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Free Study Guide-One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey-Free Notes
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Notes regarding structure:

The novel is divided into four parts. Part I, which is the longest of the four, establishes the hospital setting, introduces the patients and the staff, and begins to develop the central theme and the conflict of the novel. Parts Two and Four are also set inside the hospital premises and narrate the attempts of McMurphy to defy the hospital administration. Part Three is set on a boat with the patients on a fishing outing. Each part ends with a big victory for McMurphy and the inmates.

It is important to remember that the entire story is narrated in third person by Chief Bromden, one of the hospital patients. He is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and pretends to be a deaf mute through much of the novel. He tells the story in retrospect, from inside the hospital. Kesey's choice of Bromden as the narrator is very significant, for the reader is quickly caught up in the world of insanity that is being displayed in the book. Not surprisingly, Bromden often makes the patients seem more sane than the staff, who acts in repressive ways.



The story starts with the admission of a new patient, Randle McMurphy, to a mental hospital in Oregon. He has feigned insanity and has had himself admitted into the mental hospital in order to escape from his prison punishment of weeding peas. He also sees an opportunity to make money from his fellow patients and quickly tries to make friends with them. He also lets them know that he is used to being in charge and immediately usurps the position of "bull goose loony" from Harding.

Nurse Ratched, the head nurse in charge of the ward, carefully watches the newcomer and sizes McMurphy up as a troublemaker. In the first group meeting after McMurphy's arrival at the hospital, his record is discussed; during the discussion, he learns about the theory of the Therapeutic Community. When a patient named Harding is discussed in the meeting, McMurphy gets the rest of the patients to see what they are doing by tearing Harding to pieces verbally. Later, when he asks them why they are so destructive, McMurphy is told that Nurse Ratched is in charge and wants them to be at each other's throats. They also warn him that she does as she pleases.

McMurphy decides he will try and irritate Nurse Ratched at every opportunity. The rest of Part I focuses on how he tries to irk the Big Nurse. He asks her to switch off the radio, which blares at all times. He scares the Nurse with the scar by coming onto her. McMurphy makes fun of the hospital rules by brushing his teeth with soap when he is not given toothpaste. He sings too loudly and appears half-naked in front of the Nurse, which really flusters her. He even gets the Doctor to requisition a separate game room for the younger men, against Nurse Ratched's advice.

After the patients have the new game room, McMurphy teaches them to play cards and gamble for money, which is forbidden to the patients. He also tries to get Nurse Ratched to change the television viewing time so that the patients can watch the World Series, but she refuses. When he fails to convince the patients to vote in favor of watching the World Series, he tries unsuccessfully to lift the control panel. After this incident, the patients begin to support McMurphy and even vote in favor of watching the World Series. When the Nurse still refuses to change their viewing time, all the patients, led by McMurphy sit in front of the television and stare at the blank screen, instead of performing their required duties. This is McMurphy's first major victory over Nurse Ratched. As a result of his success, he becomes the leader of the patients.


From the very beginning of the novel, Chief Bromden, one of the schizophrenic patients, is the narrator of the story, and his explanations and descriptions are often unreal. He frequently makes it difficult for the reader to sort out fact from fiction, especially in Part I when he is at his worst emotionally and psychologically. He has been treated horribly by the repressive society, which is dominated by Whites and females. Throughout the rest of the book, his self-assurance will improve; therefore, his insanity grows less and less until he is finally well enough to escape from the hospital.

The Chief sees Nurse Ratched as the center of the White/female repressive society. He calls her a big tractor with cogs and wheels inside; when she gets angry, he sees her swelling up to the size of a diesel truck, and he smells the machinery inside of her working. His paranoia about machines extends everywhere. He thinks that the Nurse controls the patients by means of hidden wires and connections, which she uses to numb them into submission. He paints an image of her as a huge spider at the middle of a web of electric wires, which she controls to administer electro-shock therapy to punish unruly or disobedient patients. She uses shock therapy on the "Acutes" to help them conform to the rules of society before they leave the hospital, and she uses it on the "Chronics" to keep them in line since they will probably spend their entire lives in the hospital.

The Chief also believes that the Nurse uses a fog machine to confuse the patients. He sees the fog when he has been given shock treatment or is heavily medicated. The fog, in truth, is part of the Chief's paranoia, and he wonders why no one else notices it. It also appears to him when he wants to hide from the Nurse. The better the Chief gets, the less the fog appears, for the Nurse has less power to exert her influence over him. When the fog finally disappears completely, Bromden is cured.

According to the Chief, the Combine (or threshing machine) represents the repressive forces of society, which he believes installs devices inside the heads of young people. His first contact with the Combine was when it came to his reservation and destroyed his tribe, including his father, in order to build a dam on their land. In the hospital, he believes that the Combine runs a butcher shop, where the carcasses are the dead bodies of patients. The only defense he feels that he has against the Combine and Nurse Ratched is silence; as a result, he pretends to be a deaf mute, an action which helps him feel invisible. Because he supposedly cannot hear or talk, he learns a lot from the staff, who say and do things in front of him that they otherwise would not do.

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