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Literature / One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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"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 1963 stage play, as well as a critically-acclaimed 1975 movie directed by Miloš Forman, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The 2020 Netflix series Ratched is a prequel centering on the eponymous character.


This novel provides examples of:

  • 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.
    • In the novel, Fredrickson and Sefelt are epileptic, but no such explanation is given in the film even when their medication is being discussed.
  • 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.
  • 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 rape. 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.
  • Bedlam House: The novel is set in one of these, albeit one which maintains an outward appearance of being a modern, progressive facility.
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  • 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.
  • 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, and Mr. Turkle, the night orderly.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Hydrotherapy Console.
  • 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.
  • D-Cup Distress: Nurse Ratched resents having large breasts and tries to hide them.
  • 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.
  • Depraved Dwarf: Warren the orderly.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: McMurphy's attack on Ratched leads to his death but also to her downfall and improved conditions for his fellow inmates.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Nurse Ratched has authority over her asylum that is unchecked even by her superiors.
  • Driven to Suicide: Poor Billy Bibbit and old Charles Cheswick.
  • 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 (although it DOES mention a few times that the shock itself is quick and practically painless) and that portrayal had a worrying amount of impact on medicine. Doctors were shamed out of using ECT for decades after the release of Cuckoo's Nest, despite its generally positive results.
    • The book was written during the 60s when anesthesia was starting to be used with ECT. But considering that this is Nurse Ratched we're talking about, it is likely that she chose not to use it for the purpose of making him suffer.
  • Empty Shell: Patients who are lobotomized become this.
  • Epigraph: The nursery rhyme that gives the book its title.
    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.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Bromden momentarily questions his sexuality when contemplating McMurphy's magnetism.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: Subtly invoked the white-clad, emotionless Big Nurse, in contrast with the friendly, redheaded McMurphy. Both are usually described in terms suggesting winter and summer, respectively.
  • Fiery Redhead: McMurphy is a redhead whose string of convictions includes a number of assaults.
  • Fighting Irish: Which makes McMurphy's aforementioned Fiery Redhead characterisation into a Phenotype Stereotype.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: "Chief" Bromden, who takes center stage over the hero McMurphy because his hallucinations highlight the symbolism of the book, and because we have to look up to McMurphy. We can't be him.
  • 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: 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.
  • The Hero Dies: McMurphy himself at the end.
  • Hidden Buxom: Nurse Ratched resents having large breasts and tries to hide them.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Candy and Sandy.
  • Hospital Hottie: The inmates comment that Nurse Ratched would be quite attractive if she weren't so emotionless and intimidating.
  • Insanity Defense: McMurphy claims he's insane to get transferred to the institution to serve out the rest of his sentence in cushy surroundings, and is more than a little alarmed when he realizes that 'the rest of his sentence' is no longer the few months he thought it was, but when the doctors decide that he's no longer a threat to himself or others — which, considering he's pissed off the evil Nurse Ratched, could mean an indefinite stay.
  • Intimate Psychotherapy: McMurphy brings prostitutes onto the mental ward to make the other patients into men. After sleeping with one of the prostitutes, Billy Bibbit becomes confident enough to finally stand up to Nurse Ratched. This all goes down the toilet once Nurse Ratched threatens to tell Billy's mother about what happened, which drives poor Billy to suicide.
  • 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.
  • Jailbait Taboo: Why McMurphy was incarcerated to begin with.
  • 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) 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.
  • 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.
  • Least Is First: Charles Cheswick is the only man who is initially enthusiastic for McMurphy's scheme to change the ward schedule.
  • 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.
  • Madness Mantra: Ruckly, one of the Chronics, responds to everything by mumbling "Fffffuuck da wife".
  • 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."
  • The Man: Bromden refers to "the Combine", an all-encompassing, mechanized Mind-Control Conspiracy that represents systems of social control and conformity. The Combine's chief representative in the story is not a man but a woman — specifically, Big Nurse Ratched.
  • 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. 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.
    • Then, at the end of the book, just before McMurphy tries to strangle Nurse Ratched, Chief Bromden has a terrifyng moment of clarity and realizes the true Mind-Control Conspiracy:
    First I had a quick thought to try to stop him, talk him into taking what he’d already won and let her have the last round, but another, bigger thought wiped the first thought away completely. I suddenly realized with a crystal certainty that neither I nor any of the half-score of us could stop him. That Harding’s arguing or my grabbing him from behind, or old Colonel Matterson’s teaching or Scanlon’s griping, or all of us together couldn’t rise up and stop him.
    We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it.
    It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.
    We made him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap with one finger like it was a ten-gallon Stetson, slow, mechanical gestures - and when he walked across the floor you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile.
  • Mind Screw: Sometimes Bromden will go off on bizarre tangents that can make things very difficult to follow if you aren't paying attention.
  • Modesty Towel: McMurphy greets Nurse Ratched wearing one on his second day at the hospital, as he had just showered. When she says he can't walk around like that, he threatens to take it off. He's actually wearing boxer shorts underneath.
  • 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.
  • Nom de Mom: The Metis narrator is named Chief Bromden. He inherited "Chief" from his Indian dad, Chief Tee Ah Millatoona, but "Bromden" from his white mom.
  • No Medication for Me: It is mentioned that the anti-seizure medication causes your teeth to fall out, which is a good reason why some of the patients don't want to take it.note  One gets the unfortunate side effect mentioned above, and decides he'd rather have the seizures; the other is terrified of having a seizure, and takes the medication intended for the first epileptic as well as his own to make sure he avoids it.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Chief Bromden. To clarify, he IS insane, just not deaf or 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.
  • Orderlies Are Creeps: The orderlies act as Nurse Ratched's enforcers. McMurphy beating one up in a fistfight is considered a triumphant achievement for the patients.
  • Order Versus Chaos: With chaos portrayed as good.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: McMurphy is both racist and sexist (although some of this can be attributed to Values Dissonance). He repeatedly calls the black orderlies "coons," and at one point he claims that women who aren't sex objects are oppressive to men. When he first arrives at the mental hospital, before he knows any of the real reasons to object to Nurse Ratched's reign, his initial objection to her power is that it's "unnatural" for men to be so completely under the authority of a woman.
  • Porky Pig Pronunciation: Billy.
  • Prison Rape: Not exactly prison, but the orderlies at the Pendleton insane asylum love to give patients showers. They always check the patient's temperature at the same time they shower the patient, and they go down to Miss Ratched beforehand to get a rectal thermometer and a bottle of Vaseline. She admonishes them to use the minimum amount of Vaseline necessary, but they take the whole bottle inside with them, and they turn up the water pressure till the noise makes it impossible to hear anything that's going on inside...
  • Psycho Psychologist: The actual doctors are sane if ineffectual, but then there's Miss Ratched, and the orderlies who may need help a lot worse than the patients.
  • 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.
  • Room 101: The Disturbed Ward subverts this. Despite the electroshock therapy and lobotomies performed there, it's actually a refuge from Nurse Ratched's tyranny, and the staff will often try to prolong a patient's time on the Disturbed Ward because Ratched is just that nasty.
  • 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 orderlies, 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.
  • The Schizophrenia Conspiracy: "Chief" Bromden isn't given an explicit diagnosis but is usually interpreted as schizophrenic. One of the main themes of the novel is the patients' struggle against the "Combine", a vast force trying to control all of society through forced conformity. Not that this was Kesey's commentary on The '50s in any way...
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, Spock Speak: Our garrulous friend, Harding.
  • Sex Is Liberation: Billy.
  • 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.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Nurse Ratched.
  • Speech Impediment: Billy.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Bromden is the narrator, but McMurphy is the protagonist.
  • Terrified of Germs: George Sorenson is constantly washing his hands until the skin is raw, but is such a germophobe he won't use soap. After the fishing trip and the participants are forced to take a special shower to be deloused, George has a meltdown.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The novel is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic who hears machinery clanking in the walls, sees his fellow patients controlled like marionettes by Nurse Ratched, and repeatedly claims the entire ward is enveloped in a thick white fog that makes it impossible to see or move. At the beginning he claims that everything he describes "Is true even if it didn't happen." His narration doubles both as a terrifyingly astute metaphor, and a description of his own view of a reality that was long ago fucked over.
  • Title Drop: The child's poem containing 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.
  • Troubled Abuser: Warren, one of the Scary Black Man attendants who are downright abusive toward the patients of the mental hospital they work in, is said to have seen his mother being raped by a white man as a child.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Bromden is schizophrenic, and often hallucinates Literal Metaphors and ties things into an overarching Mind-Control Conspiracy. He cops to altering what happened by stating that his narration is true, even if it didn't happen this way.
  • 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."
  • Vorpal Pillow: Chief Bromden sets McMurphy free from the asylum by suffocating him with a pillow.
  • Wham Line:
    • 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.
  • You Just Told Me: McMurphy runs through the hallways of the asylum warning the patients that an orderly is on their way to check on them. Everyone stops what they're doing and pretends to sleep, including Chief Bromden. After it turns out to be a false alarm, McMurphy casually says to Bromden, "Hey Chief, I could've sworn they told me you was deaf!"

"… 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."


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