there. Harding mocks her lack of education and refinement, she mocks Harding's lack of manhood.

[edit] Further reading

  • Horst, L, 1996, Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex Role Failure and Caricature in Pratt, J, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism, Penguin Books.
  • Huffman, B, 2002, Ken Kesey [online resource], Concordia university. Available from:


  • Porter, M.G, 1989, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rising to Heroism, Twayne Publishers: Boston.
  • Safer, E, 1988, The Contemporary American Comic Epic: The Novels of Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Kesey, Wayne State University Press: Detroit.
  • Skinner, D, 2002, Cuckoo For Kesey [online resource], Gale. Available from:


  • Webster, D, 2004, Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest: Book Selection [online resource], The Spokesman Review. Available from:


[edit] Editions

[edit] See also