One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary & Study Guide Description

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic novel by award winning author Ken Kesey. In this novel, R. P. McMurphy has himself committed to a mental hospital from a work camp because he thinks the stay will be easier. However, McMurphy quickly discovers that life in the mental hospital is not what he thought it was. At first, McMurphy tries to behave so that the head nurse will not extend his stay, but he soon realizes that most of the patients are there voluntarily. This makes him want to help them come out of their shells. To this purpose, McMurphy fights for the rights of the patients. He takes them on a fishing trip. Then, one night, McMurphy invites a couple of girls for a night of partying. The fallout destroys his future. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is at times funny, at others dramatically sad, but always an insightful look into the world of mental institutions.

Chief Bromden is a patient at a mental hospital. Chief has been at the hospital for so long that he has been there longer than most of the patients and all the staff with the exception of the head nurse on his ward. Therefore, when R.P. McMurphy arrives on his ward, Chief has no reason to think anything will change. McMurphy proves him wrong from the first moments.

McMurphy is a petty criminal who decided that a mental hospital would be easier than a work camp, so he pretended to be psychotic so that he would be committed. McMurphy marches onto the ward and begins to assert himself, announcing to the patients that he plans to become the top dog and refusing to let the staff do the routine admission shower. This immediately puts the head nurse on the alert. The other patients try to warn McMurphy that he should not irritate the nurse because she can have an impact on his stay, but he does not believe them. Instead, McMurphy bets the other patients that he can get the better of her within a week. McMurphy wins the bet when he encourages a rebellion among the patients for their inability to watch the World Series.

One day while swimming in the therapy pool with the other patients, McMurphy speaks to the lifeguard, who is also a patient. The lifeguard tells McMurphy that the head nurse can have his commitment extended if she feels he is not ready to rejoin society. This makes McMurphy rethink his actions, and he begins acting politely to everyone, including the head nurse.

For several weeks McMurphy acts properly, irritating some of the patients who had come to look up to him. One even dies during this period. Then McMurphy learns that most of the patients on his ward are there voluntarily. This changes McMurphy’s behavior. He suddenly begins to stand up to the nurse again, breaking the glass in her nurse’s station on multiple occasions. McMurphy also gets permission during this time to take a group of nine other patients on a fishing trip. McMurphy even manages to convince Chief to go with them.

The fishing trip is a wild success, and it introduces the patients to a young prostitute McMurphy had escort them. This gives McMurphy the idea to help this young patient experience intimacy for the first time. McMurphy arranges for the girl to sneak into the ward in the middle of the night for the visit. Before this happens, McMurphy and Chief get into a fight with some of the aids and are moved to another ward where they are given electroshock therapy. McMurphy stands up to this stoically and is soon returned to the ward in time for the girl’s visit.

The girl arrives in the middle of the night with a friend. They bring alcohol with them. The men break into the medicine room to add cough syrup to their drinks. Soon they are all very drunk. One of the patients suggests that McMurphy leave with the girls before the head nurse comes on duty because they know she will blame him for what has happened. McMurphy agrees, but he oversleeps. Soon after the head nurse arrives, one of the other patients commits suicide. When the head nurse blames this on McMurphy, he attacks her.

McMurphy returns to the ward weeks later after having had a lobotomy. Chief can see that McMurphy is no longer himself and that he would not want to live this way. Chief kills McMurphy with suffocation. Then, he escapes the ward by breaking a window in the tub room. Chief goes home to the area where he grew up. Most of the other patients have also left the hospital.

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