Literature / One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

"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."

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, takes place in an insane asylum run by Miss Ratched, the Big Nurse, who rules over the patients with an iron fist... and her machines, of course, according to narrator Chief Bromden.

She has so much power over them that no one dares to stand up to her, until one day when Randle Patrick McMurphy swaggers into the ward, and things are never the same again as he takes everything the Big Nurse stands for and destroys it right before everyone's eyes.

Was adapted into a critically-acclaimed 1975 movie co-produced by Michael Douglas, directed by Miloš Forman, and starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. It became only the second movie to sweep the major Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay—and remains one of only three, along with It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs.

This work provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • Inverted with Harding, who is described in the novel as looking like a film star. In the film, he looks like an average (or perhaps even slightly unattractive) middle-aged man. This may have to do with his homosexuality being toned down a lot in the movie, as he was a stereotypical pretty boy in the book.
    • In the book, Nurse Ratched is frequently mentioned to be overweight (the cause of her large ladybags). Louise Fletcher... isn't. She is also described, in the book, as a handsome woman who was probably quite beautiful when she was in her prime.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie cut out a lot of stuff. Still very good.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Relatively speaking, the Nurse Ratched presented in the film is a lot less sociopathic than the one in the book. While she retains the domineering and tyrannical behavior, she seems a lot less violent than her book self. Book!Nurse Ratched is introduced as already having lobotomized and submitted to brutal shock therapy several patients before the story even begins, and has cowed every one of her co-workers into submission. In the film no such facts are alluded to.
  • Adaptational Wimp: In the book Harding, while pompous and perhaps overly verbose, was still quite clever and insightful, coming up with excellent ideas and giving some very cutting lectures about the situation of the hospital and McMurphy. In the film he's more of a straightforward Butt-Monkey.
  • Aesop Amnesia / Status Quo Is God: Tear Jerker example. McMurphy challenges Nurse Ratched's authority and unfair rules at every turn and becomes something of a hero to the sheepish patients, leading them to explore and regain their own lost least until McMurphy attacks Ratched in order to avenge her driving Billy to suicide and is moved to another part of the hospital and lobotomized. The Chief clearly doesn't forget what McMurphy taught him, but all the other patients seem to, and when the film ends, they're all back to behaving as they did before McMurphy arrived. This doesn't happen in the book, as Murphy's attack damaged her vocal chords, and none of the patients are afraid of a mute Battleaxe Nurse.
  • Affectionate Parody: For the longest time, The Simpsons was rather fond of parodying this, leading to a rather severe case of Pop Culture Osmosis.
  • Alliterative Name: Billy Bibbit, Charles Cheswick
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Of all the supporting cast that get focus, no one has an explicitly given mental illness that puts them there, putting it all up to speculation. Chief seems to have some form of schizophrenia with his visions of the mists.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Harding at first. It's confirmed when his wife shows up. He admits it, by way of euphemisms, to McMurphy prior to the story's climax.
  • Ascended Extra: In the book, Taber was a past patient mentioned a few times by Chief. In the film adaptation, he is a main character on the ward while McMurphy is there.
  • Anti-Hero: McMurphy is an Unscrupulous Hero. He's racist, sexist, loud, rude, and scams the other patients out of their money regularly. He originally got busted for statutory. But he's the only thing that can get them out of their shells and remind them that they're not a bunch of worthless rabbits. Eventually he genuinely cares about them in spite of himself.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: Miss Ratched, one of the most famous in literature or film.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: The aides take some lumps because they underestimate quiet patients. The first is Pete Bancini, an aging patient with the mental capacity of a toddler, who has a brief moment of lucidity that results in
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Through her glass window... Appropriately, the Big Nurse's nickname is an allusion to Big Brother. Chief believes that The Combine is the actual Big Brother, while the nurse is just its high-ranking officer.
  • Big Bra to Fill: Nurse Ratched in the book has large breasts, Louise Fletcher doesn't.
  • Bittersweet Ending: McMurphy wins the fight against Ratched, but at the cost of part of his brain, which ultimately forces Chief Bromden to euthanize him by smothering him with a pillow before finally escaping to his ancient tribal lands.
  • Blithe Spirit: McMurphy. He's definitely a flawed guy, but still teaches the patients not to fear Nurse Ratched or her arbitrary rules.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: McMurphy.
  • Butt-Monkey: Harding, especially in the film. And Mr. Turkle, the night orderly.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Hydrotherapy Console.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Subverted Trope. McMurphy is shown to fake being a vegetable earlier after the shock treatment, but regrettably wasn't faking it later on.
  • Creator Cameo: Producer Saul Zaentz appears as a man at the inmates' bus outing.
  • Cure Your Gays: Given that Harding doesn't show any signs of mental illness but is more-than-ambiguously gay, this could very well be why he's in the institution - especially since homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder when the book was written.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Harding. He surpasses deadpan so well that it's hard to tell that's what he's doing at first, but after the fishing trip it becomes much more clear.
  • Death of Personality: As a result of McMurphy's lobotomy.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Arguably the movie sets it up like McMurphy is the main character, only revealing that the original POV character, Chief, is the main character after McMurphy is lobotomized.
  • Demoted to Extra: Doctor Spivey has a lot fewer scenes in the adaptation, and his whole character arc is removed wholesale. In the novel he spearheads the reformation of the hospital after Ratched is gone.
  • Driven to Suicide: Poor Billy Bibbit and old Charles Cheswick (Cheswick in the novel only, as he survives the film).
  • Electric Torture: In real life, electroshock therapy is mainly painless and quick but with varying results. For a short time after the treatment, the patient may have trouble forming new memories, but the vast majority of patients feel better and are able to use a wider range of treatments. In the past the shock could damage the body through the reaction to the shock, but modern electroconvulsive therapy is done with a muscle relaxant and a short-acting anesthetic, making it mostly painless. In this book, however, it's... well, Electric Torture, and that portrayal had a worrying amount of impact on medicine. Doctors were shamed out of using EST for decades after the release of Cuckoo's Nest, despite its generally positive results.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: In the book, Bromden momentarily questions his sexuality when contemplating McMurphy's magnetism.
  • The Film of the Book: Made in 1975. Kesey didn't like it (mainly due to the massive changes), but it was critically acclaimed and became one of only three films to win all of the "Big Five" Oscars (best picture, screenplay, director, actor, and actress). Kesey's reaction was no doubt also fueled by the fact that he received no money for it.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Randle Patrick McMurphy, R.P.M., is in constant, often circular (metaphorical) motion.
  • Gag Boobs: Nurse Ratched. The book makes several references to the Big Nurse's "oversized badges of femininity", and McMurphy kids her about them multiple times, knowing that she resents having such a prominent set of breasts.
  • Gentle Giant: Bromden measures at a staggering 6 ft, 8 in. (203 cm), but is as timid as the other inmates. Until he apparently finishes MacMurphy's "training program".
  • Go Among Mad People: One of the most famous examples. McMurphy feigned insanity and got himself sent to the asylum thinking it would be an easy way out from his prison sentence. He was dead wrong.
  • Hate Sink: Nurse Ratched. According to the DVD extras, at one point it got so bad that Louise Fletcher herself stripped to her underwear on set to "prove she wasn't a monster".
  • The Hero Dies: McMurphy himself at the end.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Candy and Sandy.
  • Hospital Hottie: Nurse Pilbow, at least in the film. In the book, the inmates comment that Nurse Ratched would be quite attractive if she weren't so emotionless and intimidating.
  • Irony:
    • The entire plot is a large-scale example of situational irony. McMurphy cons his way into being committed because he's too lazy to serve out a light sentence on the work farm for statutory rape. The fact that McMurphy knows he doesn't belong there makes him chafe with the staff, which leads to him not only getting labeled genuinely insane, but also lobotomized... and then dead. It really hits home for him when he asks about the end of his prison sentence, only to find that, in a psychiatric hospital, he stays there for as long as the doctors feel that he's 'sick'.
    • Patients in the Disturbed Ward, which houses patients with violent or self-harming tendencies, are treated much more humanely than the ones in Nurse Ratched's ward. The nurse in the Disturbed Ward actually tries to keep patients there longer to keep them away from Ratched.
  • Jail Bait: Why McMurphy was incarcerated to begin with. As he explains to Spivey in the film:
    McMurphy: She was fifteen years old goin' on thirty-five, Doc, and she told me she was eighteen. She was very willing, you know what I mean? I practically had to take to sewin' my pants shut.
  • Jaywalking Will Ruin Your Life: McMurphy got into this whole jail to mental hospital to lobotomy and ultimately to death situation because he committed statutory rape on a fifteen-year-old girl. At the time of the book's publication (1962) and the time of the film's release (1975) statutory rape of the kind involving an adult and a teenager was considered to be less of an issue than it is considered to be today.
  • Karmic Trickster: Deconstructed with McMurphy, since he lacks the usual Karmic Protection.
  • Large Ham: Movie-wise, Jack Nicholson and Christopher Lloyd, of course.
  • Last Name Basis: Compare: The patients all call each other by the last names, while the Big Nurse has them on a first-name basis.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Done on McMurphy for a full minute at the end of the party.
  • Lobotomy:
    • The patient who was an angry lunatic before he undergoes the procedure becomes an empty shell after his lobotomy. His eyes are described as being like burnt-out lightbulbs.
    • After McMurphy attacks Ratched, he is lobotomized and left in a vegetative state. Bromden mercy kills him.
  • Mad Bomber: Scanlon. We're never told whether or not he has ever acted on his urges, but he is the only Acute patient other than McMurphy who is committed involuntarily.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Nurse Ratched calls McMurphy "McMurry" as a power play. McMurphy lets her know (without stating it straight out) that he knows it's intentional, and at one point he returns the favor by calling her "Nurse Rat-shed."
  • Mercy Kill: After McMurphy gets a lobotomy, Bromden decides to put him out of his misery by suffocating him with a pillow.
  • Meaningful Name: Bromden, related to bromide, a tranquilizer.
  • Messianic Archetype: McMurphy. Lampshaded when he and 12 other guys all go fishing. In the book, Harding compares the EST victim to Jesus on the cross. McMurphy is also friends with a prostitute called Mary. Bromden describes McMurphy as a "giant sent from the sky to save us." Billy Bibbit commits suicide after betraying him.
  • Mind-Control Conspiracy: Chief Bromden vs. the Combine.
  • Mind Screw: Sometimes Bromden will go off on bizarre tangents that can make things very difficult to follow if you aren't paying attention.
  • Missing the Good Stuff: McMurphy is very unhappy about being prevented by Nurse Ratched from watching the World Series on television. Subverted when he entertains himself and the other inmates by "announcing" an imaginary game while staring at the darkened TV screen.
  • Mondegreen: In the movie, after McMurphy attempts (and fails) to lift the hydrotherapy console in the tub room, he tells the others, "I tried, didn't I? Goddammit." Some audience members heard this as, "I tried and I died. Dammit.", as some metaphorical way of expressing himself.
  • My Beloved Smother: Billy Bibbit is terrified of his mother, though we never learn why as we don't even hear from her or see her.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: This excerpt from the fishing trip of the movie adaptation:
    McMurphy: This is Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Frederickson, Dr. Scanlon, the famous Dr. Scanlon, Mr. Harding, Dr. Bibbit, Dr. Martini, and Dr. Sefelt...Oh, I'm Dr. McMurphy, R. P. McMurphy.
  • Obfuscating Disability / Obfuscating Stupidity: Chief Bromden. To clarify, he IS insane, just not a deaf mute.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Adopted by McMurphy to get transferred to the hospital from the work farm he was originally sentenced to. It soon enough becomes clear that he's actually put himself in a worse spot.
  • Only Sane Man: McMurphy, literally.
  • Order Versus Chaos: With chaos portrayed as good.
  • Perspective Flip: The Movie is the book told from McMurphy's point of view.
  • Porky Pig Pronunciation: Billy.
  • The Quiet One: Bromden. Until later.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Contrast the closeted homosexual Harding (who fears showing signs of weakness) with the straight, boisterous McMurphy who isn't afraid to express his softer side once in a while.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Dr. Spivey. Unfortunately, he has no real power.
  • Sadist: Nurse Ratched is a coldly vindictive and utterly hateful Control Freak who uses her position to bully, intimidate, torture and lobotomise the patients in her care. She accepts no challenge to her authority. She is perfectly capable of intentionally driving her patients to suicide out of petty revenge. In addition, she allows the orderlies to rape the inmates in order to break them further and cement her own power.
  • Scary Black Man: The three aides, Warren, Washington, and Williams, are horribly abusive to the patients. Warren at least has the excuse of having seen his mother raped by whites as a child.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, Spock Speak: Our garrulous friend, Harding.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Kesey worked at the Oregon State Hospital's mental ward (then and still notorious for its poor quality) as an orderly and stated that the Big Nurse is based off an amalgamation of several nurses he had worked with.
    • He talked a fellow orderly into secretly giving him electroshock treatment as part of the research, and did a lot of acid. His hallucinations provided the basis of Bromden's schizophrenic narration.
    • When Chief Bromden speaks just after McMurphy offers him a piece of gum, this is a reference to a real incident when a catatonic schizophrenic who had been silent for 19 years finally spoke after he was reinforced with chewing gum.
    • When Harding describes the origins of electroconvulsive therapy, the bit about two psychiatrists visiting a slaughterhouse is not made up: those were Cerletti and Bini, who visited an abattoir in 1938 and got the idea that an epileptic fit could be induced by electricity. The idea that inducing seizures could have therapeutic effects, however, was proposed a few years earlier. Harding's Brief Accent Imitation of them, however, as Germans, is false. As is evident by their names, they were Italian.
  • The Sociopath: What McMurphy pretends to be to get committed. Unfortunately for him, Nurse Ratched actually is one.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Charles Cheswick in the movie, the novel has him drown in a swimming pool. According to Word of God, Cheswick was spared to make Billy Bibbit's death all the more shocking.
  • Speech Impediment: Billy.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Bromden in the novel is the narrator, but McMurphy is the protagonist. In the film McMurphy is the viewpoint character as well.
  • Title Drop: In the novel, the child's poem containting the title appears when Bromden narrates the repressed memories from his childhood that come to his mind during electroshock therapy.
  • Troll: McMurphy's main strategy in his war with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched is being one.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Bromden is schizophrenic, and often hallucinates Literal Metaphors and ties things into an overarching Mind-Control Conspiracy. He even implies, in the very first part of the book, that none of the events in the novel actually happened.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Poozle."
  • Visual Pun: McMurphy's boxers, depicting white whales, which was given to him by a literary student because he "was a symbol."
  • The Voiceless: Despite an impressive amount of screentime, Nurse Pilbow utters maybe just a couple of syllables throughout the entire movie and her entire purpose is to perform Nurse Ratched's orders. Also, the camera tends to zoom onto her face whenever the patients start displaying extraordinary behavior.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Chief Bromden sets McMurphy free from the asylum by suffocating him with a pillow.
  • Wham Line: The book being from Bromden's perspective and the movie from Mac's provides us with two contrasting reveals, both of which are provided by a single line: in the movie, Mac passes supposedly deaf/mute Bromden a stick of chewing gum and Bromden says, "Thank you." The book's Wham Line is possibly less impactful on the story, as it is more illustrative of a character than something that fundamentally changes our perception of them, but it still comes as a shock: we know Bromden is faking being deaf/mute right from the start. What we don't know until roughly the halfway point is that Mac has him figured out quite early on: Chief reacts when Mac warns him about the black aide coming to which Mac responded with a snicker and "I thought somebody told me you was deef."
    • Another line that's often overlooked is this simple statement from Harding which casts a new light on the Acutes' situation and makes McMurphy realise that he's the only hope for these men:
    Harding: I'm voluntary. I'm not committed.
  • White Male Lead: While the original novel is narrated by Bromden, a Native American, the film makes McMurphy into the lead. Justified because the main conflict involves McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, and Chief Bromden's first-person narration in the book is completely lost in a visual medium like film.

Alternative Title(s): One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest