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Plot summary of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NESTA half-Indian named Chief Bromden begins telling us of his experiences in an Oregon mental hospital. His disturbed mind teems with machine-obsessed hallucinations, yet these hallucinations reveal a deeper truth: far from being a place of healing, the hospital is a place of fear. Head of his ward is Nurse Ratched, a woman of great self-control, who, in the Chief’s view, is the most powerful of the hospital’s mechanical instruments. Only her large breasts betray the fact that she is a human being, and these she hides beneath her uniform. The Chief has convinced everyone that he is deaf and dumb; he tries to flee reality by thinking back to his happy childhood in an Indian village. But his dread of a sinister force called the Combine shatters his memories, and in moments of greatest stress a thick fog entirely clouds his mind. A new patient is admitted: Randall Patrick McMurphy, a loud, red-headed braggart claiming to be in the hospital only to enjoy an easier life than he had at a state work farm. He doesn’t seem crazy: with his tales of fighting, gambling, and love-making, he brings laughter into the ward for the first time in years. Immediately he tries to make friends with the other patients, among them shy, stuttering Billy Bibbit, and Dale Harding, an intelligent man ashamed of his effeminacy. The Nurse and her new patient are in every way opposed to each other, she demanding control, he reveling in freedom. Inevitably, as the Nurse asserts her power, McMurphy rebels against it, not yet realizing rebellion may be dangerous. Nurse Ratched has defeated past troublemakers with electroshock therapy, or with lobotomies. At the daily Group Meeting, McMurphy is appalled at the way Nurse Ratched destroys her patients’ self-confidence, in particular their sexual self-confidence- especially devastating because he believes freely expressed sexuality is a key to a healthy life. He bets Harding and the others that he can make the Nurse lose control of the ward without giving her an excuse to punish him. McMurphy’s often funny skirmishes with the Nurse and her staff entertain the patients; increasingly, he reminds the Chief of his father, a full-blooded Indian Chief who also used laughter to fight his enemies. But when McMurphy proposes that the patients be allowed to watch the World Series on television, only one, Cheswick, sides with him. Disgusted at this timidity, McMurphy demonstrates how he might escape by tossing a control panel through a window. He fails, but his nerve inspires the group to vote with him at the next meeting. Needing one more vote, he approaches the Chief, who, fearful of the freedom McMurphy offers, is cowering in a mental fog so thick it threatens to engulf him forever. McMurphy’s force of personality pulls the Chief out of his illness. While the Nurse sill refuses to let them watch the Series, McMurphy wins a point by making her lose control of her temper. Soon, however, McMurphy learns a painful truth: he will not leave the hospital until Nurse Ratched agrees to release him. Nervously, he begins to obey her rules. But by raising hopes he hasn’t fulfilled, McMurphy has left the patients worse off than before. Cheswick becomes so depressed he drowns himself. McMurphy’s sense of entrapment grows when he learns that, unlike himself, most of the other patients have voluntarily committed themselves to the hospital. Determined to destroy the fear that’s been hammered into them and in him, he smashes the Nurse’s Station window, a symbol of Nurse Ratched’s control.

Basking in the glory of another victory, McMurphy arranges a fishing trip for the ward. Long suspecting the Chief can talk and hear, McMurphy speaks to him, and the Chief breaks years of silence to answer. He describes the Combine: people like Nurse Ratched, the government, his own mother, who destroy tradition, nature, and freedom in favor of machinelike conformity. As it did to his father, the Combine has made the Chief “small”- for in his mind psychological defeat creates physical diminution. McMurphy strikes a deal: if the Chief promises to grow large enough to lift the control panel McMurphy could not, McMurphy will let him go on the fishing trip for free. Out on the ocean, far from the influence of Nurse Ratched, the patients prove they are more capable, more sane than they ever suspected. McMurphy arranges a date between Billy Bibbit and a prostitute, Candy Starr. But on the drive home, the Chief notices that the hospital has worn McMurphy down just as the patients he helped are growing stronger. Nurse Ratched now turns McMurphy’s skill as a gambler against him, convincing the ward’s patients he came not to help them but to win their money. McMurphy realizes he must act like the hero the patients require. When an aide abuses one of the patients, George Sorenson, in the shower, McMurphy feels forced to go to George’s defense. The Chief joins the fight, and he and McMurphy are sent for electroshock treatments. As McMurphy is strapped to the treatment table, a parallel is drawn between him and Christ: both have sacrificed themselves for others. During the Chief’s treatment, he remembers the forces that brought him to the hospital: World War II, his mother’s disrespect for his father, the destruction of his Indian village for a government dam. He remembers the childhood rhyme that gives the book its name and that hints at possible freedom. McMurphy has made him strong enough to withstand the shock treatments: the Chief will never again hide in the fog. On McMurphy’s return, the patients plan his escape, but he insists on waiting until Billy Bibbit has his date with Candy. Billy, prevented from growing up by a domineering mother, will become a man by losing his virginity. When Candy and another prostitute, Sandy, arrive, the ward erupts in a wild party. McMurphy has suffered too much damage during his stay in the hospital, and he’s too weary to attempt to escape when the Nurse arrives in the morning. Billy is discovered with Candy, and Nurse Ratched plays on his guilt feelings until he is once again a stuttering, helpless child. Ashamed, Billy commits suicide by slitting his throat. The Chief realizes that in the last weeks McMurphy’s sole reason for living has been the other patients’ needs for him. Now McMurphy makes his last stand, attacking Nurse Ratched. After this humiliation, she will never again regain control of the ward: her face has shown too much fear, her ripped uniform revealed the breasts that prove she isn’t an all-powerful machine but a woman. McMurphy will never know his victory, though. His example has given the patients enough courage to brave the outside world, but he returns from a lobotomy a ruined man. The Chief will not let his friend remain in this pathetic condition, and he smothers him with a pillow. Then he goes to the control panel, which, thanks to McMurphy, he is now “big” enough to lift, hurls it through a window and escapes.


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