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 in front of a blank television and have a party, making believe they are watching the game. When the Big Nurse cannot get them to move, she loses control of herself. McMurphy wins his bet, showing that she is beatable.
Shortly thereafter, McMurphy discovers that as a committed patient he can be held indefinitely. To prevent that, he begins to cooperate, no longer standing up for the other patients. One day Cheswick looks to McMurphy for support in an argument, but the Irishman stays silent. The next day Cheswick drowns himself. McMurphy feels responsible for Cheswick’s death. The decisive blow against McMurphy’s self-interested stance comes when he learns that most of the acutes are not committed but are voluntary inmates. Their problems have more to do with how they see themselves than with clinical insanity. This realization...
(The entire section is 941 words.)