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 Analysis

  • The novel can be read as an examination of totalitarian rule, with Big Nurse representing a dictator who exerts total control over the lives of the patients.
  • Ken Kesey wrote the novel in part to expose the deplorable conditions of mental health facilities. McMurphy and the other patients in the novel live in an institution where abuse, neglect, and manipulation are a matter of course.
  • Maryrdom is a prevalent motif in the novel. Chief Bromden, the narrator, is strapped to a table the shape of a cross for his shock treatments. McMurphy becomes a martyr when Big Nurse has him lobotomized. 


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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.


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

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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...

(This entire section contains 585 words.)

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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.


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.


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.

Places Discussed

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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.

Form and Content

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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.

Historical Context

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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 in which people outside the mainstream were often viewed with suspicion. The United States was engaged in a "cold war" with the Soviet Union, in which relations were tense and hostile even though no open warfare was declared. Americans feared the possibility of a nuclear conflict, and people identified as communist sympathizers—"reds"— were frequently ostracized and even persecuted for their supposed beliefs by government committees such as that headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. But toward the end of the decade, a national rebellion against civil injustice and cultural mediocrity was in the making. Young people in particular began questioning the values and beliefs of those in power. One such group of people were the Beat Generation, who expressed their dissatisfaction with society through art, dress, and nonviolent action. Poetry readings were a common forum beatniks used to communicate their ideas, and Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem "Howl" articulated what many people saw as the moral and social problems of the time.

Groups such as the Beat Generation became part of a larger movement known as the counterculture. What began as a band of political protesters eventually gave rise in the 1960s to the hippies, a group dedicated to peace, love, and the quest to expand one's inner horizons through the use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD. Kesey's experiences bridged the two groups, for he was a subject in a scientific experiment on the effects of LSD—lysergic acid diethylamide-25, one of the most potent mind-altering chemicals known. The drug had been discovered in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann, and scientists determined that when carefully regulated, LSD was nonfatal and could even be used in the treatment of such psychological disorders as schizophrenia. In treating these disorders, however, successful results were often marred by the sometimes dramatic and unpleasant reactions—usually manifested in visual and/or audible hallucinations—that would accompany them. To the rising counterculture of the 1960s, LSD served as a way to help explore their own minds and expand their horizons. However, the hallucinations could induce aggressive, even dangerous, behavior in users, who also were prone to uncontrollable "flashback" episodes. LSD has been a controlled substance—illegal to make, distribute, sell, or possess—since 1966, and Kesey himself has since disavowed the use of drugs, saying that the costs far exceed the benefits.

Mental Illness and Its Treatment For many years in the United States, mental illness was often ignored or misinterpreted; treatment often consisted of nothing more than chaining or caging the sufferer. During the mid-1800s, attitudes regarding the mentally ill slowly began to change. Thanks to the efforts of humanitarian reformers such as Dorothea Dix, millions of dollars were raised to establish state mental institutions capable of caring for large numbers of patients. After World War II, when more soldiers were medically discharged because of neuropsychiatric disorders than for any other reason, the medical community began to more closely evaluate the conditions that existed in the mental health care system.

In the 1950s, advances in pharmaceuticals led to more methods of treatment for mental patients; in 1956, more patients were being discharged from U.S. mental institutions than admitted for the first time in over a century, many aided by prescribed drugs to manage irrational behavior. In addition to medication, the use of electroshock therapy and psychosurgery were common treatments for psychiatric disorders. Electroshock therapy, or ECT, was discovered in 1937 by two Italian psychiatrists who thought to apply an electrical charge directly to the brain. Despite the harsh stigma that has been unfairly associated with this type of treatment—in Kesey's novel it is seen as a means of punishment rather than a cure—the use of electroshock therapy has proven immensely successful in cases involving moderate to severe bouts of depression. Others argue that its side effects make it one of the more barbaric forms of legal medical procedures in the modern age.

A third mode of treatment, and by far the most controversial, is the destruction of certain cells or fibers in the brain through surgical measures. At the onset, this technique was labeled a "lobotomy" because it required the removal of the frontal lobe of the brain. Later, with modern, more precise means of locating desired tissues, it is more commonly referred to as psychosurgery. The first lobotomy on record was performed in the United States in 1936 by Dr. Walter Freeman. Although original results proved successful in calming down patients with highly energetic or exceedingly violent personalities, soon physicians began noticing undesirable effects on the patient's mental and physical health. These effects are epitomized by Kesey's character McMurphy after his experience in undergoing such surgery.

Literary Style

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Point of View Kesey seems to follow a fairly straightforward course in unfolding the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Except for a few flashbacks and digressions, the story is essentially told from beginning to end. The first-person ("I") narrator Chief Bromden, however, is a schizophrenic—a person prone to hallucinations and delusions. As a result, the reader is sometimes unsure whether some of the events he describes really happened or not. After all, Chief believes he sees small mechanical items inside the capsules of medicine he receives and believes that a machine is responsible for creating the "fog" that enfolds his perceptions. Having Chief as a narrator also adds to the development of the story, however, for told through his eyes, the story unfolds in part through Chief's changing emotional and intellectual state. After McMurphy leads the revolt over the World Series, for example, Chief notes that "there's no more fog any place," implying that McMurphy is actually helping to bring sanity to the ward.

Setting The setting plays a pivotal role in the novel, especially because it rarely changes. By keeping the action in one place—the Chronic/Acute Ward of a mental institution—Kesey is able to create a whole society in miniature. As the novel opens, this society is an ordered holding pen for men who have various degrees of mental illness. When the outsider McMurphy arrives, he brings the monotonous, repetitive qualities of this setting into focus. Only on one occasion does the action take place outside of the hospital, when the men go on the fishing party. With the vivid descriptions of this trip, the pace picks up as the men come alive. This provides further contrast to life on the ward, which is increasingly seen as cruel and dehumanizing. The author further enriches the setting with language that is strong, concrete, direct, and vivid. It brings the reader right into the midst of the action.

Characterization The portrayal of the inmates of the institution, for the most part, are real and believable. Some are modeled on patients Kesey observed while doing night supervisory duty on a mental ward. For instance, the behavior of George Sorenson, known as "Rub-a-Dub," who is so concerned about cleanliness he won't touch anyone, is an example of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Especially moving is Chief's slow awakening to a validation of himself as a person, after experiencing years of racial slurs and physical degradation. The novel's portrayal of female and African American characters, however, is more problematic. Women are either control freaks who emasculate the men around them, such as Nurse Ratched, Vera Harding, and Billy Bibbit's mother, or objects for sexual gratification, such as the two hookers Candy and Sandy. The "black boys" Chief describes are alternately servile to their boss, Nurse Ratched, and cruel to the patients, showing no emotion but hatred. While Mr. Turkle's character is more sympathetic, he too is portrayed as fearful of authority and responsibility. While broad stereotypes such as these serve a purpose in creating a satire such as Cuckoo's Nest, they have still led to accusations of sexism and racism.

Literary Techniques

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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 Bromden's perspective. In a letter to his friend Ken Babbs, Kesey explains that he originally tried using the conventional point of view of an aide, then rejected the idea when he "realized how much the narrative sounded like other promising young writer narrative." According to Kesey, the decision to use the Chief as a first person narrator was drug-inspired: "I was flying on peyote, really strung out there, when this Indian came to me. I know nothing about Indians, had no Indians on my mind, had nothing that an Indian could even grab onto, yet this Indian came to me. . . . The Indian came straight out from the drug." However much the peyote contributed to the narrative technique, Kesey's choice of point of view places the book in the tradition of such novels as Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1S51), Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, (1946) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) in that the narrator serves both as a vehicle for evaluating the seemingly larger-than-life protagonist and as a significant character in his own right. Chief Brom den is one of many narrators in American literature who feel compelled to relate the story of a great man and in so doing reveal their personal development.

Two aspects of Kesey's handling of point of view are particularly noteworthy. One, derived primarily from Faulkner, is the fragmented chronology that frequently shifts between the present and the past. Thus as the Chief tells of McMurphy's exploits, in flashbacks he reveals pieces of his early life that clarify why he is in a psychiatric ward. The second is Kesey's ability to reveal Chief Bromden's schizophrenia — a schizophrenia that seems the only sane response to a mad world. What the Chief reveals to the reader is "the truth even if it didn't happen." That truth encompasses nightmare visions of wires, transistors, and dynamos — indeed, a veritable factory beneath the floor of the hospital — and fearful retreats into passivity brought on by the fog machine. The hallucinations and retreats presented throughout the first half of the book gradually become a means of measuring the Chief's development, for as the novel progresses, the narrative voice becomes more articulate, more perceptive about others, and more in contact with reality.

The structure of Cuckoo's Nest evolves from two related narrative movements: the mythic ascendance and then sacrificial death of the scapegoat hero McMurphy and the patients' transformation from rabbits to protesters against the Combine, with emphasis upon Chief Bromden's emergence from his deaf and dumb guise. The novel is divided into four parts, each developing the conflict between McMurphy and the Big Nurse. Part I establishes the antagonism between the boisterous former prisoner and the calm and cold Nurse Ratched, ending with McMurphy's victorious disruption of standard procedure in getting the majority of the patients to vote to watch the World Series on television. In Part II Mac loses some of his bravado when he learns that he is committed and can only be released from the hospital at Nurse Ratched's will. Content for a while, the hero, however, soon realizes he has an obligation to the men and thus returns to battle again in smashing his fist through the window of the Nurses' station. McMurphy's power escalates in Part III in which he secures a temporary freedom for the men when he takes them on a fishing trip. Finally, in Part IV the combat ends. After one last skirmish in which McMurphy assaults Nurse Ratched, she orders a lobotomy. However, her triumph is incomplete, for many of the men check themselves out of the hospital and the Chief, fully restored to strength, vaults out of the hospital window to freedom.

Unity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest emanates from Kesey's elaborate use of motifs. The predominant imagery pattern is of electronics, machines, and human robots, which Kesey employs to portray the pervasive strength of the Combine. In counterpart are numerous nature images, especially of baptismal water. To define the difference between unhealthy and healthy attitudes towards sexuality, Kesey juxtaposes references to Nurse Ratched's attempts to restrain her big breasts, the blacks' fondness of Vaseline and thermometers, Harding's fear of latent homosexuality, and Bill Bibbit's virginity with reminders of McMurphy's prodigious sexual appetite, for example his recollection of his sexual initiation at the age of ten and his deck of cards depicting fifty-two positions. Other motifs establishing Mac's vitality include his singing, his smell of sweat, and his laughter. Strength and weakness is an important dichotomy in the novel, which Kesey conveys through descriptions of hands and physical size. McMurphy's large, scarred hands seem to pass strength to others, and his brawny physique evokes their admiration. Most affected is the Chief, who used to be big, shrank in the hospital, and then through McMurphy's inspiration grows once again. Characterization in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest depends greatly upon animal imagery. The men are cuckoos in their insanity, chickens in their pecking at each other in therapy sessions, and rabbits in their fear of the Big Nurse, "a good strong wolf." Both Chief Bromden and McMurphy are associated with dogs to emphasize their reliance on instincts and their closeness to nature. Also like the dog who runs towards a car, they may be destroyed by a machine. Another animal image used to describe McMurphy is the "bull goose loony," the leader of the flock. To portray the suffering of the patients, Kesey uses a chain of suicides, beginning with Rawler's self-castration, moving to Cheswick's drowning, then progressing to Bill Bibbit's slitting of his throat, and culminating in McMurphy's "suicidal" attempt at strangling the Big Nurse. Also reflecting the plight of the men are allusions to the Crucifixion, associated with electroshock therapy. As the novel unfolds, McMurphy becomes a Christlike figure, leading his twelve disciples in fishing and ultimately sacrificing his life so that they may be saved.

Social Concerns

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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 the suggestion of Vik Lovell, a psychology graduate student, Kesey volunteered to participate in experiments with "psychomimetic" drugs being conducted by the government at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park. There he was given a number of hallucinogens and asked to report on their effects. Soon Kesey became fascinated with drug-induced transcendence and began to take LSD, peyote, and mescaline on his own. In 1961, also at the suggestion of Lovell, Kesey took a job as a night attendant on the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Hospital. Disturbed by the dehumanizing treatment of the patients, Kesey decided to write a novel about them, even going so far as to undergo, in secret, electroshock therapy to render his portrayal credible. In Kesey's Garage Sale (1973), the author claims that McMurphy was the product of his imagination, but that his protagonist was "inspired by the tragic longing of the real men I worked with on the ward, the sketches of whom, both visual and verbal, came more easily to my hand than anything before or since, and those sketches gradually enclosed for me the outline of the hero they wanted." Part of Kesey's motivation in writing the novel was to criticize certain methods of psychiatric treatment that he found cruel or ineffective, including the use of sedatives, community therapy, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies.

Compare and Contrast

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Early 1960s: In 1962, the Cold War reaches its most fevered pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposes a naval blockade on Cuba after discovering evidence of Soviet missile construction on the island, and the U.S.S.R. goes on special military alert.

Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia, the largest country left from the Soviet breakup, has a democratically elected president. The Russian government's biggest problems are paying their military, funding the government, and rising organized crime.

Early 1960s: After the government shuts down official studies of LSD in the late 1950s, research into the effects of the hallucinogenic drug is carried on at a few universities. The drug, still legal, becomes popular with young people, particularly members of the "counterculture."

Today: A controlled substance since 1966, LSD is illegal throughout the United States. Although its popularity has largely been replaced by drugs like cocaine and heroin, its use has increased over the last decade.

Early 1960s: New thinking on the nature of mental illness—that it might not be medically related to the brain—leads to a decrease in the number of institutionalized patients. Where in 1955 half of all hospital beds were occupied by the mentally ill, over the next two decades there is a 65% reduction in the number of mental patients, many of whom end up on the street.

Today: Many forms of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, have been traced to malfunctions in specific areas of the brain. Researchers have even located the genes which, if defective, can lead to certain types of mental illness. In 1997, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that 20-25% of all homeless people have some form of mental illness.

Literary Precedents

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As is typical of the modern novel. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest draws upon a variety of literary precedents. Strongly influenced by the oral tradition, especially the anecdotes of his Grandpa Kesey and his Grandmother Smith, Kesey is a natural storyteller. In fact, he likes to refer to himself as a "parabolist," who believes "passing off what-might-be-true as fiction" is preferable to "passing off what-is-quite-possibly-fiction as truth." With its many allusions to the Gospels, Cuckoo's Nest is like a parable in its preaching of the importance of loving one's fellow-man. Also from the oral tradition comes Kesey's characterization of McMurphy, which owes much to American folk heroes such as Paul Bunyan and to that mythic figure of the Western frontier — the cowboy. Pop culture, as manifested in cartoons, comic books, and television adventure series, also has inspired Kesey's characterization.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest bears affinities to four major genres: the romance, the picaresque, tragedy, and comedy. The oppositions of the individual vs. society, nature vs. civilization, and emotion vs. rationality recall the romance, as does the blending of fantasy and reality. The situation of an outcast disrupting a stable community is reminiscent of the picaresque. The martyred hero's willing self-sacrifice to save others is tragic. However, the genre to which Kesey's novel is most indebted is comedy. Among the comic devices are the caricatured characterizations, the reversal of traditional male-female and black-white roles, and the inversion of sane and insane, the human and the mechanical. As Ronald Wallace indicates in his excellent study The Last Laugh: Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel (1979), Kesey's book belongs to a group of contemporary works that "affirm laughter as a weapon against defeat and despair."

The best source for learning of individual writers that influenced Kesey is a section of Kesey's Garage Sale entitled "Tools from My Chest," originally published in The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. In that piece, Kesey confesses that of the modern writers, "Faulkner is my favorite." Indebted to Faulkner's rendering of the consciousness of Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest similarly presents the consciousness of a disturbed mentality in using the schizophrenic Chief Bromden as the narrator.

Another twentieth-century literary master who influenced Kesey is Ernest Hemingway, of whom Kesey advises readers: ". . . don't be misled by the bodies of bullfighters or the riddled remains of soldiers; look instead for live trout on the bottom vibrating against the clean current, or bacon fat going cold on a veteran's breakfast place, or old boards going sharp into focus through a pair of binoculars: in those delicate transitions where nothing actually moves you may find something of the slow and gentle old giant." The precision and evocativeness of the images in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the celebration of physical vitality in the fishing expedition of Part III bear the stamp of Hemingway.

A third writer to whom Kesey gives high praise, calling him "the only writer that had really done anything new with writing since Shakespeare," is William Burroughs. Kesey shares Burroughs's outrage at oppressive systems and interest in hallucinatory experimentation. More general influences include the Bible, Eastern mystical writings, and the Transcendentalist essays of Emerson and Thoreau.


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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 Theatre in New York. Wasserman had striven to be faithful to Kesey's novel, capturing the Chief's hallucinatory point of view by having him appear at various moments on a dark stage illuminated by a single ray of light, as a tape recording of his voice expresses his inner anxieties. However, Wasserman did have to make some adjustments for the stage. Most significant were omitting the fishing expedition and combining the characters of Ruckley and Ellis. Although having a talented cast, headed by Kirk Douglas as McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest received poor reviews and closed after only three months. However, a revised version ran with success in San Francisco in 1969. Then two years later, the play was produced off-Broadway at the Mercer-Hansberry Theatre with William Devane as Mac. Wasserman's adaptation has since been performed successfully across the United States by amateur and professional companies.

Impetus for the movie adaptation came from Kirk Douglas, who, recognizing the power of Kesey's novel, bought the film rights for $18,000 in 1962. The project did not get off the ground, however, until Kirk Douglas turned it over to his son Michael, who with Saul Zaentz produced the movie for United Artists in 1975. The film began in controversy because of interpretational disagreements between Kesey and the producers, along with Director Milos Forman. Kesey was hired as screenwriter, but when he discovered that the producers wanted to portray the psychiatric ward realistically, ignoring the Chief's schizophrenic perspective, he quit. Later he sued Douglas and Zaentz for using his name without his permission and won.

The movie's most radical departures from the novel were the casting of the young and attractive Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched and the reduction of Chief Bromdens role. The movie does not explore the Chief's background as the novel does. The movie is most striking in its visual effects, particularly the hospital scenes which use real patients, the two humorous basketball sequences in which McMurphy teaches the Chief to shoot, the joyous fishing expedition, and the Chief's dramatic smothering of Mac. A hit at the box office, the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, Best Actress for Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, and Best Screenplay adapted from another medium written by Lawrence Haube and Bo Goldman.

There are several sound recordings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest available. One is a 1986 version in the Listen for Pleasure series, with Michael Moriarty as reader. Another is a 1992 version from Recorded Books, with Mark Hammer as reader. In 1993 Penguin in the High Bridge Audio series issued a special thirtieth anniversary audio edition, with Kesey reading his novel.

Media Adaptations

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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 in 1963; the play was revived in 1971. Published by Samuel French, 1970.

An acclaimed film version of Cuckoo's Nest appeared in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. Named best film of the year at the Academy Awards, the film also won Oscars for the two leads, as well as director Milos Forman and screenwriter Bo Goldman. It is available from Republic Pictures Home Video.


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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Marcia L. Falk, in a letter to the New York Times, December 5, 1971, reprinted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Text and Criticism by Ken Kesey, edited by John Clark Pratt, Viking, 1973, pp 450-53.

Thomas H. Fick, "The Hipster, the Hero, and the Psychic Frontier in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 43, Nos. 1-2, 1989, pp. 19-32.

R. A. Jellrffe, review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in Chicago Sunday Tribune, February 4, 1962, p. 3.

Barry H. Leeds, "Theme and Technique in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Connecticut Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 35-50.

Martin Levin, review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1962, p. 32.

Richard D. Maxwell, "The Abdication of Masculinity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in Twenty-Seven to One, edited by Bradford C. Broughton, Ryan Press, 1970, pp. 203-11.

Julian Moynahan, "Only in America," in New York Review of Books, Vol. III, No. 2, September 10, 1964, pp. 14-15.

A review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in Time, Vol. 79, February 16, 1962, p. 90.

Janet Sutherland, "A Defense of Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" in English Journal, Vol. 61, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 28-31.

Ronald Wallace, "What Laughter Can Do: Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" in his The Last Laugh: Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel, University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 90-114.

For Further Study John A. Bareness, "Ken Kesey: The Hero in Modern Dress," in Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, pp. 27-33. Argues that the novel is an updated version of the Western and its cowboy hero.

Annette Benert, "The Forces of Fear: Kesey's Anatomy of Insanity," in Lex et Scientta , Vol. 13, Nos. 1-2, January-June, 1977, pp. 22-26. Analyzes the novel's connections to fear of woman, fear of the machine, and glorification of the hero.

Robert Boyers, "Porno-Politics," in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, No. 376, March, 1968, pp. 36-52. Examines the novel's attitudes towards sex and the linkages between sexuality and laughter.

Leslie A. Fiedler, in his The Return of the Vanishing American, Stein & Day, 1968. Fiedler's views on the mythic relationships in Cuckoo's Nest are almost as well-known as the novel itself.

Benjamin Goluboff, "The Carnival Artist in The Cuckoo's Nest," in Northwest Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1991, pp. 109-122. A contemporary reading of the novel employing the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas of the carnivalesque.

Leslie Horst, "Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex-Role Failure and Caricature," in Lex et Scientta , Vol. 13, Nos. 1-2, January-June, 1977, pp. 14-17. This essay frankly confronts the novel's narrow portrayals of sex roles, both masculine and feminine.

Ken Kesey, Kesey's Garage Sale, Viking, 1973. Contains stories and interviews, as well as a screenplay.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Text and Criticism by Ken Kesey, edited by John Clark Pratt, Viking, 1973, pp. 450-53. An edition of the novel that includes repnnts of important early critical essays on the novel.

Irving Malin, "Ken Kesey 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" in Critique, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1962, pp. 81-84. Irving's essay situates the novel in the mode of the New Amencan Gothic, which "gives us violent juxtapositions, distorted vision, even prophecy."

Carol Pearson, "The Cowboy Saint and the Indian Poet: The Comic Hero in Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 1, No. 2, October, 1974, pp. 91-98. Employs the myth of the king, the hero, and fool to an understanding of the novel.

M. Gilbert Porter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rising to Heroism, Twayne Masterwork Studies No. 22, Twayne, 1989. A book-length study of Kesey's novel which explores the concept of heroism in the novel.

Terry G Sherwood, '"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and the Comic Strip," in Critique, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1971, pp. 96-109. A clever analysis of the role of comic books and comic book figures in the novel.

Joseph J. Waldmeir, "Two Novels of the Absurd: Heller and Kesey," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1964, pp. 192-204. This essay argues that Kesey's novel is in fact a better example of the absurd than Heller's Catch-22.

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Farrar, Strauss, 1968. Wolfe's "New Journalism" novel about Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.




Critical Essays