Illustration of Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

by Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Characters

The main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are Randle McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Chief Bromden, and Billy Babbit.

  • Randle McMurphy is a conman who comes into conflict with Nurse Ratched after feigning insanity to get out of hard labor in prison.
  • Nurse Ratched is the dictatorial head nurse of the ward. She has McMurphy lobotomized after he attacks her.
  • Chief Bromden is the physically imposing and selectively mute Native American narrator of the novel. After McMurphy's lobotomy, Bromden smothers him with a pillow before escaping from the hospital.
  • Billy Bibbit is a weak-willed man who is driven to suicide by Nurse Ratched.

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Characters Discussed

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Chief Bromden

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

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

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

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

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.


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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 Chief perceives that the once godlike McMurphy seems more human, his face showing strain and exhaustion. In a sense, McMurphy becomes victimized by the men's need for a hero. Thus when he finally attacks the Big Nurse, the Chief observes, "We couldn't stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was . . . pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters." Given the unconquerable strength of the Combine, the savior must die, but he leaves behind disciples to continue the fight. And, as Terence Martin notes in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the High Cost of Living" (Modern Fiction Studies 19 [1973]: 53-55), McMurphy also leaves a valuable legacy — "manhood, friendship suffused with affection, and, finally, love."

McMurphy's nemesis, the antagonist of Cuckoo's Nest is Nurse Ratched. Her name sounding like a cog wheel mechanism, the Big Nurse is herself like a piece of equipment, with her "smooth, calculated, and precision-made" face and her automatic gestures. A priestess of the Combine, she wields power with a vengeance, sanctioning the abusive actions of the black attendants and using electroshock therapy and lobotomies to instill order. Her emotional sterility is represented by her starched white uniform that hides her large breasts, the bitter reminder of her femininity. While McMurphy attempts to build the manhood of the patients, she treats them like children. Whereas he tries to establish community among them, she encourages them to tear each other apart in group therapy sessions. Characterized along the lines of a comic book arch-villain, Nurse Ratched is Kesey's version of the Repressive Mother, inhibiting mature sexuality, responsibility, and freedom.

The most fully developed character in the novel is the narrator. Chief Bromden. As the novel opens, Kesey's Vanishing American, tauntingly called Chief Broom by the black orderlies, is no more than "a six-foot-eight sweeping machine" who pretends to be deaf and dumb and who hides at every opportunity. Many events have contributed to the Chief's loss of selfhood. From the time he was a ten year old attempting to speak to government officials, white society has ignored him. He had to witness the shrinking of his father, Chief Tee Ah Millatoona, made small by his white wife, alcohol, and the Combine. He lost his life-sustaining connections with nature as the government took away his homeland in the Columbia Gorge and built a hydroelectric dam. During his Army service in Europe, he became frightened by the machine that sent white clouds of fog over the airfields, obscuring his vision and making him feel alone. Thus the Chief's schizophrenia seems a reasonable response to the inhumanity he has suffered. However, only McMurphy recognizes the Chief's manhood, first shaking his hand, then causing him to laugh, and eventually making him big again. Thus it is appropriate that there is a transfer of power, as McMurphy's principal disciple smothers his lobotomized master, rips the control panel out of the floor, heaves it through the window, and goes running toward the highway to recapture his lost heritage. It is through the Chief's characterization that Kesey presents the lesson of his parable — that one must affirm life, facing its risks and challenges head-on.

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