One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary and Analysis
by Ken Kesey
Part Four, Chapters 26-29
Nurse Ratched plans her next maneuver for the day after the fishing trip, just as McMurphy begins hustling for more changes in the rules, including a subscription to Playboy to replace the current one for McCall’s. She pastes up statements of the patients’ financial doings over the past several months, suggesting that McMurphy has made money from the rest of the patients. McMurphy does not appear ashamed, however, and he brags that he might be able to retire to Florida with the money he has made. The patients start to wonder, however, what scam McMurphy is trying to pull.
Nurse Ratched capitalizes on these fears and sets up a meeting without McMurphy, at which she implies that he is trying to fleece them of their money and that this is his only motivation in befriending them. She tells them that McMurphy is no martyr or saint but an old-fashioned con artist. Finally, she questions the profit that McMurphy made on the fishing trip. Harding breaks ranks and agrees that Nurse Ratched is correct, but he asks why they should criticize McMurphy when he is showing off his capitalist flair.
When confronted, McMurphy makes no pretense about his motives. Billy is the only one who openly defends McMurphy, but after the meeting McMurphy asks Billy for money for Candy’s visit. Chief Bromden still believes that McMurphy is a “giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine,” but Nurse Ratched’s arguments make him start to question McMurphy’s deeper motives. These doubts deepen when McMurphy has Chief Bromden move the control panel in the tub room to win the bet he had with the other patients--and then gives Chief Bromden part of the profits. When Chief Bromden refuses to take the money, McMurphy confronts him about the cold treatment the patients are giving him. Chief Bromden tells him that the other patients are suspicious about how McMurphy is always winning things and accumulating their money.
Nurse Ratched orders a cautionary cleansing for the patients in which the men must line up nude against the tile of the shower room and be cleaned by the black boys. The boys torment George Sorenson because he refuses soap and then refuses to bend over for a different cleaning treatment, but McMurphy defends Sorenson. Washington, one of the boys, punches McMurphy, kindling a melee between McMurphy and all of the boys. Chief Bromden takes up the fight with one of the boys as McMurphy’s new ally, and the two eventually are victorious. The smallest boy manages to run and get help from the Disturbed Ward. Soon help arrives and people take McMurphy and Bromden away.
There is a high-pitched machine-room clatter on the Disturbed Ward, as well as the singed smell of men going berserk. With all the progressive chaos, a tall bony man tells a black boy, “I wash my hands of the whole deal.” A nurse treats McMurphy’s and Bromden’s wounds and tells them that not every ward is like Nurse Ratched’s. The nurse claims that Nurse Ratched tries to run it like an Army hospital, and she believes that all single nurses should be fired after they reach thirty-five. The nurse admits that she sometimes wishes she could keep the men there instead of sending them back to Nurse Ratched.
The next morning, Nurse Ratched asks McMurphy if he is ashamed of what he did, and if he is ashamed he will not receive shock treatment. McMurphy refuses. He says that the “Chinese Commies” could have learned a few things from her. As the doctors put graphite salve on McMurphy’s temples, he asks if he gets a crown of thorns. Chief Bromden receives shock treatment too. As he does, he thinks about his parents, but he manages to regain lucidity afterward, and for the first time knows that he has beaten Nurse Ratched.
McMurphy receives three more treatments that week, even though Chief Bromden tries to talk McMurphy into complying with Nurse Ratched to get out of it. McMurphy jokes that she is merely “charging his battery.” The first woman who takes him on will “light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars.” Chief Bromden leaves Disturbed at the end of the week, and Harding congratulates him when he returns.
There are rumors, however, that McMurphy is not responding at all to the EST. Nurse Ratched realizes that McMurphy is quickly becoming a legend while he is out of the ward, so she plans to bring him back to the ward. The men believe that the best thing for McMurphy would be an escape from the ward on Saturday night. During a meeting Nurse Ratched suggests “an operation,” and McMurphy jokes that she is considering castration.
Chief Bromden notes that Billy Bibbit, although he looks young, is actually over thirty. Chief Bromden thinks remembers that when Billy’s mother visited and Billy asserted his age, she asked, “Do I look like the mother of a thirty-one year old?”
At midnight, Mr. Turkle comes in for his shift, and McMurphy bribes him by offering Candy’s services to him. Candy arrives with Sandy, the whore who had skipped the fishing trip. While Candy gives Mr. Turkle wine, McMurphy attempts to pick the lock to the drug room. Meanwhile, other men look through the files in the Nurses’ Station. Harding gets pills for Sefelt and imitates a religious ceremony, sprinkling them over Sefelt and Sandy. Harding claims that they are “doomed henceforth,” for Ratched will tranquilize them out of existence. Harding’s speech makes the men realize the seriousness of what they are doing.
Mr. Turkle unlocks the seclusion room for Billy and Candy. Harding has a plan to tie up Turkle and make it look like McMurphy had tied him up and taken his keys. This plan, according to Harding, would keep the other men out of trouble, keep Turkle his job, and get McMurphy off the ward. McMurphy asks why Harding does not leave, and he responds that he is not ready. He claims that he is guilty and has indulged in certain practices society considers shameful. McMurphy and Sandy snuggle in each other’s shoulders, getting comfortable, as McMurphy postpones his departure for another hour or so. The black boys find him when they arrive at six-thirty that morning.
Chief Bromden realizes that what happened that night was inevitable, even if Mr. Turkle had gotten McMurphy and the two girls off the ward as planned. The black boys herd all the inmates into the day room, Chronics and Acutes alike. Everyone is still in pajamas. Mr. Turkle resigns and leaves with Sandy. Harding tells McMurphy to run away with them, but McMurphy refuses. The boys take roll in reverse alphabetical order to throw people off. Finally they call Billy Bibbit’s name, but he is not there. Nurse Ratched does a room check to find him and reaches the Seclusion Room. She finds Billy in bed with Candy.
Nurse Ratched vigorously scolds Billy for being with “a woman like this. A Cheap! Low! Painted,” and Harding suggests “Jezebel” or “Courtesan” or “Salome.” The other patients laugh at Harding’s comment. Nurse Ratched asks Billy what his mother will think about this incident. She claims that Mrs. Bibbit has always been proud of her son’s discretion and will be terribly disturbed; Mrs. Bibbit may even become sick from the news. Billy begins stuttering again and shakes, pleading with Nurse Ratched not to tell his mother. Nurse Ratched attempts to reassure him that nobody will harm him, but she will explain it all to his mother. She leads Billy into the doctor’s office, then leaves him there alone as she calls the doctor. When the doctor arrives, he finds that Billy has cut his throat.
Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy, telling him that he is playing with human lives, as if he thought himself to be a god. McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched, ripping her uniform all the way down the front to expose her breasts as he tries to strangle her. The black boys pull him off Nurse Ratched before he can kill her. Afterwards, several patients sign out of the hospital, and Dr. Spivey resigns. Nurse Ratched stays in Medical for a week while a Japanese nurse runs the ward.
When Nurse Ratched returns, Harding asks about McMurphy. She cannot speak, so she writes on a notepad that he will be back. Harding says that she is “full of so much bullshit.” Nurse Ratched finds it difficult to get the ward back into shape. Harding signs out, and George transfers to a different ward. Martini, Scanlon, and Chief Bromden are the only members of the group who remain.
After three weeks, McMurphy returns; the black boys wheel him in on a gurney. He has had a lobotomy and is now a Vegetable. Martini and Scanlon cannot recognize McMurphy. That night, Chief Bromden smothers McMurphy with a pillow, putting him out of his misery.
Scanlon tells chief Bromden he has to leave. Chief Bromden then lifts the control panel in the tub room and throws it through the window. Chief Bromden runs away and catches a ride with a Mexican man going north. He may go to Canada, but he will stop along the Columbia to check out Portland and The Dalles. He has been gone a long time.
In Chapter Twenty-Six, having initiated the transformation of the men on the ward in the previous chapter, McMurphy now asserts himself as the controlling force on the ward. The men are full converts to McMurphy’s ethos, following his lead in behavior. However, Nurse Ratched undermines this force by dividing the men from one another; she exposes McMurphy for his self-interested actions and manipulation.
Her criticism of McMurphy bolsters the religious allusions of the previous chapter: she claims that McMurphy is not a “martyr” or a “saint,” just a manipulative con man. The irony of this situation is that she herself manipulates the patients, while McMurphy has remained fairly honest about his intentions and his entrepreneurial spirit.
When Nurse Ratched orders the cleaning of the men on the ward, she demonstrates her omnipotence over the patients’ bodies. The procedure is at once invasive and emasculating, an intrusion into the men’s bodies, analogous to rape. If the men experienced a transformation from being meek and easily dominated to being more confident and respectable, McMurphy experiences an equally momentous shift in this chapter. McMurphy assumes the role of selfless martyr in this chapter, defending George Sorenson against the invasive cleaning procedures of the black boys. In the past, his decisions generally benefited him monetarily or built his reputation. But this is a time when McMurphy is motivated least by self-interest, for he can gain very little or nothing from defending Sorenson.
Christian symbolism dominates Chapter Twenty-Seven, which more fully completes the analogy between McMurphy and Jesus Christ. “I wash my hands of the whole deal” is a direct allusion to Pontius Pilate, who made a similar comment upon ordering the crucifixion of Christ. McMurphy himself realizes this comparison when he asks whether or not he gets a “crown of thorns,” another reference to the crucifixion.
The nurse with whom McMurphy speaks also gives a greater indication of Nurse Ratched’s character. The younger nurse suggests that a significant motivation for Ratched’s behavior is the fact that she is a bitter, old spinster and has taken out her frustrations on the men on the ward. This point returns to the contrast between the sexuality of McMurphy and the repression of Nurse Ratched. The suggestion is that if Nurse Ratched were sexually satisfied, or at least satisfied with her personal life, she would allow greater freedom on her ward.
Nurse Ratched does gain a victory over McMurphy in this chapter, but whatever victory she has will be short-lived. The shock treatment does not significantly affect Chief Bromden; he quickly regains a sense of lucidity afterward and returns to coherence. More importantly, the nurse who treats McMurphy’s wounds makes the important point that other nurses are opposed to Nurse Ratched’s behavior. Although Nurse Ratched maintains a tight grip on her particular ward, she is vulnerable within the institutional structure she uses against her patients.
Paralleling the Christian story, McMurphy becomes a martyr in Chapter Twenty-Eight when he refuses to accommodate Nurse Ratched’s demands for an apology. McMurphy gains power and authority through receiving the electroshock treatment, just as crucifixion and resurrection demonstrate the divinity of Jesus in Christian teachings. Kesey combines this religious symbolism with the sexual themes that informed the first part of the novel, for McMurphy facetiously claims that the EST increases his sexual potency in that his next conquest will “light up like a pinball machine.” Kesey reinforces this theme when McMurphy underscores that Nurse Ratched would advocate castration. The religious parallels and increasing indications of martyrdom cause Nurse Ratched to return McMurphy to the ward, even if she only dimly perceives the depth of what he represents to the other men. His reputation can only grow while he is away; by returning him to the ward she can remind the men that he is not the godlike martyr the inmates have imagined.
McMurphy’s supposed final night in the institution continues the pattern of religious and sexual imagery, for Harding imitates a religious ritual when he sprinkles the pills on Sefelt. Kesey gives further psychological analyses of the more significant inmates. Harding admits to McMurphy that he has committed practices that society finds unacceptable, a coded final admission that he is a homosexual, while Chief Bromden details more of Billy Bibbit’s past. Mrs. Bibbit has rendered her son a thirty-year-old child; she will not allow him to age precisely because it would reflect that she has aged as well. Billy is thus a perpetual child, dominated by his mother’s oppressive behavior. When McMurphy arranges for the meeting between Candy and Billy, McMurphy is emphasizing his role as a sexual liberator.
McMurphy’s delay in leaving the ward is an ambiguous event, for although he ostensibly makes a small error by falling asleep, the event is perhaps too convenient. Given the signs of his martyrdom, there is a strong possibility that McMurphy never intended to leave the ward and that his actions are a form of self-sacrifice. There are many reasons for him to go, but there are also important reasons for him to stay.
The final chapter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest culminates in a pyrrhic victory for Nurse Ratched and a pyrrhic victory for the martyred McMurphy. That is, they both win and both lose. The confrontation between the two characters finally becomes both violent and sexual, having been set up as sexual by the confrontation between Nurse Ratched and Billy Bibbit over the prostitute. Nurse Ratched has used repressive sexuality as a weapon against Billy Bibbit, instilling in him a sense of shame that stems from both religious sexual guilt and his domineering mother. Harding even makes a religious allusion to Jezebel that underscores the religious idea of certain kinds of sexuality as sinful. Yet it is when Nurse Ratched uses Billy Bibbit’s mother to instill a sense of shame that she drives him to suicide, showing with unerring finality the cause of Billy’s problems.
The religious theme continues as Nurse Ratched chastises McMurphy for playing God and causing the deaths of Cheswick and Billy Bibbit. The irony is that her policies and abuses of power are what drove them to their respective deaths. All of her criticisms of McMurphy can be better applied to Nurse Ratched herself, a vengeful goddess over the ward.
McMurphy’s attack on Nurse Ratched is about power and sexuality. He effects a literal and figurative exposing of the Big Nurse. When he attacks her, he exposes her breasts, the one barely suppressed sign of her femininity. This point also relates back to Harding’s earlier suggestion that sex is the cure for Nurse Ratched—here it is at least a cure for the men against her. The result of this fight is the final humanization of Nurse Ratched in that everyone learns what McMurphy has known from the beginning: she is human and weak and troubled like everyone else. When she returns to the ward after the fight, she is unable to speak and thus has lost a major sign of her power. While she loses this sign of humanity, she neatly parallels Chief Bromden, who in the course of the novel regains his voice and his humanity.
McMurphy ostensibly loses his battle against Nurse Ratched when she orders a lobotomy for him, but the victory is hollow, for she loses control of the ward as the other patients free themselves of her grip and voluntarily leave the hospital. This is an ultimate win for him and an ultimate loss for her. This circumstance also fits well with the Christian symbolism of the novel; although McMurphy dies for his cause, his disciples leave the hospital to live according to his teachings. They have gained the strength and the freedom to make independent choices as McMurphy proposed that they could.
Chief Bromden best exemplifies the new life McMurphy has enabled. Through the course of the novel he has regained his voice, and he makes the final step toward self-realization when he escapes the ward. By moving the control panel and escaping, Chief Bromden fulfills McMurphy’s wishes and reasserts himself as a more or less healthy member of society. He now is in a position to tell the tale of McMurphy’s liberation.
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 6-9
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 10-15
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- Summary and Analysis of Part Four, Chapters 26-29
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