From the beginning of the novel to McMurphy’s bet with the patients
It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.
Chief Bromden, a long-term patient in Nurse Ratched’s psychiatric ward, narrates the events of the novel. The book begins as he awakens to a typical day on the ward, feeling paranoid about the illicit nighttime activities of the ward’s three black aides. The aides mock him for being a pushover, even though he is six feet seven inches tall, and they make him sweep the hallways for them, nicknaming him “Chief Broom.” Bromden is half Indian and pretends to be deaf and dumb; as a result, he overhears all the secrets on the ward and is barely noticed by anyone despite his stature.
Nurse Ratched, whom Bromden refers to as “the Big Nurse,” enters the ward with a gust of cold air. Bromden describes Ratched as having “skin like flesh-colored enamel” and lips and fingertips the strange orange color of polished steel. Her one feminine feature is her oversized bosom, which she tries to conceal beneath a starched white uniform. When she gets angry with the aides, Bromden sees her get “big as a tractor.” She orders the aides to shave Bromden, and he begins to scream and hallucinate that he is being surrounded by machine-made fog until he is forcedly medicated. He tells us that his forthcoming story about the hospital might seem “too awful to be the truth.”
Bromden regains consciousness in the day room. Here, he tells us that a public relations man sometimes leads tours around the ward, pointing out the cheery atmosphere and claiming that the ward is run without the brutality exercised in previous generations. Today, the ward’s monotony is interrupted when Randle McMurphy, a new patient, arrives. McMurphy’s appearance is preceded by his boisterous, brassy voice and his confident, iron-heeled walk. McMurphy laughs when the patients are stunned silent by his entrance. It is the first real laugh that the ward has heard in years.
McMurphy, a large redhead with a devilish grin, swaggers around the ward in his motorcycle cap and dirty work-farm clothes, with a leather jacket over one arm. He introduces himself as a gambling fool, saying that he requested to be transferred to the hospital to escape the drudgery of the Pendleton Work Farm. He asks to meet the “bull goose loony” so he can take over as the man in charge. He encounters Billy Bibbit, a thirty-one-year-old baby-faced man with a severe stutter, and Dale Harding, the effeminate and educated president of the Patients’ Council. All the while, McMurphy sidesteps the attempts of the daytime aides to herd him into the admission routine of a shower, an injection, and a rectal thermometer.
McMurphy surveys the day room. The patients are divided into two main categories: the Acutes, who are considered curable, and the Chronics, whom Bromden, himself a Chronic, calls “machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired.” The Chronics who can move around are Walkers, and the rest are either Wheelers or Vegetables. Some Chronics are patients who arrived at the hospital as Acutes but were mentally crippled by excessive shock treatment or brain surgery, common practices in the hospital. Nurse Ratched encourages the Acutes to spy on one another. If one reveals an embarrassing or incriminating personal detail, the rest race to write it in the logbook. Their reward for such disclosures is sleeping late the next morning.
Nurse Ratched runs her ward on a strict schedule, controlling every movement with absolute precision. The nurse has selected her aides for their inherent cruelty and her staff for their submissiveness. Bromden recalls Maxwell Taber, a patient who demanded information about his medications. He was sent for multiple electroshock treatments and rendered completely docile. Eventually, he was considered cured and was discharged. Bromden conceives of society as a huge, oppressive conglomeration that he calls the Combine, and he sees the hospital as a factory for “fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches.”