An imposing, red-headed Irishman, R.P. McMurphy enters the institution with a history of hostility, disobedience, and a recent conviction for statutory rape. Still, it is obvious from the start that he is a sane man who simply chose to accept institutionalization rather than live on a "work farm" as part of the judge's sentence. McMurphy is charismatic, sexual, and boisterous to the extreme--a "gambling fool" who looks out primarily for his own self-interest and matches wits with Nurse Ratched in the book's primary conflict. He also seems to care deeply about his fellow inmates, often putting justice and their well-being over his own desires to escape the institution--which inevitably costs him his sanity. McMurphy represents freedom and self-determination versus societal repression--a battle McMurphy ultimately loses in order to pave the way for the rest of the patients to see the light. In many ways, he becomes a sacrificial lamb for the sake of enlightenment and awakening, both within the novel and for readers. McMurphy's character is remembered as a martyr who inspires real-world social change.
A middle-aged nurse who controls the institution where McMurphy is sentenced. Nurse Ratched (also known as Big Nurse) is stern, controlling, and determined to quash all resistance to her authority. Nurse Ratched believes in order above all, institutionalizing a systematized reduction of humans to robotic function, with an obliteration of all individual characteristics that might ultimately lead to rebellion. She is, in many ways, a metaphor for all forms of repression, particularly sexual repression. She seems to be ashamed of her own sexuality, consistently buttoned up in her white nurse's outfit, but she cannot hide her large breasts, her one incongruous physical trait. As a metaphor, then, it is only appropriate that her final comeuppance involves McMurphy (symbolizing freedom) tearing open her uniform and unleashing her breasts and body. As punishment, Ratched has McMurphy lobotomized. In that battle, authoritarianism, repression, and conservative sexuality win, but readers are led to fight against what Ratched represents.
A tall, half-Indian patient in the ward, Chief Bromden has been in the institution the longest. Although other inmates think that he is deaf and mute, Chief Bromden instead chooses not to speak, at first because others ignored him and then out of fear of Nurse Ratched. Chief Bromden is the narrator of the novel. With the help of McMurphy, he begins to speak once more and reasserts himself against Nurse Ratched and her workers. Ultimately, he breaks free of the Nurse and the hospital, killing the lobotimized McMurphy in order to prevent him from suffering further indignity, and finding his way back into society away from the repressive manipulation and tyrannical authority of the institution.
A thirty-one-year-old patient in the institution, Billy Bibbit still appears very young, partly because of his persistent stutter. Bibbit is dominated and terrorized by his mother, who has intimidated him into behaving younger than his years and has instilled in him a strong sense of guilt. This guilt causes him to commit suicide after Nurse Ratched finds him with a prostitute and threatens to tell his mother.
The president of the patients' council and a college graduate, Harding is likely the most educated patient in the institution. He explains many of the workings of the ward to McMurphy. Kesey indicates that Harding may be a closeted homosexual. Harding certainly is dominated by his boisterous wife, who intimidates him with her sexuality and his sexual inadequacy.
A fifty-year-old resident in the institution, Bancini has been a "Chronic" since his birth, for his brain was damaged during childbirth. He had one moment of lucidity, when he claimed he was "tired" of life and had been dead since birth, but after being punished for this by Nurse Ratched, he succumbed to silence and the occasional whimpers of exhaustion.
One of the patients on the ward, he is one of the first patients to support McMurphy, but he is taken to the Disturbed Ward, presumably for shock treatment, when he starts to protest the ward policies. Cheswick later dies in the swimming pool when he gets his fingers caught in the grate, an action that is possibly suicidal.
Although formerly an "Acute," Ellis became a "Chronic" at the institution after receiving electroshock treatment.
One of the nurses in the ward, she talks with Nurse Ratched about McMurphy's possible motivation for wanting to disrupt the ward.
One of the patients on the ward, Frederickson takes the seizure medication that Sefelt refuses.
Geever is one of the black boys who works for Nurse Ratched and becomes her henchman in the management of the ward. Bromden makes the observation that these black boys are filled with hatred and thus enjoy punishing the inmates at Ratched's will.
The wife of Dale Harding, Vera visits her husband at the institution and promptly gets into an argument with him. She is a physically imposing woman who uses her sexuality to intimidate her husband and who plays on his sexual insecurities.
One of the patients on the ward, Martini hallucinates that he sees objects on the board when the men play Monopoly. Despite his disruptions, McMurphy includes him in the games.
The oldest Chronic in the ward, Colonel Matterson is a World War veteran who can now only utter incoherent phrases such as "the flag is America."
Nurse Pilbow is one of Ratched's nurses, a Catholic woman with a prominent birthmark that she attempts to wash away. She is intensely affected by feelings of guilt over her job and her sexuality.
A fat bureaucrat who often visits the ward, Public Relation attempts to frame the ward as a wonderful place to stay run with great generosity by Nurse Ratched.
Rawler commits suicide one night, cutting off his testicles (suggesting that the ward leads patients to emasculate themselves).
A former Acute patient, Ruckly became a Chronic after electroshock treatment and now can only say over and over "fffffuck da wife."
One of the Portland prostitutes who was to accompany McMurphy and the men on the fishing trip, Sandy does not attend because she got married. Later, however, she divorces her husband and visits the institution with Candy, a fellow prostitute.
Scanlon is one of the Acute patients on the ward, the only patient who is involuntarily committed besides McMurphy.
Sefelt is an epileptic who refuses to take his seizure medicine because it destroys his gums. He tends to give his medication to Frederickson, who takes double doses in his stead. Sefelt, who has a legitimate medical condition, is often ignored by the staff, who seem more interested in dominating the rebellious patients.
An old Swede nicknamed "Rub-a-Dub George" because of his obsession for cleanliness. A patient on the ward, George is a former fishing boat captain whom McMurphy cajoles into leading the fishing expedition. McMurphy later defends him when the black boys harass him during a humiliating cleansing, leading to the riot which prompts Ratched to send McMurphy and Bromden to "Disturbed."
The main doctor on the ward, Dr. Spivey is easily manipulated by both Nurse Ratched and R.P. McMurphy, who in turn use him as a pawn. McMurphy uses him as his institutional defense on the ward, convincing him to open the tub room and to chaperone the patients on the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched, meanwhile, uses him to champion her authoritarian policies to discipline rebellious inmates.
Candy Starr, a prostitute from Portland, chaperones McMurphy and the other patients on the fishing trip. McMurphy later plans a visit for Candy to the ward so that she may have sex with Billy Bibbit, with whom she became close during the fishing trip.
One of the patients on the ward, Mr. Taber complains to Nurse Ratched that he does not know what is in his medicine. Nurse Ratched claims that he was once a manipulator, like McMurphy, and she eventually made him quiescent through her tyrannical punishments.
Tee Ah Millatoona
Chief Bromden's father, also known as The Pine That Stands Tallest on the Mountain. An Indian chief, he married a Caucasian woman named Bromden and took her last name, but she ultimately drove him to alcoholism. He becomes a metaphor for the results of repression, obliteration, and in general the encroachment of authority on individualism.
The night watchman on the ward. McMurphy bribes Mr. Turkle to allow Candy Starr into the ward.
Warren is one of the black boys who work for Nurse Ratched. Like Geever, he is one of her henchmen. He takes glee in torturing the inmates when she commands it.
Washington, like Geever and Warren, is one of the black boys who works for Nurse Ratched and follows her orders when commanded to round up and discipline one of the disobedient inmates.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.