Chief Bromden, the narrator and a patient in a mental hospital near Portland, Oregon. At six feet, eight inches, this Native American is the largest and most physically powerful man in his ward. Other patients call him Chief Broom because he spends much of his time sweeping the floors. He has been forced to undergo numerous electroshock treatments over the years he has been in the hospital. He depends on sedatives to help him cope with his fears and feelings of estrangement from those around him, he refuses to talk, and he has convinced everyone who knows him that he is deaf. The son of an American Indian man and a white woman, he has witnessed his father’s decline into alcoholism after being defeated by an essentially white America and its amoral, homogenizing value system. In fact, he views the mental hospital as part of a huge American Combine that forces men into confinement and prescribed behavior, reducing them to little more than impotent automatons. Chief sees Nurse Ratched as the Combine’s evil, castrating agent against whom it is futile and self-destructive to fight—or so he believes until he changes through exposure to Randle McMurphy. Chief proves himself to be not only equal to McMurphy’s example but also equal to fighting defiantly against the Combine.
Randle McMurphy, a patient in the mental hospital, sent there from the Pendleton Farm of Correction by the state for diagnosis and possible treatment. He he makes it clear that he has feigned psychosis to avoid the physical labor required of him in Pendleton. McMurphy enters the hospital at the age of thirty-five with a history of arrests for street and barroom fights, drunkenness, disturbing the peace, and—among other things—statutory rape. He has fierce red hair and a broken-nosed smile. He is a big-talking, thigh-slapping, and jovial storyteller, but he is also fiercely independent and serves as a defiant role model for several of the other patients in the ward. He helps Chief Bromden to discover self-respect and courage, teaching him that a man’s intentions are more important than the outcome of his actions. He prepares Chief to be heroically self-reliant in the face of terrifying obstacles. From the moment McMurphy enters the ward and finds it run by totalitarian Nurse Ratched and her black attendants, he devotes himself to diminishing her power over the other men and implementing a democratic system of governance. Although he wins numerous small but significant battles against her, she ultimately has the official power to destroy him by means of a forced lobotomy. McMurphy’s indomitable spirit outlives his consciousness, however, as he has effectively created a disciple out of Chief Bromden.
Nurse Ratched, called Big Nurse, the head nurse on the acute ward of the mental hospital. Relying on rules, which she expects all of her patients to follow, Ratched is as mechanical, steel-cold, and unyielding as her name suggests, and she controls her ward so that it resembles an accurate, smooth-running, and efficient machine. To keep her patients obedient and predictable, she treats them like naughty children and browbeats them, has them spy on one another and report to her, and subjects those who cause trouble to electroshock treatments or, for extreme cases, lobotomies. Ultimately, she subjects McMurphy to both treatments, first to punish him and then to destroy him. His influence on the other patients is too great for Ratched to tolerate. His ribald sense of humor makes them laugh and reminds them of the large areas of their lives from which they have been cut off by oppressive rules, fear, and sedatives; he makes them feel ashamed for spying on one another, makes them see what Ratched pretends is a democracy on the ward is actually a dictatorship, offers them a glimpse of their unfettered potential, and shows them that Ratched is a woman hiding her fallible humanness beneath a tyrannical demeanor. Ratched has no qualms about destroying McMurphy, the antithesis to her prescriptive vision of her ward, the hospital, and the world.
Dale Harding, the most highly educated patient on the acute ward; he is extremely articulate. Having suffered impotence in his marriage and fearing that he may be homosexual, Harding is frequently racked by his insecurities and paranoia, all of which Nurse Ratched exacerbates verbally on a regular basis to control him. Although he has spent considerable time convincing himself that Big Nurse is trying to help him become healthy, McMurphy’s influence on the ward compels Harding to be honest about himself and Ratched.
Billy Bibbit, a thirty-one-year-old man whose crippling domination by his mother is made more acute in the hospital. She is the receptionist at the hospital, and Nurse Ratched is a close friend and neighbor to her. Nurse Ratched controls Billy by habitually threatening to report his behavior. He is driven to suicide by such a threat toward the novel’s end, after he is caught enjoying his first sexual encounter with a woman.