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One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, written in 1959 and published in 1962, is a novel by acclaimed American author Ken Kesey. It can be considered to be one of the most significant literary works of the 1960s – a decade of intense social change. 

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One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, written in 1959 and published in 1962, is a novel by acclaimed American author Ken Kesey. It can be considered to be one of the most significant literary works of the 1960s – a decade of intense social change.

The novel is set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital and deals with the experiences of the inmates caught in the system – including the cruelty they suffer at the hands of the overbearing Nurse Ratched, the head of the institution. It is narrated by Chief Bromden, a Native American diagnosed with schizophrenia, and is centred on Randle Patrick McMurphy, one of the patients at the institution. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about the flexible boundaries between sanity and insanity.

Content Warning: Mentions of mental illness, rape, institutionalisation, and drug use.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: book summary

Overview: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestKen Kesey
Published1962
GenreComedy, drama
Summary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestThe story follows the experiences of the patients, who are subjected to the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched, a strict and oppressive authority figure.
List of main charactersChief Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
ThemesFreedom, individualism, masculinity, oppression, and mental illness
SettingA mental institution in Oregon
AnalysisThe novel is a critique of institutionalised systems of control and oppression, and it presents a scathing commentary on the dehumanizing effects of conformity and social norms.

Nurse Ratched rules with a tyrannical, overbearing presence. She keeps the patients pacified with a strict schedule and a regime of medication and electro-shock therapy. This status quo is challenged by the wildly chaotic Randle McMurphy, who is happy to arrive at the state mental hospital from a prison work camp, as he assumes he will have an easier time of it. After a while, Chief Bromden reveals to McMurphy that he is not really deaf and mute.

Through Chief Bromden’s eyes, we watch McMurphy’s attempts to challenge Ratched’s regime. The power struggle between the two characters provides the story with momentum – it is the driving force of the novel.

McMurphy upsets the routines of the ward. He organises a card game, and tries to tear up a heavy concrete panel in the hydrotherapy room. He also tries to organise a fishing trip supervised by prostitutes, and attempts to change the TV schedule so that they can watch the World Series, which is being shown during the time slot that the inmates are meant to be doing their chores. Instead of doing his work, McMurphy sits in front of the television, and one by one, the other men join him. Ratched loses her temper and screams at them, weakening her status in their eyes.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Patients and Mrs Ratched, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Nurse Ratched is an oppressive authority figure who terrorises the male patients.

McMurphy bribes an orderly and brings in two prostitutes from outside for a party, raiding the pharmacy for codeine and other drugs. Billy Bibbit – a shy, awkward, timid inmate – loses his virginity to one of the women, whose name is Candy. Ratched discovers them together, she is outraged, and tells Billy’s mother. Billy is filled with shame and commits suicide by slashing his throat.

Filled with anger at what has happened, McMurphy physically assaults Ratched. He is forcibly restrained and sent to the Disturbed ward. Ratched stays home for a week due to her injuries, and then McMurphy is brought back to the others having been lobotomized. He is a broken, changed man, in a vegetative state. Ratched, though, is also changed – she has lost her voice as a result of being strangled by McMurphy, and is therefore deprived of her most useful tool for oppressing the patients.

Chief Bromden suffocates McMurphy with a pillow, to put him out of his misery. He then manages to tear up the heavy control panel that McMurphy had been earlier unable to lift, smashes a window with it, and then escapes. So, we realise, Bromden is the one that ‘flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ by escaping the repression of the mental hospital.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: meaning

Ken Kesey was a significant figure in the American counterculture of the 1960s. He can be seen as a link between the hippies of the mid-to-late 60s and the Beat generation of the 1950s, a movement characterised by wild outsiders like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Kesey began writing the novel after studying creative writing at Stanford University and was inspired by his experience working as an orderly in a real mental institution.

The Beat movement (also known as the Beat Generation) originated in the United States in the 1950s. It was a cultural and literary movement that centred mostly on American writers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.

They were called beatniks. The beatniks were free-thinkers, who were opposed to the conventions of the time, and expressed more radical ideas which included experimenting with drugs. The Beat movement is considered to be one of the most influential contemporary countercultures.

The Hippie movement is a counterculture movement that started in the United States in the 1960s and became increasingly popular in other countries. Members of the Hippie movement – hippies – are in opposition to the norms and values of Western middle-class society. Hippie characteristics include living an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, both men and women wearing their hair long, wearing colourful clothes, and communal accommodation.

It is a novel that resonated well with the political climate of its release. Although written in 1959, it was published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Its themes of anti-authoritarianism, individualism and resistance to oppression chimed with the spirit of the times. It is one of the great anti-authoritarian novels of the 20th century, in the same category as George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Although the book questions authority, it does so in a morally complex way. While we empathise and identify with the patients, they are not good people themselves. All of the men display plenty of misogyny, racism, and sexism.

Kesey named the novel after a line from this nursery rhyme:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,

Apple seed and apple thorn,

Wire, briar, limber lock

Three geese in a flock

One flew East

One flew West

And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

The rhyme also serves as the epigraph of the novel. In the story, Chief Bromden recalls being read the rhyme as a child. This is inspired by Kesey’s own memory of his grandmother reading the rhyme to him.

Appropriately, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is also notable for its status as one of the most banned texts in American history. From the 1970s to the 2000s, various school boards have objected to its content on moral grounds, claiming that it glorifies criminality, corrupts the young, and is pornographic.

Do you think that by objecting to the book, they are only proving the point that the book is trying to make, which is that authority is something that can be abused and should be challenged?

The book was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 1975. It was directed by Miloš Forman and starred Jack Nicholson. It was the second film in history to win all five Academy Awards.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: characters

The main characters from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest are Chief Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched.

Chief Bromden

Bromden is the narrator of the novel, and is half white, half Native American. Because he is silent, many characters presume him to be deaf and mute, so they trust him with their secrets. Although he was a war hero and football star, he slipped into a depression after his father was mistreated by his wife and the U.S. government. He was then diagnosed with schizophrenia, and is affected by hallucinations and paranoia.

He believes that society is controlled by an oppressive, hidden organisation called ‘The Combine’, and that the mental hospital is a place that deals with people who do not conform to their systems. He has been incarcerated longer than any other inmate, and he is an outsider even there, a pure spirit that silently observes.

Randle Patrick McMurphy

Randle McMurphy is a wild man – a boxer, and conman, who refuses to conform to society’s wishes and is free-spirited and rebellious. He is a cause of change and action in the novel, completely disrupting the normal state of affairs and Ratched’s control over the patients.

In a way, he is the hero of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, disrupting the authoritative, controlling regime. He challenges the established powers and frees the spirits of the downtrodden inmates on the ward. However, he is also a convicted criminal, found guilty of gambling and assault. He is implicated in the rape of a 15 year old girl, although he cannot be convicted of this as she refuses to testify.

Before the novel, he was sentenced to six months hard labour at a work farm, but was expelled on ground of mental illness, for inappropriate behaviour. It is debatable whether he is ‘insane’ by the definition of the hospital staff – Kesey is making a point about the subjective nature of insanity – that it is just a label, easily applied. Society itself is insane.

Nurse Ratched

Ratched is an intimidating figure. She runs the hospital with an iron grip and an authoritative presence. Her nickname is 'Big Nurse', and she towers over the novel, keeping the men to a tight routine. She manipulates them, happy to restrict their access to food, medication, company, basic resources, or entertainment if there is something she wants to know from them. She also does not hesitate to use shock therapy to discipline them.

Bitterly resenting McMurphy’s chaotic presence, she eventually has him lobotomised after he nearly chokes her to death. After that, she loses her voice, and loses her control, no longer able to command authority.

Acutes

The Acutes are a group of patients that the authorities still believe can be cured.

Chronics

The Chronics are a group of patients that will never be cured. Many of them are elderly or comatose.

Staff

The staff includes – among others – the 'Black Boys', who were hired by Ratched for their cruel, violent tendencies.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Oscars, StudySmarterFig. 2 - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was adapted into a film by Miloš Forman that was released in 1975 and won 5 major Academy Awards.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: themes

What are the main themes of the novel?

Freedom

McMurphy feels trapped inside the asylum; he was freer at the prison that he stayed in before. Nurse Ratched limits the freedom of the inmates in a variety of ways. Her regime in the hospital is an allusion to the government and to society as a whole – people are categorised and stripped of their freedom and self-expression. McMurphy reminds them of who they are as individuals and what human dignity means. Although this doesn't liberate them from the asylum, it sets them free internally.

Individualism

The novel shows us that there is power and dignity in the individual finding their own voice in the crowd. Nurse Ratched is aware of this so she doesn't let any of the inmates spend enough time on their own to be able to think as an individual. As long as they are together with other inmates at all times, she knows that they won't have the opportunity to rebel against her authority or to even question it.

Mental illness

The inmates are perceived as people suffering from mental illness, as insane people. However, as we get to know each one of them in the course of the story we learn that they may be damaged by life but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are insane. By introducing these characters and the unfair ways in which they are treated, Kesey raises the question of what is sanity and how do we, as a society, determine who is sane and who isn't.

Power and masculinity

Before McMurphy arrives in the mental hospital, the men there are emasculated. Some of them already had issues with expressing their masculinity even before they became inmates.

Dale Harding feels ashamed and less of a man because of his homosexuality.

Billy Bibbit has felt suffocated by his mother his whole life. McMurphy arranges for Billy to have his first sexual encounter but Nurse Ratched learns of this and tells his mother. This prompts Billy to commit suicide.

In the asylum, Nurse Ratched makes sure that the inmates don't feel like strong men, that they feel small and powerless. McMurphy sees through her tactics. With his wild masculinity and sexuality (he is, after all, implicated in statutory rape), McMurphy opposes Ratched's power. He shows the inmates how to feel like men again.

After Billy's suicide, McMurphy attacks Ratched and exposes her breasts - a sign of her femininity that she has been successfully hiding until that moment. By showing the men that the Nurse is a woman, McMurphy reminds them that they can take hold of their masculinity again and exert the traditional power that men have over women.

What do you think of this message? Do you think it could be considered misogynistic to perceive that Nurse Ratched is only powerful as long as she hides her femininity and seems more masculine than the men?

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: quotes

Chief Bromden reflects on his life and the benefits of being ignored by people who presume him to be deaf. It has allowed him to hear many things he wouldn’t have heard otherwise.

I had to keep on acting deaf if I wanted to hear at all.

Part 3

Chief Bromden says the following quote on Randle McMurphy’s arrival, reflecting on his power to challenge the rules and the influence of the Combine.

But the new guy is different, and the Acutes can see it, different from anybody been coming on this ward for the past ten years, different from anybody they ever met outside. He’s just as vulnerable, maybe, but the Combine didn’t get him.

Part 1

McMurphy says this when the men manage to briefly escape. A poetic description of their broken state.

We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psycho-ceramics, the cracked pots of mankind.

Part 3, Chapter 2

The next quote is said by inmate Scanlon after watching another inmate, Sefelt, having a fit and being violently restrained.

Hell of a life. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Puts a man in one confounded bind, I’d say.

Part 2, Chapter 4

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest - Key takeaways

  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962, is a novel by Ken Kesey.
  • The novel is about the patients in a psychiatric hospital.
  • It is an antiauthoritarian novel that examines the cruelty of those in power and explores the treatment of the vulnerable in society.
  • The main characters are: Chief Bromden, Randal McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched.
  • The main themes are: Freedom, Individualism, Mental illness, and Power and masculinity.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Cuckoo's Nest (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cuckoo%27s_nest.jpg) by Borovi4ok (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Borovi4ok&action=edit&redlink=1) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 2 - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Oscars (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OneFlewOverTheCuckoosNestOscars.jpg) by Los Angeles Times (https://digital.library.ucla.edu/catalog/ark:/21198/zz0002qfqq) is licensed BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

The title is allegorical. An allegory is a work of art that can be analysed to reveal a hidden meaning. In this case, the title implies that one of the inmates will escape the institution at some point in the story. 'Cuckoo' is a slang term for a crazy person - so the 'cuckoo’s nest', in this case, would be the mental hospital.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is about the patients in a psychiatric hospital. The book deals with the struggle of the outsider in the social system. It is an antiauthoritarian novel that examines the cruelty of those in power and explores the treatment of the vulnerable in society. Its most important themes are freedom, individualism, mental illness, and power and masculinity.


Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest falls under the genre of literary fiction. It is a psychological novel.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not a true story. It is, however, inspired by Ken Kesey's real experiences. Between 1958 and 1961, he volunteered in secret experiments and also worked as an aide in the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. After he spent time talking to the inmates at the hospital, he realised that they weren't insane, but that society had ostracised them because they didn't fit in..


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Who is the narrator of the novel?

What does 'the cuckoo’s nest' represent in the title?

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