One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary and Analysis
by Ken Kesey
Part One, Chapters 10-15
McMurphy plays Monopoly with Harding, Martini, Scanlon, and Cheswick. Martini hallucinates, thinking he sees things on the board. McMurphy keeps high-class manners around the nurses and the boys in spite of what they say to him—in spite of every trick they pull to make him lose his temper. McMurphy also keeps his sense of humor. He continues to see how funny the rules are. As long as he can laugh at the ridiculousness of everything that is happening around him, he will be safe.
Only once does he become visibly angry. At one of the group meetings, he chastises the patients for acting too cagey, for being “chicken-shit.” McMurphy wanted to change the schedule around so the men could watch the World Series during the day and do the cleaning work at night. McMurphy expects the nurses to oppose him and his fellows to support him. But when McMurphy attempts to round up a vote for the schedule change, the Acutes fail to see the purpose in doing any such thing. He confronts Harding, whose failure of support suggests to McMurphy that he is afraid of Nurse Ratched. Billy Bibbit claims that nothing they do will be of any use in the long run.
McMurphy claims that he is going to break out of the institution by lifting up the control panel in the tub room and throwing it through the window. He tries to lift it, but it weighs far too much.
The person named Public Relations shows the institution to a visiting doctor. The doctor examines Chief Bromden. Public Relations claims that there must be something wrong with any man who would want to run away from a place as nice as this. The fog gets worse for Chief Bromden. Bromden thinks that McMurphy cannot understand that the fog keeps the patients safe.
One of the patients, Old Rawler, kills himself, creating a dangerous sense of instability in the ward.
Bromden explains where the thick fog comes from. It emanates from the fog machines he saw during the war. The machines obscured the surroundings so that nobody could see anything in front of him. Bromden would get lost in the fog and always find himself returning to the same place. Bromden waits for Nurse Ratched to fog them in again; lately they have been doing it more and more now that McMurphy has fomented the rebellion of Cheswick and Harding to the point where they might actually stand up to the boys.
Ratched discusses with a doctor whether or not McMurphy should be on the ward, since he is upsetting the patients.
During the therapeutic meeting, the group tries to discuss the source of Billy Bibbit's stutter. Billy relates that he flunked out of college because he quit ROTC when he couldn't answer to his own name. He also recalls that the first word that he stuttered was “mama.” He flubbed a proposal to a girl because he stuttered. Nurse Ratched tells him that his mother mentioned the girl to whom he proposed—this girl was said to be quite beneath him. McMurphy brings up the World Series again, and Nurse Ratched reluctantly allows one more vote on the matter.
This time he rouses all twenty Acutes to vote for him, but Nurse Ratched claims that this is insufficient, for none of the Chronics vote for him. McMurphy attempts to rouse at least one Chronic to vote for a schedule change, but none responds. Finally, McMurphy approaches Chief Bromden, who raises his hand. But Nurse Ratched now claims that the vote was already decided and the meeting is closed. An hour later, it is time for the World Series. McMurphy stops work and turns on the television. Nurse Ratched becomes angry and turns off the television from the Nurses' Station, but McMurphy remains sitting there. Finally she approaches him and scolds him for not obeying her. Mr. Harding sits down beside McMurphy, and Cheswick, Scanlon, Billy Bibbit, and the other Acutes join him. Chief Bromden also joins them by the television.
If One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a work of social criticism, this section develops points about the role of everyday people in effecting change. Nurse Ratched is not the only obstacle that McMurphy faces. The apathy of the other patients proves a substantial burden to McMurphy, for they do not have the energy to support changes in ward policy that they actually want. In fact, they take Billy Bibbit's position that any action will not really make a difference for them anyway. It could even be counterproductive. It is up to McMurphy to engage in some consciousness-raising among, at least, the Acutes, who might still have a degree of consciousness that can be raised. McMurphy will work to create a solidarity among the patients.
The control panel in the tub room will prove significant later in the novel. In this section, McMurphy’s idea of using it to escape foreshadows later events. Although McMurphy cannot lift it, the Chief is one who can.
Chapters Twelve to Fourteen appear in short succession. Two of them contain little more than one paragraph. This structure serves to show the disjointed nature of Chief Bromden's observations. He presents only brief glimpses of events that occur in the institution, none of which contains any great significance. Even the suicide of Old Rawler is largely inconsequential in terms of the plot and atmosphere of the novel, though the later deaths will be consequential for what they signify about the state of the ward. The most important point that Chief Bromden makes in these chapters is that the “insanity” represented by the fog is a comfort for the patients. It allows them to recede from the difficulties of reality. The additional trouble for McMurphy is that reality is what he wants them to confront.
Chief Bromden acts primarily as a narrator who describes external conditions rather than his own psychology. But in Chapter Fifteen, he provides some indication of the origin of his psychological problems. Bromden compares the imaginary “fog machine” of the mental institution to the real fog that apparently surrounded him during wartime as a matter of military tactics. This tale indicates that Chief Bromden likely suffers from some sort of shell-shock caused by his war experience.
We also get a bit of psychological insight into Billy Bibbit. The origin of Billy Bibbit's problems, following a Freudian perspective, is that his mother is not primarily loving but is domineering like a man. She seems to control his every action, being the judge of which woman is appropriate for him to marry. That the first word Billy Bibbit stuttered was “mama” is a clear indication that she is the source of his problems. His mother's apparent collaboration with Nurse Ratched is further evidence that Billy's mother is the source of most of his difficulties. Apparently he cannot escape his mother even in the asylum.
McMurphy takes even further the role of a revolutionary in this chapter. When he rebels against Nurse Ratched by breaking from the established schedule to watch the World Series, McMurphy is abandoning the rules and regulations of the ward. This rebellion occurs, however, only after it is apparent that the supposedly democratic system of voting on the ward is not actually free; Nurse Ratched controls and manipulates the outcomes of the votes. McMurphy cannot win simply by playing by the rules. This is an important point, for it demonstrates that McMurphy is not just an anarchist bent on breaking down any system of governance. He is driven to rebellion by the unfair system around him, one which he could not change from within even if he tried. Note, too, that he does not act with force but with passive resistance, simply continuing to sit after the television is turned off.
Despite Nurse Ratched's claim that the vote is democratic, her tally includes the Chronics, who have no real ability to make the rational choice required in a vote. This tactic ensures that Nurse Ratched can maintain the status quo whenever she wants, despite the obvious support for McMurphy among the Acutes.
When McMurphy breaks from his schedule to watch the World Series, he makes a definitive break from the regime of Nurse Ratched. It is a revolutionary act that threatens to throw the institution into full upheaval. Indeed, others join him in the protest.
The vote for the World Series is also a turning point for Chief Bromden, for it is the first time he reasserts himself as a functioning person. He does this through his vote for McMurphy, the first definitive, responsive action that Chief Bromden has taken during the novel. He continues this pattern when he joins McMurphy and the other Acutes in their protest against Nurse Ratched.
These actions underscore a major theme of the novel, the importance of rational choice. The ability to choose reflects one's status as a rational, functioning human being. Cannot McMurphy insist, at least, on that? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest centers around the conflict between this capability for choice and Nurse Ratched’s refusal to allow people to make decisions for themselves. As a matter of social commentary, too many bureaucrats think it is their job to be the experts and the decision-makers for everyone else, and the novel warns us to be wary of such ideas. The general population may be too apathetic, but we do have rational minds and are not crazy, after all.
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- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 1-5
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