Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 842 words.)
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The protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a broad-chested, red-haired, thirty-five-year-old Irishman, with a "loud, brassy voice" and a hearty laugh that "sounds big." Diagnosed as a possible psychopath for his brawling and "overzealousness" in sexual relations, McMurphy has secured release from the Pendleton Farm for Correction to go to the greener pastures of the psychiatric ward, where he anticipates an easy life of eating, sleeping, and gambling. Like such American heroes as Natty Bumppo, Rip Van Winkle, and Huckleberry Finn, McMurphy is a rebel against civilizing influences, especially as embodied in the female. Unencumbered by marital or familial ties, he exhibits a bold self-reliance and an irreverence for authority. Yet at the moment Mac swaggers into the ward, booms out "Good mornin', buddies," and attempts to shake hands, he is confronted with a mission: to renew the patients' manhood. Although at times vacillating in the choice between selfish freedom and self-sacrificing responsibility, McMurphy finally commits himself to the latter. Knowing full well the repercussions that will befall him when he opposes the Big Nurse, he nevertheless smashes the window glass of the Nurses' Station, arranges for a fishing excursion, defends George in a fist fight with the black orderlies, and engineers an after-hours orgy. The men do gain self-esteem under Mac's tutelage. However, paradoxically as the men become more assertive,...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
Chief Bromden is the schizophrenic narrator of story, and has been in the mental institution since leaving the Army shortly after World War II. Harding says he's heard that Chief has received over two hundred shock treatments. The son of an American Indian father and a Caucasian mother, he attributes his shrewdness to his Native American heritage. Chief has a paranoid belief in something he calls the "Combine," a collaboration of governmental and industrial groups he believes are trying to control people by way of machines. For many years, Chief has isolated himself from the bizarre environment of the Chronic and Acute ward by pretending to be deaf and dumb. This way, he finds out everything he wants to know and yet is able to keep his own counsel and stay out of trouble.
Chief pushes a broom all day, sweeping the same territory over and over again. He's classified as a Chronic: "Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking about the street giving the product a bad name," muses Chief. "Chronic are in for good . . . divided into Walkers like me, can still walk around if you keep fed, and Wheelers and Vegetables." Chief harbors a deep hatred of the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched, and like all the other ward residents fears her power. Chief holds an almost equal anger at the three black assistants who do Miss Ratched's icy bidding—and worse. (In fact, some consider the book racist because of the negative way in which author—and...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Randle Patrick McMurphy
McMurphy bursts on the well-ordered, claustrophobic scene of the psychiatric ward like a psychological bombshell. Streetwise, smart, aggressive, vigorous, he challenges the status quo—the "way things are"—from day one. He introduces himself to everyone in the ward, shaking hands and filling the silence with loud laughter. Is this man mentally ill? Probably not. He has elected to be sent to the psychiatric hospital because he did not like to work on the prison farm, where he had six months to go before his release. His crime: statutory rape of a willing fifteen year old. The attraction of the psychiatric hospital for him was the idea of enjoying better meals and an easier lifestyle. This is not exactly what he finds.
McMurphy immediately engages in a long, hopeless, and endless battle with Big Nurse, a classic control freak. What McMurphy has brought to the ward is a touch of normalcy. What Nurse Ratched wants is a group of docile and quiet men who do not upset or question how she has ordered things. It is their incarceration, voluntary or otherwise, upon which her job and role in life depends. Therefore McMurphy is the ultimate threat—a nonconformist who stirs the residents into a desire for action. He wakes them up out of the dullness and quiet in which they have been dwelling. In fact, he provides them with the beginning of a cure to their problems.
The more successful McMurphy is at upsetting the status quo, the more intense the...
(The entire section is 520 words.)
A sexless, rigid caricature of a nurse, Nurse Ratched imposes discipline on her ward with all the fervor of an Army nurse, which she had been. Large, with huge breasts only partially disguised by her ultra-starched white uniform, she nevertheless has a pretty, delicate face that belies her cruelty.
Manipulative to the core, the only thing that really matters to Ratched is her desire to control everything around her—the environment, the staff, the patients. She has rendered the staff doctor who is in charge of the ward helpless and ineffectual. Her methods are subtle: She speaks with the calm voice of reason, dealing with patients as though they are children. Her group therapy sessions are intentionally humiliating to patients. Her agenda clearly is to turn the group members against one another. That protects her from any unified action against her rules and her dominating role. As long as everyone stays in line, she retreats to her safe place—a glassed-in office overlooking the ward.
Chief sums her up mentally as follows: "So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman's clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses' Station."
Small wonder that McMurphy becomes the ultimate threat to her tight, close...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
See Nurse Ratched
The Three Black Boys
How Chief refers to the black men who come in early, clean the ward, and herd the patients around according to Nurse Ratched's orders. They hate the nurse, who manipulates them, and take their frustration out on the inmates, often taunting them and otherwise taking advantage of them. McMurphy finally comes to blows with them after they torture Rub-a-Dub George with threats of dirt and bugs. The one-dimensional depiction of these characters has been faulted as racist and stereotypical by several critics.
See Chief Bromden
Supposedly tough and aggressive, Cheswick is actually afraid to take any definitive actions. Faced with a challenge, he makes noise as if he will attack, but he always backs down. But he likes to cheer others on from the sidelines, and soon becomes an enthusiastic supporter of McMurphy's ideas. Soon after making a fuss when McMurphy won't protest against Nurse Ratched's cigarette rationing, Cheswick drowns in the swimming pool, something Big Nurse blames on McMurphy.
A Chronic who was an Acute before undergoing shock treatment, Ellis is "nailed" to the wall in a position that recalls Christ's crucifixion.
Sefelt's friend and protector, he worries about having epileptic fits and secretly takes Sefelt's...
(The entire section is 1063 words.)