One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Analysis

  • In many ways, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an examination of totalitarian rule. Big Nurse pretends to give her patients a say in how the ward is run, allowing them to believe that they live in a kind of democracy. In reality, however, Nurse Ratched rules the ward with an iron fist, manipulating her patients into doing exactly what she wants—and punishing those who disobey.
  • Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 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, and where Big Nurse has no qualms driving a patient to suicide after he disobeys her rules.
  • Martyrdom is a major theme in the novel. Chief Bromden, the narrator, frequently undergoes shock treatments, during which he is strapped to a table the shape of a cross. McMurphy becomes a martyr when Nurse Ratched retaliates against him, ordering his lobotomy as punishment for his attacking her. His attempt to seek justice for Billy makes him the hero of the novel. 


(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.


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.