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The Chief is the narrator of the story who has been a patient at the hospital for over fifteen years. He is also a paranoid schizophrenic who is fearful of everything and who pretends to be a deaf mute. Although he is over six and a half feet tall, he sees himself as small and weak throughout most of the novel. His lack of self-confidence is due to his domineering mother, a white woman who destroyed her Indian husband by reducing him to an impotent alcoholic. Throughout his childhood, the Chief's mother also ignored him, causing his mental instability.
When things are not going well for the Chief, he sees a fog surrounding him. He also sees Nurse Ratched swell up to an unbelievable size. He is sure that the "Combine" and the Nurse will destroy him, just as his father and his tribe were destroyed. McMurphy, however, is able to expose the Combine and Nurse Ratched for what they truly are. As a result, he helps the Chief to have faith in himself and make his fog disappear. The Chief grows so strong and self-reliant in the course of the novel that he is able to realize what Nurse Ratched has done to McMurphy through the lobotomy and take matters into his own hands.
At the end of the novel, Chief Bromden suffocates McMurphy with a pillow and then escapes from the hospital to freedom. He is finally able to stand on his own.
The patients are described as "rabbits" chased by a wolf and as "chickens" that peck each other until they bleed to death. They have been driven to total fear and subjection by Nurse Ratched. As a group, they are given encouragement and strength by McMurphy, who is brave enough to fight the authorities. Only Harding and Billy Bibbit stand out as individuals amongst the patients.
Harding is a weak effeminate man, ashamed of his unmanliness. He has been accused of everything from homosexuality to having nothing between his legs but "a patch of hair". He is constantly trying to hide his hands, which are white and beautiful. His final victory over the Nurse and women in general is when he walks out of the hospital against medical advice and has his wife pick him up, showing that now he controls his own life rather than being controlled by the women that surround him.
Billy, on the other hand, is a thirty-one year old man, who is permanently reduced to a stuttering, unconfident child. Until the party given in his honor, he has remained a virgin, never daring to have a female relationship because of the women in his life. His domineering mother, like the Big Nurse, has always been in control. When Nurse Ratched finds out he has slept with Candy, she threatens to tell his mother about the incident. Not wanting to be shamed, Billy slits his throat and dies.
The other patients in the ward are truly ill. Martini sees things that are invisible to others. George is terrified of dirt. Seefeld and Frederickson are fearful epileptics. Scanlon and Cheswick are self- destructive.
The hospital staff is sometimes weirder than the patient population. Nurse Ratched is a mechanized, unemotional woman who dominates her staff members. The Doctor is an opium addict who fears exposure by the Nurse and, therefore, follows her orders. The three Black orderlies are warped, homosexuals who perpetrate atrocities on the patients. The Nurse with the scar is a devout Catholic who is terrified of sex. She believes that her scar is the result of associating with the patients. The rest of the staff is too weak to do anything, even if they disagree with Nurse Ratched.