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.