Tuesday, March 1, 2011

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest 1

Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
—Kansas City Star
Tired of weeding peas at a penal farm, the tough, freewheeling McMurphy feigns insanity for a
chance at the softer life of a mental institution. But he gets more than he’s bargained for, much
more. He is committed to the care of Big Nurse—a full-breasted, stiff-gaited tyrant who rules over
her charges with chilling authority.
Her ward is a citadel of discipline. Strong-arm orderlies stand ready to quell even the feeblest insurrection. Her
patients long ago gave up the struggle to assert themselves. Cowed, docile, they have surrendered completely to her
unbridled authority.
Now, into their ranks charges McMurphy. The gambling Irishman sees at once what Big Nurse’s
game is. Appalled by the timidity of his fellow patients, he begins his one man campaign to render
her powerless. First in fun, and then in dire earnestness, he sets out to create havoc on her well-run
ward ... to make the gray halls ring with laughter, and anger, and life.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To Vik Lovell
who told me dragons did not exist,
then led me to their lairs
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
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Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
... one flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
—Children’s folk rhyme
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
part 1
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
They’re out there.
Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up
before I can catch them.
They’re mopping when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulky and hating everything, the
time of day, the place they’re at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this,
better if they don’t see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got
special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out
of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.
“Here’s the Chief. The soo-pah Chief, fellas. Ol’ Chief Broom. Here you go, Chief Broom. ...”
Stick a mop in my hand and motion to the spot they aim for me to clean today, and I go. One
swats the backs of my legs with a broom handle to hurry me past.
“Haw, you look at ‘im shag it? Big enough to eat apples off my head an’ he mine me like a baby.”
[10] They laugh and then I hear them mumbling behind me, heads close together. Hum of black
machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets. They don’t bother not talking out
loud about their hate secrets when I’m nearby because they think I’m deaf and dumb. Everybody
thinks so. I’m cagey enough to fool them that much. If my being half Indian ever helped me in any
way in this dirty life, it helped me being cagey, helped me all these years.
I’m mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it’s the Big
Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks
so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her
fingers trail across the polished steel—tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange.
Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell
She’s carrying her woven wicker bag like the ones the Umpqua tribe sells out along the hot
August highway, a bag shape of a tool box with a hemp handle. She’s had it all the years I been here.
It’s a loose weave and I can see inside it; there’s no compact or lipstick or woman stuff, she’s got
that bag full of thousand parts she aims to use in her duties today—wheels and gears, cogs polished
to a hard glitter, tiny pills that gleam like porcelain, needles, forceps, watchmakers’ pliers, rolls of
copper wire …
She dips a nod at me as she goes past. I let the mop push me back to the wall and smile and try
to foul her equipment’ up as much as possible by not letting her see my eyes—they can’t tell so
much about you if you got your eyes closed.
In my dark I hear her rubber heels hit the tile and the stuff in her wicker bag clash with the jar of
her walking as she passes me in the hall. She walks stiff. When I open my eyes she’s down the hall
about to turn into the glass Nurses’ Station where she’ll spend the day sitting at her desk and looking
out her window and making notes on what goes on out in front of her in the day room during the
next eight hours. Her face looks pleased and peaceful with the thought.
Then … she sights those black boys. They’re still down there together, mumbling to one another.
They didn’t hear her come on the ward. They sense she’s glaring down at them now, but it’s too late.
They should of knew better’n to group up and mumble together when she was due on the ward.
Their faces bob apart, confused. She goes into a crouch and advances on where they’re trapped in a
huddle at the end of the corridor. [11] She knows what they been saying, and I can see she’s furious
clean out of control. She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious. She’s
swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out
long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. She looks around her with a swivel of
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian back there hiding
behind his mop and can’t talk to call for help. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile
twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can
smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load. I hold my breath and
figure, My God this time they’re gonna do it! This time they let the hate build up too high and
overloaded and they’re gonna tear one another to pieces before they realize what they’re doing!
But just as she starts crooking those sectioned arms around the black boys and they go to ripping
at her underside with the mop handles, all the patients start coming out of the dorms to check on
what’s the hullabaloo, and she has to change back before she’s caught in the shape of her hideous
real self. By the time the patients get their eyes rubbed to where they can halfway see what the
racket’s about, all they see is the head nurse, smiling and calm and cold as usual, telling the black
boys they’d best not stand in a group gossiping when it is Monday morning and there is such a lot to
get done on the first morning of the week. ...
“... mean old Monday morning, you know, boys ...”
“Yeah, Miz Ratched ...
“... and we have quite a number of appointments this morning, so perhaps, if your standing here
in a group talking isn’t too urgent ...”
“Yeah, Miz Ratched ...”
She stops and nods at some of the patients come to stand around and stare out of eyes all red
and puffy with sleep. She nods once to each. Precise, automatic gesture. Her face is smooth,
calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of
white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils—everything working together
except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made
somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would of otherwise been a
perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.
The men are still standing and waiting to see what she was [12] onto the black boys about, so she
remembers seeing me and says, “And since it is Monday, boys, why don’t we get a good head start
on the week by shaving poor Mr. Bromden first this morning, before the after-breakfast rush on the
shaving room, and see if we can’t avoid some of the—ah—disturbance he tends to cause, don’t you
Before anybody can turn to look for me I duck back in the mop closet, jerk the door shut dark
after me, hold my breath. Shaving before you get breakfast is the worst time. When you got
something under your belt you’re stronger and more wide awake, and the bastards who work for the
Combine aren’t so apt to slip one of their machines in on you in place of an electric shaver. But
when you shave before breakfast like she has me do some mornings—six-thirty in the morning in a
room all white walls and white basins, and long-tube-lights in the ceiling making sure there aren’t
any shadows, and faces all round you trapped screaming behind the mirrors—then what chance you
got against one of their machines?
I hide in the mop closet and listen, my heart beating in the dark, and I try to keep from getting
scared, try to get my thoughts off someplace else—try to think back and remember things about the
village and the big Columbia River, think about ah one time Papa and me were hunting birds in a
stand of cedar trees near The Dalles. ... But like always when I try to place my thoughts in the past
and hide there, the fear close at hand seeps in through the memory. I can feel that least black boy
out there coming up the hall, smelling out for my fear. He opens out his nostrils like black funnels,
his outsized head bobbing this way and that as he sniffs, and he sucks in fear from all over the ward.
He’s smelling me now, I can hear him snort. He don’t know where I’m hid, but he’s smelling and
he’s hunting around. I try to keep still. …
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
(Papa tells me to keep still, tells me that the dog senses a bird somewheres right close. We
borrowed a pointer dog from a man in The Dalles. All the village dogs are no-‘count mongrels, Papa
says, fish-gut eaters and no class a-tall; this here dog, he got insteek! I don’t say anything, but I already
see the bird up in a scrub cedar, hunched in a gray knot of feathers. Dog running in circles
underneath, too much smell around for him to point for sure. The bird safe as long as he keeps still.
He’s holding out pretty good, but the dog keeps sniffing and circling, louder and closer. Then the
bird breaks, feathers springing, jumps out of the cedar into the birdshot from Papa’s gun.)
The least black boy and one of the bigger ones catch me [13] before I get ten steps out of the
mop closet, and drag me back to the shaving room. I don’t fight or make any noise. If you yell it’s
just tougher on you. I hold back the yelling. I hold back till they get to my temples. I’m not sure it’s
one of those substitute machines and not a shaver till it gets to my temples; then I can’t hold back.
It’s not a will-power thing any more when they get to my temples. It’s a … button, pushed, says Air
Raid Air Raid, turns me on so loud it’s like no sound, everybody yelling at me, hands over their ears
from behind a glass wall, faces working around in talk circles but no sound from the mouths. My
sound soaks up all other sound. They start the fog machine again and it’s snowing down cold and
white all over me like skim milk, so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn’t have a hold
on me. I can’t see six inches in front of me through the fog and the only thing I can hear over the
wail I’m making is the Big Nurse whoop and charge up the hall while she crashes patients outta her
way with that wicker bag. I hear her coming but I still can’t hush my hollering. I holler till she gets
there. They hold me down while she jams wicker bag and all into my mouth and shoves it down
with a mop handle.
(A bluetick hound bays out there in the fog, running scared and lost because he can’t see. No
tracks on the ground but the ones he’s making, and he sniffs in every direction with his cold redrubber
nose and picks up no scent but his own fear, fear burning down into him like steam.) It’s
gonna burn me just that way, finally telling about all this, about the hospital, and her, and the guys—
and about McMurphy. I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you
think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really
happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind
thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
When the fog clears to where I can see, I’m sitting in the day room. They didn’t take me to the
Shock Shop this time. I remember they took me out of the shaving room and locked me in
Seclusion. I don’t remember if I got breakfast or not. Probably not. I can call to mind some
mornings locked in Seclusion the black boys keep bringing seconds of everything—supposed to be
for me, but they eat it instead—till all three of them get breakfast while I lie there on that peestinking
mattress, watching them wipe up egg with toast. I can smell the grease and hear them chew
the toast. Other mornings they bring me cold mush and force me to eat it without it even being
This morning I plain don’t remember. They got enough of those things they call pills down me
so I don’t know a thing till I hear the ward door open. That ward door opening means it’s at least
eight o’clock, means there’s been maybe an hour and a half I was out cold in that Seclusion Room
when the technicians could of come in and installed anything the Big Nurse ordered and I wouldn’t
have the slightest notion what.
I hear noise at the ward door, off up the hall out of my sight. That ward door starts opening at
eight and opens and closes a thousand times a day, kashash, click. Every morning we sit lined up on
each side of the day room, mixing jigsaw puzzles after breakfast, listen for a key to hit the lock, and
wait to see what’s coming in. There’s not a whole lot else to do. Sometimes, at the door, it’s a young
resident in early so he can watch what we’re like Before Medication. BM, they call it. Sometimes it’s a
wife visiting there on high heels with her purse held tight over her belly. Sometimes it’s a clutch of
grade-school teachers being led on a tour by that fool Public Relation man who’s always clapping his
wet hands together and saying how overjoyed he is that mental hospitals have eliminated all the oldfashioned
cruelty. “What a cheery atmosphere, don’t you agree?” He’ll bustle around the
schoolteachers, who are bunched together for safety, clapping his hands together. “Oh, when I think
back on the old days, on the filth, the bad food, even, yes, brutality, oh, I realize, ladies, that we have
come a long way in our campaign!” Whoever comes in [15] the door is usually somebody
disappointing, but there’s always a chance otherwise, and when a key hits the lock all the heads come
up like there’s strings on them.
This morning the lockworks rattle strange; it’s not a regular visitor at the door. An Escort Man’s
voice calls down, edgy and impatient, “Admission, come sign for him,” and the black boys go.
Admission. Everybody stops playing cards and Monopoly, turns toward the day-room door.
Most days I’d be out sweeping the hall and see who they’re signing in, but this morning, like I
explain to you, the Big Nurse put a thousand pounds down me and I can’t budge out of the chair.
Most days I’m the first one to see the Admission, watch him creep in the door and slide along the
wall and stand scared till the black boys come sign for him and take him into the shower room,
where they strip him and leave him shivering with the door open while they all three run grinning up
and down the halls looking for the Vaseline. “We need that Vaseline,” they’ll tell the Big Nurse, “for
the thermometer.” She looks from one to the other: “I’m sure you do,” and hands them a jar holds at
least a gallon, “but mind you boys don’t group up in there.” Then I see two, maybe all three of them
in there, in that shower room with the Admission, running that thermometer around in the grease
till it’s coated the size of your finger, crooning, “Tha’s right, mothah, that’s right,” and then shut the
door and turn all the showers up to where you can’t hear anything but the vicious hiss of water on
the green tile. I’m out there most days, and I see it like that.
But this morning I have to sit in the chair and only listen to them bring him in. Still, even though
I can’t see him, I know he’s no ordinary Admission. I don’t hear him slide scared along the wall, and
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
when they tell him about the shower he don’t just submit with a weak little yes, he tells them right
back in a loud, brassy voice that he’s already plenty damn clean, thank you.
“They showered me this morning at the courthouse and last night at the jail. And I swear I believe
they’d of washed my ears for me on the taxi ride over if they coulda found the vacilities. Hoo boy,
seems like everytime they ship me someplace I gotta get scrubbed down before, after, and during the
operation. I’m gettin’ so the sound of water makes me start gathering up my belongings. And get
back away from me with that thermometer, Sam, and give me a minute to look my new home over;
I never been in a Institute of Psychology before.”
The patients look at one another’s puzzled faces, then back [16] to the door, where his voice is
still coming in. Talking louder’n you’d think he needed to if the black boys were anywhere near him.
He sounds like he’s way above them, talking down, like he’s sailing fifty yards overhead, hollering at
those below on the ground. He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in
the way he walks, and he sure don’t slide; he’s got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like
horseshoes. He shows up in the door and stops and hitches his thumbs in his pockets, boots wide
apart, and stands there with the guys looking at him.
“Good mornin’, buddies.”
There’s a paper Halloween bat hanging on a string above his head; he reaches up and flicks it so
it spins around.
“Mighty nice fall day.”
He talks a little the way Papa used to, voice loud and full of hell, but he doesn’t look like Papa;
Papa was a full-blood Columbia Indian—a chief—and hard and shiny as a gunstock. This guy is
redheaded with long red sideburns and a tangle of curls out from under his cap, been needing cut a
long time, and he’s broad as Papa was tall, broad across the jaw and shoulders and chest, a broad
white devilish grin, and he’s hard in a different kind of way from Papa, kind of the way a baseball is
hard under the scuffed leather. A seam runs across his nose and one cheekbone where somebody
laid him a good one in a fight, and the stitches are still in the seam. He stands there waiting, and
when nobody makes a move to say anything to him he commences to laugh. Nobody can tell exactly
why he laughs; there’s nothing funny going on. But it’s not the way that Public Relation laughs, it’s
free and loud and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till
it’s lapping against the walls all over the ward. Not like that fat Public Relation laugh. This sounds
real. I realize all of a sudden it’s the first laugh I’ve heard in years.
He stands looking at us, rocking back in his boots, and he laughs and laughs. He laces his fingers
over his belly without taking his thumbs out of his pockets. I see how big and beat up his hands are.
Everybody on the ward, patients, staff, and all, is stunned dumb by him and his laughing. There’s no
move to stop him, no move to say anything. He laughs till he’s finished for a time, and he walks on
into the day room. Even when he isn’t laughing, that laughing sound hovers around him, the way
the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing—it’s in his eyes, in the way he smiles and
swaggers, in the way he talks.
“My name is McMurphy, buddies, R. P. McMurphy, and [17] I’m a gambling fool.” He winks and
sings a little piece of a song: “ ‘... and whenever I meet with a deck a cards I lays … my money ...
down,’” and laughs again.
He walks to one of the card games, tips an Acute’s cards up with a thick, heavy finger, and
squints at the hand and shakes his head.
“Yessir, that’s what I came to this establishment for, to bring you birds fun an’ entertainment
around the gamin’ table. Nobody left in that Pendleton Work Farm to make my days interesting any
more, so I requested a transfer, ya see. Needed some new blood. Hooee, look at the way this bird
holds his cards, showin’ to everybody in a block; man! I’ll trim you babies like little lambs.”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
Cheswick gathers his cards together. The redheaded man sticks his hand out for Cheswick to
“Hello, buddy; what’s that you’re playin’? Pinochle? Jesus, no wonder you don’t care nothin’
about showing your hand. Don’t you have a straight deck around here? Well say, here we go, I
brought along my own deck, just in case, has something in it other than face cards—and check the
pictures, huh? Every one different. Fifty-two positions.”
Cheswick is pop-eyed already, and what he sees on those cards don’t help his condition.
“Easy now, don’t smudge ‘em; we got lots of time, lots of games ahead of us. I like to use my
deck here because it takes at least a week for the other players to get to where they can even see the
suit. ...”
He’s got on work-farm pants and shirt, sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk. His face
and neck and arms are the color of oxblood leather from working long in the fields. He’s got a
primer-black motorcycle cap stuck in his hair and a leather jacket over one arm, and he’s got on
boots gray and dusty and heavy enough to kick a man half in two. He walks away from Cheswick
and takes off the cap and goes to beating a dust storm out of his thigh. One of the black boys circles
him with the thermometer, but he’s too quick for them; he slips in among the Acutes and starts
moving around shaking hands before the black boy can take good aim. The way he talks, his wink,
his loud talk, his swagger all remind me of a car salesman or a stock auctioneer—or one of those
pitchmen you see on a sideshow stage, out in front of his flapping banners, standing there in a
striped shirt with yellow buttons, drawing the faces off the sawdust like a magnet.
“What happened, you see, was I got in a couple of hassles at the work farm, to tell the pure truth,
and the court ruled [18] that I’m a psychopath. And do you think I’m gonna argue with the court?
Shoo, you can bet your bottom dollar I don’t. If it gets me outta those damned pea fields I’ll be
whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf, because I don’t care if I
never see another weedin’ hoe to my dying day. Now they tell me a psychopath’s a guy fights too
much and fucks too much, but they ain’t wholly right, do you think? I mean, whoever heard tell of a
man gettin’ too much poozle? Hello, buddy, what do they call you? My name’s McMurphy and I’ll
bet you two dollars here and now that you can’t tell me how many spots are in that pinochle hand
you’re holding don’t look. Two dollars; what d’ya say? God damn, Sam! can’t you wait half a minute to
prod me with that damn thermometer of yours?”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
The new man stands looking a minute, to get the set-up of the day room.
One side of the room younger patients, known as Acutes because the doctors figure them still
sick enough to be fixed, practice arm wrestling and card tricks where you add and subtract and
count down so many and it’s a certain card. Billy Bibbit tries to learn to roll a tailor-made cigarette,
and Martini walks around, discovering things under the tables and chairs. The Acutes move around a
lot. They tell jokes to each other and snicker in their fists (nobody ever dares let loose and laugh, the
whole staff’d be in with notebooks and a lot of questions) and they write letters with yellow, runty,
chewed pencils.
They spy on each other. Sometimes one man says something about himself that he didn’t aim to
let slip, and one of his buddies at the table where he said it yawns and gets up and sidles over to the
big log book by the Nurses’ Station and writes down the piece of information he heard—of
therapeutic interest to the whole ward, is what the Big Nurse says the book is for, but I know she’s
just waiting to get enough evidence to have some guy reconditioned at the Main Building,
overhauled in the head to straighten out the trouble.
The guy that wrote the piece of information in the log book, he gets a star by his name on the
roll and gets to sleep late the next day.
Across the room from the Acutes are the culls of the Combine’s product, the Chronics. Not in
the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking around the streets giving the
product a bad name. Chronics are in for good, the staff concedes. Chronics are divided into Walkers
like me, can still get around if you keep them fed, and Wheelers and Vegetables. What the Chronics
are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws
beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital
found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.
But there are some of us Chronics that the staff made a couple of mistakes on years back, some
of us who were Acutes when we came in, and got changed over. Ellis is a Chronic [20] came in an
Acute and got fouled up bad when they overloaded him in that filthy brain-murdering room that the
black boys call the “Shock Shop.” Now he’s nailed against the wall in the same condition they lifted
him off the table for the last time, in the same shape, arms out, palms cupped, with the same horror
on his face. He’s nailed like that on the wall, like a stuffed trophy. They pull the nails when it’s time
to eat or time to drive him in to bed when they want him to move so’s I can mop the puddle where
he stands. At the old place he stood so long in one spot the piss ate the floor and beams away under
him and he kept falling through to the ward below, giving them all kinds of census headaches down
there when roll check came around.
Ruckly is another Chronic came in a few years back as an Acute, but him they overloaded in a
different way: they made a mistake in one of their head installations. He was being a holy nuisance
all over the place, kicking the black boys and biting the student nurses on the legs, so they took him
away to be fixed. They strapped him to that table, and the last anybody saw of him for a while was
just before they shut the door on him; he winked, just before the door closed, and told the black
boys as they backed away from him, “You’ll pay for this, you damn tarbabies.”
And they brought him back to the ward two weeks later, bald and the front of his face an oily
purple bruise and two little button-sized plugs stitched one above each eye. You can see by his eyes
how they burned him out over there; his eyes are all smoked up and gray and deserted inside like
blown fuses. All day now he won’t do a thing but hold an old photograph up in front of that
burned-out face, turning it over and over in his cold fingers, and the picture wore gray as his eyes on
both sides with all his handling till you can’t tell any more what it used to be.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
The staff, now, they consider Ruckly one of their failures, but I’m not sure but what he’s better
off than if the installation had been perfect. The installations they do nowadays are generally
successful. The technicians got more skill and experience. No more of the button holes in the
forehead, no cutting at all—they go in through the eye sockets. Sometimes a guy goes over for an
installation, leaves the ward mean and mad and snapping at the whole world and comes back a few
weeks later with black-and-blue eyes like he’d been in a fist-fight, and he’s the sweetest, nicest, bestbehaved
thing you ever saw. He’ll maybe even go home in a month or two, a hat pulled low over the
face of a sleepwalker wandering round in a simple, happy [21] dream. A success, they say, but I say
he’s just another robot for the Combine and might be better off as a failure, like Ruckly sitting there
fumbling and drooling over his picture. He never does much else. The dwarf black boy gets a rise
out of him from time to time by leaning close and asking, “Say, Ruckly, what you figure your little
wife is doing in town tonight?” Ruckly’s head comes up. Memory whispers someplace in that
jumbled machinery. He turns red and his veins clog up at one end. This puffs him up so he can just
barely make a little whistling sound in his throat. Bubbles squeeze out the corner of his mouth, he’s
working his jaw so hard to say something. When he finally does get to where he can say his few
words it’s a low, choking noise to make your skin crawl—“Fffffffuck da wife! Fffffffuck da wife!” and
passes out on the spot from the effort.
Ellis and Ruckly are the youngest Chronics. Colonel Matterson is the oldest, an old, petrified
cavalry soldier from the First War who is given to lifting the skirts of passing nurses with his cane,
or teaching some kind of history out of the text of his left hand to anybody that’ll listen. He’s the
oldest on the ward, but not the one’s been here longest—his wife brought him in only a few years
back, when she got to where she wasn’t up to tending him any longer.
I’m the one been here on the ward the longest, since the Second World War. I been here on the
ward longer’n anybody. Longer’n any of the other patients. The Big Nurse has been here longer’n
The Chronics and the Acutes don’t generally mingle. Each stays on his own side of the day room
the way the black boys want it. The black boys say it’s more orderly that way and let everybody
know that’s the way they’d like it to stay. They move us in after breakfast and look at the grouping
and nod. “That’s right, gennulmen, that’s the way. Now you keep it that way.”
Actually there isn’t much need for them to say anything, because, other than me, the Chronics
don’t move around much, and the Acutes say they’d just as leave stay over on their own side, give
reasons like the Chronic side smells worse than a dirty diaper. But I know it isn’t the stink that keeps
them away from the Chronic side so much as they don’t like to be reminded that here’s what could
happen to them someday. The Big Nurse recognizes this fear and knows how to put it to use; she’ll
point out to an Acute, whenever he goes into a sulk, that you boys be good boys and cooperate with
the staff policy which is engineered for your cure, or you’ll end up over on that side.
[22] (Everybody on the ward is proud of the way the patients cooperate. We got a little brass
tablet tacked to a piece of maple wood that has printed on it: CONGRATULATIONS FOR GETTING
prize for cooperation. It’s hung on the wall right above the log book, right square in the middle
between the Chronics and Acutes.)
This new redheaded Admission, McMurphy, knows right away he’s not a Chronic. After he
checks the day room over a minute, he sees he’s meant for the Acute side and goes right for it,
grinning and shaking hands with everybody he comes to. At first I see that he’s making everybody
over there feel uneasy, with all his kidding and joking and with the brassy way he hollers at that black
boy who’s still after him with a thermometer, and especially with that big wide-open laugh of his.
Dials twitch in the control panel at the sound of it. The Acutes look spooked and uneasy when he
laughs, the way kids look in a schoolroom when one ornery kid is raising too much hell with the
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
teacher out of the room and they’re all scared the teacher might pop back in and take it into her
head to make them all stay after. They’re fidgeting and twitching, responding to the dials in the
control panel; I see McMurphy notices he’s making them uneasy, but he don’t let it slow him down.
“Damn, what a sorry-looking outfit. You boys don’t look so crazy to me.” He’s trying to get
them to loosen up, the way you see an auctioneer spinning jokes to loosen up the crowd before the
bidding starts. “Which one of you claims to be the craziest? Which one is the biggest loony? Who
runs these card games? It’s my first day, and what I like to do is make a good impression straight off
on the right man if he can prove to me he is the right man. Who’s the bull goose loony here?”
He’s saying this directly to Billy Bibbit. He leans down and glares so hard at Billy that Billy feels
compelled to stutter out that he isn’t the buh-buh-buh-bull goose loony yet, though he’s next in luhluh-
line for the job.
McMurphy sticks a big hand down in front of Billy, and Billy can’t do a thing but shake it. “Well,
buddy,” he says to Billy, “I’m truly glad you’re next in luh-line for the job, but since I’m thinking
about taking over this whole show myself, lock, stock, and barrel, maybe I better talk with the top
man.” He looks round to where some of the Acutes have stopped their card-playing, covers one of
his hands with the other, and cracks all his knuckles at the sight. “I figure, you see, buddy, to be sort
of the gambling baron on this ward, deal a wicked game of [23] blackjack. So you better take me to
your leader and we’ll get it straightened out who’s gonna be boss around here.”
Nobody’s sure if this barrel-chested man with the, scar and the wild grin is play-acting or if he’s
crazy enough to be just like he talks, or both, but they are all beginning to get a big kick out of going
along with him. They watch as he puts that big red hand on Billy’s thin arm, waiting to see what Billy
will say. Billy sees how it’s up to him to break the silence, so he looks around and picks out one of
the pinochle-players: “Handing,” Billy says, “I guess it would b-b-be you. You’re p-president of Pay-
Pay-Patient’s Council. This m-man wants to talk to you.”
The Acutes are grinning now, not so uneasy any more, and glad that something out of the
ordinary’s going on. They all razz Harding, ask him if he’s bull goose loony. He lays down his cards.
Harding is a flat, nervous man with a face that sometimes makes you think you seen him in the
movies, like it’s a face too pretty to just be a guy on the street. He’s got wide, thin shoulders and he
curves them in around his chest when he’s trying to hide inside himself. He’s got hands so long and
white and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap, and sometimes they get loose and glide
around in front of him free as two white birds until he notices them and traps them between his
knees; it bothers him that he’s got pretty hands.
He’s president of the Patient’s Council on account of he has a paper that says he graduated from
college. The paper’s framed and sits on his nightstand next to a picture of a woman in a bathing suit
who also looks like you’ve seen her in the moving pictures—she’s got very big breasts and she’s
holding the top of the bathing suit up over them with her fingers and looking sideways at the
camera. You can see Harding sitting on a towel behind her, looking skinny in his bathing suit, like
he’s waiting for some big guy to kick sand on him. Harding brags a lot about having such a woman
for a wife, says she’s the sexiest woman in the world and she can’t get enough of him nights.
When Billy points him out Harding leans back in his chair and assumes an important look, speaks
up at the ceiling without looking at Billy or McMurphy. “Does this ... gentleman have an
appointment, Mr. Bibbit?”
“Do you have an appointment, Mr. McM-m-murphy? Mr. Harding is a busy man, nobody sees
him without an ap-appointment.”
“This busy man Mr. Harding, is he the bull goose loony?” [24] He looks at Billy with one eye, and
Billy nods his head up and down real fast; Billy’s tickled with all the attention he’s getting.
“Then you tell Bull Goose Loony Harding that R. P. McMurphy is waiting to see him and that
this hospital ain’t big enough for the two of us. I’m accustomed to being top man. I been a bull
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
goose catskinner for every gyppo logging operation in the Northwest and bull goose gambler all the
way from Korea, was even bull goose pea weeder on that pea farm at Pendleton—so I figure if I’m
bound to be a loony, then I’m bound to be a stompdown dadgum good one. Tell this Harding that
he either meets me man to man or he’s a yaller skunk and better be outta town by sunset.”
Harding leans farther back, hooks his thumbs in his lapels. “Bibbit, you tell this young upstart
McMurphy that I’ll meet him in the main hall at high noon and we’ll settle this affair once and for
all, libidos a-blazin’.” Harding tries to drawl like McMurphy; it sounds funny with his high, breathy
voice. “You might also warn him, just to be fair, that I have been bull goose loony on this ward for
nigh onto two years, and that I’m crazier than any man alive.”
“Mr. Bibbit, you might warn this Mr. Harding that I’m so crazy I admit to voting for
“Bibbit! You tell Mr. McMurphy I’m so crazy I voted for Eisenhower twice!”
“And you tell Mr. Harding right back”—he puts both hands on the table and leans down, his
voice getting low—“that I’m so crazy I plan to vote for Eisenhower again this November.”
“I take off my hat,” Harding says, bows his head, and shakes hands with McMurphy. There’s no
doubt in my mind that McMurphy’s won, but I’m not sure just what.
All the other Acutes leave what they’ve been doing and ease up close to see what new sort this
fellow is. Nobody like him’s ever been on the ward before. They’re asking him where he’s from and
what his business is in a way I’ve never seen them do before. He says he’s a dedicated man. He says
he was just a wanderer and logging bum before the Army took him and taught him what his natural
bent was; just like they taught some men to goldbrick and some men to goof off, he says, they
taught him to play poker. Since then he’s settled down and devoted himself to gambling on all levels.
Just play poker and stay single and live where and how he wants to, if people would let him, he says,
“but you know how society persecutes a dedicated man. Ever since I found my callin’ I done time in
so many small-town jails I could write a brochure. They say I’m [25] a habitual hassler. Like I fight
some. Sheeut. They didn’t mind so much when I was a dumb logger and got into a hassle; that’s
excusable, they say, that’s a hard-workin’ feller blowing off steam, they say. But if you’re a gambler, if
they know you to get up a back-room game now and then, all you have to do is spit slantwise and
you’re a goddamned criminal. Hooee, it was breaking up the budget drivin’ me to and from the
pokey for a while there.”
He shakes his head and puffs out his cheeks.
“But that was just for a period of time. I learned the ropes. To tell the truth, this ‘sault and
battery I was doing in Pendleton was the first hitch in close to a year. That’s why I got busted. I was
outa practice; this guy was able to get up off the floor and get to the cops before I left town. A very
tough individual …”
He laughs again and shakes hands and sits down to arm wrestle every time that black boy gets
too near him with the thermometer, till he’s met everybody on the Acute side. And when he finishes
shaking hands with the last Acute he comes right on over to the Chronics, like we aren’t no
different. You can’t tell if he’s really this friendly or if he’s got some gambler’s reason for trying to
get acquainted with guys so far gone a lot of them don’t even know their names.
He’s there pulling Ellis’s hand off the wall and shaking it just like he was a politician running for
something and Ellis’s vote was good as anybody’s. “Buddy,” he says to Ellis in a solemn voice, “my
name is R. P. McMurphy and I don’t like to see a full-grown man sloshin’ around in his own water.
Whyn’t you go get dried up?”
Ellis looks down at the puddle around his feet in pure surprise. “Why, I thank you,” he says and
even moves off a few steps toward the latrine before the nails pull his hands back to the wall.
McMurphy comes down the line of Chronics, shakes hands with Colonel Matterson and with
Ruckly and with Old Pete. He shakes the hands of Wheelers and Walkers and Vegetables, shakes
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
hands that he has to pick up out of laps like picking up dead birds, mechanical birds, wonders of tiny
bones and wires that have run down and fallen. Shakes hands with everybody he comes to except
Big George the water freak, who grins and shies back from that unsanitary hand, so McMurphy just
salutes him and says to his own right hand as he walks away, “Hand, how do you suppose that old
fellow knew all the evil you been into?”
Nobody can make out what he’s driving at, or why he’s [26] making such a fuss with meeting
everybody, but it’s better’n mixing jigsaw puzzles. He keeps saying it’s a necessary thing to get
around and meet the men he’ll be dealing with, part of a gambler’s job. But he must know he ain’t
going to be dealing with no eighty-year-old organic who couldn’t do any more with a playing card
than put it in his mouth and gum it awhile. Yet he looks like he’s enjoying himself, like he’s the sort
of guy that gets a laugh out of people.
I’m the last one. Still strapped in the chair in the corner. McMurphy stops when he gets to me
and hooks his thumbs in his pockets again and leans back to laugh, like he sees something funnier
about me than about anybody else. All of a sudden I was scared he was laughing because he knew
the way I was sitting there with my knees pulled up and my arms wrapped around them, staring
straight ahead as though I couldn’t hear a thing, was all an act.
“Hooeee,” he said, “look what we got here.”
I remember all this part real clear. I remember the way he closed one eye and tipped his head
back and looked down across that healing wine-colored scar on his nose, laughing at me. I thought
at first that he was laughing because of how funny it looked, an Indian’s face and black, oily Indian’s
hair on somebody like me. I thought maybe he was laughing at how weak I looked. But then’s when
I remember thinking that he was laughing because he wasn’t fooled for one minute by my deaf-anddumb
act; it didn’t make any difference how cagey the act was, he was onto me and was laughing and
winking to let me know it.
“What’s your story, Big Chief? You look like Sittin’ Bull on a sitdown strike.” He looked over to
the Acutes to see if they might laugh about his joke; when they just sniggered he looked back to me
and winked again. “What’s your name, Chief?”
Billy Bibbit called across the room. “His n-n-name is Bromden. Chief Bromden. Everybody calls
him Chief Buh-Broom, though, because the aides have him sweeping a l-large part of the time.
There’s not m-much else he can do, I guess. He’s deaf.” Billy put his chin in hands. “If I was d-ddeaf”—
he sighed—“I would kill myself.”
McMurphy kept looking at me. “He gets his growth, he’ll be pretty good-sized, won’t he? I
wonder how tall he is.”
“I think somebody m-m-measured him once at s-six feet seven; but even if he is big, he’s scared
of his own sh-sh-shadow. Just a bi-big deaf Indian.”
“When I saw him sittin’ here I thought he looked some Indian. But Bromden ain’t an Indian name.
What tribe is he?”
[27] “I don’t know,” Billy said. “He was here wh-when I c-came.”
“I have information from the doctor,” Harding said, “that he is only half Indian, a Columbia
Indian, I believe. That’s a defunct Columbia Gorge tribe. The doctor said his father was the tribal
leader, hence this fellow’s title, ‘Chief.’ As to the ‘Bromden’ part of the name, I’m afraid my
knowledge in Indian lore doesn’t cover that.”
McMurphy leaned his head down near mine where I had to look at him. “Is that right? You deef,
“He’s de-de-deef and dumb.”
McMurphy puckered his lips and looked at my face a long time. Then he straightened back up
and stuck his hand out. “Well, what the hell, he can shake hands can’t he? Deef or whatever. By
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
God, Chief, you may be big, but you shake my hand or I’ll consider it an insult. And it’s not a good
idea to insult the new bull goose loony of the hospital.”
When he said that he looked back over to Harding and Billy and made a face, but he left that
hand in front of me, big as a dinner plate.
I remember real clear the way that hand looked: there was carbon under the fingernails where
he’d worked once in a garage; there was an anchor tattooed back from the knuckles; there was a
dirty Band-Aid on the middle knuckle, peeling up at the edge. All the rest of the knuckles were
covered with scars and cuts, old and new. I remember the palm was smooth and hard as bone from
hefting the wooden handles of axes and hoes, not the hand you’d think could deal cards. The palm
was callused, and the calluses were cracked, and dirt was worked in the cracks. A road map of his
travels up and down the West. That palm made a scuffing sound against my hand. I remember the
fingers were thick and strong closing over mine, and my hand commenced to feel peculiar and went
to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it. It rang
with blood and power: It blowed up near as big as his, I remember. ...
“Mr. McMurry.”
It’s the Big Nurse.
“Mr. McMurry, could you come here please?”
It’s the Big Nurse. That black boy with the thermometer has gone and got her. She stands there
tapping that thermometer against her wrist watch, eyes whirring while she tries to gauge this new
man. Her lips are in that triangle shape, like a doll’s lips ready for a fake nipple.
“Aide Williams tells me, Mr. McMurry, that you’ve been somewhat difficult about your admission
shower. Is this true? [28] Please understand, I appreciate the way you’ve taken it upon yourself to
orient with the other patients on the ward, but everything in its own good time, Mr. McMurry. I’m
sorry to interrupt you and Mr. Bromden, but you do understand: everyone ... must follow the rules.”
He tips his head back and gives that wink that she isn’t fooling him any more than I did, that he’s
onto her. He looks up at her with one eye for a minute.
“Ya know, ma’am,” he says, “ya know—that is the ex-act thing somebody always tells me about
the rules ...”
He grins. They both smile back and forth at each other, sizing each other up.
“… just when they figure I’m about to do the dead opposite.”
Then he lets go my hand.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
In the glass Station the Big Nurse has opened a package from a foreign address and is sucking
into hypodermic needles the grass-and-milk liquid that came in vial in the package. One of the little
nurses, a girl with one wandering eye that always keeps looking worried over her shoulder while the
other one goes about its usual business, picks up the little tray of filled needles but doesn’t carry
them away just yet.
“What, Miss Ratched, is your opinion of this new patient? I mean, gee, he’s good-looking and
friendly and everything, but in my humble opinion he certainly takes over.”
The Big Nurse tests a needle against her fingertip. “I’m afraid”—she stabs the needle down in the
rubber-capped vial and lifts the plunger—“that is exactly what the new patient is planning: to take
over. He is what we call a ‘manipulator,’ Miss Flinn, a man who will use everyone and everything to
his own ends.”
“Oh. But. I mean, in a mental hospital? What could his ends be?”
“Any number of things.” She’s calm, smiling, lost in the work of loading the needles. “Comfort
and an easy life, for instance; the feeling of power and respect, perhaps; monetary gain—perhaps all
of these things. Sometimes a manipulator’s own ends are simply the actual disruption of the ward for
the sake of disruption. There are such people in our society. A manipulator can influence the other
patients and disrupt them to such an extent that it may take months to get everything running
smooth once more. With the present permissive philosophy in mental hospitals, it’s easy for them to
get away with it. Some years back it was quite different. I recall some years back we had a man, a Mr.
Taber, on the ward, and he was an intolerable Ward Manipulator. For a while.” She looks up from her
work, needle half filled in front of her face like a little wand. Her eyes get far-off and pleased with
the memory. “Mistur Tay-bur,” she says.
“But, gee,” the other nurse says, “what on earth would make a man want to do something like
disrupt the ward for, Miss Ratched? What possible motive …?”
[30] She cuts the little nurse off by jabbing the needle back into the vial’s rubber top, fills it, jerks
it out, and lays it on the tray. I watch her hand reach for another empty needle, watch it dart out,
hinge over it, drop.
“You seem to forget, Miss Flinn, that this is an institution for the insane.”
The Big Nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth,
accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her
into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped
between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of
her she’s tense as steel. I know, I can feel it. And she don’t relax a hair till she gets the nuisance
attended to—what she calls “adjusted to surroundings.”
Under her rule the ward Inside is almost completely adjusted to surroundings. But the thing is
she can’t be on the ward all the time. She’s got to spend some time Outside. So she works with an
eye to adjusting the Outside world too. Working alongside others like her who I call the “Combine,”
which is a huge organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as she has the Inside, has made
her a real veteran at adjusting things. She was already the Big Nurse in the old place when I came in
from the Outside so long back, and she’d been dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how
And I’ve watched her get more and more skillful over the years. Practice has steadied and
strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires
too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and
just what current to send up to get the results she wants. I was an electrician’s assistant in training
camp before the Army shipped me to Germany and I had some electronics in my year in college is
how I learned about the way these things can be rigged.
What she dreams of there in the center of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and
tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the
patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes
run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor. Year by year [31] she accumulates her
ideal staff: doctors, all ages and types, come and rise up in front of her with ideas of their own about
the way a ward should be run, some with backbone enough to stand behind their ideas, and she fixes
these doctors with dry-ice eyes day in, day out, until they retreat with unnatural chills. “I tell you I
don’t know what it is,” they tell the guy in charge of personnel. “Since I started on that ward with
that woman I feel like my veins are running ammonia. I shiver all the time, my kids won’t sit in my
lap, my wife won’t sleep with me. I insist on a transfer—neurology bin, the alky tank, pediatrics, I
just don’t care!”
She keeps this up for years. The doctors last three weeks, three months. Until she finally settles
for a little man with a big wide forehead and wide jewly cheeks and squeezed narrow across his tiny
eyes like he once wore glasses that were way too small, wore them for so long they crimped his face
in the middle, so now he has glasses on a string to his collar button; they teeter on the purple bridge
of his little nose and they are always slipping one side or the other so he’ll tip his head when he talks
just to keep his glasses level. That’s her doctor.
Her three daytime black boys she acquires after more years of testing and rejecting thousands.
They come at her in a long black row of sulky, big-nosed masks, hating her and her chalk doll
whiteness from the first look they get. She appraises them and their hate for a month or so, then lets
them go because they don’t hate enough. When she finally gets the three she wants—gets them one
at a time over a number of years, weaving them into her plan and her network—she’s damn positive
they hate enough to be capable.
The first one she gets five years after I been on the ward, a twisted sinewy dwarf the color of cold
asphalt. His mother was raped in Georgia while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with
plow traces, blood streaming into his shoes. The boy watched from a closet, five years old and
squinting his eye to peep out the crack between the door and the jamb, and he never grew an inch
after. Now his eyelids hang loose and thin from his brow like he’s got a bat perched on the bridge of
his nose. Eyelids like thin gray leather, he lifts them up just a bit whenever a new white man comes
on the ward, peeks out from under them and studies the man up and down and nods just once like
he’s oh yes made positive certain of something he was already sure of. He wanted to carry a sock full
of birdshot when he first came on the job, to work the patients into shape, but she told him they
didn’t do it that way [32] anymore, made him leave the sap at home and taught him her own
technique; taught him not to show his hate and to be calm and wait, wait for a little advantage, a
little slack, then twist the rope and keep the pressure steady. All the time. That’s the way you get
them into shape, she taught him.
The other two black boys come two years later, coming to work only about a month apart and
both looking so much alike I think she had a replica made of the one who came first. They are tall
and sharp and bony and their faces are chipped into expressions that never change, like flint
arrowheads. Their eyes come to points. If you brush against their hair it rasps the hide right off you.
All of them black as telephones. The blacker they are, she learned from that long dark row that
came before them, the more time they are likely to devote to cleaning and scrubbing and keeping the
ward in order. For instance, all three of these boys’ uniforms are always spotless as snow. White and
cold and stiff as her own.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
All three wear starched snow-white pants and white shirts with metal snaps down one side and
white shoes polished like ice, and the shoes have red rubber soles silent as mice up and down the
hall. They never make any noise when they move. They materialize in different parts of the ward
every time a patient figures to check himself in private or whisper some secret to another guy. A
patient’ll be in a corner all by himself, when all of a sudden there’s a squeak and frost forms along
his cheek, and he turns in that direction and there’s a cold stone mask floating above him against the
wall. He just sees the black face. No body. The walls are white as the white suits, polished clean as a
refrigerator door, and the black face and hands seem to float against it like a ghost.
Years of training, and all three black boys tune in closer and closer with the Big Nurse’s
frequency. One by one they are able to disconnect the direct wires and operate on beams. She never
gives orders out loud or leaves written instructions that might be found by a visiting wife or
schoolteacher. Doesn’t need to any more. They are in contact on a high-voltage wave length of hate,
and the black boys are out there performing her bidding before she even thinks it.
So after the nurse gets her staff, efficiency locks the ward like a watchman’s clock. Everything the
guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse
makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door
in the rear of the Nurses’ Station. A number of Order Daily [33] Cards are returned, punched with a
pattern of little square holes. At the beginning of each day the properly dated OD card is inserted in
a slot in the steel door and the walls hum up: Lights flash on in the dorm at six-thirty: the Acutes up
out of bed quick as the black boys can prod them out, get them to work buffing the floor, emptying
ash trays, polishing the scratch marks off the wall where one old fellow shorted out a day ago, went
down in an awful twist of smoke and smell of burned rubber. The Wheelers swing dead log legs out
on the floor and wait like seated statues for somebody to roll chairs in to them. The Vegetables piss
the bed, activating an electric shock and buzzer, rolls them off on the tile where the black boys can
hose them down and get them in clean greens. …
Six-forty-five the shavers buzz and the Acutes line up in alphabetical order at the mirrors, A, B, C,
D. ... The walking Chronics like me walk in when the Acutes are done, then the Wheelers are
wheeled in. The three old guys left, a film of yellow mold on the loose hide under their chins, they
get shaved in their lounge chairs in the day room, a leather strap across the forehead to keep them
from flopping around under the shaver.
Some mornings—Mondays especially—I hide and try to buck the schedule. Other mornings I
figure it’s cagier to step right into place between A and C in the alphabet and move the route like
everybody else, without lifting my feet—powerful magnets in the floor maneuver personnel through
the ward like arcade puppets. ...
Seven o’clock the mess hall opens and the order of line-up reverses: the Wheelers first, then the
Walkers, then the Acutes pick up trays, corn flakes, bacon and eggs, toast—and this morning a
canned peach on a piece of green, torn lettuce. Some of the Acutes bring trays to the Wheelers.
Most Wheelers are just Chronics with bad legs, they feed themselves, but there’s these three of them
got no action from the neck down whatsoever, not much from the neck up. These are called
Vegetables. The black boys push them in after everybody else is sat down, wheel them against a wall,
and bring them identical trays of muddy-looking food with little white diet cards attached to the
trays. Mechanical Soft, reads the diet cards for these toothless three: eggs, ham, toast, bacon, all
chewed thirty-two times apiece by the stainless-steel machine in the kitchen. I see it purse sectioned
lips, like a vacuum-cleaner hose, and spurt a clot of chewed-up ham onto a plate with a barnyard
[34] The black boys stoke the sucking pink mouths of the Vegetables a shade too fast for
swallowing, and the Mechanical Soft squeezes out down their little knobs of chins onto the greens.
The black boys cuss the Vegetables and ream the mouths bigger with a twisting motion of the
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
spoon, like coring a rotten apple: “This ol’ fart Blastic, he’s comin’ to pieces befo’ my very eyes. I
can’t tell no more if I’m feeding him bacon puree or chunks of his own fuckin’ tongue.” …
Seven-thirty back to the day room. The Big Nurse looks out through her special glass, always
polished till you can’t tell it’s there, and nods at what she sees, reaches up and tears a sheet off her
calendar one day closer to the goal. She pushes a button for things to start. I hear the wharrup of a
big sheet of tin being shook someplace. Everybody come to order. Acutes: sit on your side of the
day room and wait for cards and Monopoly games to be brought out. Chronics: sit on your side and
wait for puzzles from the Red Cross box. Ellis: go to your place at the wall, hands up to receive the
nails and pee running down your leg. Pete: wag your head like a puppet. Scanlon: work your knobby
hands on the table in front of you, constructing a make-believe bomb to blow up a make-believe
world. Harding: begin talking, waving your dove hands in the air, then trap them under your armpits
because grown men aren’t supposed to wave their pretty hands that way. Sefelt: begin moaning
about your teeth hurting and your hair falling out. Everybody: breath in ... and out … in perfect
order; hearts all beating at the rate the OD cards have ordered. Sound of matched cylinders.
Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind
of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren’t for the cartoon figures being real guys ...
Seven-forty-five the black boys move down the line of Chronics taping catheters on the ones that
will hold still for it. Catheters are second-hand condoms the ends clipped off and rubber-banded to
tubes that run down pantlegs to a plastic sack marked DISPOSABLE NOT TO BE RE-USED, which it is
my job to wash out at the end of each day. The black boys anchor the condom by taping it to the
hairs; old Catheter Chronics are hairless as babies from tape removal. …
Eight o’clock the walls whirr and hum into full swing. The speaker in the ceiling says,
“Medications,” using the Big Nurse’s voice. We look in the glass case where she sits, but she’s
nowhere near the microphone; in fact, she’s ten feet away from the microphone, tutoring one of the
little nurses [35] how to prepare a neat drug tray with pills arranged orderly. The Acutes line up at
the glass door, A, B, C, D, then the Chronics, then the Wheelers (the Vegetables get theirs later, mixed
in a spoon of applesauce). The guys file by and get a capsule in a paper cup—throw it to the back of
the throat and get the cup filled with water by the little nurse and wash the capsule down. On rare
occasions some fool might ask what he’s being required to swallow.
“Wait just a shake, honey; what are these two little red capsules in here with my vitamin?”
I know him. He’s a big, griping Acute, already getting the reputation of being a troublemaker.
“It’s just medication, Mr. Taber, good for you. Down it goes, now.”
“But I mean what kind of medication. Christ, I can see that they’re pills—”
“Just swallow it all, shall we, Mr. Taber—just for me?” She takes a quick look at the Big Nurse to
see how the little flirting technique she is using is accepted, then looks back at the Acute. He still
isn’t ready to swallow something he don’t know what is, not even just for her.
“Miss, I don’t like to create trouble. But I don’t like to swallow something without knowing what
it is, neither. How do I know this isn’t one of those funny pills that makes me something I’m not?”
“Don’t get upset, Mr. Taber—”
“Upset? All I want to know, for the lova Jesus—”
But the Big Nurse has come up quietly, locked her hand on his arm, paralyzes him all the way to
the shoulder. “That’s all right, Miss Flinn,” she says. “If Mr. Taber chooses to act like a child, he
may have to be treated as such. We’ve tried to be kind and considerate with him. Obviously, that’s
not the answer. Hostility, hostility, that’s the thanks we get. You can go, Mr. Taber, if you don’t wish
to take your medication orally.”
“All I wanted to know, for the—”
“You can go.”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
He goes off, grumbling, when she frees his arm, and spends the morning moping around the
latrine, wondering about those capsules. I got away once holding one of those same red capsules
under my tongue, played like I’d swallowed it, and crushed it open later in the broom closet. For a
tick of time, before it all turned into white dust, I saw it was a miniature electronic element like the
ones I helped the Radar Corps work with in the Army, microscopic wires and grids and [36]
transistors, this one designed to dissolve on contact with air. …
Eight-twenty the cards and puzzles go out. …
Eight-twenty-five some Acute mentions he used to watch his sister taking her bath; the three
guys at the table with him fall all over each other to see who gets to write it in the log book. …
Eight-thirty the ward door opens and two technicians trot in, smelling like grape wine;
technicians always move at a fast walk or a trot because they’re always leaning so far forward they
have to move fast to keep standing. They always lean forward and they always smell like they
sterilized their instruments in wine. They pull the lab door to behind them, and I sweep up close and
can snake out voices over the vicious zzzth-zzzth-zzzth of steel on whetstone.
“What we got already at this ungodly hour of the morning?”
“We got to install an Indwelling Curiosity Cutout in some nosy booger. Hurry-up job, she says,
and I’m not even sure we got one of the gizmos in stock.”
“We might have to call IBM to rush one out for us; let me check back in Supply—”
“Hey; bring out a bottle of that pure grain while you’re back there: it’s getting so I can’t install the
simplest frigging component but what I need a bracer. Well, what the hell, it’s better’n garage work.
Their voices are forced and too quick on the comeback to be real talk—more like cartoon
comedy speech. I sweep away before I’m caught eavesdropping.
The two big black boys catch Taber in the latrine and drag him. to the mattress room. He gets
one a good kick in the shins. He’s yelling bloody murder. I’m surprised how helpless he looks when
they hold him, like he was wrapped with bands of black iron.
They push him face down on the mattress. One sits on his head, and the other rips his pants
open in back and peels the cloth until Taber’s peach-colored rear is framed by the ragged lettucegreen.
He’s smothering curses into the mattress and the black boy sitting on his head saying, “Tha’s
right, Mistuh Taber, tha’s right. ...” The nurse comes down the hall, smearing Vaseline on a long
needle, pulls the door shut so they’re out of sight for a second, then comes right back out, wiping
the needle on a shred of Taber’s pants. She’s left the Vaseline jar in the room. Before the black boy
can close the door after her I see the one still sitting on Taber’s head, [37] dabbing at him with a
Kleenex. They’re in there a long time before the door opens up again and they come out, carrying
him across the hall to the lab. His greens are ripped clear off now and he’s wrapped up in a damp
sheet. ...
Nine o’clock young residents wearing leather elbows talk to Acutes for fifty minutes about what
they did when they were little boys. The Big Nurse is suspicious of the crew-cut looks of these
residents, and that fifty minutes they are on the ward is a tough time for her. While they are around,
the machinery goes to fumbling and she is scowling and making notes to check the records of these
boys for old traffic violations and the like. …
Nine-fifty the residents leave and the machinery hums up smooth again. The nurse watches the
day room from her glass case; the scene before her takes on that blue-steel clarity again, that clean
orderly movement of a cartoon comedy.
Taber is wheeled out of the lab on a Gurney bed.
“We had to give him another shot when he started coming up during the spine tap,” the
technician tells her. “What do you say we take him right on over to Building One and buzz him with
EST while we’re at it—that way not waste the extra Seconal?”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“I think it is an excellent suggestion. Maybe after that take him to the electroencephalograph and
check his head—we may find evidence of a need for brain work.”
The technicians go trotting off, pushing the man on the Gurney, like cartoon men—or like
puppets, mechanical puppets in one of those Punch and Judy acts where it’s supposed to be funny
to see the puppet beat up by the Devil and swallowed headfirst by a smiling alligator. ...
Ten o’clock the mail comes up. Sometimes you get the torn envelope. ...
Ten-thirty Public Relation comes in with a ladies’ club following him. He claps his fat hands at
the day-room door. “Oh, hello guys; stiff lip, stiff lip ... look around, girls; isn’t it clean, so bright?
This is Miss Ratched. I chose this ward because it’s her ward. She’s, girls, just like a mother. Not that
I mean age, but you girls understand ...”
Public Relation’s shirt collar is so tight it bloats his face up when he laughs, and he’s laughing
most of the time I don’t ever know what at, laughing high and fast like he wishes he could stop but
can’t do it. And his face bloated up red and round as a balloon with a face painted on it. He got no
hair on his face and none on his head to speak of; it looks like he [38] glued some on once but it
kept slipping off and getting in his cuffs and his shirt pocket and down his collar. Maybe that’s why
he keeps his collar so tight, to keep the little pieces of hair from falling down in there.
Maybe that’s why he laughs so much, because he isn’t able to keep all the pieces out.
He conducts these tours—serious women in blazer jackets, nodding to him as he points out how
much things have improved over the years. He points out the TV, the big leather chairs, the sanitary
drinking fountains; then they all go have coffee in the Nurse’s Station. Sometimes he’ll be by himself
and just stand in the middle of the day room and clap his hands (you can hear they are wet), clap
them two or three times till they stick, then hold them prayer-like together under one of his chins
and start spinning. Spin round and around there in the middle of the floor, looking wild and frantic
at the TV, the new pictures on the walls, the sanitary drinking fountain. And laughing.
What he sees that’s so funny he don’t ever let us in on, and the only thing I can see funny is him
spinning round and around out there like a rubber toy—if you push him over he’s weighted on the
bottom and straightaway rocks back upright, goes to spinning again. He never, never looks at the
men’s faces. ...
Ten-forty, -forty-five, -fifty, patients shuttle in and out to appointments in ET or OT or PT, or in
queer little rooms somewhere where the walls are never the same size and the floors aren’t level. The
machinery sounds about you reach a steady cruising speed.
The ward hums the way I heard a cotton mill hum once when the football team played a high
school in California. After a good season one year the boosters in the town were so proud and
carried away that they paid to fly us to California to play a championship high-school team down
there. When we flew into the town we had to go visit some local industry. Our coach was one for
convincing folks that athletics was educational because of the learning afforded by travel, and every
trip we took he herded the team around to creameries and beet farms and canneries before the
game. In California it was the cotton mill. When we went in the mill most of the team took a look
and left to go sit in the bus over stud games on suitcases, but I stayed inside over in a corner out of
the way of the Negro girls running up and down the aisles of machines. The [39] mill put me in a
kind of dream, all the humming and clicking and rattling of people and machinery, jerking around in
a pattern. That’s why I stayed when the others left, that, and because it reminded me somehow of
the men in the tribe who’d left the village in the last days to do work on the gravel crusher for the
dam. The frenzied pattern, the faces hypnotized by routine ... I wanted to go out in the bus with the
team, but I couldn’t.
It was morning in early winter and I still had on the jacket they’d given us when we took the
championship—a red and green jacket with leather sleeves and a football-shaped emblem sewn on
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
the back telling what we’d won—and it was making a lot of the Negro girls stare. I took it off, but
they kept staring. I was a whole lot bigger in those days.
One of the girls left her machine and looked back and forth up the aisles to see if the foreman
was around, then came over to where I was standing. She asked if we was going to play the high
school that night and she told me she had a brother played tailback for them. We talked a piece
about football and the like and I noticed how her face looked blurred, like there was a mist between
me and her. It was the cotton fluff sifting from the air.
I told her about the fluff. She rolled her eyes and ducked her mouth to laugh in her fist when I
told her how it was like looking at her face out on a misty morning duck-hunting. And she said,
“Now what in the everlovin’ world would you want with me out alone in a duck blind?” I told her
she could take care of my gun, and the girls all over the mill went to giggling in their fists. I laughed
a little myself, seeing how clever I’d been. We were still talking and laughing when she grabbed both
my wrists and dug in. The features of her face snapped into brilliant focus; I saw she was terrified of
“Do,” she said to me in a whisper, “do take me, big boy. Outa this here mill, outa this town, outa
this life. Take me to some ol’ duck blind someplace. Someplace else. Huh, big boy, huh?”
Her dark, pretty face glittered there in front of me. I stood with my mouth open, trying to think
of some way to answer her. We were locked together this way for maybe a couple of seconds; then
the sound of the mill jumped a hitch, and something commenced to draw her back away from me. A
string somewhere I didn’t see hooked on that flowered red skirt and was tugging her back. Her
fingernails peeled down my hands [40] and as soon as she broke contact with me her face switched
out of focus again, became soft and runny like melting chocolate behind that blowing fog of cotton.
She laughed and spun around and gave me a look of her yellow leg when the skirt billowed out. She
threw me a wink over her shoulder as she ran back to her machine where a pile of fiber was spilling
off the table to the floor; she grabbed it up and ran feather-footed down the aisle of machines to
dump the fiber in a hopper; then she was out of sight around the corner.
All those spindles reeling and wheeling and shuttles jumping around and bobbins wringing the air
with string, whitewashed walls and steel-gray machines and girls in flowered skirts skipping back and
forth, and the whole thing webbed with flowing white lines stringing the factory together—it all
stuck with me and every once in a while something on the ward calls it to mind.
Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made
in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed
product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy
to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted
component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land
with a welded grin, fitting into some nice little neighborhood where they’re just now digging
trenches along the street to lay pipes for city water. He’s happy with it. He’s adjusted to
surroundings finally. …
“Why, I’ve never seen anything to beat the change in Maxwell Taber since he’s got back from
that hospital; a little black and blue around the eyes, a little weight lost, and, you know what? he’s a
new man. Gad, modern American science ...”
And the light is on in his basement window way past midnight every night as the Delayed
Reaction Elements the technicians installed lend nimble skills to his fingers as he bends over the
doped figure of his wife, his two little girls just four and six, the neighbor he goes bowling with
Mondays; he adjusts them like he was adjusted. This is the way they spread it.
When he finally runs down after a pre-set number of years, the town loves him dearly and the
paper prints his picture helping the Boy Scouts last year on Graveyard Cleaning Day, and his wife
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
gets a letter from the principal of the high school how Maxwell Wilson Taber was an inspirational
figure to the youth of our fine community.
Even the embalmers, usually a pair of penny-pinching [41] tightwads, are swayed. “Yeah, look at
him there: old Max Taber, he was a good sort. What do you say we use that expensive thirty-weight
at no extra charge to his wife. No, what the dickens, let’s make it on the house.”
A successful Dismissal like this is a product brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart and speaks good
of her craft and the whole industry in general. Everybody’s happy with a Dismissal.
But an Admission is a different story. Even the best-behaved Admission is bound to need some
work to swing into routine, and, also, you never can tell when just that certain one might come in
who’s free enough to foul things up right and left, really make a hell of a mess and constitute a threat
to the whole smoothness of the outfit. And, like I explain, the Big Nurse gets real put out if anything
keeps her outfit from running smooth.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
Before noontime they’re at the fog machine again but they haven’t got it turned up full; it’s not so
thick but what I can see if I strain real hard. One of these days I’ll quit straining and let myself go
completely, lose myself in the fog the way some of the other Chronics have, but for the time being
I’m interested in this new man—I want to see how he takes to the Group Meeting coming up.
Ten minutes to one the fog dissolves completely and the black boys are telling Acutes to clear the
floor for the meeting. All the tables are carried out of the day room to the tub room across the
hall—leaves the floor, McMurphy says, like we was aiming to have us a little dance.
The Big Nurse watches all this through her window. She hasn’t moved from her spot in front of
that one window for three solid hours, not even for lunch. The day-room floor gets cleared of
tables, and at one o’clock the doctor comes out of his office down the hall, nods once at the nurse
as he goes past where she’s watching out her window, and sits in his chair just to the left of the door.
The patients sit down when he does; then the little nurses and the residents straggle in. When
everybody’s down, the Big Nurse gets up from behind her window and goes back to the rear of the
Nurses’ Station to that steel panel with dials and buttons on it, sets some kind of automatic pilot to
run things while she’s away, and comes out into the day room, carrying the log book and a basketful
of notes. Her uniform, even after she’s been here half a day, is still starched so stiff it don’t exactly
bend any place; it cracks sharp at the joints with a sound like a frozen canvas being folded.
She sits just to the right of the door.
Soon as she’s sat down, Old Pete Bancini sways to his feet and starts in wagging his head and
wheezing. “I’m tired. Whew. O Lord. Oh, I’m awful tired ...” the way he always does whenever
there’s a new man on the ward who might listen to him.
The Big Nurse doesn’t look over at Pete. She’s going through the papers in her basket.
“Somebody go sit beside Mr. Bancini,” she says. “Quiet him down so we can start the meeting.”
[43] Billy Bibbit goes. Pete has turned facing McMurphy and is lolling his head from side to side
like a signal light at a railroad crossing. He worked on the railroad thirty years; now he’s wore clean
out but still’s functioning on the memory.
“I’m ti-i-uhd,” he says, wagging his face at McMurphy. “Take it easy, Pete,” Billy says, lays a
freckled hand on Pete’s knee.
“… Awful tired ...”
“I know, Pete”—pats the skinny knee, and Pete pulls back his face, realizes nobody is going to
heed his complaint today. The nurse takes off her wrist watch and looks at the ward clock and winds
the watch and sets it face toward her in the basket. She takes a folder from the basket.
“Now. Shall we get into the meeting?”
She looks around to see if anybody else is about to interrupt her, smiling steady as her head turns
in her collar. The guys won’t meet her look; they’re all looking for hangnails. Except McMurphy.
He’s got himself an armchair in the corner, sits in it like he’s claimed it for good, and he’s watching
her every move. He’s still got his cap on, jammed tight down on his red head like he’s a motorcycle
racer. A deck of cards in his lap opens for a one-handed cut, then clacks shut with a sound blown up
loud by the silence. The nurse’s swinging eyes hang on him for a second. She’s been watching him
play poker all morning and though she hasn’t seen any money pass hands she suspects he’s not
exactly the type that is going to be happy with the ward rule of gambling for matches only. The deck
whispers open and clacks shut again and then disappears somewhere in one of those big palms.
The nurse looks at her watch again and pulls a slip of paper out of the folder she’s holding, looks
at it, and returns it to the folder. She puts the folder down and picks up the log book. Ellis coughs
from his place on the wall; she waits until he stops.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Now. At the close of Friday’s meeting ... we were discussing Mr. Harding’s problem ...
concerning his young wife. He had stated that his wife was extremely well endowed in the bosom
and that this made him uneasy because she drew stares from men on the street.” She starts opening
to places in the log book; little slips of paper stick out of the top of the book to mark the pages.
“According to the notes listed by various patients in the log, Mr. Harding has been heard to say that
she ‘damn well gives the bastards reason to stare.’ He has also been heard to say that he may give her
reason to seek further sexual attention. He has been heard to say, ‘My dear [44] sweet but illiterate
wife thinks any word or gesture that does not smack of brickyard brawn and brutality is a word or
gesture of weak dandyism.’ ”
She continues reading silently from the book for a while, then closes it.
“He has also stated that his wife’s ample bosom at times gives him a feeling of inferiority. So.
Does anyone care to touch upon this subject further?”
Harding shuts his eyes, and nobody else says anything. McMurphy looks around at the other
guys, waiting to see if anybody is going to answer the nurse, then holds his hand up and snaps his
fingers, like a school kid in class; the nurse nods at him.
“Touch upon what?”
“What? Touch—”
“You ask, I believe, ‘Does anyone care to touch upon—’ ”
“Touch upon the—subject, Mr. McMurry, the subject of Mr. Harding’s problem with his wife.”
“Oh. I thought you mean touch upon her—something else.”
“Now what could you—”
But she stops. She was almost flustered for a second there. Some of the Acutes hide grins, and
McMurphy takes a huge stretch, yawns, winks at Harding. Then the nurse, calm as anything, puts the
log book back in the basket and takes out another folder and opens it and starts reading.
“McMurry, Randle Patrick. Committed by the state from the Pendleton Farm for Correction. For
diagnosis and possible treatment. Thirty-five years old. Never married. Distinguished Service Cross
in Korea, for leading an escape from a Communist prison camp. A dishonorable discharge,
afterward, for insubordination. Followed by a history of street brawls and barroom fights and a
series of arrests for Drunkenness, Assault and Battery, Disturbing the Peace, repeated gambling, and
one arrest—for Rape.”
“Rape?” The doctor perks up.
“Statutory, with a girl of—”
“Whoa. Couldn’t make that stick,” McMurphy says to the doctor. “Girl wouldn’t testify.”
“With a child of fifteen.”
“Said she was seventeen, Doc, and she was plenty willin’.” “A court doctor’s examination of the
child proved entry, repeated entry, the record states—”
“So willin’, in fact, I took to sewing my pants shut.”
“The child refused to testify in spite of the doctor’s findings. [45] There seemed to be
intimidation. Defendant left town shortly after the trial.”
“Hoo boy, I had to leave. Doc, let me tell you”—he leans forward with an elbow on a knee,
lowering his voice to the doctor across the room—“that little hustler would of actually burnt me to a
frazzle by the time she reached legal sixteen. She got to where she was tripping me and beating me
to the floor.”
The nurse closes up the folder and passes it across the doorway to the doctor. “Our new
Admission, Doctor Spivey,” just like she’s got a man folded up inside that yellow paper and can pass
him on to be looked over. “I thought I might brief you on his record later today, but as he seems to
insist on asserting himself in the Group Meeting, we might as well dispense with him now.”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
The doctor fishes his glasses from his coat pocket by pulling on the string, works them on his
nose in front of his eyes. They’re tipped a little to the right, but he leans his head to the left and
brings them level. He’s smiling a little as he turns through the folder, just as tickled by this new
man’s brassy way of talking right up as the rest of us, but, just like the rest of us, he’s careful not to
let himself come right out and laugh. The doctor closes the folder when he gets to the end, and puts
his glasses back in his pocket. He looks to where McMurphy is still leaned out at him from across
the day room.
“You’ve—it seems—no other psychiatric history, Mr. McMurry?”
“McMurphy, Doc.”
“Oh? But I thought—the nurse was saying—”
He opens the folder again, fishes out those glasses, looks the record over for another minute
before he closes it, and puts his glasses back in his pocket. “Yes. McMurphy. That is correct. I beg
your pardon.”
“It’s okay, Doc. It was the lady there that started it, made the mistake. I’ve known some people
inclined to do that. I had this uncle whose name was Hallahan, and he went with a woman once who
kept acting like she couldn’t remember his name right and calling him Hooligan just to get his goat.
It went on for months before he stopped her. Stopped her good, too.”
“Oh? How did he stop her?” the doctor asks.
McMurphy grins and rubs his nose with his thumb. “Ah-ah, now, I can’t be tellin’ that. I keep
Unk Hallahan’s method a strict secret, you see, in case I need to use it myself someday.”
He says it right at the nurse. She smiles right back at him, [46] and he looks over at the doctor.
“Now; what was you asking about my record, Doc?”
“Yes. I was wondering if you’ve any previous psychiatric history. Any analysis, any time spent in
any other institution?”
“Well, counting state and county coolers—”
“Mental institutions.”
“Ah. No, if that’s the case. This is my first trip. But I am crazy, Doc. I swear I am. Well here—let
me show you here. I believe that other doctor at the work farm ...”
He gets up, slips the deck of cards in the pocket of his jacket, and comes across the room to lean
over the doctor’s shoulder and thumb through the folder in his lap. “Believe he wrote something,
back at the back here somewhere ...”
“Yes? I missed that. Just a moment.” The doctor fishes his glasses out again and puts them on
and looks to where McMurphy is pointing.
“Right here, Doc. The nurse left this part out while she was summarizing my record. Where it says,
‘Mr. McMurphy has evidenced repeated’—I just want to make sure I’m understood completely,
Doc—‘repeated outbreaks of passion that suggest the possible diagnosis of psychopath.’ He told me
that’psychopath’ means I fight and fuh—pardon me, ladies—means I am he put it overzealous in my
sexual relations. Doctor, is that real serious?”
He asks it with such a little-boy look of worry and concern all over his broad, tough face that the
doctor can’t help bending his head to hide another little snicker in his collar, and his glasses fall from
his nose dead center back in his pocket. All of the Acutes are smiling too, now, and even some of
the Chronics.
“I mean that overzealousness, Doc, have you ever been troubled by it?”
The doctor wipes his eyes. “No, Mr. McMurphy, I’ll admit I haven’t. I am interested, however,
that the doctor at the work farm added this statement: ‘Don’t overlook the possibility that this man
might be feigning psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm.’ ” He looks up at McMurphy.
“And what about that, Mr. McMurphy?”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Doctor”—he stands up to his full height, wrinkles his forehead, and holds out both arms, open
and honest to all the wide world—”do I look like a sane man?”
The doctor is working so hard to keep from giggling again he can’t answer. McMurphy pivots
away from the doctor and asks the same thing of the Big Nurse: “Do I?” Instead of answering she
stands up and takes the manila folder away from [47] the doctor and puts it back in the basket under
her watch. She sits back down.
“Perhaps, Doctor, you should advise Mr. McMurry on the protocol of these Group Meetings.”
“Ma’am,” McMurphy says, “have I told you about my uncle Hallahan and the woman who used
to screw up his name?”
She looks at him for a long time without her smile. She has the ability to turn her smile into
whatever expression she wants to use on somebody, but the look she turns it into is no different,
just a calculated and mechanical expression to serve her purpose. Finally she says, “I beg your
pardon, Mack-Murph-y.” She turns back to the doctor. “Now, Doctor, if you would explain ...”
The doctor folds his hands and leans back. “Yes. I suppose What I should do is explain the
complete theory of our Therapeutic Community, while we’re at it. Though I usually save it until later.
Yes. A good idea, Miss Ratched, a fine idea.”
“Certainly the theory too, doctor, but what I had in mind was the rule, that the patients remain
seated during the course of the meeting,”
“Yes. Of course. Then I will explain the theory. Mr. McMurphy, one of the first things is that the
patients remain seated during the course of the meeting. It’s the only way, you see, for us to
maintain order.”
“Sure, Doctor. I just got up to show you that thing in my record book.”
He goes over to his chair, gives another big stretch and yawn, sits down, and moves around for a
while like a dog coming to rest. When he’s comfortable, he looks over at the doctor, waiting.
“As to the theory ...” The doctor takes a deep, happy breath.
“Ffffuck da wife,” Ruckly says. McMurphy hides his mouth behind the back of his hand and calls
across the ward to Ruckly in a scratchy whisper, “Whose wife?” and Martini’s head snaps up, eyes
wide and staring. “Yeah,” he says, “whose wife? Oh. Her? Yeah, I see her. Yeah.”
“I’d give a lot to have that man’s eyes,” McMurphy says of Martini and then doesn’t say anything
all the rest of the meeting. Just sits and watches and doesn’t miss a thing that happens or a word
that’s said. The doctor talks about his theory until the Big Nurse finally decides he’s used up time
enough and asks him to hush so they can get on to Harding, and they talk the rest of the meeting
about that.
McMurphy sits forward in his chair a couple of times during [48] the meeting like he might have
something to say, but he decides better and leans back. There’s a puzzled expression coming over
his face. Something strange is going on here, he’s finding out. He can’t quite put his finger on it.
Like the way nobody will laugh. Now he thought sure there would be a laugh when he asked Ruckly,
“Whose wife?” but there wasn’t even a sign of one. The air is pressed in by the walls, too tight for
laughing. There’s something strange about a place where the men won’t let themselves loose and
laugh, something strange about the way they all knuckle under to that smiling flour-faced old mother
there with the too-red lipstick and the too-big boobs. And he thinks he’ll just wait a while to see
what the story is in this new place before he makes any kind of play. That’s a good rule for a smart
gambler: look the game over awhile before you draw yourself a hand.
I’ve heard that theory of the Therapeutic Community enough times to repeat it forwards and
backwards—how a guy has to learn to get along in a group before he’ll be able to function in a
normal society; how the group can help the guy by showing him where he’s out of place; how
society is what decides who’s sane and who isn’t, so you got to measure up. All that stuff. Every
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
time we get a new patient on the ward the doctor goes into the theory with both feet; it’s pretty near
the only time he takes things over and runs the meeting. He tells how the goal of the Therapeutic
Community is a democratic ward, run completely by the patients and their votes, working toward
making worth-while citizens to turn back Outside onto the street. Any little gripe, any grievance,
anything you want changed, he says, should be brought up before the group and discussed instead of
letting it fester inside of you. Also you should feel at ease in your surroundings to the extent you can
freely discuss emotional problems in front of patients and staff. Talk, he says, discuss, confess. And
if you hear a friend say something during the course of your everyday conversation, then list it in the
log book for the staff to see. It’s not, as the movies call it, “squealing,” it’s helping your fellow. Bring
these old sins into the open where they can be washed by the sight of all. And participate in Group
Discussion. Help yourself and your friends probe into the secrets of the subconscious. There should
be no need for secrets among friends.
Our intention, he usually ends by saying, is to make this as much like your own democratic, free
neighborhoods as possible—a little world Inside that is a made-to-scale prototype of [49] the big
world Outside that you will one day be taking your place in again.
He’s maybe got more to say, but about this point the Big Nurse usually hushes him, and in the
lull old Pete stands up and wigwags that battered copper-pot head and tells everybody how tired he
is, and the nurse tells somebody to go hush him up too, so the meeting can continue, and Pete is
generally hushed and the meeting goes on.
Once, just one time that I can remember, four or five years back, did it go any different. The
doctor had finished his spiel, and the nurse had opened right up with, “Now. Who will start? Let out
those old secrets.” And she’d put all the Acutes in a trance by sitting there in silence for twenty
minutes after the question, quiet as an electric alarm about to go off, waiting for somebody to start
telling something about themselves. Her eyes swept back and forth over them as steady as a turning
beacon. The day room was clamped silent for twenty long minutes, with all of the patients stunned
where they sat. When twenty minutes had passed, she looked at her watch and said, “Am I to take it
that there’s not a man among you that has committed some act that he has never admitted?” She
reached in the basket for the log book. “Must we go over past history?”
That triggered something, some acoustic device in the walls, rigged to turn on at just the sound of
those words coming from her mouth. The Acutes stiffened. Their mouths opened in unison. Her
sweeping eyes stopped on the first man along the wall.
His mouth worked. “I robbed a cash register in a service station.”
She moved to the next man.
“I tried to take my little sister to bed.”
Her eyes clicked to the next man; each one jumped like a shooting-gallery target.
“I—one time—wanted to take my brother to bed.”
“I killed my cat when I was six. Oh, God forgive me, I stoned her to death and said my neighbor
did it.”
“I lied about trying. I did take my sister!”
“So did I! So did I!”
“And me! And me!”
It was better than she’d dreamed. They were all shouting to outdo one another, going further and
further, no way of stopping, telling things that wouldn’t ever let them look one another in the eye
again. The nurse nodding at each confession and saying Yes, yes, yes.
Then old Pete was on his feet. “I’m tired!” was what he [50] shouted, a strong, angry copper tone
to his voice that no one had ever heard before.
Everyone hushed. They were somehow ashamed. It was as if he had suddenly said something
that was real and true and important and it had put all their childish hollering to shame. The Big
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
Nurse was furious. She swiveled and glared at him, the smile dripping over her chin; she’d just had it
going so good.
“Somebody see to poor Mr. Bancini,” she said.
Two or three got up. They tried to soothe him, pat him on his shoulder. But Pete wasn’t being
hushed. “Tired! Tired!” he kept on.
Finally the nurse sent one of the black boys to take him out of the day room by force. She forgot
that the black boys didn’t hold any control over people like Pete.
Pete’s been a Chronic all his life. Even though he didn’t come into the hospital till he was better
than fifty, he’d always been a Chronic. His head has two big dents, one on each side, where the
doctor who was with his mother at horning time pinched his skull trying to pull him out. Pete had
looked out first and seer. all the delivery-room machinery waiting for him and somehow realized
what he was being born into, and had grabbed on to everything handy in there to try to stave off
being born. The doctor reached in and got him by the head with a set of dulled ice tongs and jerked
him loose and figured everything was all right. But Pete’s head was still too new, and soft as clay,
and when it set, those two dents left by the tongs stayed. And this made him simple to where it took
all his straining effort and concentration and will power just to do the tasks that came easy to a kid
of six.
But one good thing—being simple like that put him out of the clutch of the Combine. They
weren’t able to mold him into a slot. So they let him get a simple job on the railroad, where all he
had to do was sit in a little clapboard house way out in the sticks on a lonely switch and wave a red
lantern at the trains if the switch was one way, and a green one if it was the other, and a yellow one
if there was a train someplace up ahead. And he did it, with main force and a gutpower they couldn’t
mash out of his head, out by himself on that switch. And he never had any controls installed.
That’s why the black boy didn’t have any say over him. But the black boy didn’t think of that
right off any more than the nurse did when she ordered Pete removed from the day room. The
black boy walked right up and gave Pete’s arm a jerk [51] toward the door, just like you’d jerk the
reins on a plow horse to turn him.
“Tha’s right, Pete. Less go to the dorm. You disturbin’ ever’body.”
Pete shook his arm loose. “I’m tired,” he warned.
“C’mon, old man, you makin’ a fuss. Less us go to bed and be still like a good boy.”
“Tired ...”
“I said you goin’ to the dorm, old man!”
The black boy jerked at his arm again, and Pete stopped wigwagging his head. He stood up
straight and steady, and his eyes snapped clear. Usually Pete’s eyes are half shut and all murked up,
like there’s milk in them, but this time they came clear as blue neon. And the hand on that arm the
black boy was holding commenced to swell up. The staff and most of the rest of the patients were
talking among themselves, not paying any attention to this old guy and his old song about being
tired, figuring he’d be quieted down as usual and the meeting would go on. They didn’t see the hand
on the end of that arm pumping bigger and bigger as he clenched and unclenched it. I was the only
one saw it. I saw it swell and clench shut, flow in front of my eyes, become smooth—hard. A big
rusty iron ball at the end of a chain. I stared at it and waited, while the black boy gave Pete’s arm
another jerk toward the dorm.
“Ol’ man, I say you got—”
He saw the hand. He tried to edge back away from it, saying, “You a good boy, Peter,” but he
was a shade too late. Pete had that big iron ball swinging all the way from his knees. The black boy
whammed flat against the wall and stuck, then slid down to the floor like the wall there was greased.
I heard tubes pop and short all over inside that wall, and the plaster cracked just the shape of how
he hit.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
The other two—the least one and the other big one—stood stunned. The nurse snapped her
fingers, and they sprang into motion. Instant movement, sliding across the floor. The little one
beside the other like an image in a reducing mirror. They were almost to Pete when it suddenly
struck them what the other boy should of known, that Pete wasn’t wired under control like the rest
of us, that he wasn’t about to mind just because they gave him an order or gave his arm a jerk. If
they were to take him they’d have to take him like you take a wild bear or bull, and with one of their
number out cold against the baseboards, the other two black boys didn’t care for the odds.
[52] This thought got them both at once and they froze, the big one and his tiny image, in exactly
the same position, left foot forward, right hand out, halfway between Pete and the Big Nurse. That
iron ball swinging in front of them and that snowwhite anger behind them, they shook and smoked
and I could hear gears grinding. I could see them twitch with confusion, like machines throttled full
ahead and with the brake on.
Pete stood there in the middle of the floor, swinging that ball back and forth at his side, all leaned
over to its weight. Everybody was watching him now. He looked from the big black boy to the little
one, and when he saw they weren’t about to come any closer he turned to the patients.
“You see—it’s a lotta baloney,” he told them, “it’s all a lotta baloney.”
The Big Nurse had slid from her chair and was working toward her wicker bag leaning at the
door. “Yes, yes, Mr. Bancini,” she crooned, “now if you’ll just be calm—”
“That’s all it is, nothin’ but a lotta baloney.” His voice lost its copper strength and became
strained and urgent like he didn’t have much time to finish what he had to say. “Ya see, I can’t help
it, I can’t—don’t ya see. I was born dead. Not you. You wasn’t born dead. Ahhhh, it’s been hard ...”
He started to cry. He couldn’t make the words come out right anymore; he opened and closed his
mouth to talk but he couldn’t sort the words into sentences any more. He shook his head to clear it
and blinked at the Acutes:
“Ahhhh, I ... tell ... ya ... I tell you.”
He began slumping over again, and his iron ball shrank back to a hand. He held it cupped out in
front of him like he was offering something to the patients.
“I can’t help it. I was born a miscarriage. I had so many insults I died. I was born dead. I can’t
help it. I’m tired. I’m give out trying. You got chances. I had so many insults I was born dead. You
got it easy. I was born dead an’ life was hard. I’m tired. I’m tired out talking and standing up. I been
dead fifty-five years.”
The Big Nurse got him clear across the room, right through his greens. She jumped back without
getting the needle pulled out after the shot and it hung there from his pants like a little tail of glass
and steel, old Pete slumping farther and farther forward, not from the shot but from the effort; the
last couple of minutes had worn him out finally and completely, once and for all—you could just
look at him and tell he was finished.
So there wasn’t really any need for the shot; his head had already commenced to wag back and
forth and his eyes were [53] murky. By the time the nurse eased back in to get the needle he was
bent so far forward he was crying directly on the floor without wetting his face, tears spotting a wide
area as he swung his head back and forth, spatting, spatting, in an even pattern on the day-room
floor, like he was sowing them. “Ahhhhh,” he said. He didn’t flinch when she jerked the needle out.
He had come to life for maybe a minute to try to tell us something, something none of us cared
to listen to or tried to understand, and the effort had drained him dry. That shot in his hip was as
wasted as if she’d squirted it in a dead man—no heart to pump it, no vein to carry it up to his head,
no brain up there for it to mortify with its poison. She’d just as well shot it in a dried-out old
“I’m ... tired ...”
“Now. I think if you two boys are brave enough, Mr. Bancini will go to bed like a good fellow.”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“... aw-ful tired.”
“And Aide Williams is coming around, Doctor Spivey. See to him, won’t you. Here. His watch is
broken and he’s cut his arm.”
Pete never tried anything like that again, and he never will. Now, when he starts acting up during
a meeting and they try to hush him, he always hushes. He’ll still get up from time to time and wag
his head and let us know how tired he is, but it’s not a complaint or excuse or warning any more—
he’s finished with that; it’s like an old clock that won’t tell time but won’t stop neither, with the
hands bent out of shape and the face bare of numbers and the alarm bell rusted silent, an old,
worthless clock that just keeps ticking and cuckooing without meaning nothing.
The group is still tearing into poor Harding when two o’clock rolls around.
At two o’clock the doctor begins to squirm around in his chair. The meetings are uncomfortable
for the doctor unless he’s talking about his theory; he’d rather spend his time down in his office,
drawing on graphs. He squirms around and finally clears his tbroat, and the nurse looks at her watch
and tells us to bring the tables back in from the tub room and we’ll resume this discussion again at
one tomorrow. The Acutes click out of their trance, look for an instant in Harding’s direction. Their
faces burn with a shame like they have just woke up to the fact they been played for suckers again.
Some of them go to the tub room across the hall to get the tables, some [54] wander over to the
magazine racks and show a lot of interest in the old McCall’s magazines, but what they’re all really
doing is avoiding Harding. They’ve been maneuvered again into grilling one of their friends like he
was a criminal and they were all prosecutors and judge and jury. For forty-five minutes they been
chopping a man to pieces, almost as if they enjoyed it, shooting questions at him: What’s he think is
the matter with him that he can’t please the little lady; why’s he insist she has never had anything to
do with another man; how’s he expect to get well if he doesn’t answer honestly?—questions and
insinuations till now they feel bad about it and they don’t want to be made more uncomfortable by
being near him.
McMurphy’s eyes follow all of this. He doesn’t get out of his chair. He looks puzzled again. He
sits in his chair for a while, watching the Acutes, scuffing that deck of cards up and down the red
stubble on his chin, then finally stands up from his arm chair, yawns and stretches and scratches his
belly button with a corner of a card, then puts the deck in his pocket and walks over to where
Harding is off by himself, sweated to his chair.
McMurphy looks down at Harding a minute, then laps his big hand over the back of a nearby
wooden chair, swings it around so the back is facing Harding, and straddles it like he’d straddle a
tiny horse. Harding hasn’t noticed a thing. McMurphy slaps his pockets till he finds his cigarettes,
and takes one out and lights it; he holds it out in front of him and frowns at the tip, licks his thumb
and finger, and arranges the fire to suit him.
Each man seems unaware of the other. I can’t even tell if Harding’s noticed McMurphy at all.
Harding’s got his thin shoulders folded nearly together around himself, like green wings, and he’s
sitting very straight near the edge of his chair, with his hands trapped between his knees. He’s staring
straight ahead, humming to himself, trying to look calm—but he’s chewing at his cheeks, and this
gives him a funny skull grin, not calm at all.
McMurphy puts his cigarette back between his teeth and folds his hands over the wooden chair
back and leans his chin on them, squinting one eye against the smoke. He looks at Harding with his
other eye a while, then starts talking with that cigarette wagging up and down in his lips.
“Well say, buddy, is this the way these leetle meetings usually go?”
“Usually go?” Harding’s humming stops. He’s not chewing [55] his cheeks any more but he still
stares ahead, past McMurphy’s shoulder.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Is this the usual pro-cedure for these Group Ther’py shindigs? Bunch of chickens at a peckin’
Harding’s head turns with a jerk and his eyes find McMurphy, like it’s the first time he knows that
anybody’s sitting in front of him. His face creases in the middle when he bites his cheeks again, and
this makes it look like he’s grinning. He pulls his shoulders back and scoots to the back of the chair
and tries to look relaxed.
“A ‘pecking party’? I fear your quaint down-home speech is wasted on me, my friend. I have not
the slightest inclination what you’re talking about.”
“Why then, I’ll just explain it to you.” McMurphy raises his voice; though he doesn’t look at the
other Acutes listening behind him, it’s them he’s talking to. “The flock gets sight of a spot of blood
on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it, see, till they rip the chicken to shreds, blood and
bones and feathers. But usually a couple of the flock gets spotted in the fracas, then it’s their turn.
And a few more gets spots and gets pecked to death, and more and more. Oh, a peckin’ party can
wipe out the whole flock in a matter of a few hours, buddy, I seen it. A mighty awesome sight. The
only way to prevent it—with chickens—is to clip blinders on them. So’s they can’t see.”
Harding laces his long fingers around a knee and draws the knee toward him, leaning back in the
chair. “A pecking party. That certainly is a pleasant analogy, my friend.”
“And that’s just exactly what that meeting I just set through reminded me of, buddy, if you want
to know the dirty truth. It reminded me of a flock of dirty chickens.”
“So that makes me the chicken with the spot of blood, friend?”
“That’s right, buddy.”
They’re still grinning at each other, but their voices have dropped so low and taut I have to sweep
over closer to them with my broom to hear. The other Acutes are moving up closer too.
“And you want to know somethin’ else, buddy? You want to know who pecks that first peck?”
Harding waits for him to go on.
“It’s that old nurse, that’s who.”
There’s a whine of fear over the silence. I hear the machinery in the walls catch and go on.
Harding is having a tough time holding his hands still, but he keeps trying to act calm.
“So,” he says, “it’s as simple as that, as stupidly simple as [56] that. You’re on our ward six hours
and have already simplified all the work of Freud, Jung, and Maxwell Jones and summed it up in one
analogy: it’s a ‘peckin’ party.’ ”
“I’m not talking about Fred Yoong and Maxwell Jones, buddy, I’m just talking about that
crummy meeting and what that nurse and those other bastards did to you. Did in spades.”
“Did to me?”
“That’s right, did. Did you every chance they got. Did you coming and did you going. You must
of done something to makes a passle of enemies here in this place, buddy, because it seems there’s
sure a passle got it in for you.”
“Why, this is incredible. You completely disregard, completely overlook and disregard the fact
that what the fellows were doing today was for my own benefit? That any question or discussion
raised by Miss Ratched or the rest of the staff is done solely for therapeutic reasons? You must not
have heard a word of Doctor Spivey’s theory of the Therapeutic Community, or not have had the
education to comprehend it if you did. I’m disappointed in you, my friend, oh, very disappointed. I
had judged from our encounter this morning that you were more intelligent—an illiterate clod,
perhaps, certainly a backwoods braggart with no more sensitivity than a goose, but basically
intelligent nevertheless. But, observant and insightful though I usually am, I still make mistakes.”
“The hell with you, buddy.”
“Oh, yes; I forgot to add that I noticed your primitive brutality also this morning. Psychopath
with definite sadistic tendencies, probably motivated by an unreasoning egomania. Yes. As you see,
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
all these natural talents certainly qualify you as a competent therapist and render you quite capable of
criticizing Miss Ratched’s meeting procedure, in spite of the fact that she is a highly regarded
psychiatric nurse with twenty years in the field. Yes, with your talent, my friend, you could work
subconscious miracles, soothe the aching id and heal the wounded superego. You could probably
bring about a cure for the whole ward, Vegetables and all, in six short months, ladies and gentlemen
or your money back.”
Instead of rising to the argument, McMurphy just keeps on looking at Harding, finally asks in a
level voice, “And you really think this crap that went on in the meeting today is bringing about some
kinda cure, doing some kinda good?”
“What other reason would we have for submitting ourselves to it, my friend? The staff desires
our cure as much as we do. They aren’t monsters. Miss Ratched may be a strict middle-aged lady,
but she’s not some kind of giant monster of [57] the poultry clan, bent on sadistically pecking out
our eyes. You can’t believe that of her, can you?”
“No, buddy, not that. She ain’t peckin’ at your eyes. That’s not what she’s peckin’ at.”
Harding flinches, and I see his hands begin to creep out from between his knees like white
spiders from between two moss-covered tree limbs, up the limbs toward the joining at the trunk.
“Not our eyes?” he says. “Pray, then, where is Miss Ratched pecking, my friend?”
McMurphy grinned. “Why, don’t you know, buddy?”
“No, of course I don’t know! I mean, if you insi—”
“At your balls, buddy, at your everlovin’ balls.”
The spiders reach the joining at the trunk and settle there, twitching. Harding tries to grin, but his
face and lips are so white the grin is lost. He stares at McMurphy. McMurphy takes the cigarette out
of his mouth and repeats what he said.
“Right at your balls. No, that nurse ain’t some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a
ball-cutter. I’ve seen a thousand of ‘em, old and young, men and women. Seen ‘em all over the
country and in the homes—people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to
follow their rules, to live like they want you to. And the best way to do this, to get you to knuckle
under, is to weaken you by gettin’ you where it hurts the worst. You ever been kneed in the nuts in a
brawl, buddy? Stops you cold, don’t it? There’s nothing worse. It makes you sick, it saps every bit of
strength you got. If you’re up against a guy who wants to win by making you weaker instead of
making himself stronger, then watch for his knee, he’s gonna go for your vitals. And that’s what that
old buzzard is doing, going for your vitals.”
Harding’s face is still colorless, but he’s got control of his hands again; they flip loosely before
him, trying to toss off what McMurphy has been saying:
“Our dear Miss Ratched? Our sweet, smiling, tender angel of mercy, Mother Ratched, a ballcutter?
Why, friend, that’s most unlikely.”
“Buddy, don’t give me that tender little mother crap. She may be a mother, but she’s big as a
damn barn and tough as knife metal. She fooled me with that kindly little old mother bit for maybe
three minutes when I came in this morning, but no longer. I don’t think she’s really fooled any of
you guys for any six months or a year, neither. Hooowee, I’ve seen some bitches in my time, but she
takes the cake.”
“A bitch? But a moment ago she was a ball-cutter, then a [58] buzzard—or was it a chicken?
Your metaphors are bumping into each other, my friend.”
“The hell with that; she’s a bitch and a buzzard and a ball-cutter, and don’t kid me, you know
what I’m talking about.”
Harding’s face and hands are moving faster than ever now, a speeded film of gestures, grins,
grimaces, sneers. The more he tries to stop it, the faster it goes. When he lets his hands and face
move like they want to and doesn’t try to hold them back, they flow and gesture in a way that’s real
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
pretty to watch, but when he worries about them and tries to hold back he becomes a wild, jerky
puppet doing a high-strung dance. Everything is moving faster and faster, and his voice is speeding
up to match.
“Why, see here, my friend Mr. McMurphy, my psychopathic sidekick, our Miss Ratched is a
veritable angel of mercy and why just everyone knows it. She’s unselfish as the wind, toiling thanklessly
for the good of all, day after day, five long days a week. That takes heart, my friend, heart. In fact, I
have been informed by sources—I am not at liberty to disclose my sources, but I might say that
Martini is in contact with the same people a good part of the time—that she even further serves
mankind on her weekends off by doing generous volunteer work about town. Preparing a rich array
of charity—canned goods, cheese for the binding effect, soap—and presenting it to some poor
young couple having a difficult time financially.” His hands flash in the air, molding the picture he is
describing. “Ah, look: There she is, our nurse. Her gentle knock on the door. The ribboned basket.
The young couple overjoyed to the point of speechlessness. The husband open-mouthed, the wife
weeping openly. She appraises their dwelling. Promises to send them money for—scouring powder,
yes. She places the basket in the center of the floor. And when our angel leaves—throwing kisses,
smiling ethereally—she is so intoxicated with the sweet milk of human kindness that her deed has
generated within her large bosom, that she is beside herself with generosity. Be-side herself, do you
hear? Pausing at the door, she draws the timid young bride to one side and offers her twenty dollars
of her own: ‘Go, you poor unfortunate underfed child, go, and buy yourself a decent dress. I realize
your husband can’t afford it, but here, take this, and go.’ And the couple is forever indebted to her
He’s been talking faster and faster, the cords stretching out in his neck. When he stops talking,
the ward is completely silent. I don’t hear anything but a faint reeling rhythm, what I figure is a tape
recorder somewhere getting all of this.
[59] Harding looks around, sees everybody’s watching him, and he does his best to laugh. A
sound comes out of his mouth like a nail being crowbarred out of a plank of green pine; Eee-eeeeee.
He can’t stop it. He wrings his hands like a fly and clinches his eyes at the awful sound of that
squeaking. But he can’t stop it. It gets higher and higher until finally, with a suck of breath, he lets
his face fall into his waiting hands.
“Oh the bitch, the bitch, the bitch,” he whispers through his teeth.
McMurphy lights another cigarette and offers it to him; Harding takes it without a word.
McMurphy is still watching Harding’s face in front of him there, with a kind of puzzled wonder,
looking at it like it’s the first human face he ever laid eyes on. He watches while Harding’s twitching
and jerking slows down and the face comes up from the hands.
“You are right,” Harding says, “about all of it.” He looks up at the other patients who are
watching him. “No one’s ever dared come out and say it before, but there’s not a man among us
that doesn’t think it, that doesn’t feel just as you do about her and the whole business—feel it
somewhere down deep in his scared little soul.”
McMurphy frowns and asks, “What about that little fart of a doctor? He might be a little slow in
the head, but not so much as not to be able to see how she’s taken over and what she’s doing.”
Harding takes a long pull off the cigarette and lets the smoke drift out with his talk. “Doctor
Spivey … is exactly like the rest of us, McMurphy, completely conscious of his inadequacy. He’s a
frightened, desperate, ineffectual little rabbit, totally incapable of running this ward without our Miss
Ratched’s help, and he knows it. And, worse, she knows he knows it and reminds him every chance
she gets. Every time she finds he’s made a little slip in the bookwork or in, say, the charting you can
just imagine her in there grinding his nose in it.”
“That’s right,” Cheswick says, coming up beside McMurphy, “grinds our noses in our mistakes.”
“Why don’t he fire her?”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“In this hospital,” Harding says, “the doctor doesn’t hold the power of hiring and firing. That
power goes to the supervisor, and the supervisor is a woman, a dear old friend of Miss Ratched’s;
they were Army nurses together in the thirties. We are victims of a matriarchy here, my friend, and
the doctor is just as helpless against it as we are. He knows that all Ratched has to do is pick up that
phone you see sitting [60] at her elbow and call the supervisor and mention, oh, say, that the doctor
seems to be making a great number of requisitions for Demerol—”
“Hold it, Harding, I’m not up on all this shop talk.”
“Demerol, my friend, is a synthetic opiate, twice as addictive as heroin. Quite common for
doctors to be addicted to it.”
“That little fart? Is he a dope addict?”
“I’m certain I don’t know.”
“Then where does she get off with accusing him of—”
“Oh, you’re not paying attention, my friend. She doesn’t accuse. She merely needs to insinuate,
insinuate anything, don’t you see? Didn’t you notice today? She’ll call a man to the door of the
Nurses’ Station and stand there and ask him about a Kleenex found under his bed. No more, just
ask. And he’ll feel like he’s lying to her, whatever answer he gives. If he says he was cleaning a pen
with it, she’ll say, ‘I see, a pen,’ or if he says he has a cold in his nose, she’ll say, ‘I see, a cold,’ and
she’ll nod her neat little gray coiffure and smile her neat little smile and turn and go back into the
Nurses’ Station, leave him standing there wondering just what did he use that Kleenex for.”
He starts to tremble again, and his shoulders fold back around him.
“No. She doesn’t need to accuse. She has a genius for insinuation. Did you ever hear her, in the
course of our discussion today, ever once hear her accuse me of anything? Yet it seems I have been
accused of a multitude of things, of jealousy and paranoia, of not being man enough to satisfy my
wife, of having relations with male friends of mine, of holding my cigarette in an affected manner,
even—it seems to me—accused of having nothing between my legs but a patch of hair—and soft
and downy and blond hair at that! Ball-cutter? Oh, you underestimate her!”
Harding hushes all of a sudden and leans forward to take McMurphy’s hand in both of his. His
face is tilted oddly, edged, jagged purple and gray, a busted wine bottle.
“This world ... belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong
getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must face up to this. No more than right that it should
be this way. We must learn to accept it as a law of the natural world. The rabbits accept their role in
the ritual and recognize the wolf as the strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and
elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows
his place. He most certainly doesn’t [61] challenge the wolf to combat. Now, would that be wise?
Would it?”
He lets go McMurphy’s hand and leans back and crosses his legs, takes another long pull off the
cigarette. He pulls the cigarette from his thin crack of a smile, and the laugh starts up again—eeeeee-
eee, like a nail coming out of a plank.
“Mr. McMurphy ... my friend ... I’m not a chicken, I’m a rabbit. The doctor is a rabbit. Cheswick
there is a rabbit. Billy Bibbit is a rabbit. All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees,
hippity-hopping through our Walt Disney world. Oh, don’t misunderstand me, we’re not in here
because we are rabbits—we’d be rabbits wherever we were—we’re all in here because we can’t adjust
to our rabbithood. We need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach us our place.”
“Man, you’re talkin’ like a fool. You mean to tell me that you’re gonna sit back and let some old
blue-haired woman talk you into being a rabbit?”
“Not talk me into it, no. I was born a rabbit. Just look at me. I simply need the nurse to make me
happy with my role.”
“You’re no damned rabbit!”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“See the ears? the wiggly nose? the cute little button tail?”
“You’re talking like a crazy ma—”
“Like a crazy man? How astute.”
“Damn it, Harding, I didn’t mean it like that. You ain’t crazy that way. I mean—hell, I been
surprised how sane you guys all are. As near as I can tell you’re not any crazier than the average
asshole on the street—”
“Ah yes, the asshole on the street.”
“But not, you know, crazy like the movies paint crazy people. You’re just hung up and—kind
“Kind of rabbit-like, isn’t that it?”
“Rabbits, hell! Not a thing like rabbits, goddammit.”
“Mr. Bibbit, hop around for Mr. McMurphy here. Mr. Cheswick, show him how furry, you are.”
Billy Bibbit and Cheswick change into hunched-over white rabbits, right before my eyes, but they
are too ashamed to do any of the things Harding told them to do.
“Ah, they’re bashful, McMurphy. Isn’t that sweet? Or, perhaps, the fellows are ill at ease because
they didn’t stick up for their friend. Perhaps they are feeling guilty for the way they once again let
her victimize them into being her interrogators. Cheer up, friends, you’ve no reason to feel ashamed.
It is all as it should be. It’s not the rabbit’s place to stick up for his fellow. That would have been
foolish. No, you were wise, cowardly but wise.”
[62] “Look here, Harding,” Cheswick says.
“No, no, Cheswick. Don’t get irate at the truth.”
“Now look here; there’s been times when I’ve said the same things about old lady Ratched that
McMurphy has been saying.”
“Yes, but you said them very quietly and took them all back later. You are a rabbit too, don’t try
to avoid the truth. That’s why I hold no grudge against you for the questions you asked me during
the meeting today. You were only playing your role. If you had been on the carpet, or you Billy, or
you Fredrickson, I would have attacked you just as cruelly as you attacked me. We mustn’t be
ashamed of our behavior; it’s the way we little animals were meant to behave.”
McMurphy turns in his chair and looks the other Acutes up and down. “I ain’t so sure but what
they should be ashamed. Personally, I thought it was damned crummy the way they swung in on her
side against you. For a minute there I thought I was back in a Red Chinese prison camp ...”
“Now by God, McMurphy,” Cheswick says, “you listen here.”
McMurphy turns and listens, but Cheswick doesn’t go on. Cheswick never goes on; he’s one of
these guys who’ll make a big fuss like he’s going to lead an attack, holler charge and stomp up and
down a minute, take a couple steps, and quit. McMurphy looks at him where he’s been caught off
base again after such a tough-sounding start, and says to him, “A hell of a lot like a Chinese prison
Harding holds up his hands for peace. “Oh, no, no, that isn’t right. You mustn’t condemn us, my
friend. No. In fact …”
I see that sly fever come into Harding’s eye again; I think he’s going to start laughing, but instead
he takes his cigarette out of his mouth and points it at McMurphy—in his hand it looks like one of
his thin, white fingers, smoking at the end.
“… you too, Mr. McMurphy, for all your cowboy bluster and your sideshow swagger, you too,
under that crusty surface, are probably just as soft and fuzzy and rabbit-souled as we are.”
“Yeah, you bet. I’m a little cottontail. Just what is it makes me a rabbit, Harding? My
psychopathic tendencies? Is it my fightin’ tendencies, or my fuckin’ tendencies? Must be the fuckin’,
mustn’t it? All that whambam-thank-you-ma’am. Yeah, that whambam, that’s probably what makes
me a rabbit—”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Wait; I’m afraid you’ve raised a point that requires some deliberation. Rabbits are noted for that
certain trait, aren’t they? Notorious, in fact, for their whambam. Yes. Um. But [63] in any case, the.
point you bring up simply indicates that you are a healthy, functioning and adequate rabbit, whereas
most of us in here even lack the sexual ability to make the grade as adequate rabbits. Failures, we
are—feeble, stunted, weak little creatures in a weak little race. Rabbits, sans whambam; a pathetic
“Wait a minute; you keep twistin’ what I say—”
“No. You were right. You remember, it was you that drew our attention to the place where the
nurse was concentrating her pecking? That was true. There’s not a man here that isn’t afraid he is
losing or has already lost his whambam. We comical little creatures can’t even achieve masculinity in
the rabbit world, that’s how weak and inadequate we are. Hee. We are—the rabbits, one might say, of
the rabbit world!”
He leans forward again, and that strained, squeaking laugh of his that I been expecting begins to
rise from his mouth, his hands flipping around, his lace twitching.
“Harding! Shut your damned mouth!”
It’s like a slap. Harding is hushed, chopped off cold with his mouth still open in a drawn grin, his
hands dangling in a cloud of blue tobacco smoke. He freezes this way a second; then his eyes narrow
into sly little holes and he lets them slip over to McMurphy, speaks so soft that I have to push my
broom up right next to his chair to hear what he says.
“Friend ... you ... may be a wolf.”
“Goddammit, I’m no wolf and you’re no rabbit. Hoo, I never heard such—”
“You have a very wolfy roar.”
With a loud hissing o: breath McMurphy turns from Harding to the rest of the Acutes standing
around. “Here; all you guys. What the hell is the matter with you? You ain’t as crazy as all this,
thinking you’re some animal.”
“No,” Cheswick says and steps in beside McMurphy. “No, by God, not me. I’m not any rabbit.”
“That’s the boy, Cheswick. And the rest of you, let’s just knock it off. Look at you, talking
yourself into running scared from some fifty-year-old woman. What is there she can do to you,
“Yeah, what?” Cheswick says and glares around at the others.
“She can’t have you whipped. She can’t burn you with hot irons. She can’t tie you to the rack.
They got laws about that sort of thing nowadays; this ain’t the Middle Ages. There’s not a thing in
the world that she can—”
“You s-s-saw what she c-can do to us! In the m-m-meeting [64] today.” I see Billy Bibbit has
changed back from a rabbit. He leans toward McMurphy, trying to go on, his mouth wet with spit
and his face red. Then he turns and walks away. “Ah, it’s n-no use. I should just k-k-kill myself.”
McMurphy calls after him. “Today? What did I see in the meeting today? Hell’s bells, all I saw
today was her asking a couple of questions, and nice, easy questions at that. Questions ain’t
bonebreakers, they ain’t sticks and stones.”
Billy turns back. “But the wuh-wuh-way she asks them—”
“You don’t have to answer, do you?”
“If you d-don’t answer she just smiles and m-m-makes a note in her little book and then she—
she—oh, hell!”
Scanlon comes up beside Billy. “If you don’t answer her questions, Mack, you admit it just by
keeping quiet. It’s the way those bastards in the government get you. You can’t beat it. The only
thing to do is blow the whole business off the face of the whole bleeding earth—blow it all up.”
“Well, when she asks one of those questions, why don’t you tell her to up and go to hell?”
“Yeah,” Cheswick says, shaking his fist, “tell her to up and go to hell.”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“So then what, Mack? She’d just come right back with ‘Why do you seem so upset by that par-tikuler
question, Patient McMurphy?’ ”
“So, you tell her to go to hell again. Tell them all to go to hell. They still haven’t hurt you.”
The Acutes are crowding closer around him. Fredrickson answers this time. “Okay, you tell her
that and you’re listed as Potential Assaultive and shipped upstairs to the Disturbed ward. I had it
happen. Three times. Those poor goofs up there don’t even get off the ward to go to the Saturday
afternoon movie. They don’t even have a TV.”
“And, my friend, if you continue to demonstrate such hostile tendencies, such as telling people to
go to hell, you get lined up to go to the Shock Shop, perhaps even on to greater things, an operation,
“Damn it, Harding, I told you I’m not up on this talk.”
“The Shock Shop, Mr. McMurphy, is jargon for the EST machine, the Electro Shock Therapy. A
device that might be said to do the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair, and the torture rack.
It’s a clever little procedure, simple, quick, nearly painless it happens so fast, but no one ever wants
another one. Ever.”
“What’s this thing do?”
“You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, [65] with a crown of electric sparks in
place of thorns. You are touched on each side of the head with wires. Zap! Five cents’ worth of
electricity through the brain and you are jointly administered therapy and a punishment for your
hostile go-to-hell behavior, on top of being put out of everyone’s way for six hours to three days,
depending on the individual. Even when you do regain consciousness you are in a state of
disorientation for days. You are unable to think coherently. You can’t recall things. Enough of these
treatments and a man could turn out like Mr. Ellis you see over there against the wall. A drooling,
pants-wetting idiot at thirty-five. Or turn into a mindless organism that eats and eliminates and yells
‘fuck the wife,’ like Ruckly. Or look at Chief Broom clutching to his namesake there beside you.”
Harding points his cigarette at me, too late for me to back off. I make like I don’t notice. Go on
with my sweeping.
“I’ve heard that the Chief, years ago, received more than two hundred shock treatments when
they were really the vogue. Imagine what this could do to a mind that was already slipping. Look at
him: a giant janitor. There’s your Vanishing American, a six-foot-eight sweeping machine, scared of
its own shadow. That, my friend, is what we can be threatened with.”
McMurphy looks at me a while, then turns back to Harding. “Man, I tell you, how come you
stand for it? What about this democratic-ward manure that the doctor was giving me? Why don’t
you take a vote?”
Harding smiles at him and takes another slow drag on his cigarette. “Vote what, my friend? Vote
that the nurse may not ask any more questions in Group Meeting? Vote that she shall not look at us
in a certain way? You tell me, Mr. McMurphy, what do we vote on?”
“Hell, I don’t care. Vote on anything. Don’t you see you have to do something to show you still
got some guts? Don’t you see you can’t let her take over completely? Look at you here: you say the
Chief is scared of his own shadow, but I never saw a scareder-looking bunch in my life than you
“Not me!” Cheswick says.
“Maybe not you, buddy, but the rest are even scared to open up and laugh. You know, that’s the
first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real
laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose
your footing. A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him down till he can’t laugh any more, and he
loses one of the biggest edges he’s [66] got on his side. First thing you know he’ll begin to think
she’s tougher than he is and—”
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Ah. I believe my friend is catching on, fellow rabbits. Tell me, Mr. McMurphy, bow does one go
about showing a woman who’s boss, I mean other than laughing at her? How does he show her
who’s king of the mountain? A man like you should be able to tell us that. You don’t slap her
around, do you? No, then she calls the law. You don’t lose your temper and shout at her; she’ll win
by trying to placate her big ol’ angry boy: ‘Is us wittle man getting fussy? Ahhhhh?’ Have you ever
tried to keep up a noble and angry front in the face of such consolation? So you see, my friend, it is
somewhat as you stated: man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern
matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip,
motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon
useless and conquer those who have hitherto been the conquerors—”
“Lord, Harding, but you do come on,” McMurphy says.
“—and do you think, for all your acclaimed psychopathic powers, that you could effectively use
your weapon against our champion? Do you think you could use it against Miss Ratched,
McMurphy? Ever?”
And sweeps one of his hands toward the glass case. Everybody’s head turns to look. She’s in
there, looking out through her window, got a tape recorder hid out of sight somewhere, getting all
this down—already planning how to work it into the schedule.
The nurse sees everybody looking at her and she nods and they all turn away. McMurphy takes
off his cap and runs his hands into that red hair. Now everybody is looking at him; they’re waiting
for him to make an answer and he knows it. He feels he’s been trapped some way. He puts the cap
back on and rubs the stitch marks on his nose.
“Why, if you mean do I think I could get a bone up over that old buzzard, no, I don’t believe I
could. ...”
“She’s not all that homely, McMurphy. Her face is quite handsome and well preserved. And in
spite of all her attempts to conceal them, in that sexless get-up, you can still make out the evidence of
some rather extraordinary breasts. She must have been a rather beautiful young woman. Still—for
the sake of argument, could you get it up over her even if she wasn’t old, even if she was young and
had the beauty of Helen?”
“I don’t know Helen, but I see what you’re drivin’ at. And [67] you’re by God right. I couldn’t get
it up over old frozen face in there even if she had the beauty of Marilyn Monroe.”
“There you are. She’s won.”
That’s it. Harding leans back and everybody waits for what McMurphy’s going to say next.
McMurphy can see he’s backed up against the wall. He looks at the faces a minute, then shrugs and
stands up from his chair.
“Well, what the hell, it’s no skin off my nose.”
“That’s true, it’s no skin off your nose.”
“And I damn well don’t want to have some old fiend of a nurse after me with three thousand
volts. Not when there’s nothing in it for me but the adventure.”
“No. You’re right.”
Harding’s won the argument, but nobody looks too happy. McMurphy hooks his thumbs in his
pockets and tries a laugh.
“No sir, I never heard of anybody offering a twenty-bone bounty for bagging a ball-cutter.”
Everybody grins at this with him, but they’re not happy. I’m glad McMurphy is going to be cagey
after all and not get sucked in on something he can’t whip, but I know how the guys feel; I’m not so
happy myself. McMurphy lights another cigarette. Nobody’s moved yet. They’re all still standing
there, grinning and uncomfortable. McMurphy rubs his nose again and looks away from the bunch
of faces hung out there around him, looks back at the nurse and chews his lip.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“But you say ... she don’t send you up to that other ward unless she gets your goat? Unless she
makes you crack in some way and you end up cussing her out or busting a window or something like
“Unless you do something like that.”
“You’re sure of that, now? Because I’m getting just the shadiest notion of how to pick up a good
purse off you birds in here. But I don’t want to be a sucker about it. I had a hell of a time getting
outa that other hole; I don’t want to be jumping outa the fryin’ pan into the fire.”
“Absolutely certain. She’s powerless unless you do something to honestly deserve the Disturbed
Ward or EST. If you’re tough enough to keep her from getting to you, she can’t do a thing.”
“So if I behave myself and don’t cuss her out—”
“Or cuss one of the aides out.”
“—or cuss one of the aides out or tear up jack some way around here, she can’t do nothing to
“Those are the rules we play by. Of course, she always wins, my friend, always. She’s impregnable
herself, and with the [68] element of time working for her she eventually gets inside everyone. That’s
why the hospital regards her as its top nurse and grants her so much authority; she’s a master at
forcing the trembling libido out into the open—”
“The hell with that. What I want to know is am I safe to try to beat her at her own game? If I
come on nice as pie to her, whatever else I in-sinuate, she ain’t gonna get in a tizzy and have me
“You’re safe as long as you keep control. As long as you don’t lose your temper and give her
actual reason to request the restriction of the Disturbed Ward, or the therapeutic benefits of Electro
Shock, you are safe. But that entails first and foremost keeping one’s temper. And you? With your
red hair and black record? Why delude yourself?”
“Okay. All right.” McMurphy rubs his palms together. “Here’s what I’m thinkin’. You birds seem
to think you got quite the champ in there, don’t you? Quite the—what did you call her?—sure,
impregnable woman. What I want to know is how many of you are dead sure enough to put a little
money on her?”
“Dead sure enough ...?”
“Just what I said: any of you sharpies here willing to take my five bucks that says that I can get
the best of that woman—before the week’s up—without her getting the best of me? One week, and
if I don’t have her to where she don’t know whether to shit or go blind, the bet is yours.”
“You’re betting on this?” Cheswick is hopping from foot to foot and rubbing his hands together
like McMurphy rubs his. “You’re damned right.”
Harding and some of the others say that they don’t get it.
“It’s simple enough. There ain’t nothing noble or complicated about it. I like to gamble. And I
like to win. And I think I can win this gamble, okay? It got so at Pendleton the guys wouldn’t even
lag pennies with me on account of I was such a winner. Why, one of the big reasons I got myself
sent here was because I needed some new suckers. I’ll tell you something: I found out a few things
about this place before I came out here. Damn near half of you guys in here pull compensation,
three, four hundred a month and not a thing in the world to do with it but let it draw dust. I thought
I might take advantage of this and maybe make both our lives a little more richer. I’m starting level
with you. I’m a gambler and I’m not in the habit of losing. And I’ve never seen a woman I thought
was more man than me, I don’t care whether I can get it up [69] for her or not. She may have the
element of time, but I got a pretty long winning streak goin’ myself.”
He pulls off his cap, spins it on his finger, and catches it behind his back in his other band, neat
as you please.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Another thing: I’m in this place because that’s the way I planned it, pure and simple, because it’s
a better place than a work farm. As near as I can tell I’m no loony, or never knew it if I was. Your
nurse don’t know this; she’s not going to be looking out for somebody coming at her with a triggerquick
mind like I obviously got. These things give me an edge I like. So I’m saying five bucks to each
of you that wants it if I can’t put a betsy bug up that nurse’s butt within a week.”
“I’m still not sure I—”
“Just that. A bee in her butt, a burr in her bloomers. Get her goat. Bug her till she comes apart at
those neat little seams, and shows, just one time, she ain’t so unbeatable as you think. One week. I’ll
let you be the judge whether I win or not.”
Harding takes out a pencil and writes something on the pinochle pad.
“Here. A lien on ten dollars of that money they’ve got drawing dust under my name over in
Funds. It’s worth twice that to me, my friend, to see this unlikely miracle brought off.”
McMurphy looks at the paper and folds it. “Worth it to any of the rest of you birds?” Other
Acutes line up now, taking turns at the pad. He takes the pieces of paper when they’re finished,
stacking them on his palm, pinned under a big stiff thumb. I see the pieces of paper crowd up in his
hand. He looks them over.
“You trust me to hold the bets, buddies?”
“I believe we can be safe in doing that,” Harding says. “You won’t be going any place for a
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
One Christmas at midnight on the button, at the old place, the ward door blows open with a
crash, in comes a fat man with a beard, eyes ringed red by the cold and his nose just the color of a
cherry. The black boys get him cornered in the hall with flashlights. I see he’s all tangled in the tinsel
Public Relation has been stringing all over the place, and he’s stumbling around in it in the dark.
He’s shading his red eyes from the flashlights and sucking on his mustache.
“Ho ho ho,” he says. “I’d like to stay but I must be hurrying along. Very tight schedule, ya know.
Ho ho. Must be going ...”
The black boys move in with the flashlights. They kept him with us six years before they
discharged him, clean-shaven and skinny as a pole.
The Big Nurse is able to set the wall clock at whatever speed she wants by just turning one of
those dials in the steel door; she takes a notion to hurry things up, she turns the speed up, and those
hands whip around that disk like spokes in a wheel. The scene in the picture-screen windows goes
through rapid changes of light to show morning, noon, and night—throb off and on furiously with
day and dark, and everybody is driven like mad to keep up with that passing of fake time; awful
scramble of shaves and breakfasts and appointments and lunches and medications and ten minutes
of night so you barely get your eyes closed before the dorm light’s screaming at you to get up and
start the scramble again, go like a sonofabitch this way, going through the full schedule of a day
maybe twenty times an hour, till the Big Nurse sees everybody is right up to the breaking point, and
she slacks off on the throttle, eases off the pace on that clock-dial, like some kid been fooling with
the moving-picture projection machine and finally got tired watching the film run at ten times its
natural speed, got bored with all that silly scampering and insect squeak of talk and turned it back to
She’s given to turning up the speed this way on days like, [71] say, when you got somebody to
visit you or when the VFW brings down a smoker show from Portland—times like that, times you’d
like to hold and have stretch out. That’s when she speeds things up.
But generally it’s the other way, the slow way. She’ll turn that dial to a dead stop and freeze the
sun there on the screen so it don’t move a scant hair for weeks, so not a leaf on a tree or a blade of
grass in the pasture shimmers. The clock hands hang at two minutes to three and she’s liable to let
them hang there till we rust. You sit solid and you can’t budge, you can’t walk or move to relieve the
strain of sitting, you can’t swallow and you can’t breathe. The only thing you can move is your eyes
and there’s nothing to see but petrified Acutes across the room waiting on one another to decide
whose play it is. The old Chronic next to me has been dead six days, and he’s rotting to the chair.
And instead of fog sometimes she’ll let a clear chemical gas in through the vents, and the whole
ward is set solid when the gas changes into plastic.
Lord knows how long we hang this way.
Then, gradually, she’ll ease the dial up a degree, and that’s worse yet. I can take hanging dead still
better’n I can take that sirup-slow hand of Scanlon across the room, taking three days to lay down a
card. My lungs pull for the thick plastic air like getting it through a pinhole. I try to go to the latrine
and I feel buried under a ton of sand, squeezing my bladder till green sparks flash and buzz across
my forehead.
I strain with every muscle and bone to get out of that chair and go to the latrine, work to get up
till my arms and legs are all ashake and my teeth hurt. I pull and pull and all I gain is maybe a
quarter-inch off the leather seat. So I fall back and give up and let the pee pour out, activating a hot
salt wire down my left leg that sets off humiliating alarms, sirens, spotlights, everybody up yelling
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
and running around and the big black boys knocking the crowd aside right and left as the both of
them rush headlong at me, waving awful mops of wet copper wires cracking and spitting as they
short with the water.
About the only time we get any let-up from this time control is in the fog; then time doesn’t
mean anything. It’s lost in the fog, like everything else. (They haven’t really fogged the place full
force all day today, not since McMurphy came in. I bet he’d yell like a bull if they fogged it.)
When nothing else is going on, you usually got the fog or the time control to contend with, but
today something’s happened: there hasn’t been any of these things worked on us all [72] day, not
since shaving. This afternoon everything is matching up. When the swing shift comes on duty the
clock says four-thirty, just like it should. The Big Nurse dismisses the black boys and takes a last
look around the ward. She slides a long silver hatpin out of the iron-blue knot of hair back of her
head, takes off her white cap and sets it careful in a cardboard box (there’s mothballs in that box),
and drives the hatpin back in the hair with a stab of her hand.
Behind the glass I see her tell everyone good evening. She hands the little birthmarked swingshift
nurse a note; then her hand reaches out to the control panel in the steel door, clacks on the
speaker in the day room: “Good evening, boys. Behave yourselves.” And turns the music up louder
than ever. She rubs the inside of her wrist across her window; a disgusted look shows the fat black
boy who just reported on duty that he better get to cleaning it, and he’s at the glass with a paper
towel before she’s so much as locked the ward door behind her.
The machinery in the walls whistles, sighs, drops into a lower gear.
Then, till night, we eat and shower and go back to sit in the day room. Old Blastic, the oldest
Vegetable, is holding his stomach and moaning. George (the black boys call him Ruba-dub) is
washing his hands in the drinking fountain. The Acutes sit and play cards and work at getting a
picture on our TV set by carrying the set every place the cord will reach, in search of a good beam.
The speakers in the ceiling are still making music. The music from the speakers isn’t transmitted
in on a radio beam is why the machinery don’t interfere. The music comes off a long tape from the
Nurses’ Station, a tape we all know so well by heart that there don’t any of us consciously hear it
except new men like McMurphy. He hasn’t got used to it yet. He’s dealing blackjack for cigarettes,
and the speaker’s right over the card table. He’s pulled his cap way forward till he has to lean his
head back and squint from under the brim to see his cards. He holds a cigarette between his teeth
and talks around it like a stock auctioneer I saw once in a cattle auction in The Dalles.
“... hey-ya, hey-ya, come on, come on,” he says, high, fast; “I’m waitin’ on you suckers, you hit or
you sit. Hit, you say? well well well and with a king up the boy wants a hit. Whaddaya know. So
Comin’ at you and too bad, a little lady for the lad and he’s over the wall and down the road, up the
hill and dropped his load. Comin’ at you, Scanlon, and I wish some [73] idiot in that nurses’ hothouse would
turn down that frigging music! Hooee! Does that thing play night and day, Harding? I never heard such a
driving racket in my life.”
Harding gives him a blank look. “Exactly what noise is it you’re referring to, Mr. McMurphy?”
“That damned radio. Boy. It’s been going ever since I come in this morning. And don’t come on
with some baloney that you don’t hear it.”
Harding cocks his ear to the ceiling. “Oh, yes, the so-called music. Yes, I suppose we do hear it if
we concentrate, but then one can hear one’s own heartbeat too, if he concentrates hard enough.” He
grins at McMurphy. “You see, that’s a recording playing up there, my friend. We seldom hear the
radio. The world news might not be therapeutic. And we’ve all heard that recording so many times
now it simply slides out of our hearing, the way the sound of a waterfall soon becomes an unheard
sound to those who live near it. Do you think if you lived near a waterfall you could hear it very
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
(I still hear the sound of the falls on the Columbia, always will—always—hear the whoop of
Charley Bear Belly stabbed himself a big chinook, hear the slap of fish in the water, laughing naked
kids on the bank, the women at the racks ... from a long time ago.)
“Do they leave it on all the time, like a waterfall?” McMurphy says.
“Not when we sleep,” Cheswick says, “but all the rest of the time, and that’s the truth.”
“The hell with that. I’ll tell that coon over there to turn it off or get his fat little ass kicked!”
He starts to stand up, and Harding touches his arm. “Friend, that is exactly the kind of statement
that gets one branded assaultive. Are you so eager to forfeit the bet?”
McMurphy looks at him. “That’s the way it is, huh? A pressure game? Keep the old pinch on?”
“That’s the way it is.”
He slowly lowers himself back into his seat, saying, “Horse muh-noo-ur.”
Harding looks about at the other Acutes around the card table. “Gentlemen, already I seem to
detect in our redheaded challenger a most unheroic decline of his TV-cowboy stoicism.”
He looks at McMurphy across the table, smiling, McMurphy nods at him and tips his head back
for the wink and licks his big thumb. “Well sir, of Professor Harding sounds like he’s [74] getting
cocky. He wins a couple of splits and he goes to comin’ on like a wise guy. Well well well; there he
sits with a deuce showing and here’s a pack of Mar-boros says he backs down. … Whups, he sees
me, okeedokee, Perfessor, here’s a trey, he wants another, gets another deuce, try for the big five,
Perfessor? Try for that big double pay, or play it safe? Another pack says you won’t. Well well well,
the Perfessor sees me, this tells the tale, too bad, another lady and the Perfessor flunks his exams. …”
The next song starts up from the speaker, loud and clangy and a lot of accordion. McMurphy
takes a look up at the speaker, and his spiel gets louder and louder to match it.
“... hey-ya hey-ya, okay, next, goddammit, you hit or you sit ... comin at ya ...!”
Right up to the lights out at nine-thirty.
I could of watched McMurphy at that blackjack table all night, the way he dealt and talked and
roped them in and led them smack up to the point where they were just about to quit, then backed
down a hand or two to give them confidence and bring them along again. Once he took a break for
a cigarette and tilted back in his chair, his hands folded behind his head, and told the guys, “The
secret of being a top-notch con man is being able to know what the mark wants, and how to make
him think he’s getting it. I learned that when I worked a season on a skillo wheel in a carnival. You
fe-e-el the sucker over with your eyes when he comes up and you say, ‘Now here’s a bird that needs to
feel tough.’ So every time he snaps at you for taking him you quake in your boots, scared to death,
and tell him, ‘Please, sir. No trouble. The next roll is on the house, sir.’ So the both of you are
getting what you want.”
He rocks forward, and the legs of his chair come down with a crack. He picks up the deck, zips
his thumb over it, knocks the edge of it against the table top, licks his thumb and finger.
“And what I deduce you marks need is a big fat pot to temptate you. Here’s ten packages on the
next deal. Hey-yah, comin’ at you, guts ball from here on out. ...”
And throws back his head and laughs out loud at the way the guys hustled to get their bets down.
That laugh banged around the day room all evening, and all the time he was dealing he was joking
and talking and trying to get the players to laugh along with him. But they were all afraid to loosen
up; it’d been too long. He gave up trying and settled down to serious dealing. They won the deal off
him [75] a time or two, but he always bought it back or fought it back, and the cigarettes on each
side of him grew in bigger and bigger pyramid stacks.
Then just before nine-thirty he started letting them win, lets them win it all back so fast they
don’t hardly remember losing. He pays out the last couple of cigarettes and lays down the deck and
leans back with a sigh and shoves the cap out of his eyes, and the game is done.
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
“Well, sir, win a few, lose the rest is what I say.” He shakes his head so forlorn. “I don’t know—I
was always a pretty shrewd customer at twenty-one, but you birds may just be too tough for me. You
got some kinda uncanny knack, makes a man leery of playing against such sharpies for real money
He isn’t even kidding himself into thinking they fall for that. He let them win, and every one of
us watching the game knows it. So do the players. But there still isn’t a man raking his pile of
cigarettes—cigarettes he didn’t really win but only won back because they were his in the first
place—that doesn’t have a smirk on his face like he’s the toughest gambler on the whole Mississippi.
The fat black boy and a black boy named Geever run us out of the day room and commence
turning lights off with a little key on a chain, and as the ward gets dimmer and darker the eyes of the
little birthmarked nurse in the station get bigger and brighter. She’s at the door of the glass station,
issuing nighttime pills to the men that shuffle past her in a line, and she’s having a hard time keeping
straight who gets poisoned with what tonight. She’s not even watching where she pours the water.
What has distracted her attention this way is that big redheaded man with the dreadful cap and the
horrible-looking scar, coming her way. She’s watching McMurphy walk away from the card table in
the dark day room, his one horny hand twisting the red tuft of hair that sticks out of the little cup at
the throat of his work-farm shirt, and I figure by the way she rears back when he reaches the door of
the station that she’s probably been warned about him beforehand by the Big Nurse. (“Oh, one
more thing before I leave it in your hands tonight, Miss Pilbow; that new man sitting over there, the
one with the garish red sideburns and facial lacerations—I’ve reason to believe he is a sex maniac.”)
McMurphy sees how she’s looking so scared and big-eyed at him, so he sticks his head in the
station door where she’s issuing pills, and gives her a big friendly grin to get acquainted [76] on. This
flusters her so she drops the water pitcher on her foot. She gives a cry and hops on one foot, jerks
her hand, and the pill she was about to give me leaps out of the little cup and right down the neck of
her uniform where that birthmark stain runs like a river of wine down into a valley.
“Let me give you a hand, ma’am.”
And that very hand comes through the station door, scarred and tattooed and the color of raw
“Stay back! There are two aides on the ward with me!”
She rolls her eyes for the black boys, but they are off tying Chronics in bed, nowhere close
enough to help in a hurry. McMurphy grins and turns the hand over so she can see he isn’t holding a
knife. All she can see is the light shining off the slick, waxy, callused palm.
“All I mean to do, miss, is to—”
“Stay back! Patients aren’t allowed to enter the—Oh, stay back, I’m a Catholic!” and straightaway
jerks at the gold chain around her neck so a cross flies out from between her bosoms, slingshots the
lost pill up in the air! McMurphy strikes at the air right in front of her face. She screams and pops
the cross in her mouth and clinches her eyes shut like she’s about to get socked, stands like that,
paper-white except for that stain which turns darker than ever, as though it sucked the blood from
all the rest of her body. When she finally opens her eyes again there’s that callused hand right in
front of her with my little red capsule sitting in it.
“—was to pick up your waterin’ can you dropped.” He holds that out in the other hand.
Her breath comes out in a loud hiss. She takes the can from him. “Thank you. Good night, good
night,” and closes the door in the next man’s face, no more pills tonight.
In the dorm McMurphy tosses the pill on my bed. “You want your sourball, Chief?”
I shake my head at the pill, and he flips it off the bed like it was a bug pestering him. It hops
across the floor with a cricket scrabble. He goes to getting ready for bed, pulling off his clothes. The
shorts under his work pants are coal black satin covered with big white whales with red eyes. He
grins when he sees I’m looking at the shorts. “From a co-ed at Oregon State, Chief, a Literary
Ken Kesey 􀂗 one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
major.” He snaps the elastic with his thumb. “She gave them to me because she said I was a
His arms and neck and face are sunburned and bristled with curly orange hairs. He’s got tattoos
on each big shoulder; one [77] says “Fighting Leathernecks” and has a devil with a red eye and red
horns and an M-1 rifle, and the other is a poker hand fanned out across his muscle—aces and eights.
He puts his roll of clothes on the nightstand next to my bed and goes to punching at his pillow. He’s
been assigned the bed right next to mine.
He gets between the sheets and tells me I better hit the sack myself, that here comes one of those
black boys to douse the lights on us. I look around, and the black boy named Geever is coming, and
I kick off my shoes and get in bed just as he walks up to tie a sheet across me. When he’s finished
with me he takes a last look around and giggles and flips the dorm lights off.
Except for the white powder of light from the Nurses’ Station out in the hall, the dorm is dark. I
can just make out McMurphy next to me, breathing deep and regular, the covers over him rising and
falling. The breathing gets slower and slower, till I figure he’s been asleep for a while. Then I hear a
soft, throaty sound from his bed, like the chuckle of a horse. He’s still awake and he’s laughing to
himself about something.
He stops laughing and whispers, “Why, you sure did give a jump when I told you that coon was
coming, Chief. I thought somebody told me you was deef.”

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