Plot Summary

A Part 1

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a few remarkable weeks in an Oregon insane asylum and the events that lead to the narrator’s escape. A tall and broad Indian, Chief Bromden’s insanity appears to stem from a paranoid belief in the existence of a machine, “The Combine,” which controls people’s behavior. He feigns deafness and dumbness in order to fight this control. In looking back on his time in the ward, he finds that he must recount the horrible experiences suffered by him and his fellow inmates, and particularly to tell of the conflict between Randle McMurphy and Big Nurse Ratched.

Bromden’s story begins with the day McMurphy is first admitted to the ward. McMurphy is loud and disruptive, and introduces himself as a gambling man who has only pretended to be crazy in order to get out of a work camp. He introduces himself to the “Chronics” (permanent residents), including Bromden himself, and the “Acutes” (who may still recover). McMurphy immediately attempts to take charge of the bunch by instigating a who-is-crazier-than-whom debate with Harding, an Acute who is president of the Patients Council.

Nurse Ratched knows that McMurphy represents a disruptive force on the ward, and Bromden explains her reaction to disruptive forces: The big nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she’s tense as steel. I know, I can feel it. And she don’t relax a hair till she gets the nuisance attended to-what she calls “adjusted to surroundings.”

McMurphy questions the others, particularly Harding, about why they accept her power over them, and bets the entire ward that within a week he can force Nurse Ratched to lose control without her gaining any over him.

Interspersed with his own hallucinations, Bromden recounts how McMurphy persistently taunts the Nurse and her attendants. Some ward-members gain access to an old hydrotherapy room-the “tub room”-to escape the very loud music in the day room. In an effort to motivate the Acutes into fighting Big Nurse, McMurphy purposefully loses a wager that he can heave an old concrete console through a tub room window and escape. One week after the original bet, he succeeds in turning the entire ward against Ratched in a vote over television privileges during the World Series. Bromden’s is the decisive vote, and McMurphy gains the majority he needs to win. The nurse refuses to turn the television on, but the entire ward ignores her orders and sits patiently in front of the blank set while she screams hysterically.

B Part 2

In response to her failure, Nurse Ratched decides to wait until McMurphy realizes his fate is ultimately in her hands. At the same time, Bromden grows stronger from McMurphy’s tireless example, hallucinating less and avoiding his medication. The other patients follow suit, growing more unruly and argumentative.

One day while swimming at the hospital pool, a lifeguard/inmate explains to McMurphy the danger of being permanently committed. As a result, McMurphy’s unruliness seems to end. The other patients are not surprised by his change in attitude and recognize that he wants to avoid being committed. Bromden’s mechanistic hallucinations return, however, and although Cheswick claims to understand McMurphy’s attitude, he kills himself at the bottom of the swimming pool.

In the days following this last incident, McMurphy learns more about the contradictions of medication and other forms of treatment at the hospital. He sees the dilemma faced by epileptics regarding their medication. Harding and Billy Bibbit explain not only the horrors of shock treatment and lobotomy, but also reveal that they are voluntary detainees of the mental hospital. McMurphy is angry and confused at these revelations. When Big Nurse takes away the ward’s tub room privileges in an attempt to cement her victory, McMurphy responds by smashing the window that separates the Nurse’s Station from the day room.

C Part 3

In the days that follow, McMurphy continues to harass the nurse by organizing a deep-sea fishing expedition for the ward. Bromden’s hallucinations recede once more, and he begins to think about joining the salmon-fishing list. He worries again about disclosing his ability to hear and talk, but eventually speaks to McMurphy almost without realizing it. McMurphy helps to build the Chief’s confidence by signing his name to the fishing list, and by convincing him that he can once again feel tall and strong-strong enough, in fact, to lift the cement console in the tub room.

McMurphy surpasses several hurdles while the appointed fishing-day approaches. When one of the prostitutes hired to take them to the boat doesn’t show up, McMurphy even convinces the hospital’s Doctor Spivey to drive half of them to the boat and join them fishing. Along the way, they encounter unfriendly outsiders and the group awaits McMurphy’s leadership to turn their morale around.

As they set sail in the fishing boat with the obsessive-compulsive George Sorensen at the helm, McMurphy reveals that the boat owner, Captain Block, has been duped, and that they will be renting the boat without his permission. After a spectacular day, Captain Block and the police await them at the docks. Doctor Spivey discourages legal action by disputing local jurisdiction and the safety of the boat, and the catcallers who insulted the group upon their first arrival are humbled by the success of the fishing expedition. During the drive back to the hospital, Billy Bibbit and Candy sit together, and McMurphy encourages a clandestine late-night “date” between the innocent Billy and the prostitute at the hospital. Thus inspired, they pause in front of the house in which McMurphy was raised while he brags about his first sexual experience.

D Part 4

Nurse Ratched’s response to McMurphy’s success is to try and turn the men on the ward against him by demonstrating how much money he has taken from them since his arrival. As the Chief’s confidence grows and, with McMurphy’s help, he begins to recognize his own physical size and strength, and the bet regarding the cement console in the tub room is revived. McMurphy makes a bet that it is possible for a man to lift the console, and Bromden lifts it. McMurphy attempts to compensate the Chief with a piece of the winnings, but Bromden becomes upset, saying of McMurphy’s activities on the ward, “we thought it wasn’t to be winning things!”

When Big Nurse orders that the men be cleaned with a special liquid because of vermin they may have encountered on their fishing trip, a fight breaks out. Sorensen is compulsively clean and cannot bear the thought of having the strong smelling disinfectant on (or in) his body. The attendants persist and McMurphy picks a fight with one of them. When the other attendants join in, Bromden enters the fray and settles it decisively in favor of the ward. They thus provide Nurse Ratched with the excuse she needs, and she sends both of the men to the “Disturbed” ward, where they face electroshock therapy. McMurphy refuses to concede victory to Ratched by admitting his fault and undergoes several shock treatments.

Eventually, the day for Billy and Candy’s late-night date arrives. The ward prepares by bribing Turkle, the night orderly, and Candy arrives with her friend Sandy in tow. A great party ensues, and although McMurphy’s plan is to escape with the girls before morning, the entire ward drunkenly falls asleep until discovered the next morning. Billy Bibbit and Candy are found naked together in the Seclusion Room, and Nurse Ratched taunts Billy with the prospect of revealing his activities to his mother. Unable to bear this possibility, Billy kills himself while waiting in Doctor Spivey’s office. McMurphy, enraged but calm, smashes into the Nurses’ Station and attempts to strangle Ratched. The Nurse is badly shaken in the days that follow, and orders McMurphy’s lobotomy. He is wheeled, comatose, to the ward for all to see. Late that night, Bromden suffocates McMurphy, then heaves the cement console through the window and escapes.

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