Chief Bromden, nicknamed “Chief Broom” because the aides make him sweep the halls, narrates One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although he says that he is telling the story about “the hospital, and her, and the guys—and about McMurphy,” he is also telling the story of his own journey toward sanity. When the novel begins, Bromden is paranoid, bullied, and surrounded much of the time by a hallucinated fog that represents both his medicated state and his desire to hide from reality. Moreover, he believes that he is extremely weak, even though he used to be immensely strong; because he believes it, he is extremely weak. By the end of the novel, the fog has cleared, and Bromden has recovered the personal strength to euthanize McMurphy, escape from the hospital, and record his account of the events.
Bromden is six feet seven inches tall (or six feet eight inches, the book is inconsistent), but because he has been belittled for so long, he thinks he “used to be big, but not no more.” He has been a patient in an Oregon psychiatric hospital for ten years. Everyone in the hospital believes that he is deaf and dumb. When McMurphy begins to pull him out of the fog, he realizes the source of his charade: “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” As Bromden himself is demystified, so too is the truth behind what has oppressed him and hindered his recovery.
This oppression has been in place since Bromden’s childhood. He is the son of Chief Tee Ah Millatoona, which means The Pine That Stands Tallest on the Mountain, and a white woman, Mary Louise Bromden, the dominant force in the couple. Chief Bromden bears his mother’s last name; his father’s acceptance of her name symbolizes her dominance over him. In one telling experience, when Bromden was ten years old, three government officials came to see his father about buying the tribe’s land so they could build a hydroelectric dam, but Bromden was home alone. When he tried to speak to the officials, they acted as if he was not there. This experience sows the seeds for his withdrawal into himself, and initiates the outside world’s treatment of him as if he were deaf and dumb. Bromden’s mother joined forces with some of the members of the tribe to pressure Bromden’s father to sell the land. Bromden, like his father, is a big man who comes to feel small and helpless.
The reason for Bromden’s hospitalization is cloaked in ambiguity. He may have had a breakdown from witnessing the decline of his father or from the horrors of fighting in World War II. Both of these possible scenarios involve an emasculating and controlling authority—in the first case the government officials, in the second the army. These authority figures provide Bromden with fodder for his dark vision of society as an oppressive conglomeration that he calls the Combine. It is also possible that, like McMurphy, Bromden was sane when he entered the hospital but that his sanity slipped when he received what is rumored to be 200 electroshock treatments. The paranoia and hallucinations he suffers from, which center on hidden machines in the hospital that physically and psychologically control the patients, can be read as metaphors for the dehumanization he has experienced in his life.
Randle McMurphy—big, loud, sexual, dirty, and confident—is an obvious foil for the quiet and repressed Bromden and the sterile and mechanical Nurse Ratched. His loud, free laughter stuns the other patients, who have grown accustomed to repressed emotions. Throughout the entire moment of his introduction, not a single voice rises to meet his.
McMurphy represents sexuality, freedom, and self-determination—characteristics that clash with the oppressed ward, which is controlled by Nurse Ratched. Through Chief Bromden’s narration, the novel establishes that McMurphy is not, in fact, crazy, but rather that he is trying to manipulate the system to his advantage. His belief that the hospital would be more comfortable than the Pendleton Work Farm, where he was serving a six-month sentence, haunts McMurphy later when he discovers the power Nurse Ratched wields over him—that she can send him for electroshock treatments and keep him committed as long as she likes. McMurphy’s sanity contrasts with what Kesey implies is an insane institution.
Whether insane or not, the hospital is undeniably in control of the fates of its patients. McMurphy’s fate as the noncomforming insurrectionist is foreshadowed by the fate of Maxwell Taber, a former patient who was also, according to Nurse Ratched, a manipulator. Taber was subjected to electroshock treatments and possibly brain work, which leaves him docile and unable to think. When Ratched equates McMurphy with Taber, we get an inkling of McMurphy’s prospects. McMurphy’s trajectory through the novel is the opposite of Bromden’s: he starts out sane and powerful but ends up a helpless vegetable, having sacrificed himself for the benefit of all the patients.
McMurphy’s self-sacrifice on behalf of his ward-mates echoes Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross to redeem humankind. McMurphy’s actions frequently parallel Christ’s actions in the Gospels. McMurphy undergoes a kind of baptism upon entering the ward, and he slowly gathers disciples around him as he increases his rebellion against Ratched. When he takes the group of patients fishing, he is like Christ leading his twelve disciples to the sea to test their faith. Finally, McMurphy’s ultimate sacrifice, his attack on Ratched, combined with the symbolism of the cross-shaped electroshock table and McMurphy’s request for “a crown of thorns,” cements the image of the Christ-like martyrdom that McMurphy has achieved by sacrificing his freedom and sanity.
A former army nurse, Nurse Ratched represents the oppressive mechanization, dehumanization, and emasculation of modern society—in Bromden’s words, the Combine. Her nickname is “Big Nurse,” which sounds like Big Brother, the name used in George Orwell’s novel 1984 to refer to an oppressive and all-knowing authority. Bromden describes Ratched as being like a machine, and her behavior fits this description: even her name is reminiscent of a mechanical tool, sounding like both “ratchet” and “wretched.” She enters the novel, and the ward, “with a gust of cold.” Ratched has complete control over every aspect of the ward, as well as almost complete control over her own emotions. In the first few pages we see her show her “hideous self” to Bromden and the aides, only to regain her doll-like composure before any of the patients catch a glimpse. Her ability to present a false self suggests that the mechanistic and oppressive forces in society gain ascendance through the dishonesty of the powerful. Without being aware of the oppression, the quiet and docile slowly become weakened and gradually are subsumed.
Nurse Ratched does possess a nonmechanical and undeniably human feature in her large bosom, which she conceals as best she can beneath a heavily starched uniform. Her large breasts both exude sexuality and emphasize her role as a twisted mother figure for the ward. She is able to act like “an angel of mercy” while at the same time shaming the patients into submission; she knows their weak spots and exactly where to peck. The patients try to please her during the Group Meetings by airing their dirtiest, darkest secrets, and then they feel deeply ashamed for how she made them act, even though they have done nothing. She maintains her power by the strategic use of shame and guilt, as well as by a determination to “divide and conquer” her patients.
McMurphy manages to ruffle Ratched because he plays her game: he picks up on her weak spots right away. He uses his overt sexuality to throw her off her machinelike track, and he is not taken in by her thin facade of compassion or her falsely therapeutic tactics. When McMurphy rips her shirt open at the end of the novel, he symbolically exposes her hypocrisy and deceit, and she is never able to regain power.