Full title  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Author Ken Kesey

Type of work  Novel

Genre  Allegorical novel; counterculture novel; protest novel

Language  English

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.

Tense  Present

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