One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Study Guide

Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is Nurse Ratched's primary method of control in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Nurse Ratched's primary method of control in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is intimidation. She instills fear in her patients: fear of being different, fear of being inadequate, and fear of the outside world. For example, Nurse Ratched doesn't like the idea of the deep-sea fishing trip McMurphy arranges for the other patients, yet she grants the day passes anyway. She knows the trip can't happen if enough people don't sign up, so she brings in newspaper clippings that explain how "rough and dangerous" the sea is at this time of year. Bromden recounts that "the nurse still knew her patients. The clippings scared them more than McMurphy'd figured." McMurphy has to beg and plead with the Acutes to get them to go on the trip.

Why is McMurphy compared to Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Attila the Hun in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Attila the Hun was the king of a nomadic people who created a vast European empire from 434 to 453. Genghis Khan was a 13th-century Mongolian warrior who ruled the gigantic Mongol Empire, which stretched from European Russia to northern China. Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military leader who played an instrumental part in overthrowing the French government in 1799 then crowned himself emperor in 1804. All three men were known for their cunning intelligence, an innate ability to lead, and bombastic personalities that attracted followers like moths to a flame. McMurphy, too, exhibits all of these qualities as he vies for control of the ward. Intelligence: He outsmarts Nurse Ratched by getting Dr. Spivey to suggest turning the tub room into a game room, and he figures out just how to make Nurse Ratched crack. Leadership: He turns a group of meek, mild-mannered men into back-talking, wise-cracking patients who no longer fear Nurse Ratched's evil eye. Personality: He is larger than life. He swaggers, he swears, and he smokes, acting more like a cowboy sizing up a saloon than a man committed to a psychiatric ward. He is unafraid, uncontrollable, and unapologetic. The other patients love him for it.

Why does Nurse Ratched petition against making McMurphy a martyr in Part 2, Chapter 1 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Nurse Ratched thinks that sending McMurphy to the Disturbed ward will only inflate his power in her ward. Becoming a martyr for his cause—getting the best of Nurse Ratched—will give the other men in the ward the confidence needed to chip away at her already tenuous control. If McMurphy stays on her ward, Nurse Ratched says, the other patients will "be given the opportunity to see that this man is not an ... 'extraordinary person.'" She would rather McMurphy stay where he is and, over time, reveal his true selfish nature. She is certain the other patients will become disillusioned and want nothing more to do with him, essentially stripping him of his power.

How does the visit to the pool in Chapter 3, Part 2 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest change McMurphy's view of life in the hospital?

McMurphy's original ideas about life in the hospital are called into question during his first visit to the swimming pool. Up until now, McMurphy has focused on the luxury of the accommodations, a marked change from his time in the prison work camp, and on his battle for power with Nurse Ratched. It takes a conversation with the lifeguard to make him realize the true pitfalls of life as a committed patient. The lifeguard, also a patient, explains, "You're sentenced in a jail, and you got a date ahead of you when you know you're gonna be turned loose." When a person is committed, his sentence is determined by the ward's head nurse. This moment is when McMurphy realizes he has positioned himself as the aggressor in a conflict he is going to lose; if he doesn't change his behavior, the Big Nurse has the power to keep him in the hospital indefinitely.

What is the importance of Cheswick's death in Part 3, Chapter 3 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Cheswick's death at the bottom of the pool is directly related to McMurphy's decision to ease up on Nurse Ratched. Cheswick idolizes McMurphy, and supporting McMurphy was Cheswick's only means of rebellion. Bromden says of Cheswick, "He's one of these guys who'll make a big fuss like he's going to lead an attack, holler charge and stomp up and down a minute, take a couple steps, and quit." Cheswick has no follow-through, but McMurphy does. McMurphy's successes make Cheswick feel successful. When McMurphy abruptly decides that he won't engage with Nurse Ratched anymore, Cheswick has nothing left to believe in. He says he wishes "something mighta been done," and then he drowns himself. This drastic action is the first time McMurphy realizes how much influence he has over the other patients and how much his rebellion means to them.

What prevents most of the patients who have been voluntarily admitted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from leaving the hospital?

McMurphy is shocked to discover that he is one of the few patients in Nurse Ratched's ward who was involuntarily committed, and he can't understand why those who've had themselves committed don't just leave. After all, he tells them, "You're not exactly the everyday man on the street, but you're not nuts." The reason they don't leave, Billy Bibbit says, is because it's so much worse on the outside. Bibbit, who has a stutter, tells McMurphy, "But did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you? No, because you're so b-big and so tough!" The other patients feel neither big nor tough and probably won't ever feel that way as long as Nurse Ratched continues humiliating and emasculating them as part of their "treatment." Yet they stay, preferring the safety and predictability of the hospital to the inferiority they face in the real world. They know what to expect on the ward; their basic needs are met, they are comfortable, and, most importantly, they don't feel any crazier than anyone else. In their minds, the really crazy people are on the Disturbed ward. Nurse Ratched's ward is the only place where they feel somewhat normal. That alone is worth the daily minefield of living under the Big Nurse's thumb.

Why does Harding compare electroshock therapy with the electric chair in Part 2, Chapter 7 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Harding isn't comparing electroshock therapy and the electric chair simply because both use electricity. He points out that "they are both cures." Electroshock therapy's intended use is to help patients who have lost the ability to interact with the real world by jolting their brains. The electric chair's cure, of course, is to prevent violent criminals from committing atrocities again. In Nurse Ratched's world, electroshock therapy is used for many of the same reasons as capital punishment: to prevent unwanted actions from happening again. Like the electric chair, a misuse of electroshock therapy can result in the figurative death of patients. They are still in their bodies, but their spirits are stripped of any signs of individuality.

What events detailed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest cause Bromden to become mute?

Bromden wasn't always mute. In Part 3, Chapter 1, he says, "It wasn't me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all." This phenomenon didn't start at the hospital; Bromden experienced the same treatment while in the army and even in grade school. Bromden's ethnicity plays a large part in his feelings of invisibility. The first time he noticed it was when three government officials came to his village to speak with his father about selling the tribe's land. Ten-year-old Bromden was the only person home, and the three white adults talked about him as if he didn't speak English. When he finally did say something, they acted as if they hadn't heard him at all. This experience wasn't unique to Bromden; the U.S. government ignored the rights and requests of Native Americans for centuries. For the first time, Bromden realizes that his words will have no impact, simply because of the way he looks and where he lives. This feeling of not belonging in "white America" increases as he grows older, and he talks less and less. By the time he gets to the hospital, he is completely mute, and most people don't even noticed him anymore. He's just part of the scenery.

How does Bromden's relationship with machinery influence his views about the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Prior to his life in the hospital, Bromden studied and worked with machinery. He studied electronics in college and served as an electrician's assistant in the army. The machines he worked with in his previous life help him understand what he's going through as a patient in Nurse Ratched's ward. To Bromden, machines and the equations, drawings, and schematics used in their creation are "hard, sure, safe things," nothing like the hospital or the outside world. The machines in his mind, including the great Combine, help him explain the unexplainable, help him feel some measure of safety, and allow him to understand what is happening to himself and those around him.

How do McMurphy's and Nurse Ratched's methods for getting what they want compare and contrast in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy and Nurse Ratched have similar methods for getting what they want. Both are manipulators who put pressure on others to obtain their desired outcomes. Nurse Ratched manipulates people by tearing them down, using shame and emasculation to make them feel so small and inferior that they don't have the strength to fight back. McMurphy, however, builds up those he wants to manipulate. He flat-out tells the other patients that the secret to a good con is to find out what the target wants and then make that person believe he or she is getting it. He knows that everyone in the ward, including Dr. Spivey, wants to feel better about themselves. That's why he jokes with Billy Bibbit about nights on the town with easy women and why he works so hard to get Bromden to think he's big again. Their resulting admiration allows him to do pretty much anything he wants with their full support.

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