Study Guide

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Analysis

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This novel is narrated by Chief Broom, the son of an Indian chief, who pretends to be a deaf mute as a protection against a society which denies him dignity as a human being. Many of his comments on conditions in the hospital ward and in society, while not literally true, are accurate metaphors for the social regimentation against which the novel protests.

action of the novel begins with the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a rambunctious and free-spirited roisterer who has chosen to come to the mental hospital to avoid completing a sentence at a prison farm. He is instantly and deliberately in conflict with Nurse Ratched, “Big Nurse,” whose object is to reduce the patients on her ward to abject conformity. As many of these patients have deliberately chosen to stay in the hospital to avoid the pressures of life outside, she has met with little resistance until McMurphy’s arrival.

Almost immediately McMurphy becomes a focus of hope for the patients who have been emasculated by Big Nurse and by their fears of the outside world. Passage after passage suggests that Kesey envisions McMurphy as a Christ figure who must sacrifice himself to bring life to the other patients.

McMurphy’s efforts to give the other patients a sense of joy in living culminates with a drunken party he arranges on the ward; a featured guest is a prostitute who provides Billy Bibbit, a painfully shy and insecure man aged 30, with his first sexual experience. When Big Nurse discovers Billy with the prostitute, she overwhelms him with guilt, causing his suicide.

McMurphy attacks Big Nurse, but he is pulled away and lobotomized. When McMurphy is returned to the ward, Chief Broom smothers him so that he cannot be used as a trophy of Big Nurse’s victory. He then throws a huge control panel through a window and escapes, an action symbolizing his restoration to manhood and independence through his contact with McMurphy.

Bibliography

Carnes, Bruce. Ken Kesey. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974. A short summary of the author’s two novels with emphasis on imagery.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Edited by John Clark Pratt. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Contains the text of the novel, articles on the author, and literary criticism of the novel.

Leeds, Barry H. Ken Kesey. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. A discussion of the author and his works. Beginning with a brief biography, it continues with summaries and evaluations of each of the author’s published works.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. An analysis of Kesey’s published works, emphasizing their affirmation of traditional American values, especially optimism and heroism. The chapter on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest also emphasizes the significance of Chief Bromden as the narrator.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A short introduction to the author and his works. The chapter on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest emphasizes the frontier values of self-reliance and independence.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by Chief Bromden, a Native American mental patient who hides himself in a hallucinatory fog of his own making. Chief Bromden, a long-term patient in the psychiatric ward of an Oregon veterans hospital, has survived more than two hundred shock treatments and has learned to act as if he is deaf and dumb in a world that never hears him. In his delusion, he fears world control by the “Combine,” a machinelike entity that will eliminate all individuality just as the icy head nurse, Nurse Ratched, has eliminated all dissent on the ward. Into this scene bursts Randle Patrick McMurphy, a logger, brawler, and con artist who has feigned insanity to escape his sentence on a work farm. He brings a breath of the untamed natural world to the sad inmates through his powerful physical presence and his rowdy humor, and he treats the other patients like human beings and teaches them to laugh again. He gives them the confidence and courage to rebel against the control of the formidable Nurse Ratched. When she retaliates by ordering punitive shock treatments and a lobotomy for McMurphy so that she can maintain her authority, he becomes a symbolic savior to Chief Bromden, who escapes to freedom.

Impact

The 1962 novel established Kesey’s literary reputation overnight by calling public attention to the conditions and potential for abuse in the nation’s mental hospitals, where electroshock therapy and even lobotomy were still standard practices. Kesey’s own experience as a night attendant on the psychiatric ward of a Menlo Park, California, veterans hospital added credibility to his charges, as did later rumors of the illegal shock treatment he took under the guise of research. His remark that the character of Chief Bromden had appeared to him in a peyote-induced vision fueled interest and controversy, especially when he revealed that he had volunteered for government-sponsored experiments that introduced him to a variety of psychomimetic drugs, including LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin. Chief Bromden’s hallucinations echoed Kesey’s continued fascination with mind-altering substances and created a psychedelic style new to fiction. The ominous figure of the head nurse captured public imagination as did that of the irrepressible McMurphy, who personified the 1960’s concept of rebellion against conformity.

Related Work

A film version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in 1975.

Bibliography

Carnes, Bruce. Ken Kesey. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974. A short summary of the author’s two novels with emphasis on imagery.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Edited by John Clark Pratt. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Contains the text of the novel, articles on the author, and literary criticism of the novel.

Leeds, Barry H. Ken Kesey. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. A discussion of the author and his works. Beginning with a brief biography, it continues with summaries and evaluations of each of the author’s published works.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. An analysis of Kesey’s published works, emphasizing their affirmation of traditional American values, especially optimism and heroism. The chapter on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest also emphasizes the significance of Chief Bromden as the narrator.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A short introduction to the author and his works. The chapter on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest emphasizes the frontier values of self-reliance and independence.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Mental hospital

Mental hospital. Government institution for mental patients somewhere in Oregon, that is the novel’s primary setting. Organized as an efficient machine that eliminates any opportunity for choice or individual decision making, the hospital has staff members to take meticulous care of all the patients’ needs. In the mornings, ward residents are herded into a shaving and tub room where they are forced to shower and prepare for the day’s activities.

The patient ward itself is filled with a system of locks and keys that help the supervisor, Nurse Ratched, manage all of her affairs. She is usually positioned behind a locked glass door, from which she dispenses daily doses of medication that dull each patient’s senses. Ratched easily dominates the inmates, but when Randle McMurphy, a free-spirited outdoorsman, enters the ward, a classic confrontation unfolds as he challenges the neatly ordered world constructed by the nurse.

Day room

Day room. Common area in the patient ward in which many activities occur. Amid a scattering of tables and chairs, the men are expected to spend the day listening to a radio or participating in board games. As music blares from speakers throughout the day, the fog machine, an apparatus of fictitious wires, compressors, and vacuums, dulls the men into accepting their mundane daily routine.

McMurphy explodes into this environment and attempts to dismantle both the fog machine and the hospital’s tight-fisted management of everyone’s affairs. He immediately organizes a blackjack game in which he inevitably wins everyone’s cigarettes. During these card games, many of the more intricate and complex issues affiliated with the novel are explored. Through various conversations, it is revealed that few of these men are suffering from any real form of mental illness, and the real problem appears to be the state’s desire to eliminate all forms of individual expression.

Group therapy meetings also occur quite regularly in the day room. Run with a firm hand by Nurse Ratched, the men are forced to sit in a circle of chairs and reveal their deepest and darkest secrets. They are also encouraged to spy on one another and then expose each other’s weaknesses. During these meetings McMurphy discovers that the overall aim of the institution is to frighten patients into believing that they can recover only if they shed all remnants of their individuality.

Shock Shop

Shock Shop. Place in which Ratched and her staff eradicate negative behavior of rebellious inmates. Behind an unmarked metal door, men are dragged into a room full of tubes, electronic machinery, wires, and a bare mattress. There they are strapped onto a table—on which they assume crucifixion poses—as electricity is shot through their brains. Most of the men in the ward have had this experience at least once and none of them wants to repeat it. Those who fail to respond to electroshock therapy, like McMurphy, are escorted to the surgical wing of the hospital, where they receive lobotomies.

Fishing boat

Fishing boat. In an act of rebellion, McMurphy persuades other patients to disregard Ratched’s gloomy warnings about wrecks, drownings, and hurricanes by participating in a deep-sea fishing expedition for salmon off the Pacific coast. During the outing, the men successfully fix up reels and lines, attach poles to their harnesses properly, and systematically troll for fish. The tranquil ocean swells, the hum of the boat’s engine, and the scenic view of high flying birds provide the patients with an unprecedented sense of calm and temporary confidence. With the benefit of an ample supply of beer, they erupt into laughter as they catch fish. McMurphy also arranges for two women to join the expedition, and they flirt with the men throughout the trip. Despite rough seas, the men navigate safely back to port. Their success clearly reveals that the mental hospital is hindering, not aiding, their recoveries and ultimate return to life outside the institution.

Columbia River

Columbia River. River that forms the border between Oregon and Washington before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Although none of the novel’s action takes place on the river, there are frequent references to it throughout. In earlier times, Native Americans erected wood scaffolding on the river from which to spear salmon and built tree stands to hunt birds. Several times in the novel one of the patients, Chief Bromden, dreams of his youth on the river before hydroelectric dams and government agencies destroyed his tribe’s land—like the mental hospital, an example of how government often undermines, rather than serves, the interests of people.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragic yet inspirational account of one man’s self-sacrifice in a struggle against hypocrisy and oppression. Set on a ward of a mental hospital in Oregon, the novel depicts characters who could be found in many settings and a conflict between authoritarianism and individualism that is truly universal.

Ken Kesey tells the story through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a longtime patient who is uniquely knowledgeable about hospital routines and procedures and privy to staff secrets. As important as what Chief knows is what he does not know; he can only infer Randle McMurphy’s motives, a process of discovery that gives the novel its focus. A paranoid schizophrenic, Bromden reports his hallucinations faithfully; while they cannot be taken literally, they do make sense. As Chief says, his story is “the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

The action begins when McMurphy is admitted to Nurse Ratched’s ward for observation. Authorities at the prison farm where he had been a convict are not sure whether he is a psychopath or merely a malingerer. On the ward, McMurphy proves himself to be a master manipulator, hustling his fellow patients in card games and persistently challenging the authority of Nurse Ratched. The patients quickly accept him as a leader and begin to see him as their champion. Nurse Ratched is infuriated by this challenge to her authority, but she bides her time. McMurphy finds out that because he has been officially committed, Nurse Ratched and the hospital staff control his release, and he becomes more prudent and conformist. Nurse Ratched appears to have won, and McMurphy’s fellow patients understand and regretfully accept the change in his behavior.

McMurphy then learns that Dale Harding, Billy Bibbit, and many of the other patients on the ward have not been committed and are there voluntarily, and his behavior changes again. Once more, he is loud and irreverent, challenging Nurse Ratched at every opportunity. He charters a fishing boat, persuading ten of his fellow patients to sign up for a salmon-fishing trip despite Nurse Ratched’s opposition; he even persuades the staff doctor to go along. The trip is a great success: McMurphy spends time with a teenaged girl, one of the patients manages the boat masterfully, the men catch fish, and they are all able by the end of the day to hold their heads up in society. Nevertheless, this outing sows the seeds of disaster.

Nurse Ratched demands that those who went on the trip undergo a particularly disagreeable hygienic procedure. One of the patients resists, and a fight breaks out between the staff orderlies on the one hand and McMurphy and Bromden on the other. In response, Nurse Ratched orders electroshock therapy for McMurphy and Bromden. When McMurphy refuses to apologize for his role in the fight, he is subjected to repeated treatments.

After McMurphy returns to the ward, Harding and the other inmates convince him to escape from the hospital to save himself from further retaliation by Nurse Ratched. McMurphy is determined not to leave, however, until Billy Bibbit has had a “date” with Candy, the teenager who went on the fishing trip with McMurphy and the other patients. McMurphy persuades the night orderly to let Candy and another young woman onto the ward with bottles of wine and vodka for a midnight party. Billy and Candy eventually disappear into the ward’s seclusion room, and everyone falls asleep. In the morning, Nurse Ratched discovers Billy sleeping with Candy and threatens to tell his mother. Billy pleads with her not to do so. He blames Candy, McMurphy, and the others for what has happened and then, when left alone, commits suicide. McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched and is dragged away by hospital staff members.

In the denouement, many patients leave the hospital or transfer to other wards. McMurphy is lobotomized; his mindless body is smothered by Chief Bromden, who then makes good his escape.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Historical Context

The 1950s: Conformity and Change
The late 1950s, the time period in which the book was wntten and set, saw the end of a decade...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Literary Style

Point of View
Kesey seems to follow a fairly straightforward course in unfolding the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Literary Techniques

Most critics acknowledge that Kesey's great stroke of genius in writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is telling the tale from Chief...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ideas for Group Discussions

From the ethics and efficacy of electroshock therapy and prefrontal lobotomy, to the division of the women characters into prostitutes with...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Social Concerns

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reflects experiences Ken Kesey had in the early 1960s while he was living in Palo Alto, California. At...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Compare and Contrast

Early 1960s: In 1962, the Cold War reaches its most fevered pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. U.S. President John F. Kennedy...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Topics for Further Study

Write a short essay or story on what would happen if McMurphy took a job in a large corporation with a formal culture and a hierarchical...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Literary Precedents

As is typical of the modern novel. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest draws upon a variety of literary precedents. Strongly influenced by...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Related Titles

In its yoking of comic high jinks and nightmarish horror, Kesey's first novel is linked to Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Adaptations

On November 13, 1963, the two-act play adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, written by Dale Wasserman, opened at the Cort...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Media Adaptations

A play version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written by Dale Wasserman and appeared on Broadway with Kirk Douglas as McMurphy...

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest What Do I Read Next?

In the 1986 collection Demon Box, Kesey reflects on his experiences as a member of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Carnes, Bruce. Ken Kesey. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974. A short summary of the author’s two novels with emphasis on imagery.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Text and Criticism. Edited by John Clark Pratt. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Contains the text of the novel, articles on the author, and literary criticism of the novel.

Leeds, Barry H. Ken Kesey. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. A discussion of the author and his works. Beginning with a brief biography, it continues with summaries and evaluations of each of the author’s published works.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. An analysis of Kesey’s published works, emphasizing their affirmation of traditional American values, especially optimism and heroism. The chapter on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest also emphasizes the significance of Chief Bromden as the narrator.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A short introduction to the author and his works. The chapter on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest emphasizes the frontier values of self-reliance and independence.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Marcia L. Falk, in a letter to the New York Times, December 5, 1971, reprinted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's...

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