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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Joseph O'Connor Biography to Cynthia Ozick Biography

a novel by Ken Kesey, published in 1962. The narrative is told by Chief Bromden, so named for his Native American descent, an inmate in a psychopathic ward of an Oregon mental hospital, where he has chosen the guise of a mute to defend his alienation from a society he cannot tolerate. Bromden tells of the eruption into the ward of Randle Patrick McMurphy, an ebullient convict serving time for rape, who has stage-managed his release from prison by pretending insanity. McMurphy's exuberant vitality challenges the ruthless efficiency of the Head Nurse, Miss Ratched, known as Big Nurse, whose mechanistic control of her patients has terrorized them into a state of lifeless docility. McMurphy, who uses laughter and irreverence as instruments of defiance, encourages his fellow patients to recover their selfhood and rebel against Big Nurse's sadistic authority. His success in this leads to his own sacrifice, culminating in repeated electric shock therapy and a lobotomy that reduces him to a vegetable state. The novel ends as Chief Bromden smothers McMurphy as an act of mercy, and then escapes, redeemed by what he has done, into the outer world. The novel struck a chord with the radically motivated young people of the 1960s who found McMurphy's anarchic vitality an inspiring resource to set against the orthodoxies of a suffocating materialism in domestic policy, and the rampant imperialism of American foreign policy.

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