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Title: One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
Author: Ken Kesey
1. Explanation of the title:
The title of the book is clearly allegorical in its intents. The cuckoo's nest is the hospital and the one who flew over it is McMurphy. The full nursery rhyme from which the title is taken is quoted in part 4 by the Chief, as he remembers his childhood while awaking from a shock treatment. The rhyme was part of a childhood game played with him by his Indian grandmother:
Ting. Tingle, tingle, tremble toes, she's a good fisherman, catches hens, puts 'em inna pens...wire blier, limber lock, three geese inna flock... 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.
The goose who flies over the cuckoo's nest is McMurphy, the chief bull goose loony; the one he plucks out is the Chief, who escapes at the end of the novel, following McMurphy's teaching. The goose is also the leader of the flight of wild geese, silhouetted against the moon above the asylum in the shape of a cross, foreshadowing McMurphy's crucifixion in the Shock Shop. Tingle, tingle, tremble toes is clearly the Big Nurse, who catches the inmates like hens and encourages them to peck one another to death in the pen of the ward, where they are kept locked in. That she is a good fisherman, a fisher of men, recalls McMurphy's fishing expedition and its symbolic overtones linking McMurphy with Christ, but her purpose is to imprison, rather than to liberate, her catch.
2. When and where does the story play?
Time
The story is regularly interrupted by flashbacks in which Bromden sees himself back in the Indian village. The flashbacks underline the contrast by the mechanised world of the system and the world of the free spirit. The time can not exactly be derived from the text, but it is probably situated in the late 50s or early 60s, the second part of the Twentieth century.
Setting
The novel takes place in a ward of a mental hospital in the state of Oregon. In this confined area, isolated from the outside world, patients and staff follow a precise routine.
3. Description of the main characters:
Randle Patrick McMurphy:
Randle is a red-haired, smooth-talking convict who fakes hearing strange sounds in order to escape the hard work at Pendleton Work Farm. In the psychiatric ward he instantly becomes the symbol of personal freedom. His behaviour annoys the ‘Big Nurse’ and turns her towards drastic measures. When it’s too late, Randle realises that his visit to the psychiatric ward won’t end with his prison time, but by grace of Nurse Ratched.
Chief ‘Broom’ Bromden:
Chief Bromden is the son of the chief of the Columbia Indians and a white woman. He suffers from paranoia and hallucinations, has received multiple electroshock treatments, and has been in the hospital for ten years,-longer than any other patient on the ward. A very strong Red Indian who pretends he cannot hear or speak. He feels compassion and respect for Randle because he tries to fight the system. Randle’s fight makes Chief loose his fear of the system. In the end of the story he saves Randle from a life-long ‘imprisonment’ on the ward.
Big Nurse Ratched:
A middle-aged woman who runs the ward that Randle is admitted to. She wants the ward to run smoothly; deviations to the set rules are not accepted. In controlling the ward she is helped by three black aides. She selects her staff for their submissiveness and she weakens her patients through a psychologically manipulative program designed to destroy their self-esteem. Ratched's emasculating, mechanical ways slowly drain all traces of humanity from her patients.
The other patients:
The patients on the ward are divided into two categories: Acutes and Chronic. The last category is subdivided in Walkers, Wheelers and Vegetables.
Here some small descriptions of them:
Dale Harding: An effeminate man, psychologically castrated by his wife, who has committed himself to the hospital.
Billy Bibbit: A frightened thirty-one-year-old man with the mind of a adolescent. He is dominated by his mother, who is a friend of Nurse Ratched
Max Taber: A former patient who caused Nurse Ratched trouble. He was dismissed after being made docile by Electro-Shock Therapy
Scanlon: A patient with destructive fantasies. The last of McMurphy's followers left on the ward, he assists in the Chief's escape after McMurphy's death.
Cheswick: McMurphy's most overt follower in his early days on the ward. After McMurphy's begins to yield to authority, Cheswick drowns himself.
Martini: Exists in a world of delusions; his visions are more real to him than reality
The Lifeguard: A former football player who has been committed to the hospital. He explains to McMurphy that commitment means that McMurphy can be released only when the Big Nurse agrees.
Doctor Spivey: A morphine addict, chosen by the Big Nurse to work on her ward because of his weakness and vulnerability.
The Black Boys (Washington, Warren and Geever): Chosen by the Big Nurse as orderlies because of their hostility and strength. They keep order on the ward mainly by threatening the patients.
Mr. Turkle: An elderly Negro who works as an orderly at night. He is bribed by McMurphy to arrange the party for Candy and Billy Bibbit
Candy Starr: A prostitute from Portland; a whore with a heart of gold. Billy Bibbit falls in love with her on the fishing trip.
4. The theme(s):
The struggle of the individual against the system. In the novel this is pictured in the struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.
Most of the male patients have been damaged by relationships with overpowering women. For instance, Bromden's mother is portrayed as a castrating woman; her husband took her last name, and she turned a big, strong chief into a small, weak alcoholic.
It is implied throughout the novel that a healthy expression of one's sexuality is a key component of sanity, and that repression of one's sexuality leads directly to insanity. Most of the patients have warped sexual identities because of damaging relationships with women.
The genre
Psychological novel, basically traditional realism, although it sometimes borders on alternative realism or fantasy, because the narrator is mentally ill and suffers from delusions.
In American slang ‘cuckoo’ means ‘crazy’ or ‘madman’. Therefore ‘cuckoo’s nest’ is an apt term for the mental hospital which is the setting of the book. The title is a line in an old nursery rhyme about three geese leaving a flock, “one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. ‘One’ is McMurphy; the novel tells the story of what happens when he invades the ‘cuckoo’s nest’.
The narration is influenced by Bromden’s state of mind, which sees the world and especially the hospital in terms of machinery and all machinery is a threat to him. The language Bromden uses is simple and colloquial, but his grammar is not very good.
The story is divided into four parts and is written on 283 pages.
5. The actual summary:
Miss Ratched, known to her patients as ‘Big Nurse’, has her ward well under control. The patients’ lives are regulated according to a strict routine. In her reign she is aided by three Negroes in white jackets, their sadistic tendencies strictly controlled. Her patients are divided into the Acutes and the Chronics. The first undergo therapies; the second are also known as the incurables. They, subdivided into Walkers, Wheelers and Vegetables, will probably spend the rest of their lives on the ward.
The admission of a new patient, Randle P. McMurphy, causes a disruption of the routine. He introduces himself to the other patients as a gambler who has come to liven things up. He confesses to them that he is only pretending to be mentally unbalanced to get out of prison. Randle is confused by the atmosphere on the ward, where Big Nurse has everyone eating out of her hand. Harding explains the subtle but constant and effective pressure. He also explains the consequences of being sent upstairs to the Disturbed Ward. Randle sets up a bet that he can get the better of Big Nurse within a week. Randle’s presence brings the ward to life.
For once there is no fog blurring the vision of the narrator, Chief Broom’ Bromden, who spent the last twenty years pretending to be deaf and dumb.
Randle fights the System by constantly breaking the rules, cracking jokes and organising unusual activities. The first morning he embarrasses Big Nurse by walking around the ward, barely dressed and then he gets a doctor to support his idea for a separate game room where patients can escape the constant loudspeaker music. After a week the first showdown between Randle and Nurse Ratched begins. With a great deal of difficulty, Randle gets the majority of patients to vote with him to have the television set turned on during the baseball championships. Nevertheless, Big Nurse turns the television off. With Randle the other patients protest by continuing to watch the blank screen until Nurse Ratched loses her temper. Randle has won the bet.
Randle learns that he is ‘committed’ to the hospital. He can only leave the hospital if Miss Ratched says he’s cured, not just when his prison term is up. From that moment he becomes a model patient. Only when one of the patients, who felt betrayed by their hero, drowns himself in the pool does he begin to rebel again. Behind Randle’s back Nurse Ratched convinces the other patients that Randle is only interested in the financial profit of his actions. Most of them believe her. Then Randle comes to George’s defence when he is bullied by one of the Negro attendants. Randle gets into a fight with two attendants and is helped by Chief Bromden. For their misconduct both are sent to the Disturbed Ward and receive shock treatment. Chief Bromden comes out of the treatment ready to leave the hospital, but stays to see what happens.
Back on the ward Randle organises a party, bribing Turkle, an old Negro night attendant, to let two girls into the ward. Turkle also agrees to let Randle escape with the two girls before Nurse Ratched arrives. Unfortunately everyone is still asleep when Nurse Ratched arrives and she discovers the girls. When she threatens to tell Billy’s mother about the girl she found him with, so he kills himself by cutting his throat. Nurse Ratched holds Randle responsible. Randle then loses his temper and tries to strangle her. He is sent off to the Disturbed Ward again.
On the Disturbed Ward Randle undergoes a lobotomy, an operation in which some brain cells are removed, and returns unrecognisable. Chief Bromden decides to save Randle from a lifetime of serving as an example of ‘what can happen if you buck the system’.

He kills Randle before he regains consciousness. The Indian, whose strength and self-consciousness have been given back to him by Randle’s presence, escapes from the hospital by throwing a control panel through the window. He heads north, planning to visit his tribe on his way to Canada.
6. Your very own opinion:
I think the book was a bit strange. I didn’t get all of it because it was a bit difficult in the beginning with all the terms and names for the patients and uses there. So in the beginning you really had to pay attention when you were reading. After the first part it began to be more interesting. But I think the fishing trip took a part of the book that was too big. The end was also strange to me; I hadn’t thought in the beginning that this would happen. That’s better in a book, because you don’t know what to expect, the end is unpredictable.
a. Which part of the book did you like best and why?
The best part is the end of the book. The book is separated in four parts and in the last part that counts 50 pages happens a lot. In the third part some of the patients went on a fishing trip and Billy met Candy (the whore). He fall in love but in the end of the book he kills himself because he has fallen in love with that girl and he’s afraid of the reaction from his mom. McMurphy is sent away and when he comes back nobody believes it’s him, he turned in a real fool that cannot speak or talk anymore. So Chief Bromden kills him because of the wishes and thoughts that McMurphy used to have. It’s for McMurphy’s own good. Then the chief escapes from the hospital and that’s the end of the book.
b. Which character did you like best and why?
I like the character of McMurphy the best. He sees that it’s not normal how they treat people at the ward of the hospital. He wants to change that things and that’s a good thing. All the patients seemed to liven up since he came there. He wants to see the other patients laugh and he wants to make their miserable lives a bit more liveable.
c. Could you identify with the main character? Why, why not?
No, I’m not a person with a mental illness so I don’t know how these people think and act. In some parts I could imagine that he did some things. As I see at the end, when the Chief has killed the person which should be McMurphy, I think that’s a good thing. The Chief knows what McMurphy wants, and that isn’t staying in the hospital for a lot of years in the state he was then. And I also could imagine he ran away after the murder, but in the other parts it was just strange to me.
d. Would you recommend the book to others? Why, who not?
No, I wouldn’t recommend it to others. In my opinion the whole story was starting to be interesting after 100 pages or even more. It didn’t interest me a lot and I think it was difficult to read. Only when you like these kinds of books, with mental illness in it and stuff you could like it but for me it was too difficult.
e. Was the book filmed? If you have seen it, in what way was it different?
Yes the book is filmed but I haven’t seen it. So I can’t say in what way it would be different from the book.

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