Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 678 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 941 words.)