One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Study Guide

Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Part 1, Chapter 3 | Summary



As McMurphy makes his rounds, Bromden describes the types of patients in the ward. The Acutes, mostly younger men, still have a chance at being cured through what Bromden calls "reconditioning." The fates of the Chronics, however, are sealed. The Chronics—made up of Walkers (upright men), Wheelers (men confined to wheelchairs), and Vegetables (comatose men)—will never be released from the hospital. Many were once Acutes whom "the staff made a couple of mistakes on a few years back." Some had too many trips to the Shock Shop (the room where electroshock therapy is administered). Others, like Ruckly, had "head installations" (lobotomies) that went wrong.

McMurphy makes a beeline for the Acutes and announces that he's going to take over the group. He and Harding, the president of the Patients' Council, have a verbal showdown, each trying to prove that he is the craziest. When McMurphy vows to vote for Eisenhower a third time in the upcoming presidential election, Harding concedes.

McMurphy crosses the ward to introduce himself to the Chronics, and Bromden is convinced that McMurphy can see right through his deaf and dumb act. Nurse Ratched interrupts to tell McMurphy that he does indeed have to take a shower. They size each other up, and Bromden is certain that McMurphy can see through Nurse Ratched, just like he sees through everyone else.


Fear is the key to personal isolation on Nurse Ratched's ward. The Acutes don't dare cross into the Chronics' side of the room—just looking at the mostly mute, immobile Chronics reminds the Acutes of what their own futures may hold. Nurse Ratched takes advantage of that, whispering threats of what will happen to sulky Acutes who don't fall in line. She further divides the Acutes by encouraging them to snitch on one another in the log book. She goes to great lengths to ensure that each man remains fearful of his fellow patients.

McMurphy's entrance changes Nurse Ratched's carefully constructed dynamic. He is friendly to all, treating even the Vegetables as normal human beings. Ellis, the man Bromden describes as being nailed to the wall as if he were on a cross, is brought out of his stupor by McMurphy's charm; it takes only a few kind words to snap his brain back to attention. McMurphy, who has been on the ward for only a few minutes, has had more success with Ellis than Nurse Ratched has had with him over the course of several years.

Chapter 3 also introduces Bromden's comparison of humans to machines. Some machines, like the Acutes, are simply in need of an overhaul. Others, like the Chronics, are machines that can't be repaired. The surgeons who perform the "installations" (which are actually lobotomies, or procedures in which part of the brain is removed) are referred to as "technicians," as if they work in an automotive shop. Bromden believes that men who have been ruined by their installations, like Ruckly, are actually better off than those who are made docile by the procedure and subsequently released. It is better to be oneself, no matter how crazy, than to be a robot.

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