Part I

Chief Bromden describes the psychiatric ward, run by strict Nurse Ratched, where he is a patient pretending to be deaf and dumb. He describes the admission of a patient, Randle McMurphy, who shocks the ward with his boisterousness, and introduces himself as a gambler who requested a transfer from a work farm. During the patients' group meeting, Ratched and McMurphy antagonize each other. McMurphy discusses Ratched's cruel methods and bets he can make her lose her temper within a week.

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Part I, Continued

McMurphy taunts Ratched. As Ratched denies McMurphy's request to watch baseball, he proposes a vote at two group meetings. Most patients support him in the second vote, but Ratched still refuses it. At the time of the game, McMurphy turns on the TV, but Ratched cuts its power. McMurphy remains seated, other patients join him in front of the blank TV, Ratched loses her composure, and McMurphy wins his bet.

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Part II

Ratched discusses McMurphy with the staff and makes him clean the latrines, but he continues to nettle her. When McMurphy learns that Ratched has power over his time in the ward, he starts to behave better. He questions why other patients don't release themselves as they have the power to. When Ratched announces she and Spivey are taking away the patients' game room as punishment for their earlier rebellion, McMurphy punches through the glass enclosing the nurses' station.

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Part III

When Ratched rejects his petition to spend time outside, McMurphy shatters the station's replacement glass. Spivey grants McMurphy's request to take a fishing trip with other patients, and Ratched tries to frighten them with news about rough weather and wrecked boats. McMurphy pays Bromden's fee for the fishing trip and convinces Spivey to join them. Despite some problems with the boat captain and the police, they have a good time. On the way back, McMurphy passes by his childhood house, remembers the first time he had sex, and appears tired.

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Part IV

After a fistfight, Ratched sends McMurphy and Bromden for electroshock therapy. The night they return, the prostitutes Candy and Sandy sneak in and several patients have a party. Convinced by other patients to escape, McMurphy goes to bed with Sandy, asking to be awoken before the morning, but is discovered by the staff. Ratched finds the patient Billy sleeping with Candy, threatens to tell his mother, and he commits suicide. Ratched taunts McMurphy, he smashes through the station's glass door, rips open her uniform, and tries to strangle her. In the following days, several patients leave the ward, and McMurphy is given a lobotomy. Bromden suffocates McMurphy with a pillow and escapes the hospital.

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