'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Summary

Are those that society deems insane the truly sane ones?

Set almost exclusively within the walls of a mental hospital, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of the clash between repression, embodied by Nurse Ratched, and rebellion, embodied by Randle Patrick McMurphy. The hospital is its own micro-universe, with its hierarchy: the patients are classified as either Acutes or Chronics. Acutes are considered functioning and curable, while the Chronics are those who have been permanently damaged by the staff’s treatments, which include lobotomy and shock therapy. The only instance where we see patients outside the hospital is during a fishing trip, which ends up galvanizing them.

The novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest conveys Kesey’s interest in the altered consciousness. He wrote the sections where Chief Bromden is in a paranoid state, believing that the hospital is an emasculating factory meant to repress individuality, while under the influence. Upon the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey formed a group known as “The Merry Pranksters,” whose members engaged in Acid Tests.

Introduction to the Hospital

Chief Bromden, the narrator of the novel, is the son of a Native American father and a white mother. He is in a mental institution, and discloses the real and imagined humiliations he suffered at the hands of the three “Black Boys” the burly aides of Nurse Ratched, who has great power in the hospital. Her large breasts, however, naturally thwart her authority and efficiency. A paranoid, Chief pretends being a mute, and thinks that Nurse Ratched is in service of the Combine, a mechanized matrix that controls everything, from the environment to human behavior.

A new patient is committed to the ward. His name is Randle Patrick McMurphy, who, unlike other patients, completely disregards authority—in fact, his presence in the ward might be one of his shenanigans meant for him to escape hard labor on a work farm. He displays an open heterosexuality and an overall rebellious attitude: e makes lewd remarks, gambles, and swears. He immediatey antagonizes Nurse Ratched, whom he dubs a “ball cutter.” Her abusive tendencies come to light: she controls the patients by encouraging them to spy on one another and verbally brutalizeone another. His defiance towards Ratched allows him some form of leadership among the patients. Once, after asking Nurse Ratched for permission to watch tv, he gets his request denied, and, when he disobeys, she shuts down the power. He and the other patients resort to just watching the blank screen. 

McMurphy's Arrival

In Part 2, a life guard gets committed to the hospital, he tells McMurphy he’d better obey to Nurse Ratched, lest he wants to risk staying at the hospital indefinitely. So, he temporarily backs off from his tendencies. However, when McMurphy is unable to support the patient Cheswick in his assertions that he should be allowed to have access to cigarettes, the latter commits suicide by drowning in the pool where McMurphy first “toed the line.” Eventually, upon learning that the other Acutes committed themselves voluntarily to the ward, and that have permission to leave as they please, he resumes his rebellious acts: he smashes a window to get a pack of cigarettes, which symbolizes Cheswick’s lost cause with Nurse Ratched. 

In Part 3, McMurphy takes several patients on a fishing trip, regardless of Nurse Rached’s attempt to scare them by posting clippings about bad weather and boating-related accidents. Doctor Spivey, a morphine addict who is under Nurse Ratched’s grip, and Candy Starr, a prostitute, serve as chaperones on the trip.This trip empowers the group, as they re-discover their individuality.

Part 4 starts with Nurse Ratched’s attempts at riling other patients against McMurphy, making them question his motives, and framing them as if he were just acting out of self interest. Chief falls for that, but McMurphy still manages to win the favor of hte other men when he defends one of them from receiving an enema from an aide. When a fight ensues, Chief and McMurphy overpower the hospital staff, but, in return, are sent to the Disturbed Ward. Given McMurphy’s refusal to apologize, both he and Chief are given electro-shock therapy.

Plans for Escape

When Chief returns to the ward, he learns that he and McMurphy are hailed as heroes, and eventually reveals the other patients his ability to speak. McMurphy returns in a clear state of mental strain, which he tries to hide. However, he behaves quite bizarrely and the others, sensing his precarious state, plot his escape.

However, McMurphy will not escape: he wants to honor the promise he made to Billy Bibbit, a 31-year-old virgin, who had a date arranged with Candy Starr. McMurphy wants to stay until the two have sex. 

Candy Starr arrives with another prostitute, and they bring liquor, while the night watchman, mr. Turkle, gives them marijuana: a night of debauchery follows, and McMurphy’s escape with Starr is planned. However, everyone oversleeps, and Ratched walks in on them. The group stands united against her until she walks in on Bibbit sleeping with Candy Starr: given how dependent Bibbit is on his mother, Ratched tells him that his mother will learn of his indiscretion, which leads him to betray his fellow patients. However, Bibbit ends up slitting his throat while waiting alone in dr. Spivey’s office, which Nurse Ratched blames on McMurphy’s influence. He retorts by attempting to strangle her, which ends up with him ripping her uniform open to expose her large breasts. This way, her sexuality is exposed, and her authority over the patients weakened.

As a consequence of his actions, McMurphy is brought once again to the Disturbed Ward, and, when he returns, he is lobotomized. While the other patients doubt that it’s actually him in that lobotomized state, once his identity is confirmed, Chief suffocates him and escapes. 

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Frey, Angelica. "'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Summary." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2021, thoughtco.com/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-summary-4769200. Frey, Angelica. (2021, February 5). 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-summary-4769200 Frey, Angelica. "'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-summary-4769200 (accessed March 24, 2023).