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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel)

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
First edition cover
Author(s) Ken Kesey
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Viking Press & Signet Books
Publication date 1962
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 320 pp
ISBN 0451163966 & 9780451163967
OCLC Number 37505041

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) is a novel written by Ken Kesey. It is set in an Oregon asylum, and serves as a study of the institutional process and the human mind. The novel was written in 1959 and published in 1962. The novel was adapted into a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, as well as a 1975 film, which won five Academy Awards.

TIME included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".


The story, narrated by the gigantic but docile half-Indian inmate "Chief" Bromden, focuses on the antics of the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, who faked insanity to serve out his sentence in the hospital. With little medical oversight, the hospital ward is run by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched and her three black day-shift orderlies.

McMurphy constantly antagonizes Nurse Ratched and upsets the routines, leading to constant power struggles between the inmate and the nurse. He runs a card table, captains the ward's basketball team, comments on Nurse Ratched's figure, incites the other patients on the ward to conduct a vote on watching the World Series on television, and organizes a supervised deep sea fishing trip. His reaction after failing to lift a heavy shower room control panel (which he had claimed to be able to) – "But at least I tried." – gives the men incentive to try to stand up for themselves, to do their best instead of allowing Nurse Ratched to take control of everything they do. The Chief opens up to McMurphy and reveals late one night that he can speak and hear. A disturbance after the fishing trip results in McMurphy and the Chief being sent for electroshock therapy sessions, but even this experience does little to tamp down McMurphy's rambunctious behaviour.

One night, after bribing the night orderly, McMurphy breaks into the pharmacy and smuggles bottles of liquor and two prostitute girlfriends onto the ward. McMurphy persuades one of the women to seduce Billy Bibbit, a timid, boyish patient, with a terrible stutter and little experience with women, so that he can lose his virginity. Although McMurphy plans to escape before the morning shift arrives, he and the other patients fall asleep instead without cleaning up the mess and the staff finds the ward in complete disarray. Nurse Ratched finds Billy and the prostitute in each other's arms, partially dressed, and admonishes him. Billy asserts himself for the first time, answering Nurse Ratched without stuttering. Ratched calmly threatens to tell Billy's mother what she has seen. Billy has an emotional breakdown and, once left alone in the doctor's office, commits suicide by cutting his throat. Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for the loss of Billy's life. Enraged at what she has done to Billy, McMurphy attacks her and attempts to strangle her to death and tears off her uniform, revealing her breasts to the patients and aides watching. He has to be dragged away from her and is moved to the Disturbed ward.

Nurse Ratched misses a week of work due to her injuries, during which time many of the patients either transfer to other wards or check out of the hospital forever. When she returns, she cannot speak and is thus deprived of her most potent tool to keep the men in line. Most of the patients leave shortly after this event. Later, after only Bromden, Martini, and Scanlon are the only original patients left on the ward, McMurphy is brought back in. He has received a lobotomy and is now in a vegetative state, silent and motionless. The Chief later smothers McMurphy with a pillow during the night, before throwing the shower room control panel that McMurphy could not lift earlier, through a window, and escapes the hospital.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a direct product of Kesey's time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, he took psychoactive drugs (Peyote and LSD) as part of Project MKULTRA. From this, he became sympathetic toward the patients.

The novel constantly refers to different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods. The novel's narrator, the Chief, combines these authorities in his mind, calling them "The Combine" in reference to the mechanistic way they manipulate and process individuals. The authority of The Combine is most often personified in the character of "Nurse Ratched" who controls the inhabitants of the novel's mental ward through a combination of rewards and subtle shame. Although she does not normally resort to conventionally harsh discipline, her actions are portrayed as more insidious than those of a conventional prison administrator. This is because the subtlety of her actions prevents her prisoners from understanding that they are being controlled at all. The Chief also sees The Combine in the damming of the wild Columbia River at Celilo Falls, where his Native American ancestors hunted, and in the broader conformity of post-war American consumer society. The novel's critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censor aspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also criticizes the emasculation of men in society, particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.


The title of the book is a line from a nursery rhyme,

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

Chief Bromden's grandmother sang this song to him when he was young, and they had a game about it. A playful name for a mental asylum is a "cuckoo's nest", a mentally unstable person can be referred to as "cuckoo". To "fly over a cuckoo's nest" is to go too far, to get yourself in trouble. Though this can refer to the character of McMurphy being too much of a free spirit and eventually angering Nurse Ratched so much that he receives a lobotomy as result, it can also refer to the ending, where two characters died, and Chief Bromden escaped the Asylum or "Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest". It is also known that cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests, and do not have nests of their own. The cuckoo, upon hatching, throws the other birds out of the nest out of instinct.

Main characters

  • Chief Bromden: The novel's half-American Indian narrator, the Chief, has been in the mental hospital since the end of World War II. Bromden pretends to be deaf and mute, and he is privy to many of the ward's dirty secrets.
    As a young man, the Chief was a high school football star, a college student, and a war hero. After seeing his father, a true Indian chief, humiliated at the hands of the government and his white wife, Chief falls into despair and starts hallucinating. He believes society is controlled by a large, mechanized system which he calls "The Combine."
    The Chief sees people as they are, not as they appear. While he is a very strong man standing at six feet seven inches, he sees himself as a small man, and strong-spirited people such as McMurphy and Ratched as large.
  • Randle McMurphy: A rebellious convict sent from a normal prison. He is guilty of battery and gambling. He had also been charged with, but never convicted of statutory rape. McMurphy is transferred from a prison work farm to the hospital, thinking it will be an easy way to serve out his sentence in comfort. He has a fine time hustling the patients, until he realizes that he is more than a diversion for them: he gives them the lives they are too afraid to live for themselves. In himself he discovers devotion to his friends and the capacity for self-sacrifice. In the end, McMurphy violently fights Nurse Ratched's rule which costs him his freedom, his health and, ultimately, his life.

The staff

  • Nurse Ratched: The tyrannical head nurse of the mental institution, who exercises near-total power over those in her care, including her subordinates. She will not hesitate to restrict her patients' access to medication, amenities, and basic human necessities if it suits her needs. Her greatest success is with Billy Bibbitt, from whom she can get everything she wants to know under the threat of informing his mother. McMurphy's fun-loving, rebellious presence in Ratched's institution is a constant annoyance, as neither threats nor punishment nor shock therapy will stop him or the patients under his sway. Eventually, after McMurphy nearly chokes her to death in a fit of rage, Nurse Ratched has him lobotomized. However, the damage has already been done, and Nurse Ratched's rule is broken after McMurphy's attack leaves her nearly unable to speak, which renders her unable to intimidate her patients, subordinates and superiors.
  • The "Black Boys" Washington, Williams and Warren: Three black men who work as aides in the ward. Williams is a dwarf, his growth stunted after witnessing his mother being raped by white men. The Chief says Nurse Ratched hired them for their sadistic nature. It's suggested that they rape some of the patients, but despite being cruel and vindictive men they are unable to dominate McMurphy.
  • Dr. Spivey: The spineless ward doctor. Nurse Ratched drove off other doctors, but she kept Spivey because he always did as he was told. Harding suggests that the nurse could threaten to expose him as a drug addict if he stood up to her, regardless of whether or not he actually is one. McMurphy's rebellion inspires him to stand up to Nurse Ratched.
  • Nurse Pilbow: The young night nurse. Her face, neck and chest are stained with a profound birthmark. She is a devout Catholic and presents symptoms of peccatophobia (fear of sinning or imaginary crimes). According to the Chief, she spends her time off either praying for the birthmark to disappear or scrubbing it furiously until her skin bleeds. She blames the patients for infecting her with their evil and takes it out on them.
  • The nurse on the Disturbed floor: A tiny, Japanese woman, she runs the upstairs ward, which is reserved for violent or otherwise unmanageable patients. She treats her patients kindly and openly disapproves of Nurse Ratched's methods (though she is unable to effect significant changes).
  • The PR man: A strange individual who is responsible for the hospital's public relations. The patients suspect he wears a corset, and sometimes he laughs hysterically when there are no other staff around.
  • Geever: A night aide. He is the one who discovers that the Chief is hiding old wads of gum under his bed.
  • Mr. Turkle: An elderly African American aide who works the late shift in the ward. The Chief notes that Turkle is far more kindly than the other aides. He agrees to allow McMurphy to host a party and sneak in prostitutes one night. He is a marijuana user, and shares his joint with some of the patients during the party.

The Acutes

The acutes are patients who officials believe can still be cured. With few exceptions, they are there voluntarily.

  • Billy Bibbit: A nervous, shy and boyish patient with an extreme speech impediment, Billy cuts himself and has attempted suicide numerous times. Nurse Ratched is a close friend of his overbearing mother, who treats him like a child, despite his being in his thirties. To alleviate Billy's fear of women, McMurphy sneaks a prostitute into the ward so Billy can lose his virginity. Upon being discovered the next morning, Billy speaks for the first time without stuttering. It's only after Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother that Billy reverts back to his nervous ways. Fearing the loss of his mother's love after Ratched's threat, Billy has an emotional breakdown and cuts his own throat.
  • Dale Harding: The unofficial leader of the patients before McMurphy arrives, he is an intelligent, good-looking man who's ashamed of his repressed homosexuality. Harding's beautiful yet malcontent wife is a source of shame for him; he cannot please her, so she constantly emasculates him.
  • George Sorensen: A man with germaphobia, he spends his days repeatedly washing his hands in the ward's drinking fountain. McMurphy manages to convince him to lead a fishing expedition for the patients after discovering that he'd captained a PT boat during World War II. Afterward, the staff forcibly delouse him, knowing the mental anguish this causes him. The delousing is a retribution by Nurse Ratched, rather than medical care. McMurphy and the Chief stop the delousing and, because of their actions, end up in the disturbed ward.
  • Charles Cheswick: A loud-mouthed patient who always demands changes in the ward, but never has the courage to see anything through. According to Chief, he "climbs onto a soapbox" and "shouts for a following," but backs down when there are any repercussions by the Big Nurse from his demands. He finds a friend in McMurphy, who's able to voice his opinions for him. After McMurphy loses his confidence when he learns that his stay in the ward is indefinite, Cheswick drowns himself in the swimming pool.
  • Martini: A patient who suffers from severe hallucinations, he frightens McMurphy by talking about the people who "need [McMurphy] to see them"; that is, the people who need McMurphy to stand up for them.
  • Scanlon: A patient obsessed with explosives and destruction, he's the only non-vegetative patient confined to the ward by force (aside from McMurphy and Bromden); the rest could leave at any time. It's Scanlon who convinces the Chief to escape.
  • Sefelt and Fredrickson: Two epileptic patients. Jim Sefelt refuses to take his anti-seizure medication, as it makes his hair and teeth fall out; he's plagued by seizures, which the Chief believes are controlled by Nurse Ratched. Bruce Fredrickson takes Sefelt's medication, because he's terrified of the seizures.
  • Max Taber: An unruly patient who was released before McMurphy arrived, the Chief recalls how, after questioning what was in his medication, Nurse Ratched had him "fixed." He walked out of the hospital a sane man, a tribute to The Combine's terrible power.

The Chronics

The Chronics are patients who will never be cured; they are held at the asylum to intimidate the Acutes and to remind them that they could be in the Chronics' place if they don't comply. Many of the Chronics are in vegetative states.

  • Ruckly: A hell-raising patient who challenges the rules until his lobotomy. After the lobotomy, he sits and stares at a picture of his wife, and occasionally screams profanities. He is kept in the ward as a reminder of what happens to patients who get out of line.
  • Ellis: Ellis was put in a vegetative state by electroshock therapy. He stands against the wall in a disturbing Christ-like position with arms outstretched, day after day, as if he were nailed there.
  • Pete Bancini: Bancini suffered brain damage at birth but managed to hold down simple jobs until he was institutionalized. He sits, wagging his head and complaining how tired he is. The Chief remembers how once, and only once, he lashed out violently against the aides, telling the other patients that he was a living miscarriage, born dead.
  • Rawler: A patient on the disturbed ward, he says nothing but "loo, loo, loo!" all day and tries to run up the walls. The Chief believes he has been wired to receive radio transmissions. One night, Rawler castrates himself while sitting on the toilet and bleeds to death before anyone realizes what he has done.
  • Old Blastic: An old patient who is in a vegetative state. The first night McMurphy is in the ward, Bromden dreams Blastic is hung by his heel and sliced open, spilling out his rusty guts. The next morning it is revealed that Blastic died during the night.
  • The Lifeguard: An ex-professional football player, he still has the cleat marks on his forehead from the injury that scrambled his brains. While he is the lifeguard at the hospital pool, he remains in the disturbed ward because he occasionally tackles the nurses. This is fine with him, because he doesn't realize he's in a mental hospital. It is the lifeguard who tells McMurphy that he will stay in the hospital until Nurse Ratched decides he may go, regardless of his original prison sentence.
  • Colonel Matterson: The oldest patient in the ward, he suffers from severe senile dementia and cannot move without a wheelchair. He is a veteran of the First World War, and spends his days "explaining" objects ("Mexico is ... the walnut."). The Chief believes there is logic to his babbling.

Other characters

  • Candy: The prostitute that McMurphy brings on the fishing trip. All the men in the ward, including the doctor and the vegetative chronics, are struck by her beauty. Billy Bibbit, a boyish patient who has no experience with women, obviously has a crush on her and McMurphy convinces Candy to sleep with him.
  • Sandy: Another prostitute and friend of McMurphy, she shows up with Candy on the night of the party. She and Sefelt sleep together. Sefelt has a seizure while they are having sexual intercourse, giving Sandy an experience she'll never forget.
  • Vera Harding: Dale Harding's beautiful wife, who visits him faithfully but flirts with the other men while she's there. Harding mocks her lack of education and refinement; she mocks Harding's lack of manhood.

Film adaptation

The novel was adapted into a play in 1963 and a film, starring Jack Nicholson and winning five Academy Awards, in 1975.


  • ISBN 0-606-04239-3 ( prebound, 1962)
  • ISBN 0-451-16396-6 ( mass market paperback, 1963)
  • ISBN 0-14-004312-8 ( paperback, 1977, reprint)
  • ISBN 0-14-023601-5 ( hardcover, 1996)
  • ISBN 1-55651-685-1 (paperback, 1988)
  • ISBN 0-453-00815-1 ( audio cassette, 1993, abridged)
  • ISBN 0-14-028334-X (paperback, 1999)
  • ISBN 0-8220-7154-1 ( e-book, 1999)
  • ISBN 0-7645-8662-9 (paperback, 2000)
  • ISBN 0-7910-6339-9 ( library binding, 2001)
  • ISBN 0-14-118122-2 (paperback, 2002)
  • ISBN 0-7910-7118-9 (paperback)
  • ISBN 0-330-23564-8 (paperback)
  • ISBN 0-141-18788-3 (paperback, 2005)
  • ISBN 0-14-303690-4 (hardcover, 2005)
  • Photos of the first edition One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
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