full title One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
author Ken Kesey
type of work Novel
genre Allegorical novel; counterculture novel; protest novel
time and place written The late 1950s; at Stanford University in California while Kesey was enrolled in the creative writing program, working as an orderly in a psychiatric ward, and participating in experimental LSD trials
date of first publication 1962
publisher Viking Press
narrator Chief Bromden, also known as Chief Broom, who tells the story after he has escaped from the hospital
point of view Chief Bromden narrates in the first person. He tells the story as it appears to him, though his objectivity is somewhat compromised by the fact that he suffers from paranoia and hallucinations. His unusual state of mind provides metaphorical insight into the insidious reality of the hospital as well as society in general. Because he pretends to be deaf and dumb, he is privy to secret staff information that is kept from other patients, which makes him a more reliable narrator than any other patient would be.
tone The novel’s tone is critical and allegorical; the hospital is presented as a metaphor for the oppressive society of the late 1950s. The novel praises the expression of sexuality as the ultimate goal and denounces repression as based on fear and hate. Bromden’s psychedelic and slightly paranoid worldview may be commensurate with Kesey’s, and McMurphy’s use of mischief and humor to undermine authority also seems to echo the author’s attitudes.
setting (time) 1950s
setting (place) A mental hospital in Oregon
protagonist Randle P. McMurphy
major conflict The patients in the mental ward are cowed and repressed by the emasculating Nurse Ratched, who represents the oppressive force of modern society. McMurphy tries to lead them to rebel against her authority by asserting their individuality and sexuality, while Nurse Ratched attempts to discredit McMurphy and shame the patients back into docility.
rising action The World Series rebellion; McMurphy’s encounter with the lifeguard; McMurphy discovering what being committed means; Cheswick’s death
climax McMurphy reasserts himself against Nurse Ratched at the end of Part II by smashing the glass window in the Nurses’ Station, signaling that his rebellion is no longer lighthearted or selfish but committed and violent. McMurphy takes on the responsibility for rehabilitating the other patients.
falling action McMurphy’s decision to return Bromden to his former strength; the fishing trip and visit to McMurphy’s childhood house, where Bromden sees his panic and fatigue; McMurphy and Bromden’s fight with the aides; the electroshock therapy; the ward party and Billy’s suicide; McMurphy’s violent attack on Nurse Ratched; the lobotomy
themes Women as castrators; society’s destruction of natural impulses; the importance of expressing sexuality; false diagnoses of insanity
motifs Invisibility; the power of laughter; real versus imagined size
symbols The fog machine; McMurphy’s boxer shorts; the electroshock therapy table
foreshadowing The story of Maxwell Taber; the electroshock therapy table shaped like a cross; the deaths of Rawler, Cheswick, and Billy; Bromden’s dreams and hallucinations