Introduction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
A unique story of psychological impacts on human beings by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, first appeared in the markets in 1962. The story of the novel revolves around the institutional processes in which the psychological patients find themselves trapped. The novel wins instant success on account of its touching storyline. It was, later, adapted for a play and a movie with the same title, winning the Academy Award, while Time Magazine also declared it among the 100 Best English Novels written during 1923-2005.
Summary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The story of the novel presents a half-Indian narrator, who is also a psychological patient, Chief Bromden. After having suffered from schizophrenia and consequential hallucination, he got admitted to Oregon psychiatric hospital where he stayed for almost a decade, falling into the trap of psychological paranoia with the fear that the Combine rules the world to make the people accept conformity. This fear made him pose himself as a dumb fellow, having no sense of sound and movement despite his giant stature.
Bromden narrates his story that the patients have been divided into two groups; those who are curable, Acutes, and those, who are incurable, Chronics. The former army nurse, Ratched, who is the supervisor of the center is quite harsh in her dealing with them as she treats them as robots rather than human beings. As Acutes are curable, Nurse Ratched asks them to attack Chronics and subjugate them into submission. She also subjects the rebels to electric shock and lobotomy despite the medical community’s ban on such inhuman practices.
When a new patient, Randle McMurphy, arrives at the center, Bromden senses him somewhat different from him. Even he himself boats of his skills in women and cards that he demonstrates in titling the nurse as the ball-cutter, using a pejorative term. However, for the patients she is omnipotent, having the power to overpower any unruly one. Yet, McMurphy vows to lock horn with her and make her frustrated. This leads to confrontation between the two that other patients enjoy with some lessons for them in that they can also confront her. Although McMurphy fails to win votes to change the television watching schedule, he wins by making others sit with him in protest to watch the blank screen. Seeing this intransigence of the patients, Ratched loses her patience and yells at the patients, while Bromden becomes a silent spectator, thinking all of them crazy. When McMurphy derides the nurse, others expect that he would be dispatched to the Disturbed ward but see in surprise that the nurse has done nothing. McMurphy also learns that only the staff has the power to decide about the treated patients and that Ratched has the authority over this decision. Therefore, there is no way other than submitting to her. On the other hand, he also leads the patients, making them confused about his ambivalence toward the nurse. Cheswick, one of the patients, drowns himself in this confusion when McMurphy does not assist him when standing up to the nurse.
However, his death makes him aware of his own responsible position as well as the shock manipulation by the hospital staff. The vacillation in his mind about his responsibility and his fear leads him to feel frustrated, though, he tries to alleviate the situation by arranging a fishing trip despite the best efforts of the nurse to frustrate his efforts. Through fishing, he tries to teach them the value of standing up to the authority of the staff and showing masculinity. He also manages to make Billy Bibbit copulate with Candy Start, a prostitute. Thinking about the likely scenario, McMurphy again ignites a rebellion that leads to a fistfight Bromden joins to assist the patients. When the fight subsides, both of them see themselves in the Disturbed Ward, facing electric shocks. Although McMurphy shows himself unimpacted, the nurse brings him to the previous ward to show others how the staff teaches them a lesson. Seeing him defeated, sympathetic patients urge him to flee but he refuses. Instead, he arranges a meeting of Billy and Candy and a smoking and drinking party for the rest. Despite the best efforts of some, McMurphy does not escape.
When the crew aides visit the ward next morning, they come to know about the mess. Ratched also comes to know about Candy’s copulation with Billy over which she issues a threat to Billy to inform his mother, making him frustrated to the point of committing suicide. To exact revenge, McMurphy attacks her but only succeeds in ripping apart her shirt to suffer from lobotomy in retaliation. This act of McMurphy makes other patients bold enough to defy the nurse. When Bromden sees McMurphy suffering from Ratched’s lobotomization, he suffocates him in the bed, making him get rid of suffering and he flees from the hospital to get rid of the sufferings of electric shocks and lobotomy.
Major Themes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Gender Hostility: The novel shows the theme of gender hostility through the nurse, Ratched, who not only tortures all the patients but also tries to make them sexually impotent, or simply castrate them. Chief Bromden and McMurphy, both, becomes the victim of the feminine torture through her after they try to assert their individuality in the ward. Yet, everybody knows that Ratched is the supervisor who has her ways in the hospital wherever they are thrown including the implementation of shock therapy and lobotomy, the worst psychological treatments carried out in the hospital. Despite some reconciliation between her and Bromden, she continues to push McMurphy and Billy to the point where it seems that matriarchy and patriarchy are poles apart and she tries her best to punish all intransigent elements.
- Institutional Torture: The novel shows the psychiatric asylum through the perspective of the institutional implementation of extreme measures against the patients including electric shock therapy and lobotomy, treatments otherwise banned on the patients. When Bromden reaches the hospital, he immediately comes to know the status of Nurse Ratched as the head of the institution, having several aides and crew members always ready at her beck and call to torture the patients and provide them the treatment she wants. Interestingly, his new friends McMurphy and Bibbit become the victim of her wishes and whims merely because they stand up to her institutional dictatorship that she manipulates to torture them.
- Significance of Sexuality: The novel shows the significance of sexuality through the nurse, Ratched, and her patient, McMurphy as well as Bibit. She asserts her sexuality through her abnormally huge breasts in the environment where she has also won the title of a “ball cutter” while McMurphy also senses it when he enters the ward. That is why she and McMurphy are always at war. The arrangement of Billy to copulate with Candy is a strategy of the same McMurphy to torture the nurse. Finally, when he is unable to do anything, he tears apart her shirt to shame her.
- Treatment of Insanity: The novel also shows the theme of insanity and its unorthodox treatment through the Disability Ward, the use of shock therapy and lobotomy, and above all through its supervisor nurse, Ratched. It also shows how even normal African American young men are thrown before the crew members, nurses, and their aides of the same race, making them fight, torture, rebuke and taunt one another. This institutional treatment through cruelty, barbarism, and ruthless torture borders the insanity for which the hospital has been set up.
- Sexual Repression: The novel also shows the theme of sexual suppression through its nurse, Ratched, as well as through McMurphy and Bromden. Bromden, the first person narrator has no mettle to stand up to the nurse, his friend, and newly arrived patient, McMurphy pays her back in the same coin and even makes another patient, Bibbit, having sex with Candy, a prostitute. This shows that if the sexual urge is repressed in a society, it causes widespread insanity, or makes people mad, bordering insanity.
- Independence: The novel also shows the thematic strand of independence that the patients want from the dictatorial nurse and her authoritative staff. Bromden narrates the ordeal of McMurphy and other patients when they rise up, protest against her, and finally makes McMurphy feel, though, he considers it better to die rather than escape.
- Fear: The novel shows the theme of fear through the nurse, Ratched. She shows that fear works on some, such as Bromden, but sometimes it backfires such as in the case of McMurphy. In some cases, fear also causes unification of the disparate elements such as the united front of the patients.
- Violence: The novel also shows the theme of violence. The first such example is of the nurse, Ratched, who sends the rebellious patients to lobotomy and electric shock therapy. The second example is the torture of the patients by sending them into the Disability Ward. The third example is of the insurgency raised by McMurphy and the fourth is Ratched’s brutal treatment toward the patients including McMurphy who later dies.
- Group Mentality: The novel also shows the theme of group mentality by dividing the people in the hospital into two groups; Acutes and Chronics. Also, patients and their aides or helpers in the hospital have separate groups.
Major Characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Chief Bromden: The first person narrator as well as the protagonist of the novel, Chief Bromden is a giant African American patient in the hospital. Although others do not treat him well, he poses himself deaf and dumb, demonstrating total ignorance of their mental and physical mistreatment. The bliss of ignorance continues due to the fear of Ratched, the nurse, until McMurphy arrives with a renewed effort to assert their individuality. He loses in the first attempt. Yet, McMurphy does not lose heart and comes to know the weak points of the nurse after which he rallies the patients to launch another attack on her sexuality. Despite his seeming loyalty to McMurphy, Bromden plays strategically keeping himself out of harm’s way as his monologs suggest. Finally, he breaks this logjam of the institutional authority at the cost of the life of McMurphy after which he wins his freedom to live as a free individual in the society.
- Randall Patrick McMurphy: McMurphy enters the psychiatric hospital as a patient but proves himself innovative and intelligent during the course of the narrative when he meets Bromden. A dominating Irish, he becomes a victim of the judicial sentence to stay in the mental asylum. His charismatic strategy against Ratched to shame her sexually works for them, though, he has to pay a heavy price for it after he is sent to receive electric shock therapy and lobotomy. Yet, his entire efforts to gather all the patients, his efforts to wage struggle against the institutional dictatorship, and his protests evince his freedom-loving persona. Although he sacrifices his life for this cause, his ultimate victory lies in the freedom of Bromden.
- Nurse Ratched: An African American big lady having large breasts to demonstrate her sexuality, the nurse Ratched is a supervisor in the mental asylum having full power to transfer, treat and shift the patients with the help of her staff members. Often referred to as Big Nurse, she holds awe and resolves to deal with seemingly unruly and stubborn patients, considering them a threat to her apparently benign regime. Metaphorically, she represents repression, authoritarianism, and dictatorship against which an Irish has the guts and ability to launch a long struggle. She feels defeated when McMurphy tears her shirt from the front, making her naked. Yet, she refuses to accept defeat and subjects McMurphy to physical torture in the name of lobotomization.
- Billy Bibbit: An adult patient, Bibbit appears younger than his actual years, and yet he stammers as if he is suffering from a psychological issue. Tortured by his mother, Bibbit becomes a tool for McMurphy in the asylum center to use against nurse Ratched to raise a rebellion against her seemingly powerful sexuality. In this issue, he copulates with Candy, the local prostitute, to break the rules after which the nurse blackmails him that she would disclose it to his mother whom she is afraid of.
- Dale Harding: Appearing as the leader of the patients’ group, Harding is a college graduate and one of the best minds among the mental patients. Although Kesey has pointed out his homosexuality, yet he has presented Harding as a sane voice among them. His arrival in the ward seems the handiwork of his sexually dominant wife.
- Bancini: A damaged brain middle-aged man, Bancini belongs to Chronic, the incurable mental patients. In the novel, his significance lies in his being a symbol of repression of the nurse, Ratched.
- Charles Cheswick: A supporter of McMurphy, Cheswick is significant in the novel on account of the torture he undergoes for siding the rebellion in the ward. He is shown as having committed suicide later by drowning himself.
- Ellis: The significance of Ellis lies in his transfer from Acute group to Chronic group due to his role in the rebellion. He also faces electric shock as his treatment.
- Miss Flinn: In the novel, Flinn’s significance is in the support she extends to nurse Ratched.
- George Sorenson: A Swede of old age, Sorenson is called Rub-a-Dub George. His significance in the novel lies in his obsession with cleaning himself.
- Some other significant characters in the novel are Dr. Spivey, Candy Starr, Mr. Taber, Mr. Turkle, and Warren.
Writing Style of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The writing style of the novel is the first-person narrative in disjointed colloquialism. Bromden speaks in monologs and converses with his fellow characters in his Indian accent that comprises contractions, broken sentences, run-on sentences, and shortened diction. This diction is also commonplace used by ordinary African Americans. For literary devices, Kesey relies heavily on similes, metaphors, and personifications along with other devices as given below.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the story of Chief Bromden, an African American young man, his time in a mental asylum, his friendship and support to McMurphy’s uprising against the administration, and his final freedom. The rising action occurs when he strangulates his own friend, McMurphy, to end his sufferings. The falling action occurs when he wins freedom in the end.
- Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora such as,
i. If my being half Indian ever helped me in any way in this dirty life, it helped me being cagey, helped me all these years. (Part-I)
ii. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load. (Part-I)
iii. There’s no move to stop him, no move to say anything. (Part-I)
iv. But hard as I work and hard as I try to act like I’m not aware of her back there, I can still feel her standing at the door and drilling into my skull till in a minute she’s going to break through, till I’m just about to give up and yell and tell them everything if she don’t take those eyes off me. (Part-2)
These examples show the repetitious use of “helped me”, “big, so big, too big”, “no move” and “hard.”
- Allusions: The novel shows the use of allusions such as,
i. I’m the one been here on the ward the longest, since the Second World War. I been here on the ward longer’n anybody. Longer’n any of the other patients. (Part-1)
ii. Th type of psychopath? I’ve never heard of a clearer case. This man is a Napoleon, a Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun.” (Part-2)
iii. You’re on our ward six hours and have already simplified all the work of Freud, Jung, and Maxwell Jones and summed it up in one analogy: it’s a ‘peckin’ party.’ (Part-1)
These examples show the use of allusion such the WWII, different historical figures in the second, and some psychologists in the last example.
- Antagonist: The antagonist of the novel is nurse Ratched, who makes every move to make life difficult for Bromden as well as McMurphy. Therefore, she is the real antagonist of the novel.
- Conflict: The novel shows the internal as well as external conflict. The external conflict is going on between the patients and administration led by nurse Ratched, while the internal or mental conflict is going on in the mind of Bromden about his situation as well as his support to McMurphy.
- Characters: The novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, shows dynamic as well as static characters. Chief Bromden, the young boy, is a dynamic character as he witnesses a considerable transformation in his behavior and actions by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static characters such as McMurphy, Bibbit, Harding, and Bancini.
- Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Bromden sees that his friend, McMurphy, is suffering and that he should do something to end his sufferings. Therefore, he strangulates him to end it.
- Colloquialism: The novel shows the use of colloquialism such as,
i. “Here’s the Chief. The soo-pah Chief, fellas. Ol’ Chief Broom. Here you go, Chief Broom. . . .” (Part-I)
ii. “. . . mean old Monday morning, you know, boys . . .”
“Yeah, Miz Ratched . . .”
“. . . and we have quite a number of appointments this
morning, so perhaps, if your standing here in a group talking isn’t too urgent . . .” (Part-I)
These examples show the conversational language as used by the American Indians or other such characters.
- Epigraph: The novel shows the use of an epigraph in the beginning such as,
i. . . . one flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. (—Children’s folk rhyme)
- Imagery: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows the use of imagery such as,
i. I remember real clear the way that hand looked: there was carbon under the fingernails where he’d worked once in a garage; there was an anchor tattooed back from the knuckles; there was a dirty Band-Aid on the middle knuckle, peeling up at the edge. All the rest of the knuckles were covered with scars and cuts, old and new. I remember the palm was smooth and hard as bone from hefting the wooden handles of axes and hoes, not the hand you’d think could deal cards. (Part-1)
ii. It’s the Big Nurse. That black boy with the thermometer has gone and got her. She stands there tapping that thermometer against her wrist watch, eyes whirring while she tries to gauge this new man. Her lips are in that triangle shape, like a doll’s lips ready for a fake nipple. (Part-1)
iii. Out in the hall all by myself, I notice how clear it is—no fog any place. It’s a little cold where the nurse just went past, and the white tubes in the ceiling circulate
frozen light like rods of glowing ice, like frosted refrigerator coils rigged up to glow white. The rods stretch down to the staff-room door where the nurse just turned in at the end of the hall—a heavy steel door like the door of the Shock Shop in Building One. (Part-2)
These examples show images of feelings, sight, sound and color.
- Irony: The novel shows examples of irony such as;
i. But I remembered one thing: it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people
that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all. (Part-3)
These sentences show the irony that the people have considered him dumb after which he also assumes the same role and poses as if he is deaf, too.
- Litotes: The novel shows the use of litotes such as,
i. They don’t bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I’m nearby because they think I’m deaf and dumb. (Part-1)
This example shows the use of double negative to show positive meanings.
- Metaphor: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows good use of various metaphors such as,
i. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load. (Part-1)
ii. What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that
can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot. (Part-I)
iii. What she dreams of there in the center of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor. (Part-I)
iv. She lets me slip through the door and stabs me again with both eyes as I go past her, closes that door when I’m in and locks it, and pivots around and glares at me some more. (Part-2)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first one shows the nurse compared to a tractor, the second shows chronic patients compared to machines, the third shows chronic patients again compared to dirt and the last one shows the nurse glaring like that of a dog.
- Mood: The novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, shows a light mood in the beginning but turns out torturing, terrorizing as well as suffocating until it reaches its end.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, are invisibility, power, and imagination.
- Narrator: The novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has been narrated by a first person, who is Chief Bromden.
- Onomatopoeia: The novel shows the use of onomatopoeia such as,
i. Hum of black machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets. (Part-I)
ii. I been in some meetings where the table legs strained and contorted and the chairs knotted and the walls gritted against one another till you could of wrung sweat out the room. (Part-2)
The examples show the use of sounds such as humming in the first and contorted, gritted, and wrung in the second.
- Parallelism: The novel shows the use of parallelism such as;
i. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them. (Part-I)
ii. He One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / 7 don’t know where I’m hid, but he’s smelling and he’s hunting around. (Part-I)
iii. I can smell the grease and hear them chew the toast. (Part-1)
iv. Nobody can tell exactly why he laughs; there’s nothing funny going on. (Part-1)
v. And the more he talked about fishing for Chinook salmon the more I wanted to go. (Part-3)
All these examples show the parallel structure of clauses.
- Paradox: The novel shows the use of paradox such as;
i. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which. (Part-I)
ii. The rest of the guys are watching too, though they’re trying to act like they aren’t. (Part-2)
iii. But I remembered one thing: it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all. (Part-3)
These examples show paradoxes as the first one shows two contradictory ideas of hot and cold, the second shows of watching and acting and the third one shows the deaf and dumb.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications such as
i. And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the
words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like
they weren’t even spoken. (Part-3)
ii. Or if something went haywire with the dose and I woke up, my eyes were all crusted over and the dorm was full of smoke, wires in the walls loaded to the limit, twisting and sparking death and hate in the air—all too much for me to take so I’d ram my head under the pillow and try to get back to sleep. (Part-2)
These examples show as if wisdom and memory have life and emotions of their own.
- Repetition: The novel shows the use of repetitions such as;
i. What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that
can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot. (Part-1)
ii. Sometimes a manipulator’s own ends are simply the actual disruption of
the ward for the sake of disruption. (Part-I)
iii. He’s sweated down his neck and cheeks, and he’s sweated clean out through the back of his blue suit. (Part-3)
These examples show repetitions of different things and ideas such as of “flaws”, “disruption” and “sweated.”
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows a good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as
i. “What happened, you see, was I got in a couple of hassles at the work farm, to tell the pure truth, and the court ruled that I’m a psychopath. And do you think I’m gonna argue with the court? (Part-I)
ii. I mean, whoever heard tell of a man gettin’ too much poozle? Hello, buddy, what do they call you? My name’s McMurphy and I’ll bet you two dollars here and now that you can’t tell me how many spots are in that pinochle hand you’re holding don’t Two dollars; what d’ya say? (Part-1)
iii. Still, they expect me to be in there. If I’m not, they’ll know for sure that I can hear, be way ahead of me, thinking, You see? He isn’t in here cleaning, don’t that prove
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is mental hospital or asylum located in the state of Oregon.
- Simile: The novel shows a good use of various similes such as;
i. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of
the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio. (Part-I)
ii. Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose,
6 / Ken Kesey pink little nostrils—everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. (Part-I)
iii. He opens out his nostrils like black funnels, his outsized head bobbing this way and that as he sniffs, and he sucks in fear from all over the ward. (Part-I)
iv. He’s nailed like that on the wall, like a stuffed trophy. (Part-1)
v. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she’s tense as steel. (Part-I)
These similes show that things have been compared directly using words “as” and “like” such as the first one shows quietness compared to dust, the second shows the face compared to a doll, the third shows a comparison between nostrils and funnels, the fourth shows it between the persona and the nailed trophy, while the last one shows the comparison of nurse’s body with steel.