'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Overview

Ken Kesey's Meditation on Insanity, Society, and Sexuality

Scene from
1975: Actors Jack Nicholson, Danny Devito and Brad Dourif perform in scene from movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" directed by Milos Foreman.

 Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel by Ken Kesey published in 1962 and set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital. The narrative actually serves as a study of the contraposition between society’s repressiveness through its institutions and individualistic principles. In the novel, narrated by the paranoid patient Chief Bromden, the hospital is ruled by the wicked Nurse Ratched, who routinely abuses the patients. This dynamic comes to an end as the new patient Randle McMurphy is admitted to the ward. He teaches the other patients to reclaim their masculinity and individuality.

Fast Facts: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

  • Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Author: Ken Kesey
  • Publisher: Viking
  • Year Published: 1962
  • Genre: Drama
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Emasculating women, insanity, repression in society, individualism
  • Main Characters: McMurphy, Chief Bromden, Nurse Ratched, Billy Bibbit, Dale Harding, Candy Starr
  • Notable Adaptations: Dale Wasserman adapted One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest into a Broadway play in 1963. The movie version, adapted in 1975 by Bo Goldman, was directed by Milos Forman, and won five Academy Awards.

Plot Summary

Nurse Ratched runs the psychiatric ward of an Oregon hospital with an iron grip: she abuses the patients psychologically and punishes them physically through her three orderlies. Narrator and paranoid patient Chief Bromden has been observing the situation for a long time, pretending to be a mute and deaf, as he feared that the Combine, a matrix that is meant to suppress individuality, was out to get them. When profanity-spewing, hypersexual, Korean-war-hero Randle McMurphy is admitted to the ward as a ploy to avoid serving time, his assertiveness and unbridled sexuality shake the patients from their complacency to Nurse Ratched’s rule. 

Major Characters

Chief Bromden. Chief Bromden is the narrator of the novel. A paranoid whose altered perceptions could be confused with simple hallucinations, he pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to observe the reality around him. McMurphy helps him see through the fog, and, by the end of the novel, he manages to reclaim his individuality.

Randle McMurphy. The newest patient at the psychiatric ward, McMurphy is an overtly sexual, vulgar, and assertive man. He sounds and looks sane, and he got admitted to the ward as a way to avoid doing his time. He encourages a rebellion among patients, but in the end he is subdued by Nurse Ratched.

Nurse Ratched. The de facto ruler of the psychiatric ward, Nurse Ratched is a former army nurse whose methods have been equated to brainwashing techniques. She hides an ample bosom, which signals femininity, under a heavily starched uniform. 

Willy Bibbit. A 31-year-old virgin, he has been infantilized by his mother his whole life. McMurphy arranges for him to lose his virginity to good-hearted prostitute Candy Starr. 

Dale Harding. Harding is educated and effeminate, the opposite of McMurphy. In his day-to-day life, he represses his homosexual urges, and is constantly emasculated by his promiscuous wife.

Candy Starr. A prostitute with a "heart of gold,” she is described as both attractive and passive, and actually helps Bibbit lose his virginity. 

Major Themes

Domineering Women. In the book, most women are portrayed negatively. Nurse Ratched has the whole psych ward in her grip; Bibbit’s mother infantilizes her son and refuses to acknowledge him as a man, while Harding is constantly belittled by his promiscuous wife. As Dale Harding puts it, the patients "are victims of a matriarchy,” both within the hospital’s structure and in their day-to-day lives.

The Destruction of Natural Impulses. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, society is rendered with mechanical imagery, whereas nature is represented through biological imagery: the hospital, for example, being an organ that is meant to conform to society, is compared to a complicated machinery.

Open Sexuality vs. Puritanism. Kesey equates having a healthy, open sexuality to sanity, whereas a repressive view of sexual impulses does, in his opinion, lead to insanity. All the patients of the ward, in fact, have warped sexual identities due to strained relationships with women.

The Definition of Sanity. Sanity is associated with free laughter, open sexuality, and strength, which are all attributes of McMurphy. However, his attitude stands against the mores of society, which is symbolized by the psych ward: it’s a conformist and repressive structure.

Literary Style

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated from the point of view of Chief Bromden who, by pretending to be a deaf-mute and fully catatonic, has a fly-on-the-wall style of observing his surroundings. This results in a stream-of-consciousness type of narration. Dialogues are rendered quite realistically, with men swearing, hooting and speaking freely.

About the Author

Ken Kesey is often credited with helping define the 1960s as both an innovative author and a flamboyant catalyst of the hippie movement. Kesey had a fondness for communal living, psychotropic drugs, and hallucinogenic substances. He is the author of 10 novels, which showcase his interest in altered consciousness.