One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Plot Summary

Chief Bromden, the son of a Native-American chief and a white woman, is the novel’s narrator. Also called Chief Broom because he spends his days sweeping the floor, Bromden stands over six and a half feet tall, but because of the belittling effects of his time in the psychiatric hospital where the novel is set, he believes himself to be much smaller. He is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been hospitalized for more than a decade—longer, he tells us, than anyone else presently on the ward. In order to escape notice as much as possible, Chief pretends to be deaf and mute. Because of the approximately 200 electroshock treatments he has been administered, Chief’s ruse is entirely convincing. However, Chief’s mind is in fact extremely active, observant and intelligent, and the paranoid delusions he relates throughout the novel have an almost magically insightful quality, for they all contain the seeds of truth. Chief’s unique perception of the world helps to convey the machine-like and oppressive qualities of the 1950s men’s psychiatric ward in which the novel takes place.

The novel begins in the morning of a typical day on the ward. We quickly get a sense of the cruel and oppressive nature of the staff as Chief awakens with the paranoid sense that the orderlies are trying to “mop up” their indiscretions of the night before. They mock Chief, thinking he can’t hear them, and put him to work mopping. Nurse Ratched, a former Army nurse, soon arrives and it is clear that she runs the ward with an iron fist. Chief describes her as a cold, calculating, and precisely functioning machine. She is the perfect embodiment of what Chief refers to as The Combine, the oppressive, mechanized force of society at large whose function is to churn out docile, obedient creatures. Chief perceives the hospital as a factory operating within The Combine, where individuals who resist their destiny as cogs in the machine are sent to be “fixed.”

Patients on the ward are divided into two categories. The Acutes are men who can still...

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