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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 4, Chapter 4 | Summary



News of the party spreads fast, and Nurse Ratched is on the warpath. Harding encourages McMurphy to escape with Mr. Turkle and Sandy, but McMurphy claims he's too drunk and tired to move. Billy and Candy are found in the Seclusion Room, and Billy becomes hysterical as Nurse Ratched vows to tell his mother everything. She sends him to wait for Dr. Spivey in the doctor's empty office, but Billy has other plans. He finds a medical instrument in Dr. Spivey's desk and slits his own throat.

Nurse Ratched tells McMurphy he is to blame for Billy's death. Moments later, McMurphy breaks through the glass door of the nurses' station, rips Nurse Ratched's uniform down the front, and strangles her in front of the patients and staff. Hospital supervisors and doctors eventually wrestle McMurphy to the ground. Both he and Nurse Ratched are removed from the ward.

Nurse Ratched returns after a week, bruised and unable to speak. Bromden points out, "She couldn't rule with her old power anymore, not by writing things on pieces of paper." McMurphy returns to the ward two weeks later looking like a completely different man. The sign on his gurney indicates he has had a lobotomy.

Bromden knows that the real McMurphy would detest being left to sit as a Vegetable in the day room for the next 30 years as an example of Nurse Ratched's power. After lights out, he smothers McMurphy with a pillow. Then he goes into the tub room, picks up the 400-pound control panel, and throws it through the window so he can make his escape. He's going home, he says, because he's "been away a long time."


The final battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy shows them pitting their strengths against one another. Sexless Nurse Ratched shames Billy for engaging in carnal activities with "this sort of woman," and his rapid emasculation reestablishes "her fantastic mechanical power" over the men in the ward.

While Nurse Ratched views sex as a sin, McMurphy uses it as a weapon. Kesey doesn't explicitly say whether McMurphy rapes Nurse Ratched in the dayroom, but some literary critics think it can be inferred from his need for revenge and his conviction that only sex can tame a woman. Other critics say that McMurphy's attack is a figurative, not literal, rape of the Big Nurse. In either case, its violently sexual nature exposes Nurse Ratched's only weakness: her femininity.

Nurse Ratched's retaliation, in turn, completely divests McMurphy of his masculinity. He seems small on the gurney, and his eyes look vacant. This is not the same man who swaggered into the ward 12 weeks ago—this is a robot designed for carrying out the Combine's orders. It's no wonder that Bromden feels he has to kill him.

Bromden leaves the hospital a new man. He no longer fears the Combine; he no longer fears what others think. His new persona has more than a touch of McMurphy, but he will never become the man he so admired. He will be even better. He has, after all, already "outgrown" McMurphy's beloved motorcycle cap.

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