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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 | Part 1, Chapter 6 | Summary



Bromden tells a brief story about Santa Claus visiting the hospital. He then describes how time seems to fluctuate on the ward. According to Bromden, Nurse Ratched controls the clock, which runs agonizingly slow most of the time. Bromden finds relief only in the fog, in which time means nothing.

While playing blackjack, McMurphy becomes irritated by the loud music coming from the overhead speakers in the day room. He spends the rest of the evening teaching the Acutes the ins and outs of being a con man. The key, he says, is to know what the mark wants and to make him think he's getting it. They finish playing cards at nine-thirty at night, with McMurphy losing the last few hands on purpose so all of the men get their money back. They all know he threw the game, but they are still elated.

In the dormitory, McMurphy cautions Bromden that the night aide is coming, and Bromden scurries to bed. McMurphy laughs. Bromden's reaction to his warning proves that Bromden isn't actually deaf.


Bromden's story about Santa Claus illustrates the futility of trying to escape the hospital's walls. Even if a patient is only passing through, he is forced to stay until he has become a shell of his former self. In Santa Claus's case, that means leaving six years later, "clean-shaven and skinny as a pole." Once a patient is inside the machine, his fate is sealed.

Nurse Ratched's control of time has been slipping since McMurphy stepped into the ward. Time passes normally, and the fog that usually plagues Bromden isn't nearly as heavy. McMurphy's mere presence is changing Bromden's mental state for the better.

McMurphy's presence is also changing the tenor of social interaction on the ward. Nurse Ratched, who emasculates the men in her care, also infantilizes them. "Good evening, boys. Behave yourselves," she says before she clocks out. She is speaking to adult men yet treats them like children to maintain her control. McMurphy, however, gains power in the ward by treating the men as equals. They are so starved for positive reinforcement that even an obviously fixed game of blackjack does wonders for their moods.

Nonetheless, the reader should not confuse McMurphy's motives with altruism. Throughout the book, he plainly points out that he is a gambler, and one of the reasons he wanted to come to the hospital was to find a new crowd to hustle. He is simply following the rules of the con: "Know what the mark wants, and how to make him think he's getting it." The men on Nurse Ratched's ward want to feel like normal men with a small amount of control over their own lives. McMurphy is able to give them just that while receiving even more in return—money, respect, and admiration.

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