A Chief Bromden
Chief Bromden is the schizophrenic narrator of the story, and has been in the mental institution since leaving the Army shortly after World War II; Harding says he’s heard that Chief has received over two hundred shock treatments. The son of an American Indian father and a Caucasian mother, he attributes his shrewdness to his Native American heritage. Chief has a paranoid belief in something he calls the “Combine,” a collaboration of governmental and industrial groups he believes are trying to control people by way of machines. For many years, Chief has isolated himself from the bizarre environment of the Chronic and Acute ward by pretending to be deaf and dumb. This way, he finds out everything he wants to know and yet is able to keep his own counsel and to stay out of trouble.
Chief pushes a broom all day, sweeping the same territory over and over again. He’s classified as a Chronic: “Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking about the street giving the product a bad name,” muses Chief. “Chronic are in for good … divided into Walkers like me, can still walk around if you keep fed, and Wheelers and Vegetables.” Chief harbors a deep hatred of the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched, and like all the other ward residents fears her power. Chief holds an almost equal anger at the three black assistants who do Miss Ratched’s icy bidding-and worse. (In fact, some consider the book racist because of the negative way in which author-and his narrator storyteller-portray these black characters.)
Chief imagines that every day the staff creates a fog that hangs over the ward. Sometimes the fog is smoke because he believes that walls are wired and filled with humming mechanisms. But he snaps to awareness when a new admission, the irrepressible, irreverent McMurphy, arrives and immediately tries to take over as boss of the ward. At first, Chief is able to hide behind his feigned deafness and just watch McMurphy’s antics. But McMurphy soon tricks him into revealing to him that he can both hear and speak-a secret guarded from everyone else. Gradually, under McMurphy’s influence, Chief begins to withdraw from his hallucinatory world and begins to join the other residents in activities, even joining them on a fishing expedition.
At one point, he thinks to himself: “I noticed vaguely that I was getting so’s I could see some good in the life around me. McMurphy was teaching me. I was feeling better than I’d remembered feeling since I was a kid, when everything was good and land still singing kids’ poetry to me.” Finally he reveals the source of the book’s title, a singsong chant his grandmother used to say as they played a finger game: “one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest … O-U-T spells out … goose swoops down and plucks you out.” Although McMurphy’s power over Nurse Ratched eventually ends, his sacrifice serves as an inspiration for Chief. Chief takes pity on McMurphy after he is left a vegetable from a lobotomy, smothering him with a pillow, and then leaves the institution to take control of his own destiny.
B Randle Patrick McMurphy
McMurphy bursts on the well-ordered, claustrophobic scene of the psychiatric ward like a psychological bombshell. Streetwise, smart, aggressive, vigorous, he challenges the status quo-the “way things are”-from day one. He introduces himself to everyone in the ward, shaking hands and filling the silence with loud laughter. Is this man mentally ill? Probably not. He has elected to be sent to the psychiatric hospital because he did not like to work on the prison farm, where he had six months to go before his release. His crime: statutory rape of a willing fifteen year old. The attraction of the psychiatric hospital for him was the idea of enjoying better meals and an easier lifestyle. This not exactly what he finds.
McMurphy immediately engages in a long, hopeless, and endless battle with Big Nurse, a classic control freak. What McMurphy has brought to the ward is a touch of normalcy. What Nurse Ratched wants is a group of docile and quiet men who do not upset or question how she has ordered things. It is their incarceration, voluntary or otherwise, upon which her job and role in life depends. Therefore McMurphy is the ultimate threat-a nonconformist who stirs the residents into a desire for action. He wakes them up out of the dullness and quiet in which they have been dwelling. In fact, he provides them with the beginning of a cure to their problems.
The more successful McMurphy is at upsetting the status quo, the more intense the battle becomes between him and Nurse Ratched. He takes over as boss of the endless poker game played by some of the Acutes and demands in group therapy meetings that democracy reign and that Nurse Ratched loosen up some of the ties that bind the residents to a senseless, rigid schedule that only serves to dehumanize them.
McMurphy is a very funny character. But the humor ends when he discovers that Big Nurse has total control over his fate-over what treatment he receives and when he is discharged-because he is one of the two residents who have been committed. The other is Chief, McMurphy’s best friend. What starts as a rollicking rebellion against authority becomes a tragedy. McMurphy is repeatedly subjected to electric shock therapy. He manages to joke about it and to gather the strength to organize a fishing expedition for some of the men and, finally, a party at night in the ward that turns into a fiasco. The drunken orgy, complete with prostitutes, is McMurphy’s demise. Big Nurse finally pulls the plug and sends him for psychosurgery. He returns, lobotomized, as a human vegetable. All the lights in this bright mind and brave personality have been extinguished. His energizing influence on the residents lives on, however. Several leave to go home after McMurphy’s demise as their leader, and Chief Bromden escapes from the ward and heads for the country. Despite his final degradation to a vegetative state, he wins the fight for freedom that he has fought so bravely. But the rewards are not his. They belong to his fellow patients.
C Nurse Ratched
A sexless, rigid caricature of a nurse, Nurse Ratched imposes discipline on her ward with all the fervor of a former Army nurse, which she had been. Large, with huge breasts only partially disguised by her ultra-starched white uniform, she nevertheless has a pretty, delicate face that belies her cruelty.
Manipulative to the core, the only thing that really matters to Ratched is her desire to control everything around her-the environment, the staff, the patients. She has rendered the staff doctor who is in charge of the ward helpless and ineffectual. Her methods are subtle: She speaks with the calm voice of reason, dealing with patients as though they are children. Her group therapy sessions are intentionally humiliating to patients. Her agenda clearly is to turn the group members against one another. That protects her from any unified action against her rules and her dominating role. As long as everyone stays in line, she retreats to her safe place-a glassed-in office overlooking the ward.
Chief sums her up mentally as follows: “So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman’s clock. Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses’ Station.”
Small wonder that McMurphy becomes the ultimate threat to her tight, close little domain. He demands that the patients be given rights. She believes they have only the rights she decides to give them. Cruel in the extreme, she plays repetitious loud music over the ward’s speaker system, successfully drowning out normal conversation. As her battle with McMurphy intensifies, his hatred of her leads him to aggressive actions against her. Finally, he can stand no more. In his last battle against reasonless authority, he tries to strangle her. That may be the end of both of them, not just McMurphy, for his example inspires several of the inmates to check themselves out of the ward and out of her power.
Nurse Ratched’s character has been the subject of much critical discussion and even controversy, for several observers consider her a sexist stereotype of the controlling female.
D Mr. Dale Harding
Mr. Harding is president of the Patient’s Council. Intelligent, college-educated, he speaks to his fellow patients like a professor. McMurphy takes him on verbally right away, saying he wants to displace him as the “bull goose loony” who runs things. Harding pretends to compete, but gives McMurphy his position as king of the card games. Harding, while articulate and assertive, is basically like a frightened child, and waves his overly pretty hands when he gets upset. His psychological problems include the inferiority and insecurity he feels because of his young, sexy wife, who continually casts doubts on his manhood. He submits to Big Nurse’s verbal humiliations during the group therapy sessions unprotestingly. McMurphy tells Harding these sessions are like pecking parties, in which a flock of chickens rip one of their own to shreds, but Harding refuses to believe that Big Nurse does not intend to help him with these sessions. Under McMurphy’s influence, Harding gradually begins to see the truth-that the Big Nurse is slowly emasculating the patients. When the Nurse lies to him about McMurphy’s return, he checks himself out of the hospital.
E Billy Bibbit
A weak mama’s boy who is totally under Big Nurse’s thumb. She has extra control over him because she has befriended his mother, who works for the hospital. Billy’s most notable feature is his severe stutter, which he says he’s had since he said his first word: “M-m-m-m-mamma.” His mother still treats him as a child, even though he is over thirty years old, and he has problems dealing with women. He eventually begins to assert some limited independence, and loses his virginity with one of McMurphy’s girls. But in the end, he becomes victim to Nurse Ratched’s manipulation and commits suicide.
F Pete Bancini
A self-pitying patient who suffered brain damage at birth and says he’s been dead for all of his fifty-five years. Constantly complaining of being tired, at times he is forcibly removed from group therapy session and put to bed. As the book unfolds, however, Bancini begins to escape the imprisonment of his fixation on the past and take a more active role in the ward.
G Charles Cheswick
Supposedly tough and aggressive, Cheswick is actually afraid to take any definitive actions. Faced with a challenge, he makes noise as if he will attack, but he always backs down. But he likes to cheer others on from the sidelines, and soon becomes an enthusiastic supporter of McMurphy’s ideas. Soon after making a fuss when McMurphy won’t protest against Nurse Ratched’s cigarette rationing, Cheswick drowns in the swimming pool, something Big Nurse blames on McMurphy.
H Mrs. Vera Harding
Dale Harding’s attractive wife, who has been the subject of many of Big Nurse’s group-therapy meetings because Harding thinks Vera may be cheating on him. She makes a brief appearance on a cursory visit to her husband in the hospital, during which she flirts with many of the staff and inmates and casts doubts on her husband’s manhood. Later, Harding returns home to her.
I George Sorenson
A “big, toothless knotty old Swede” who has a fetish about cleanliness. When the group goes on a fishing trip organized by McMurphy, George is the captain. It turns out that he skippered a PT boat during World War II and was a fisherman for twenty-five years. After McMurphy’s lobotomy, he transfers to another ward.
J Dr. Spivey
Dr. Spivey is generally spineless when dealing with Nurse Ratched, because his job depends on the hospital’s administrator, a woman who is an ex-Army friend of Nurse Ratched’s. Dr. Spivey finds McMurphy as amusing as the patients do, and discovers that he and McMurphy attended the same high school. He begins to assert his authority as a doctor, sticking up for the patients when they want to continue their basketball games and joining them on the hilarious fishing trip set up by McMurphy.
K The Three Black Boys
How Chief refers to the black men who come in early, clean the ward, and herd the patients around according to Nurse Ratched’s orders. They hate the nurse, who manipulates them, and take their frustration out on the inmates, often taunting them and otherwise taking advantage of them. McMurphy finally comes to blows with them after they torture Rub-a-Dub George with threats of dirt and bugs. The one-dimensional depiction of these characters has been faulted as racist and stereotypical by several critics.
L Candy Starr
McMurphy’s prostitute friend who joins the patients and the doctor on the fishing trip and later at McMurphy’s final jaunt, the party. She has sex with Billy Bibbit, which leads to tragedy. Her stereotypical portrayal as a “hooker with a heart of gold” has led some critics to call the book sexist.
Candy’s prostitute friend, who does not make it to the fishing trip, but joins her at the clandestine ward party.
N Mr. Bruce Sefelt
An epileptic, Sefelt is constantly suspicious that his anticonvulsant medication is causing severe medical problems, so he gives his drugs to Fredrickson, who worries about having fits. After McMurphy is sent away for an operation, Sefelt and Fredrickson sign out of the hospital together.
O Mr. Fredrickson
Sefelt’s friend and protector, he worries about having epileptic fits and secretly takes Sefelt’s medicine for him. After McMurphy is sent from the ward, he and Sefelt sign out of the hospital together.
P Mr. Scanlon
A stubborn patient preoccupied with explosives who depends on seeing the six o’clock news every day to make sure the country has not been bombed. He is one of the few Acutes who has been committed. He encourages Chief Bromden to leave after the Chief smothers McMurphy.
Q Public Relation
An obnoxiously jolly public relations man who shows local society matrons around the ward, pointing out how great everything is. He is more concerned with the appearance of the ward than with the quality of life there.
R Miss Pilbow
One of Nurse Ratched’s timid assistants, Miss Pilbow has a highly noticeable blood-colored birthmark. Because of Big Nurse’s warnings, she is frightened of McMurphy even when he speaks kindly to her.
S Mr. Turkle
An older black man who is an orderly on the night shift. He treats the patients kindly, even though he fears if he is discovered he might be fired. He cooperates with McMurphy’s plans to have a party on the ward, but resigns the next day after things get out of hand.
One the patients who often seems to be suffering hallucinations, a fact McMurphy uses to cheat against him in Monopoly.
A Chronic who is considered one of the ward’s “failures.”
A Chronic who was an Acute before undergoing shock treatment, Ellis is “nailed” to the wall in a position that recalls Christ’s crucifixion.
W Colonel Matterson
The oldest Chronic on the ward, a World War I veteran who lectures the other inmates by reading from his palm.
X Maxwell Wilson Taber
A patient who is forcibly given a shot of medicine after he questions what is in it. Chief Bromden pictures him as a success story-a “Dismissal” who returns to the community, readjusted from his stay at the hospital.