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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel)

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Cover artist  Paul Bacon
Publication date  1962
OCLC  37505041
Author  Ken Kesey
Original language  English
4.2/5 Goodreads

Country  United States
Pages  320
Originally published  1962
Page count  320
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) t3gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcQWuywPnYq28wplJ3
Publisher  Viking Press & Signet Books
Genres  Novel, Fiction, Children's literature, Drama
Characters  Randle McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Chief Bromden, Billy Bibbit, Dale Harding
Similar  Works by Ken Kesey, Novels, Classical Studies books

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) is a novel written by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the narrative serves as a study of the institutional processes and the human mind as well as a critique of behaviorism and a celebration of humanistic principles. It was adapted into the Broadway play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Dale Wasserman in 1963. Bo Goldman adapted the novel into a 1975 film directed by Miloš Forman, which won five Academy Awards.


Time Magazine included the novel in its "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005" list.


The book is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a gigantic and docile half-Native American patient at a psychiatric hospital, who presents himself as deaf and mute. Bromden’s tale focuses mainly on the antics of the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, who faked insanity to serve his sentence for battery and gambling in the hospital rather than at a prison work farm. The head administrative nurse, Mildred Ratched, rules the ward with an iron fist and with little medical oversight. She is assisted by her three day-shift orderlies, and her assistant doctors.

McMurphy constantly antagonizes Nurse Ratched and upsets the routines of the ward, leading to constant power struggles between the inmate and the nurse. He runs a card table, captains the ward's basketball team, comments on Nurse Ratched's figure, incites the other patients to conduct a vote about watching the World Series on television, and organizes an unsupervised deep-sea fishing trip. His reaction after claiming to be able to and subsequently failing to lift a heavy control panel in the defunct hydrotherapy room (referred to as the "tub room") – "But at least I tried" – gives the men incentive to try to stand up for themselves, instead of allowing Nurse Ratched to take control of every aspect of their lives. The Chief opens up to McMurphy, revealing late one night that he can speak and hear. A disturbance after the fishing trip results in McMurphy and the Chief being sent for electroshock therapy sessions, but even this punishment does little to curb McMurphy's rambunctious behavior.

One night, after bribing the night orderly, McMurphy smuggles two prostitute girlfriends with liquor onto the ward, and breaks into the pharmacy for codeine cough syrup, and later unnamed psychiatric medications. McMurphy persuades one of the women to seduce Billy Bibbit, a timid, boyish patient with a terrible stutter and little experience with women, so he can lose his virginity. Although McMurphy plans to escape before the morning shift starts, he and the other patients instead fall asleep without cleaning up the mess of the group’s antics, and the morning staff discovers the ward in complete disarray. Nurse Ratched finds Billy and the prostitute in each other's arms, partially dressed, and admonishes him. Billy asserts himself for the first time, answering Nurse Ratched without stuttering. Ratched calmly threatens to tell Billy's mother what she has seen. Billy has an emotional breakdown, and once left alone in the doctor's office, commits suicide by cutting his throat. Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for the loss of Billy's life. Enraged at what she has done to Billy, McMurphy attacks Ratched, attempting to strangle her to death, tearing off her uniform and revealing her breasts to the patients and aides who are watching. McMurphy is physically restrained and moved to the Disturbed ward.

Nurse Ratched misses a week of work due to her injuries, during which time many of the patients either transfer to other wards or check out of the hospital forever. When she returns she cannot speak, and is thus deprived of her most potent tool to keep the men in line. With Bromden, Martini, and Scanlon the only patients who attended the boat trip left on the ward, McMurphy is brought back in. He has received a lobotomy, and is now in a vegetative state, rendering him silent and motionless. The Chief smothers McMurphy with a pillow during the night in an act of mercy before lifting the tub room control panel that McMurphy could not lift earlier, throwing it through a window and escaping the hospital.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written in 1959 and published in 1962 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and deep changes to the way psychology and psychiatry were being approached in America. The 1960s began the controversial movement towards deinstitutionalization, an act that would have affected the characters in Kesey's novel. The novel is a direct product of Kesey's time working the graveyard shift 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, but he voluntarily took psychoactive drugs, including mescaline and LSD, as part of Project MKUltra.

In addition to his work with Project MKUltra, Kesey experimented with LSD recreationally. He advocated for drug use as a path to individual freedom, an attitude that was reflected in the views of psychological researchers of the time. In the 1960s LSD was thought to offer the best access to the human mind. Each individual's experiences were said to vary; emotions and experiences ranged from transformations into other life forms, religious experiences, and extreme empathy. It was Kesey's experience with LSD and other psychedelics that made him sympathetic toward the patients.

The novel constantly refers to different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods. The novel's narrator, the Chief, combines these authorities in his mind, calling them "The Combine" in reference to the mechanistic way they manipulate and process individuals. The authority of The Combine is most often personified in the character of Nurse Ratched who controls the inhabitants of the novel's mental ward through a combination of rewards and subtle shame. Although she does not normally resort to conventionally harsh discipline, her actions are portrayed as more insidious than those of a conventional prison administrator. This is because the subtlety of her actions prevents her prisoners from understanding that they are being controlled at all. The Chief also sees the Combine in the damming of the wild Columbia River at Celilo Falls, where his Native American ancestors hunted, and in the broader conformity of post-war American consumer society. The novel's critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censor aspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also criticizes the emasculation of men in society, particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.


The title of the book is a line from a nursery rhyme:

Chief Bromden's grandmother sang this song to him when he was young.

Main characters

  • Randle McMurphy: A rebellious convict sent from a normal prison. He is guilty of battery and gambling. He had also been charged with, but never convicted of, statutory rape. McMurphy is transferred from a prison work farm to the hospital, thinking it will be an easy way to serve out his sentence in comfort. In the end, McMurphy turns violent against Nurse Ratched, costing him his freedom, his health, and his life.
  • Chief Bromden: The novel's half-Native American narrator has been in the mental hospital since the end of World War II. Bromden pretends to be deaf and mute, and through this guise he becomes privy to many of the ward's dirtiest secrets. As a young man, the Chief was a high school football star, a college student, and a war hero. After seeing his father, a Native American chieftain, humiliated at the hands of the U.S. government and his (white) wife, Chief Bromden descends into clinical depression and begins hallucinating. Soon he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. He believes society is controlled by a large, mechanized system which he calls "The Combine."
  • Richard Gray, author of A History of American Literature, said that Bromden "supplies" the novel's "vision". Gray explains that Bromden's "eye" "sees the inner truth" and that Bromden "is an outsider, an innocent eye in a way like Huck Finn, but what he sees is far stranger, far more surreal." Gray explained that Bromden's vision "may not be literally true but it is symbolically so because, to quote Emily Dickinson again, 'Much madness is divinest sense.'"
  • Staff

  • Nurse Mildred Ratched (also known as "Big Nurse"): The tyrannical head nurse of the mental institution, who exercises near-total control over those in her care, including her subordinates. She will not hesitate to restrict her patients' access to medication, amenities, and basic human necessities if it suits her whims. Her informant is the timid Billy Bibbit, whom she coerces into divulging the unit's secrets by threatening to complain about him to his mother. McMurphy's fun-loving, rebellious presence in Ratched's institution is a constant annoyance, as neither threats nor punishment nor shock therapy will stop him or the patients under his sway. Eventually, after McMurphy nearly chokes her to death in a fit of rage, Nurse Ratched has him lobotomized. However, the damage has already been done, and Nurse Ratched's rule is broken after McMurphy's attack leaves her nearly unable to speak, which renders her unable to intimidate her patients, subordinates and superiors.
  • The "Black Boys" 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 being raped by white men. The Chief says Nurse Ratched hired them for their sadistic nature.
  • Dr. John Spivey: The ward doctor. Nurse Ratched drove off other doctors, but she kept Spivey because he always did as he was told. Harding suggests that the nurse could threaten to expose him as a drug addict if he stood up to her. McMurphy's rebellion inspires him to stand up to Nurse Ratched.
  • Nurse Pilbow: The young night nurse. Her face, neck and chest are stained with a profound birthmark. She is a devout Catholic and has fear of sinning. She blames the patients for infecting her with their evil and takes it out on them.
  • Mr. Turkle: An elderly African American aide who works the late shift in the ward. He agrees to allow McMurphy to host a party and sneak in prostitutes one night.
  • The Japanese Nurse: The nurse in charge of the upstairs disturbed ward, for violent and unmanageable patients. She is kindly and openly opposed to Nurse Ratched's methods.
  • Acutes

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

  • Billy Bibbit: A nervous, shy and boyish patient with an extreme speech impediment, Billy cuts himself and has attempted suicide numerous times. To alleviate Billy's fear of women, McMurphy sneaks a prostitute into the ward so Billy can lose his virginity. The next morning, Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother; fearing the loss of his mother's love, Billy has an emotional breakdown and commits suicide by cutting his own throat.
  • Dale Harding: The unofficial leader of the patients before McMurphy arrives, he is an intelligent, good-looking man who's ashamed of his repressed homosexuality. Harding's beautiful yet malcontent wife is a source of shame for him.
  • George Sorensen: A man with germaphobia, he spends his days repeatedly washing his hands in the ward's drinking fountain. McMurphy manages to persuade him to lead a fishing expedition for the patients after discovering that he had captained a PT boat during World War II. Afterward, the staff forcibly delouse him, knowing the mental anguish this causes him.
  • Charlie Cheswick: A loud-mouthed patient who always demands changes in the ward, but never has the courage to see anything through. He finds a friend in McMurphy, who's able to voice his opinions for him. After McMurphy loses his confidence when he learns that his stay in the ward is indefinite, Cheswick drowns himself in the swimming pool.
  • Martini: A patient who suffers from severe hallucinations.
  • Scanlon: A patient obsessed with explosives and destruction. He is the only other non-vegetative patient confined to the ward by force aside from McMurphy and Bromden; the rest can leave at any time.
  • Jim Sefelt and Bruce Fredrickson: Two epileptic patients. Sefelt refuses to take his anti-seizure medication, as it makes his teeth fall out. Fredrickson takes Sefelt's medication and his own because he is terrified of the seizures, and loses teeth due to the resulting overdosage.
  • Max Taber: An unruly patient who was released before McMurphy arrived. The Chief later describes how, after he questioned what was in his medication, Nurse Ratched had him "fixed."
  • Chronics

    The Chronics are patients who will never be cured. Many of the chronics are in vegetative states.

  • 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.
  • Ellis: Ellis was put in a vegetative state by electroshock therapy. He stands against the wall in a disturbing messianic position with arms outstretched.
  • Pete Bancini: Bancini suffered brain damage at birth but managed to hold down simple jobs, such as a switch operator on a lightly-used railroad branch line, until the switches were automated and he lost his job, after which he was institutionalized. 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, above the main ward, who says nothing but "loo, loo, loo!" all day and tries to run up the walls. 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 his rusty visceral matter. 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. He explains to McMurphy that, unlike prison, patients are kept in the hospital as long as the staff desires.
  • Colonel Matterson: The oldest patient in the ward, he suffers from severe senile dementia and cannot move without a wheelchair. He is a veteran of the First World War, and spends his days "explaining" objects through metaphor.
  • Other characters

  • Candy: The prostitute that McMurphy brings on the fishing trip. Billy Bibbit has a crush on her and McMurphy convinces Candy to sleep with him.
  • Sandy: Another prostitute and friend of McMurphy. She and Sefelt sleep together. Sefelt has a seizure while they are having sex.
  • Vera Harding: Dale Harding's wife.
  • Controversy

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of America's most highly challenged and banned novels.

  • 1974: Five residents of Strongsville, Ohio sued the local Board of Education to remove the novel from classrooms. They deemed the book "pornographic" and said that it "glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination".
  • 1975: The book was removed from public schools in Randolph, New York and Alton, Oklahoma.
  • 1977: Removed from the required reading list in Westport, Maine.
  • 1978: Banned from the St. Anthony, Idaho Freemont High School and the teacher who assigned the novel was fired.
  • 1982: Challenged at Merrimack, New Hampshire High School.
  • 1986: Challenged at Aberdeen Washington High school in Honors English classes.
  • 2000: Challenged at Placentia Unified School District (Yorba Linda, California). Parents say that the teachers could "choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again".
  • Adaptations

    The novel was adapted into a 1963 play, starring Kirk Douglas (who purchased the rights to produce it for the stage and motion pictures) as McMurphy and Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit. A film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson, and co-produced by Michael Douglas was released in 1975. The film went on to win five Academy Awards. The characters of Nurse Ratched and Chief Bromden appear as recurring characters in ABC's Once Upon a Time, where they are portrayed by Ingrid Torrance and Peter Marcin.


  • 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)
  • ISBN 0-14-118788-3 (paperback, 2005)
  • ISBN 0-14-303690-4 (hardcover, 2005)
  • ISBN 0-329-06383-9 (hardcover)
  • ISBN 978-0-451-16396-7 (softcover)
  • ISBN 978-1-59887-052-7 (audio CD, 2006, abridged/read by Kesey; includes Fresh Air with Terry Gross interview with author)
  • ISBN 978-0-670-02323-3 (hardcover, 2012)
  • Photos of the first edition One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • References

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) Wikipedia