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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 | Plot Summary

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is narrated by Bromden, a schizophrenic Native American man who pretends he is deaf and dumb. Bromden, who stands well over six feet tall, has lived in an Oregon psychiatric hospital for at least a decade. He and the rest of the men in the ward are terrified of Nurse Ratched, the head nurse, who rules with a fixed smile and an iron fist.

Bromden is considered a Chronic, or a patient who has no hope of recovery. Patients who do have a chance of recovery are called Acutes. Bromden has hallucinations; he both fears and finds comfort in the cold, white fog that he sees pumped through the ward by unseen machines. These machines, which he believes are run by Nurse Ratched, keep the ward running smoothly. This order is interrupted by the arrival of a new patient named Randle Patrick McMurphy. A swaggering gambler with a quick wit and a silver tongue, McMurphy immediately establishes himself as the leader of the ward. The Acutes and Bromden quickly fall under his spell.

Nurse Ratched is not fooled by McMurphy's charm and recognizes him as a manipulator who will use others to get exactly what he wants. She is confident that he, like the other patients, will adjust to life in the hospital and obey the rules. In turn, McMurphy bets the other Acutes that he can "break" the Big Nurse (as Nurse Ratched is called) within a week. However, McMurphy fails to realize exactly how much power she has over his future.

McMurphy abruptly decides that his war with Nurse Ratched is not worth it. He retreats into himself, refusing to back up the newly energized Acutes as they rally for better treatment. Yet the more McMurphy observes, the more distressed he becomes about the situations faced by his fellow patients. He finally cracks and punches through a window after Nurse Ratched deliberately emasculates an already ill man.

The battle begins anew. McMurphy leads the men in a series of confidence-building activities, which culminates in a sanctioned deep-sea fishing trip that leaves everyone except McMurphy bubbling with life. The bonds forged during the trip result in a shower-room brawl between McMurphy, Bromden, and two staff members. As punishment, Bromden and McMurphy are given electroshock therapy treatments. Upon his return to the ward, McMurphy is encouraged to escape, but he rejects the idea in favor of hanging around one more night for an illicit party.

The party, though enormously fun, ends in disaster. The ward is trashed, prostitutes are discovered in the arms of the men, and McMurphy sleeps through his proposed escape. Nurse Ratched berates a patient and sends him into the doctor's office, where he commits suicide. McMurphy violently and sexually attacks the Big Nurse as the patients and staff members watch.

McMurphy disappears from the ward for a few weeks, as does Nurse Ratched. She returns bruised, battered, and unable to speak. McMurphy is in worse shape, having undergone a lobotomy. Bromden, trying to figure out what his hero would do, suffocates McMurphy with a pillow before escaping from the hospital.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 McMurphy is admitted to Nurse Ratched's ward.

Rising Action

2 Bromden has a nightmare about Blastic's death.

3 Cheswick drowns in the pool.

4 McMurphy tries to break a window after the therapy meeting.

5 The men stage a protest in front of the blank TV.

6 McMurphy and Bromden receive shock treatments.

7 The Acutes stage a 2:00 a.m. party in the ward.

8 Billy commits suicide in Dr. Spivey's office.


9 McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched while everyone watches.

Falling Action

10 McMurphy is lobotomized and returned to the ward.

11 Bromden smothers McMurphy with a pillow.


12 Bromden smashes a window and escapes from the hospital.

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