One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel)

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Title One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Recent US paperback edition cover
Recent paperback edition
Author Ken Kesey
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Viking Press
Released 1962
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ( 1962) is a fictional novel by Ken Kesey. The novel is set in an Oregon asylum, and serves as a study of the institutional process and the human mind. It was made into a film in 1975 by Miloš Forman, after being made into a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963.

Its epigraph is:

…one flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.

Plot introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a direct product of Kesey's time working as an orderly at a mental-health facility in Menlo Park, California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, he received electroconvulsive therapy and took psychoactive drugs as well as the same drugs as the patients to gain a deeper insight into their lives.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Narrated by the schizophrenic Columbian Indian "Chief" Bromden (who starts out pretending to be deaf and mute), much of the plot focuses on the antics of cheerfully rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, a man sent from a workfarm prison to a mental hospital. The all-male asylum, based upon the old Pendleton, Oregon asylum (now the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution), is run by the domineering Nurse Ratched and her assistants, who are described as young black men filled with hatred. McMurphy constantly antagonizes the Nurse, attempting to organize the patients against her rule.

One night, after bribing the night orderly, McMurphy smuggles bottles of liquor and two prostitutes onto the ward for a wild nighttime party. Billy Bibbit loses his virginity, sleeping with one of the prostitutes at McMurphy's urging. However, McMurphy's plans quickly go awry when he falls asleep and does not awake until the morning staff returns and discovers what has happened. Nurse Ratched walks in on Billy Bibbit and the prostitute, still asleep, and threatens to tell Billy's mother what he has done. Hearing this, Billy enters a frenzied state, and when taken to the Doctor's office, slits his throat and commits suicide. It is implied that Nurse Ratched intended for Billy to kill himself in order that she might regain control of the ward. As such, McMurphy dutifully attacks her, ripping open her shirt and severely injuring her throat and face. McMurphy is promptly taken to the Disturbed ward and undergoes a lobotomy.

When McMurphy returns, he is wheeled onto the ward on a bed, now in a sort of vegetative state. Chief realizes that if McMurphy remains in that state, Nurse Ratched will have ultimately won; conversely, if Chief kills McMurphy, McMurphy cannot become a symbol of Nurse Ratched's power. In the final moments of the novel, Chief smothers McMurphy and uses the strength McMurphy restored in him to break the ward's window and escape into the night. Despite McMurphy's ultimate sacrifice, the consequent redemption of the patients, particularly Chief, provides an uplifting conclusion to the novel.


Chief Bromden The novel's towering Native-American narrator, Chief "Broom" (so-called because he does nothing but sweep all day) is the son of a real chief and a white woman. He narrates One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with a variety of bizarre metaphors, often comparing the people and surroundings of the ward in terms of secret, mind-controlling machinery, named the combine. Because Native Americans are stereotypically portrayed as in touch with Nature, Chief's mechanistic descriptions of the ward pit Nature and Technology against one another, which respectively symbolize sanity and insanity, the individual and society. Chief's ultimate recovery and victory over the ward and Nurse Ratched likewise symbolizes the individual's triumph over a totalitarian society. Like many of the novel's other "insane" characters, Chief's condition began as a result of a traumatic experience with a female figure in his life. As a child, government officials repeatedly tried and failed to buy the tribe's land from Chief's father. Ultimately, however, Chief's mother forces her husband to give in, and after he sells the land, he turns to a life of alcoholism. His white wife's conquest over him is symbolic both of the white man's abuse of Native Americans and, per Chief's symbolism, the victory of society over the individual. When the young chief tries to tell the government officials to leave, they ignore him. This, compounded with the defeat of his idolized father, causes Chief to lose faith in himself and the individual, and he retreats into the silence and safety of the metaphorical fog he often describes as permeating the ward.

When McMurphy and his ideas of individuality restore Chief's self-confidence, Chief regains his former stature and is able to escape the ward.

Randle Patrick McMurphy A fun-loving, swaggering convict sent from a prison. He is sexist, racist, forceful, and guilty of battery and gambling (he had also been charged with, but never convicted of, statutory rape). The fact that the girl refused to testify in the case implies that she did not feel taken advantage of, so this does not damage his character for the other protagonists. McMurphy is transferred from a prison work farm to the hospital, thinking it will be an easy way to serve out his sentence. He has a fine time hustling the patients, until he realizes that he is more than a diversion for them; he gives them the lives they are too afraid to live for themselves. In the end, McMurphy's determination to fight Nurse Ratched costs him his freedom, his health, and ultimately, his life.

The staff

Nurse Ratched: see Nurse Ratched

Washington, Williams, and Warren Three black men who work as aides in the ward. Williams is a dwarf, his growth stunted after witnessing his mother's rape by white men. The Chief says Nurse Ratched hired them for their capacity to hate. They are cruel and vindictive men who are unable to dominate McMurphy.

Dr. Spivey The spineless ward doctor. While Nurse Ratched managed to drive off all the other doctors, she kept Spivey because he always did as he was told. Harding suggests that the nurse may threaten to expose him as a drug addict, though whether he really is an addict is unknown. McMurphy's rebellion inspires him. He stands up to Nurse Ratched and accompanies the men on their fishing trip.

Nurse Pilbow The night nurse for the ward. Her face, neck and chest are stained with a profound birthmark. She is intensely Catholic, and, according to the Chief, spends her time off praying for the birthmark to disappear or scrubbing it furiously until her skin bleeds. She blames the patients for infecting her with their evil, and takes it out on them. Both McMurphy and Harding have a crush on her.

The Japanese Nurse A tiny woman, she runs the upstairs ward, which is reserved for violent or otherwise unmanageable patients. She treats her patients kindly and openly opposes Nurse Ratched's methods.

The PR man A strange individual who is responsible for the hospital's public relations. The patients suspect he wears a corset and sometimes he laughs hysterically when there are no other staff around. In a nightmare, the Chief sees him cut off the testicles of a dead patient as a trophy.

Geever The night aide. He is the one who discovers that the Chief is hiding old wads of gum under his bed.

Mr. Turkle An elderly African American man, he works the late, late shift in the ward. He agrees to allow McMurphy to host a party and sneak in prostitutes one night if the incentive is right. He is a marijuana user, and shares his joint with some of the patients during the party.

The "Acutes"

The acutes are patients who can still be cured. With few exceptions, they are there voluntarily.

Billy Bibbit A patient at the institution with an extreme speech impediment. Billy cuts himself and has attempted suicide numerous times. Nurse Ratched is a close friend of his mother, therefore leaving him powerless and almost voiceless. His mother treats him like he is a teenager, though in reality he is actually in his thirties. To alleviate Billy's fear of women, McMurphy sneaks a prostitute into the ward so Billy can lose his virginity. Upon being discovered the next morning, Billy speaks for the first time without stuttering. It is only after Nurse Ratched mentions Billy's mother that he loses his new confidence, and resorts back to his nervous ways. Unable to handle the pressure of his fear of his mother, and the control of the Big Nurse, Billy breaks down and takes his own life.

Dale Harding The unofficial leader of the patients before McMurphy arrives. Harding is a pretty man who is ashamed of his secret homosexual tendencies. Harding's gorgeous wife is a source of shame for him; he cannot pleasure her, making him feel even less like a man.

George Sorensen A Swedish man with germaphobia. He spends his days washing his hands in the ward's drinking fountain. McMurphy manages to convince him to lead a fishing expedition for the patients. Afterwards, the staff try to forcibly delouse him, conscious of the mental anguish that they are causing him. The de-lousing is mainly retribution by the nurse rather than medical care. McMurphy and the Chief stop the de-lousing and, because of their actions, end up in the Disturbed ward.

Cheswick A loudmouth patient always demanding change in the ward, but who never has the guts to see anything through. He finds a friend in McMurphy. When McMurphy is seen to be backing down in his fight against the nurse, Cheswick drowns himself in the swimming pool.

Martini A patient who suffers from severe hallucinations. He frightens McMurphy by talking about all the people who need McMurphy to see them, that is, the people who need McMurphy to stand up for them.

Scanlon A patient obsessed with bombs and destruction. Aside from McMurphy and Bromden, he is the only non-vegetative patient there by force, the rest could leave at anytime. It is Scanlon who convinces the Chief to escape.

Sefelt and Fredrickson Two epileptic patients. Bruce Sefelt refuses to take his anti-seizure medication, as it makes his hair and teeth fall out. He is plagued by seizures, which the Chief believes are controlled by Nurse Ratched. Fredrickson takes Sefelt's share of the medication, because he is terrified of the seizures.

Max Taber A patient who was released before McMurphy arrived. The Chief recalls how, after questioning what was in his medication, Nurse Ratched had him 'fixed.' He walked out of the hospital a sane man, a tribute to the Combine's awesome and terrible power.

The "Chronics"

The chronics are patients who will never be cured; they are held at the asylum to intimidate the Acutes and to remind them that they could be in the Chronics' place if they don't comply. Many of the chronics are in vegetative states.

Chief Bromden (See above)

Ruckly A hell-raising patient who challenges the rules until his lobotomy. After the lobotomy, he sits and stares at a picture of his wife, and occasionally screams profanities. He is kept in the ward as a reminder of what happens to patients who get out of line.

Ellis Ellis was put in a vegetative state by electroshock therapy. He stands against the wall in a Christ-like position (arms outstretched, hands cupped), day after day, as if he were nailed there.

Pete Bancini Bancini suffered brain damage at birth, but managed to hold down simple jobs until he was institutionalized. He sits, wagging his head and complaining how tired he is. The Chief remembers how once, and only once, he lashed out violently against the aides, telling the other patients that he was a living miscarriage, born dead.

Rawler A patient on the disturbed ward, he says nothing but "loo, loo, loo!" all day and tries to run up the walls. The Chief believes he has been wired to receive radio transmissions. One night Rawler castrates himself while sitting on the toilet and bleeds to death before anyone realizes what he has done.

Old Blastic An old patient who is in a vegetative state. The first night McMurphy is in the ward, Bromden dreams Blastic is hung by his heel and sliced open, spilling out his rusty guts. The next morning it is revealed that Blastic died during the night.

The Lifeguard An ex-professional football player, he still has the cleat marks on his forehead from the injury that scrambled his brains. While he is the lifeguard at the hospital pool, he remains in the disturbed ward because he occasionally tackles the nurses. This is fine with him, because he doesn't realize he's in a mental hospital. It is the lifeguard who tells McMurphy that he will stay in the hospital until Nurse Ratched decides he may go, regardless of his original prison sentence.

Colonel Matterson The oldest patient in the ward, he suffers from severe senile dementia and cannot move without a wheelchair. He spends his days "explaining" objects ("Mexico ... is a walnut."). The Chief believes there is logic to his babbling.

Supporting characters

Candy The prostitute that McMurphy brings on the fishing trip. All the men in the ward, including the doctor and the vegetative chronics, are struck by her beauty. Billy obviously has a crush on her, and McMurphy arranges for her to visit Billy in private (after paying McMurphy a fee).

Sandy Another prostitute and friend of McMurphy, she shows up with Candy on the night of the party. She and Sefelt sleep together (Sefelt has a seizure while they are having sexual intercourse, giving Sandra an experience she'll never forget).

Spoilers end here.


Some common themes include the following:

  • Masculine sexual power
  • The power of women
  • Promiscuity
  • Size (both literal and perceived)
  • Hallucination
  • Insanity
  • Self-indulgence vs. sacrifice
  • Freedom vs. control
  • Society (particularly American) vs. the Individual, and its effects. (Main Theme)


  • ISBN 0-606-04239-3 ( prebound, 1962)
  • ISBN 0-451-16396-6 ( mass market paperback, 1963)
  • ISBN 0-14-004312-8 ( paperback, 1977, reprint)
  • ISBN 0-14-023601-5 ( hardcover, 1996)
  • ISBN 1-55651-685-1 (paperback, 1988)
  • ISBN 0-453-00815-1 ( audio cassette, 1993, abridged)
  • ISBN 0-14-028334-X (paperback, 1999)
  • ISBN 0-8220-7154-1 ( e-book, 1999)
  • ISBN 0-7645-8662-9 (paperback, 2000)
  • ISBN 0-7910-6339-9 ( library binding, 2001)
  • ISBN 0-14-118122-2 (paperback, 2002)
  • ISBN 0-7910-7118-9 (paperback)
  • ISBN 0-330-23564-8 (paperback)
  • Photos of the first edition One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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