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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 8 | Summary



Bromden wakes to the sound of McMurphy singing loudly in the bathroom. He surmises that the Combine hasn't put its controls into McMurphy yet, because "a moving target is hard to hit."

Clad only in a towel, McMurphy hassles the smallest aide, Williams, for some toothpaste, and Williams reports him as soon as Nurse Ratched comes on duty. She turns into a raging machine, complete with the smell of "hot oil and magneto spark" (a reference to how spark plugs work in an engine); however, Nurse Ratched shrinks into her normal form when confronted by McMurphy in his towel. Momentarily flustered, she gets him a hospital-issued uniform. McMurphy, holding his toothbrush in one hand and the towel in the other, considers how to accept the new outfit, then slings his towel over Nurse Ratched's shoulder, revealing black satin undershorts decorated with white whales.

The Big Nurse tries to contain her fury as she greets the rest of the patients. Bromden, sweeping underneath McMurphy's bed, realizes that McMurphy smells "of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work." In all of his years in the hospital, Bromden hasn't smelled anything like it before.


McMurphy's machismo is on full display in this chapter. In previous chapters he boasts about his virility, but Nurse Ratched is forced to face it head-on as he stands shirtless in the middle of the ward. She becomes momentarily powerless in his presence; McMurphy's naked masculinity shuts down Nurse Ratched's ability to rule.

Even Bromden is aware of McMurphy's manliness. McMurphy doesn't smell like anyone else in the ward, and McMurphy's scent—sweat, dirt, and dust—are all associated with rough, outdoorsy jobs and pastimes. McMurphy is the only patient on the ward who smells like a man.

McMurphy's manhood is further asserted through his choice of undergarments. The boxer shorts underneath his towel are symbolic of his manhood and his adversarial relationship with Nurse Ratched, as well as his ability to avoid regulation hospital garb. The print of the white whale most likely refers to the literary classic Moby Dick. That story's protagonist, Captain Ahab, is unable to defeat the mighty white whale. The kitschy boxer shorts foreshadow the battles to come between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.

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