One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest Book summary

Ken Kesey



This book is a product of the Beat Generation movement that came about as people became aware of the human rights violations and otherwise that the American government had brought about. The dropping of the atomic bomb and the disastrous military action in Vietnam have been said to be precipitating factors. The writers of the Beat Generation defied social and literary norms in their writing. Other writers involved within the same movement were Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. This novel was written by Kesey while he worked as an orderly in a Mental hospital, and it focuses strongly on where the difference between sane and insane lies.

The book has been criticised for its sometimes racist and misogynistic prose. It was written and published before the Civil rights movement, and it has an unflattering depiction of the Black characters. For example, Kesey refers to the Black orderlies in the ward as “the Black boys” even though they are quite old adults, and in the initial parts of the book, there is a strong implication that these orderlies have sex with one another.

All the female characters in the book can only be cast in two roles: a mother figure seeking to control men, like Nurse Ratched, or they are depicted as objects of sex that are to be used by the men. The Japanese nurse even goes so far as to suggest that single women over the age of 35 should be dismissed from service, seeming to propagate the common viewpoint of the time about old spinsters and their hateful ways.


Plot Summary

TThe book is narrated by Chief Bromden, a large half-native American patient in a mental ward that is ruled by the cold and cruel Nurse Ratched. An almost machine-like person that controls the minutest details of her patient's lives with the help of a brainwashed staff. Bromden pretends to be mute and roams the halls like an unseen phantom, and through his eyes, we meet RP McMurphy. McMurphy is the protagonist of the book, a gambler, and a seasoned womaniser. He has been transferred to the facility under the suspicion of being a psychopath, a lie he deliberately concocted.

McMurphy's admission sparks a revolution of liberty in the ward as McMurphy begins to battle with Nurse Ratched for control of ward policy. Nurse Ratched is labelled a 'Ball cutter' by McMurphy. He bets the patients that he ruins her composure within a week and wins his bet. McMurphy's disputes with the nurse are often self-serving but bring positive changes in the lives of all the patients. McMurphy charms and cons even the doctor of the ward, who is well within the power of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy's attack on the nurse begins to wane when he comes to realise that she has control over how long he stays committed to the facility. Although McMurphy begins to obey the nurse's instructions and avoids opposing her, he does so without explicitly explaining himself to the other patients. This, unfortunately, leads to the suicide of one of the patients, Cheswick. McMurphy then discovers that while he was committed to the mental ward, most of the other patients were admitted voluntarily due to their inability to cope in the real world. This change in perspective leads him to begin defying Nurse Ratched without caring for the consequences, but the nurse twists this narrative to make it appear as if McMurphy's only objective of defying her was to make money gambling with the other patients. Finally, McMurphy takes the patients on a fishing trip to empower them to use the labels that society had given them and make them feel independent.

McMurphy ends up becoming violent with the orderlies in defence of a helpless patient. He is then sent to the Disturbed Ward, where he receives electric shocks multiple times until Nurse Ratched has to give up trying to break him. The patients decide to help McMurphy escape, but he stays one more night to help Billy Bibbit lose his virginity. The night turns into a night of celebration and excess. McMurphy is unable to escape and stays to face the consequences of breaking the rules of the ward. Nurse Ratched shames Billy Bibbit and precipitates him taking his own life. McMurphy has a violent outburst where he rips off her clothing and attempts to strangle her to death. He is captured and subjected to a lobotomy. Bromden is greatly influenced by McMurphy and, by the end, has nearly recovered from his mental illness altogether. He gives McMurphy a death of mercy by suffocating him and escapes by lifting an enormous control panel.

  • Author(s)

    Ken Kesey
  • Publication date

    February 1, 1962

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Viking Press & Signet Books