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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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A half-Indian named Chief Bromden begins telling us of his
experiences in an Oregon mental hospital. His disturbed mind
teems with machine-obsessed hallucinations, yet these
hallucinations reveal a deeper truth: far from being a place of
healing, the hospital is a place of fear. Head of his ward is
Nurse Ratched, a woman of great self-control, who, in the
Chief's view, is the most powerful of the hospital's mechanical
instruments. Only her large breasts betray the fact that she is a
human being, and these she has hidden beneath her uniform.
The Chief has convinced everyone that he is deaf and dumb; he
tries to flee reality by thinking back to his happy childhood in
an Indian village. But his dread of a sinister force called the
Combine shatters his memories, and in moments of greatest
stress a thick fog entirely clouds his mind.

A new patient is admitted: Randall Patrick McMurphy, a loud,
red-headed braggart claiming to be in the hospital only to enjoy
an easier life than he had at a state work farm. He doesn't seem
crazy: with his tales of fighting, gambling, and love-making, he
brings laughter into the ward for the first time in years.
Immediately he tries to make friends with the other patients,
among them shy, stuttering Billy Bibbit, and Dale Harding, an
intelligent man ashamed of his effeminacy.

The Nurse and her new patient are in every way opposed to
each other, she demanding control, he reveling in freedom.
Inevitably, as the Nurse asserts her power, McMurphy rebels
against it, not yet realizing rebellion may be dangerous. Nurse
Ratched has defeated past troublemakers with electro-shock
therapy, or with lobotomies-the latter an operation that makes
patients docile members of society at the expense of their

At the daily Group Meeting, McMurphy is appalled at the way
Nurse Ratched destroys her patients' self-confidence, in
particular their sexual self-confidence-especially devastating
because he believes freely expressed sexuality is a key to a
healthy life. He bets Harding and the others that he can make
the Nurse lose control of the ward without giving her an excuse
to punish him.

McMurphy's often funny skirmishes with the Nurse and her
staff entertain the patients; increasingly, he reminds the Chief
of his father, a full-blooded Indian Chief who also used
laughter to fight his enemies. But when McMurphy proposes
that the patients be allowed to watch the World Series on
television, only one, Cheswick, sides with him. Disgusted at
this timidity, McMurphy demonstrates how he might escape by
tossing a control panel through a window. He fails, but his
nerve inspires the group to vote with him at the next meeting.
Needing one more vote, he approaches the Chief, who, fearful
of the freedom McMurphy offers, is cowering in a mental fog
so thick it threatens to engulf him forever. McMurphy's force
of personality pulls the Chief out of his illness. While the
Nurse sill refuses to let them watch the Series, McMurphy wins
a point by making her lose control of her temper.

Soon, however, McMurphy learns a painful truth: he will not
leave the hospital until Nurse Ratched agrees to release him.
Nervously, he begins to obey her rules. But by raising hopes he
hasn't fulfilled, McMurphy has left the patients worse off than
before. Cheswick becomes so depressed he drowns himself.
McMurphy's sense of entrapment grows when he learns that,
unlike himself, most of the other patients have voluntarily
committed themselves to the hospital. Determined to destroy
the fear that's been hammered into them-and in him-he
smashes the Nurse's Station window, a symbol of Nurse
Ratched's control.

Basking in the glory of another victory, McMurphy arranges a
fishing trip for the ward. Long suspecting the Chief can talk
and hear, McMurphy speaks to him, and the Chief breaks years
of silence to answer. He describes the Combine: people like
Nurse Ratched, the government, his own mother, who destroy
tradition, nature, and freedom in favor of machinelike
conformity. As it did to his father, the Combine has made the
Chief "small"- for in his mind psychological defeat creates
physical diminution. McMurphy strikes a deal: if the Chief
promises to grow large enough to lift the control panel
McMurphy could not, McMurphy will let him go on the fishing
trip for free.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes

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