The novel’s protagonist. Randle McMurphy is a big, redheaded gambler, a con man, and a backroom boxer. His body is heavily scarred and tattooed, and he has a fresh scar across the bridge of his nose. He was sentenced to six months at a prison work farm, and when he was diagnosed as a psychopath—for “too much fighting and fucking”—he did not protest because he thought the hospital would be more comfortable than the work farm. McMurphy serves as the unlikely Christ figure in the novel—the dominant force challenging the establishment and the ultimate savior of the victimized patients.
The head of the hospital ward. Nurse Ratched, the novel’s antagonist, is a middle-aged former army nurse. She rules her ward with an iron hand and masks her humanity and femininity behind a stiff, patronizing facade. She selects her staff for their submissiveness, and she weakens her patients through a psychologically manipulative program designed to destroy their self-esteem. Ratched’s emasculating, mechanical ways slowly drain all traces of humanity from her patients.
An acerbic, college-educated patient and president of the Patients’ Council. Harding helps McMurphy understand the realities of the hospital. Although he is married, Harding is a homosexual. He has difficulty dealing with the overwhelming social prejudice against homosexuals, so he hides in the hospital voluntarily. Harding’s development and the reemergence of his individual self signal the success of McMurphy’s battle against Ratched, especially when Harding checks himself out of the ward and paves the way for the other cured patients to leave.
A shy patient. Billy has a bad stutter and seems much younger than his thirty-one years. Billy Bibbit is dominated by his mother, one of Nurse Ratched’s close friends. Billy is voluntarily in the hospital, as he is afraid of the outside world.
A mild-mannered doctor who may be addicted to opiates. Nurse Ratched chose Doctor Spivey as the doctor for her ward because he is as easily cowed and dominated as the patients. With McMurphy’s arrival, he, like the patients, begins to assert himself. He often supports McMurphy’s unusual plans for the ward, such as holding a carnival.
The first patient to support McMurphy’s rebellion against Nurse Ratched’s power. Cheswick, a man of much talk and little action, drowns in the pool—possibly a suicide—after McMurphy does not support Cheswick when Cheswick takes a stand against Nurse Ratched. Cheswick’s death is significant in that it awakens McMurphy to the extent of his influence and the mistake of his decision to conform.
Hospital aides. Warren, Washington, and Williams are Nurse Ratched’s daytime aides; Geever is the nighttime aide. Nurse Ratched hired them because they are filled with hatred and will submit to her wishes completely.
A beautiful, carefree prostitute from Portland. Candy Starr accompanies McMurphy and the other patients on the fishing trip, and then comes to the ward for a late-night party that McMurphy arranges.
A hospital patient, a big Swede, and a former seaman. McMurphy recruits George Sorenson to be captain for the fishing excursion. He is nicknamed “Rub-a-Dub George” by the aides because he has an intense phobia toward dirtiness. McMurphy’s defense of George leads McMurphy to his first electroshock treatment.
A hospital patient who suffered brain damage when he was born. Pete Bancini continually declares that he is tired, and at one point he tells the other patients that he was born dead.
Another hospital patient. Martini lives in a world of delusional hallucinations, but McMurphy includes him in the board and card games with the other patients.
A patient who is a vegetable. Bromden has a prophetic dream about a mechanical slaughterhouse in which Old Blastic is murdered. He wakes up to discover that Old Blastic died in the night.
A patient who was once an Acute. Ellis’s excessive electroshock therapy transformed him into a Chronic. In the daytime, he is nailed to the wall. He frequently urinates on himself.
A patient and a former football player. The lifeguard was committed to the ward eight years ago. He often experiences hallucinations. The lifeguard reveals a key fact to McMurphy—that committed patients can leave only when Nurse Ratched permits—which changes McMurphy’s initial rebelliousness into temporary conformity.
A prostitute who knows McMurphy.
A Chronic patient. Ruckly, like Ellis, was once an Acute, but was transformed into a Chronic due to a botched lobotomy.
The only Acute besides McMurphy who was involuntarily committed to the hospital. Scanlon has fantasies of blowing things up.
Epileptic patients. Sefelt hates to take his medications because they make his teeth fall out, so he gives them to Frederickson, who likes to take Sefelt’s dose in addition to his own. Although Sefelt and Frederickson require more medical care than some of the other nonmedicated patients, they still do not receive much care or attention by the staff, who are much more concerned with making the disorderly patients orderly.
The black nighttime orderly for Nurse Ratched’s ward. Mr. Turkle is kind to Bromden, untying the sheets that confine him to his bed at night, and he goes along with the nighttime ward party.
A former patient who stayed in Nurse Ratched’s ward before McMurphy arrived. When Maxwell Taber questioned the nurse’s authority, she punished him with electroshock therapy. After the treatments made him completely docile, he was allowed to leave the hospital. He is considered a successful cure by the hospital staff.
Chief Bromden’s father, also known as The Pine That Stands Tallest on the Mountain, is chief of the Columbia Indians. He married a Caucasian woman and took her last name. She made him feel small and drove him to alcoholism. The chief’s marriage and submission to a white woman makes an important statement about the oppression of the natural order by modern society and also reflects white society’s encroachment on Native Americans.
A fat, bald bureaucrat who wears a girdle. Public Relation leads tours of the ward, pointing out that it is nice and pleasant.
A strict Catholic with a prominent birthmark on her face that she attempts to scrub away. Nurse Pilbow is afraid of the patients’ sexuality.
A patient on the Disturbed ward. Rawler commits suicide by cutting off his testicles. This actual castration symbolizes the psychological emasculation to which the patients are routinely subjected.