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,...
(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...
(The entire section is 941 words.)
Part 1 Summary
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of a few remarkable weeks in an Oregon insane asylum and the events that lead to the narrator's escape. A tall and broad Indian, Chief Bromden is a long-term inmate who tells the story. His insanity appears to stem from a paranoid belief in the existence of a machine, "The Combine," which controls people's behavior. He feigns deafness and dumbness in order to fight this control. In looking back on his time in the ward, he finds that he must recount the horrible experiences suffered by him and his fellow inmates. In particular he tells of the conflict between Randle McMurphy and Big Nurse Ratched.
Bromden's story begins with the day McMurphy is first admitted to the ward. McMurphy is loud and disruptive, and introduces himself as a gambling man who has only pretended to be crazy in order to get out of a work camp. He introduces himself to the "Chronics" (permanent residents), including Bromden himself, and the "Acutes" (who may still recover). McMurphy immediately attempts to take charge of the bunch by instigating a who-is-crazier-than-whom debate with Harding, an Acute who is president of the Patients Council.
Nurse Ratched knows that McMurphy represents a disruptive force on the ward, and Bromden explains her reaction to disruptive forces:
The big nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Part 2 Summary
In response to her failure, Nurse Ratched decides to wait until McMurphy realizes his fate is ultimately in her hands. At the same time, Bromden grows stronger from McMurphy's tireless example, hallucinating less and avoiding his medication. The other patients follow suit, growing more unruly and argumentative.
One day while swimming at the hospital pool, a lifeguard/inmate explains to McMurphy the danger of being permanently committed. As a result, McMurphy's unruliness seems to end. The other patients are not surprised by his change in attitude and recognize that he wants to avoid being committed. Bromden's mechanistic hallucinations return, however, and although Cheswick claims to understand McMurphy's attitude, he kills himself at the bottom of the swimming pool.
In the days following this last incident, McMurphy learns more about the contradictions of medication and other forms of treatment at the hospital. He sees the dilemma faced by epileptics regarding their medication. Harding and Billy Bibbit explain not only the horrors of shock treatment and lobotomy, but also reveal that they are voluntary detainees of the mental hospital. McMurphy is angry and confused at these revelations. When Big Nurse takes away the ward's tub room privileges in an attempt to cement her victory, McMurphy responds by smashing the window that separates the Nurse's Station from the day room.
(The entire section is 217 words.)
Part 3 Summary
In the days that follow, McMurphy continues to harass the nurse by organizing a deep-sea fishing expedition for the ward. Bromden's hallucinations recede once more, and he begins to think about joining the salmon-fishing list. He worries again about disclosing his ability to hear and talk, but eventually speaks to McMurphy almost without realizing it. McMurphy helps to build the Chief's confidence by signing his name to the fishing list, and by convincing him that he can once again feel tall and strong—strong enough, in fact, to lift the cement console in the tub room.
McMurphy surpasses several hurdles while the appointed fishing-day approaches. When one of the prostitutes hired to take them to the boat doesn't show up, McMurphy even convinces the hospital's Doctor Spivey to drive half of them to the boat and join them fishing. Along the way, they encounter unfriendly outsiders and the group awaits McMurphy's leadership to turn their morale around.
As they set sail in the fishing boat with the obsessive-compulsive George Sorensen at the helm, McMurphy reveals that the boat owner, Captain Block, has been duped, and that they will be renting the boat without his permission. After a spectacular day, Captain Block and the police await them at the docks. Doctor Spivey discourages legal action by disputing local jurisdiction and the safety of the boat. The catcallers who insulted the group upon their first arrival are humbled by the success of...
(The entire section is 295 words.)
Part 4 Summary
Nurse Ratched's response to McMurphy's success is to try to turn the men on the ward against him by demonstrating how much money he has taken from them since his arrival. As the Chief's confidence grows and, with McMurphy's help, he begins to recognize his own physical size and strength, and the bet regarding the cement console in the tub room is revived. McMurphy makes a bet that it is possible for a man to lift the console, and Bromden lifts it. McMurphy attempts to compensate the Chief with a piece of the winnings, but Bromden becomes upset, saying of McMurphy's activities on the ward, "we thought it wasn't to be winning things!"
When Big Nurse orders that the men be cleaned with a special liquid because of vermin they may have encountered on their fishing trip, a fight breaks out. Sorensen is compulsively clean and cannot bear the thought of having the strong smelling disinfectant on (or in) his body. The attendants persist and McMurphy picks a fight with one of them. When the other attendants join in, Bromden enters the fray and settles it decisively in favor of the ward. They thus provide Nurse Ratched with the excuse she needs, and she sends both of the men to the "Disturbed" ward, where they face electroshock therapy. McMurphy refuses to concede victory to Ratched by admitting his fault and undergoes several shock treatments.
Eventually, the day for Billy and Candy's late-night date arrives. The ward prepares by bribing Turkle,...
(The entire section is 385 words.)