One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What happens in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Chief Bromden, a Native American man being treated for schizophrenia in an Oregon mental hospital, narrates this novel about the conflict between Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. McMurphy, a former Marine, has deliberately feigned insanity in the hopes of avoiding a jail sentence. He's surprised to learn that most of the patients on the ward are voluntarily committed.

  • McMurphy has a big personality, and he makes a lot of friends on the ward, including Chief Bromden and a young, suicidal man named Billy. McMurphy's attitude gets him in trouble with Big Nurse, however. One day, he punches through the glass barrier of the nurse's station to retrieve his confiscated cigarettes.
  • Emboldened by McMurphy's acts of rebellion, the patients work up the courage to vote in favor of a fishing trip that Big Nurse has been fighting against. McMurphy leads them on this trip, giving the patients a taste of the freedom Big Nurse has taken from them.
  • McMurphy smuggles two prostitutes into the ward. While Billy has sex with one of them, the other patients play cards. Big Nurse discovers their game and ridicules Billy so cruelly that he commits suicide. McMurphy attacks Big Nurse, nearly choking her to death. In retaliation, Big Nurse has McMurphy lobotomized. The novel ends with Chief Bromden mercifully smothering McMurphy before breaking out of the ward.

Download One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 spending money. He challenges the authority of Big Nurse, the ward superintendent, whose fake smile and feigned concern turns men against one another, preys on their fears, and weakens their nerve. To counter her techniques, McMurphy provides a model of rebellion; he uses laughter, comic exaggeration, and absurdist acts to build up the inmates’ sense of manhood and teach self-reliance. He defies Big Nurse openly, breaks her rules, and wins the admiration of the men, who slowly begin to join in his acts of defiance.

The knowledge that most of the inmates are voluntary admits, whereas he is committed until released by Big Nurse, at first cows McMurphy, but when Big Nurse once more begins to undercut the men, the con man gives way to the hero. McMurphy “blows up big as a house” (a Chief Bromden metaphor for power) and smashes his fist through the glass barrier of Big Nurse’s station to retrieve his confiscated cigarettes. The inmates...

(The entire section is 1,141 words.)