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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 2, Chapter 7 | Summary



The patients are sent to Building One to get chest X-rays across the hall from the Shock Shop. As they wait, Harding explains electroshock therapy to McMurphy, comparing it to the electric chair. McMurphy is freaked out but relaxes when the conversation turns to Nurse Ratched. Though Harding and the rest of the Acutes think she's the problem in the hospital, McMurphy is starting to suspect that there's something "bigger making all this mess." He can't put it in words, but he is beginning to understand Bromden's theory about the Combine. The other Acutes argue with him, and he blames them for "passing the buck" to him. All it has done is bring him trouble. "You got to swallow your pride sometimes and keep an eye out for old Number One," he tells them.

McMurphy turns on Harding, accusing him of purposefully not explaining what it means to be committed. That's when he learns that most of the men on the ward are there voluntarily—they can leave anytime they want. He can't comprehend why any of them stay, saying, "You could get along outside if you had the guts," which results in a hysterical Billy Bibbit storming off down the hall.


McMurphy didn't fully understand what he was getting himself into when was taken to the mental hospital. He thought he was conning the authorities into giving him an easier sentence, but he now realizes that he is the one who was conned. McMurphy has been stripped of his freedom and locked in a facility full of torturous devices. In prison, going to the electric chair effectively ends a person's misery. In the hospital, electroshock therapy is only a beginning. Though Harding points out that electroshock therapy and lobotomy aren't as popular as they used to be, Nurse Ratched still uses them as punishment, and McMurphy knows that he's the first in line. He has seen the effects of these therapies in the other men, and he fears turning into one of them.

Though fear is what makes McMurphy want to leave the hospital, it is what keeps the other men there. The outside is scary, full of people who will laugh at them and call them names for being different or unmanly. The only place they feel safe is in Nurse Ratched's smoothly run ward, where they can relax in the comfort of familiarity and routine. It doesn't matter that Nurse Ratched's therapies chip away at her patients' already diminished self-esteem—they hated themselves long before they arrived at the hospital. There is very little chance any of them will feel confident enough to leave on their own.

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