'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Quotes Explained

Relevant Lines and Passages From Ken Kesey's Novel

The quotes in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest are reflective of the main themes in the novel: they contemplate the definition of madness vs. sanity, they observe society and people's sexual impulses, and they reflect on the alleged danger of matriarchy, mainly through the observation of the character Nurse Ratched.

"They don't bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I'm nearby because they think I'm deaf and dumb. Everybody thinks so. I'm cagey enough to fool them that much. 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." 

Everybody assumes Chief is crazy, so he figures out that the best way to keep a low profile and avoid the influence of the combine is by playing dumb (in this case, pretending to be mute and deaf). Chief has been in the ward for 10 years, longer than any other patient, and is mostly catatonic, but thanks to McMurphy, he gradually reclaims his sanity and his individuality. 

"I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen."

We were appraised of Chief Bromden’s paranoia in the novel’s opening lines. His is a case of altered perception, where he claims he saw Nurse Ratched turn into a huge machine, and equated the aides’ attempt to shave him to an “Air Raid.” This quote reflects the first time he addresses the reader directly, as, prior to that, Kesey framed it as if we were somehow eavesdropping on his inner monologue. Bromden asks the reader to keep an open mind, which refers to both the hidden, absurd realities of the hospital and his state of altered consciousness, which can alter the form of his perceptions, without taking away the kernel of truth that’s within them.

"And we're all sitting there lined up in front of that blanked-out TV set, watching the gray screen just like we could see the baseball game clear as day, and she's ranting and screaming behind us. If somebody'd of come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year-old woman hollering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they'd of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons."

This marks the end of part I of the novel, where the battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched for the patients’ TV-viewing rights finally reaches its climax. After a spat and an attempt to cast a vote regarding the change of the television, McMurphy tells Nurse Ratched that he would want to put it to votes again. She thinks that McMurphy will never win a vote because when she counts, she includes the votes of the Chronics on top of the votes from the Acutes, and the Chronics are not clear-headed enough to understand what is going on. Ratched ends the meeting before a final vote is tallied—had the vote been tallied, the situation would have been in McMurphy’s and the Acutes’ favor.

McMurphy denies Ratched her victory by placing himself in front of the television. When she shuts off the power, he and the other Acutes stay fixed to the television while Ratched yells at them to resume their duties. This way, McMurphy won another battle. Even though from the outside, whenever the men assert themselves against Nurse Ratched they fit the textbook description of crazy, they still display a high degree of sanity.

"So you see my friend, it is somewhat as you stated: man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been conquerors."

This quote exposes Kesey’s misogynistic view of society: to him, the unbridled, assertive, and sexual male is subdued and subjugated by matriarchy. Harding is the one speaking these lines, and he claims that men’s only way to subjugate their oppressors is through their penis, and they can only prevail in society again through the use of rape. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is replete with negative female characters: first and foremost is Nurse Ratched, who runs the ward with methods that are compared to machinery by Chief and to Communist brainwashing techniques by McMurphy. Her authority, though, is undermined by her heavy bosom, which she tries to conceal with her uniform. Male sexuality equals sanity, while repressed sexuality is indicative of insanity. McMurphy, the epitome of the “sane” man, taunts Ratched sexually by wearing just a towel, pinching her butt and making remarks about her breasts. In their final confrontation, he rips her shirt open.

By contrast, the other male patients have a negative precedent with relationships with women: Harding’s wife is terrible to her husband, who is a homosexual; Bromden has a complicated relationship with his mother; and Billy Bibbit is constantly infantilized by his own mother. Bromden’s healing process is signaled through his erection, about which McMurphy remarks that he is “getting bigger already.” Similarly, Bibbit manages to gain his manhood by having sex and losing his virginity to Candy Starr, even though, eventually, Ratched shames him for it and he slits his throat.

"While McMurphy laughs. Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water—laughing at the girl, the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier and the bicycle rider and the service-station guys and the five thousand houses and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy."

The patients have gone on a fishing expedition, and, while enjoying the perks of freedom, they laugh and feel human again. As usual, it’s thanks to McMurphy that this took place, as his unbridled rebellious spirit serves as an example to all the patients. Here, Bromden shows how McMurphy’s booming laughter in the face of chaos, which could be seen as the mark of a psychopath, is the one thing that keeps McMurphy sane.

Bromden implies that it is the pressures of society—the captain, the five thousand houses, the Big Nurse, “the things that hurt you”—that drive people insane. To maintain sanity in such an oppressive and cruel world, people cannot allow these external forces to exert too much power. When a person succumbs to seeing and experiencing all the sadness and suffering of humanity, as Bromden has done for 10 years, it naturally makes him or her unable, or unwilling, to cope with reality—in other words, it can make that person “plumb crazy.”