One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo

The title, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which echoes a children’s song (“One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”), puns cleverly on a variety of themes covered in the book: the sadness of the “cuckoos” confined in insane asylum, the freedom enjoyed by the geese far above the nest, and the sterility of the nest itself. Kesey’s novel can be read at many levels. It is a tall tale about a conflict of wills and a social tract attacking the medieval and inhumane treatment of mental patients and calling for reform. On a broader level, it is a microcosm, with the insane asylum a representative small world reflecting a macrocosmic conflict between the individual and society, freedom and restraint, nature and technology.

Former Marine McMurphy had experienced the horrors of brainwashing in a Red Chinese prison camp, only to be exposed to the same process on home grounds. His battle with Big Nurse and, by extension, the Combine, is against all systems that try to narrow and limit human nature. Big Nurse is precise, efficient, and machine-like (the values of pragmatic technology), while McMurphy is associated with wild geese and other elements of nature.

The story is in the tradition of a tall tale, a Western shoot-’em-up, or a cartoon comic book story, with its characters larger than life and with exaggerated black/white, evil/good relationships. A tough, swaggering convict, Irishman, and logger, McMurphy has himself transferred from jail to a mental asylum because of his wild behavior. He thinks it will be an easy time, with the extra attraction of a chance to con a few inmates out of spending money. He challenges the authority of Big Nurse, the ward superintendent, whose fake smile and feigned concern turns men against one another, preys on their fears, and weakens their nerve. To counter her techniques, McMurphy provides a model of rebellion; he uses laughter, comic exaggeration, and absurdist acts to build up the inmates’ sense of manhood and teach self-reliance. He defies Big Nurse openly, breaks her rules, and wins the admiration of the men, who slowly begin to join in his acts of defiance.

The knowledge that most of the inmates are voluntary admits, whereas he is committed until released by Big Nurse, at first cows McMurphy, but when Big Nurse once more begins to undercut the men, the con man gives way to the hero. McMurphy “blows up big as a house” (a Chief Bromden metaphor for power) and smashes his fist through the glass barrier of Big Nurse’s station to retrieve his confiscated cigarettes. The inmates respond positively to this defiance and ultimately work up the courage to vote for a fishing trip that Big Nurse has done her best to thwart, a trip that gives them a taste of normality and power. McMurphy smuggles the two prostitutes who accompany them on the trip into the ward for a nighttime party that ends tragically when Big Nurse discovers their game, isolates the weakest inmate, Billy Bibbit, and drives him to suicide.

McMurphy responds by ripping Big Nurse’s blouse to expose her large breasts and to undercut her power. In doing so he dooms himself but gives his fellow inmates hope and self-assurance. Big Nurse “crucifies” this Christ figure with electroshock treatments and then a lobotomy that leaves McMurphy a vegetable. As a result, the voluntary inmates leave the asylum to face the real world. In the last scene, Chief Bromden smothers the husk that was McMurphy, lifts the control panel that McMurphy had been unable to move, hurls it through the barred window, and escapes across the fields. His final words, “I been away a long time,” indicate the distance he has come from the reader’s first view of him and the power of McMurphy’s restorative sacrifice.

The 1975 film version of this novel, directed by Milos Forman, won five Academy Awards and appeared on the American Film Institute’s 2000 list of the top one hundred films of all time.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the result of Ken Kesey’s interest in the relations among sanity, insanity, and consciousness-altering drugs. He began writing the novel while employed as psychiatric ward attendant. Later he volunteered to take such drugs as LSD and peyote as a research subject.

Kesey wrote the novel under the influence of peyote and LSD. It is an indictment of American culture more than it is of mental institutions. It attacks conformity and established authority in a dense style replete with myths, parables, and ironic commentaries. Few contemporary novels achieved the status of classics or received such notoriety so quickly.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of Randle P. McMurphy, a self-centered but charming con artist. To escape a prison work farm, he fakes psychosis to get admitted to a mental hospital. The story is narrated by an inmate, Chief Bromden, an American Indian who pretends to be deaf and dumb. Hyperauthoritarian Nurse Ratched is alarmed by McMurphy’s “troublemaking” activities, such as the card games that he always wins. In various ways, McMurphy defies her authority and manages to get away with it for awhile. McMurphy discovers that, unlike most of the other inmates, he was admitted involuntarily. The only person who can determine whether he is fit to leave and live in society is the “Big Nurse,” nurse Ratched.

McMurphy gives other inmates a taste of freedom and self-empowerment by organizing an unauthorized fishing trip and by hiring prostitutes to accompany them. He gets in bigger trouble when he and Chief Bromden resist orderlies who try to force prescribed drugs on an unwilling inmate. Big Nurse prescribes electric shock treatment for them both.

After treatment, McMurphy’s resilience is broken. He begins to look more and more like the other inmates. As a token of their appreciation, the other inmates arrange an escape for him. He celebrates the occasion by providing liquor, wine, and marijuana. Two of his prostitute friends help Billy Bibbit, a stuttering, hypersensitive inmate, lose his virginity. At the end of the party, McMurphy is unable to escape. In the morning he is blamed for the debacle.

In a desperate act of independence, McMurphy attacks Big Nurse, rips her clothing, and tries to strangle her. Demoralized and vengeful, she sees to it that McMurphy is lobotomized. Chief Bromden, as an act of mercy, smothers McMurphy, freeing him from permanent institutionalization as a vegetable. Bromden then escapes.

McMurphy, a Christlike leader, undergoes torture at the hands of Big Nurse for the benefit of other inmates and sacrifices his life for the cause of liberation through immorality, sex, drugs, and authenticity. This theme is in line with Kesey’s pagan sensibilities and the spirit of the counterculture of the 1960’s.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Chief Bromden, thought by all to be deaf and unable to speak, hears the booming voice of a new patient, Randle Patrick McMurphy, a big, red-headed Irishman with scarred hands and a free laugh, who resists the aides’ pushing him around. McMurphy came from prison, having been banished for fighting. When McMurphy shakes the Chief’s hand it seems to swell and became big again, the first small step in McMurphy’s rescue of the Chief from his fog.

The Chief sees the ward as a repair shop for the Combine, the nationwide conspiracy that turns people into machines run by remote control. The asylum is the repair shop populated by two kinds of broken-down machines: the chronics and the acutes. The chronics are considered hopelessly insane; the acutes are considered to have hope of recovery. Nurse Ratched seeks to make her ward a smoothly running repair shop, so when McMurphy arrives, free from the controls of the Combine, he upsets the mechanistic routine. On his first day on the ward, McMurphy urges the patients to stand up against the Big Nurse, to show their guts by voting for something. He bets that he can make her crack within a week.

That week, McMurphy is eager to see the World Series on television; to do so requires a change in ward policy. Eventually he gets the patients to vote for the change, the deciding vote coming from the Chief, but the Big Nurse vetoes the result on a technicality. At game time, McMurphy and the other acutes sit down in front of a blank television and have a party, making believe they are watching the game. When the Big Nurse cannot get them to move, she loses control of herself. McMurphy wins his bet, showing that she is beatable.

Shortly thereafter, McMurphy discovers that as a committed patient he can be held indefinitely. To prevent that, he begins to cooperate, no longer standing up for the other patients. One day Cheswick looks to McMurphy for support in an argument, but the Irishman stays silent. The next day Cheswick drowns himself. McMurphy feels responsible for Cheswick’s death. The decisive blow against McMurphy’s self-interested stance comes when he learns that most of the acutes are not committed but are voluntary inmates. Their problems have more to do with how they see themselves than with clinical insanity. This realization changes McMurphy, bringing him back into the battle against the Big Nurse. First, he “accidentally” punches through her window to get his cigarettes, then, after it was replaced he does it again, apologizing profusely. After a month passes, McMurphy gets the Chief to speak again, bringing him closer to health and freedom. They talk about the Combine, how it turned the Chief’s father into an alcoholic by buying out their fishing village to make a dam. When his father shriveled, the Chief did, too.

The first of three final dramatic episodes in the story is the fishing trip, on which McMurphy and his twelve friends catch several huge fish. They come to see that they can be free, that a trip outside the machinelike asylum into the world of nature can be successful. The biggest step is their laughing binge, led by McMurphy, because laughter shows people are free. All the men become stronger, except McMurphy, because he is bearing the weight of their burdens, doling out his life for the others.

The next day, when the aides bully one of the fishing crew, McMurphy goes to his defense. That starts a fight in which the Chief joins. Later both are taken to the shock shop and blasted into unconsciousness by a jolt of electricity. Unlike on previous occasions, the Chief comes quickly out of the fog of the shock treatment. Since McMurphy made him big again, he does not need to hide from the world. After giving McMurphy three more shock treatments, the Big Nurse brings him back to the ward, threatening a lobotomy. All of McMurphy’s friends urge him to escape the next weekend when McMurphy’s friend Candy is coming for a visit. She brings another whore with her, helping the patients have an uproarious party filled with games, drunkenness, and sex. The orgy is a victory to the Chief; it shows that even at the center of the Combine people can be free.

McMurphy is supposed to escape at dawn but oversleeps. In the morning, the Big Nurse finds Billy Bibbit in bed with Candy. In front of all the other patients, the Big Nurse shames Billy, threatening to tell his possessive mother about his sexual experience. That drives Billy to kill himself, and Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for it. Outraged by the accusation, McMurphy attacks the Big Nurse, tearing her dress open to expose her breasts, showing that she is really a woman, not a machine. The terror that the inmates see in her eyes forever diminishes her power over them. She finally loses the war.

Over the next few weeks, almost all the acutes leave the ward. The Chief stays, to counter the Big Nurse’s final move. Her gambit is a body on a gurney, a vegetable with black eyes (indicating that a lobotomy was performed), with the name Randle P. McMurphy attached to it. The Chief decides that McMurphy would never allow such proof of the nurse’s power to lie around the ward. So he smothers the vegetable. Then he lifts a huge control panel and throws it through the reinforced window screen. Escaping finally from the cuckoo’s nest, he returns to his free life, ready to tell McMurphy’s story.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary

Part 1 Summary

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of a few remarkable weeks in an Oregon insane asylum and the events that lead to the...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Part 2 Summary

In response to her failure, Nurse Ratched decides to wait until McMurphy realizes his fate is ultimately in her hands. At the same time,...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Part 3 Summary

In the days that follow, McMurphy continues to harass the nurse by organizing a deep-sea fishing expedition for the ward. Bromden's...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Part 4 Summary

Nurse Ratched's response to McMurphy's success is to try to turn the men on the ward against him by demonstrating how much money he has taken...

(The entire section is 385 words.)