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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Study Guide

Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is McMurphy's motivation for organizing the fishing trip in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy has several reasons for organizing the deep-sea fishing trip. The most basic (and selfish) reasons are that he wants a break from being inside the hospital, and he wants to have sex with the two chaperones. Yet McMurphy could have easily been granted a day pass almost anywhere else without the added caveat of bringing along 10 additional patients. He organizes the boat trip as an opportunity for his fellow patients to gain confidence and experience life outside of the ward. McMurphy would never admit it—Harding points out that McMurphy would be mortified if he knew of "the simon-pure motives people had been claiming were behind some of his dealings"—but he creates a situation in which the men are able to thrive and feel good about themselves. The fishing trip may seem to be for purely selfish reasons, but McMurphy is far more altruistic than other people think.

Why is Bromden so disappointed in McMurphy in Part 4, Chapter 1 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Bromden is the last of the men of the ward to become disillusioned with McMurphy after the fishing trip. He tells McMurphy the problem is "You're always ... winning things!" but that isn't entirely the truth. Bromden wants to believe that McMurphy is more than a man, "a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine." He is disappointed that McMurphy wants to use Bromden for something as trite as winning a bet about whether or not Bromden can lift the control panel in the tub room. That's something a regular man, not a hero, would do. Bromden has elevated McMurphy to hero status in his own mind so the real, flawed man standing before him can't help but be a disappointment.

Why does McMurphy stay in the hospital despite several opportunities for escape in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy has been known to run away from his problems, most notably when he skipped town after being charged with the rape of a minor, but he refuses to take the easy way out of the hospital. Bromden is certain that he wouldn't be caught—the police don't bother with AWOLs from the mental hospital since they generally return on their own anyway. McMurphy wants to stay because he feels responsible for the patients he has come to think of as friends. The change of character from disinterested outsider to concerned friend is first seen during Sefelt's seizure as McMurphy finally understands that many of the men have problems that run deeper than his own. His argument with Billy in the X-ray room only intensifies his desire to help. He has exactly what the other men need—confidence—and he can't bring himself to let them serve as prey for Nurse Ratched. Even after his visits to the Shock Shop and with the promise of more treatments on the way, he decides to stay because of Billy's date with Candy. For the first time in his life, he is compelled to see something through not just for himself but for those about which he cares.

Who is responsible for Billy Bibbit's death in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for putting Billy Bibbit in a compromising situation, but it is actually Nurse Ratched who should shoulder the blame for the suicide. After his night with Candy Billy is confident and sure of himself; when he is discovered by Nurse Ratched in the Seclusion Room, he doesn't stutter and introduces Candy to her. Nurse Ratched berates Billy, and when she finds that this tactic doesn't work in intimidating him she goes straight for his jugular by threatening to tell his mother what has happened. She is well aware of Billy's precarious mental state—everyone could see the burns on his hands and scars on his wrists—and she knows about the codependent relationship between mother and son. To Billy, disappointing his mother is absolutely the worst thing he could do. Though Billy ultimately takes his life on his own, Nurse Ratched is the person who pushes him over the edge.

How does Dale Harding change throughout the course of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

In the beginning, Dale Harding is an intellectual who prides himself on being the smartest person in the room. He is afraid of his sexuality and embarrassed by his stereotypically homosexual mannerisms, trapping his hands between his thighs so they can't flutter delicately while he talks. As he explains to McMurphy during the party, his illness is a combination of "Guilt. Shame. Fear. Self-belittlement." However, Harding has become much more comfortable with himself by the end of the book. This shift in personality occurs during the fishing trip when Harding realizes that "being crazy" is actually a source of power. Later, as he details the plans for McMurphy's escape after McMurphy's return from the Shock Shop, "[h]e spoke in an earnest and urgent voice, and his hands shaped what he said." The hands that he had stilled for so long were now acceptable, even helping his cause. After Billy's death he exhibits a confidence reminiscent of McMurphy. He tells Nurse Ratched, to her face, that she's "full of so much bullshit," which is something he never would have dreamed of doing at the beginning of the story.

How are mothers presented in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Mothers are the cause of strife and grief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and it's no coincidence that the public relations man compares Nurse Ratched to a mother. The mothers Ken Kesey writes about are domineering women who control the men in their lives. Mrs. Bibbit, for example, refuses to let her son grow up, admonishing him, "Sweetheart, do I look like the mother of a middle-aged man?" when Billy points out that he's 31. Just the thought of disappointing her pushes him to kill himself. Though she seems kind she controls and infantilizes her adult son. Mrs. Bromden had nothing but disdain for her husband and his people's way of life. She wonders why on earth "a good Christian woman takes on a name like Tee Ah Millatoona," which prompts her husband to take her last name, further associating himself with the white people in the nearby town. The government representatives realize Mrs. Bromden's power over her husband and appeal to her, not him, to accept the buyout of the reservation. Bromden recalls, "My mother made him too little to fight any more and he gave up." As a result Bromden's father retreats into himself, becomes scared of everything, and drinks himself to death. Nurse Ratched's role as mother is much the same as Mrs. Bibbit's and Mrs. Bromden's. She infantilizes the men on the ward, treating them like naughty children who need to earn her affection. She runs the ward like a no-nonsense household and treats Dr. Spivey like an ineffective husband. She, like Mrs. Bromden, calls the shots in her relationships with men, an attribute that Kesey equates with villainy. From Kesey's point of view, it is the men, not the women, who should be in charge. Even the toughest of men are crushed when women, particularly mothers, take the lead.

Which character or characters emerge victorious from the conflict in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

McMurphy and Nurse Ratched battle throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest yet neither of them can actually be declared the winner of this conflict. McMurphy's lobotomy makes him a shell of his former self, depriving him of any pleasure he might experience from Nurse Ratched's newly acquired nervousness and fear. Maintaining power, not crushing the enemy, was the true objective of their game, and in this sense they both lose. Yet there are winners in Ken Kesey's story. The most apparent is Bromden, who breaks free of his mental fog and the hospital after liberating McMurphy from his vegetable state. Bromden and many of the other Acutes, including Harding, Sefelt, and Frederickson, emerge from the wreckage of battle stronger than ever. Nurse Ratched's defeat gives several of the Acutes confidence to leave the hospital; McMurphy's demise pushes Bromden to start his life anew.

How do Bromden's father and McMurphy compare and contrast in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Bromden often makes comparisons between his father, Tee Ah Millatoona, and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Though the two men are from wildly different backgrounds—one is a con artist, the other the chief of the Columbia Gorge Indian tribe—they share several similarities. McMurphy reminds Bromden of his father when he first enters the ward. Bromden says, "He talks a little the way Papa used to, voice loud and full of hell." Both at one point were full of life and vigor, but it has been worn away by the Combine. Bromden tells McMurphy, "The Combine had whipped him. It beats everybody. It'll beat you too." And in the end it does.

What are the pitfalls of hero worship as depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Despite his reputation as a gambler and a con artist, McMurphy is the hero figure of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nurse Ratched's patients are so enamored with the changes he's made in the ward that they overlook his shortcomings. Their false hope and the placement of faith in a flawed man hurt them all in the end. Bromden, for example, becomes disillusioned when he realizes that McMurphy isn't the extraordinary god figure he believed him to be. Cheswick, fearing that things will go back to the way they were before McMurphy's arrival, drowns himself after McMurphy decides to forego his feud with Nurse Ratched. Billy, one of his most ardent supporters, allows McMurphy to talk him into throwing a party for the ward and sleeping with Candy. Billy thinks McMurphy is invincible. He never considers what would happen if they are caught, the repercussions of which lead to him taking his own life.

How are people of color depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

People of color are not depicted favorably in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Most of the main characters in the novel are white—Bromden is half-white—but several of the supporting characters are of different ethnicities. The most notable group is the aides. They are all African American, and Bromden often comments on their "blackness." Warren, Williams, and Washington, all given extremely similar names and nearly exact likenesses, are portrayed as gossipy, two-faced, and full of hate. They are eager to see the patients suffer. Mr. Turkle, another African American aide in the ward, is shown as a lazy, unreliable marijuana smoker who can be bought off with the promise of alcohol and women. Other minorities are treated almost as poorly. The kind nurse in the Disturbed ward is only referred to as the "little Jap nurse." Bromden never refers to her by her actual name, which diminishes her to little more than a stereotype. Though they are humanized more than the other minorities in the book, even the Native Americans to whom the narrator is related are given short shrift. Bromden's father, Tee Ah Millatoona, is portrayed as a once-great man who has succumbed to the temptations of alcohol, a negative Native American stereotype. Ken Kesey's use of stereotypes for most of the minorities portrayed in the book is a sharp contrast to his depiction of Bromden. Kesey painstakingly shows the struggles his main character faces because of his heritage, and spends a lot of time reflecting on the mental and emotional effects of being perceived as "less of a person" than Americans with European roots. This dichotomy between Bromden and the rest of the minorities in the book is purposeful. Kesey wants readers to recognize their own biases and gain a deeper understanding of just how harmful they can be.

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