One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Nurse Ratched Character Analysis

Often referred to as “Big Nurse.” She runs the psychiatric ward with an iron fist, and functions as the novel’s antagonist. She’s a middle-aged, former Army nurse whose principal tactic of control is emasculating her male patients. She successfully controls the ward by carefully selecting staff that will be submissive to her. The novel pits her against Randle McMurphy.

Nurse Ratched Quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest quotes below are all either spoken by Nurse Ratched or refer to Nurse Ratched. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Sanity v. Insanity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest published in 2002.
Part One Quotes

If somebody’d of come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year –old woman hollering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they’d of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the first Part of the novel, McMurphy achieves an ambiguous victory. He's petitioned for Nurse Ratched to turn down the loud, cheesy music that plays throughout the hospital, and he's also tried to get the patients to vote to watch the baseball game on television. Nurse Ratched, reluctant to yield any power to McMurphy, has refused both of his requests. But here, McMurphy asserts his victory over Ratched by pretending that the ball game is playing on TV. Together, he and the patients yell and cheer at a blank TV screen.

In a way, McMurphy is doing what he's always done--using humor and satire to undermine Ratched's authority. Ratched thinks that she can use her power to crush McMurphy's spirit, but here, McMurphy proves her dead-wrong--he's more than capable of keeping his spirits up, even if the authorities deny him TV.

The final comment of the passage also emphasizes how Kesey blends the ideas of sanity and insanity in the book. Everyone in the ward is supposed to be "insane" except for the "sane" nurses, but in this case it's only when the patients are acting very lucid and rebellious that they really look "insane," and Nurse Ratched looks just as insane as any of them.

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Part Two Quotes

They’re trying to act like they still got their eyes on nothing but that blank TV in front of us, but anyone can see they’re all sneaking looks at the Big Nurse behind her glass there, just the same as I am. For the first time she’s on the other side of the glass and getting a taste of how it feels to be watched when you wish more than anything else to be able to pull a green shade between your face and all the eyes that you can’t get away from.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

Immediately following McMurphy's act of disobedience, there's a clear change in the atmosphere of the hospital. The mental patients, who are used to being constantly looked at by Nurse Ratched and her colleagues, find themselves staring back at Ratched. Nurse Ratched, Bromden imagines, isn't really used to having so many people stare at her. Trivial as it might seem, the patients' surveillance of Nurse Ratched constitutes an act of rebellion--it shows that McMurphy is teaching the patients to think of Nurse Ratched as "just another person," not a demigod from whom they must avert their eyes at all times.

It's also significant that Bromden conceives of the patients' act of rebellion as a rebellion of vision. Bromden is haunted by the possibility that he's being watched at all times--surveyed by the agents of the Combine. It's only appropriate, then, that the Chief conceives of the patients' rebellion as an act of retaliatory surveillance.

There was times that week when I’d hear that full-throttled laugh, watch [McMurphy] scratching his belly and stretching and yawning and leaning back to wink at whoever he was joking with, everything coming to him just as natural as drawing breath, and I’d quit worrying about the Big Nurse and the Combine behind her. I’d think he was strong enough being his own self that he would never back down the way she was hoping he would. I’d think, maybe he truly is something extraordinary. He’s what he is, that’s it. Maybe that makes him strong enough, being what he is. The Combine hasn’t got to him in all these years; what makes the nurse think she’s gonna be able to do it in a few weeks? He’s not gonna let them twist him and manufacture him.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Related Symbols: Laughter
Page Number: 139-140
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Chief Bromden is beginning to see McMurphy as a hero. For Bromden, the world is firmly under the power of the Combine--the mysterious, dangerous force of mechanization and industry that controls all human beings. Bromden himself is the prisoner of the Combine--that's why he doesn't talk. And yet Bromden recognizes that McMurphy doesn't seem to be under the influence of the Combine at all. While other men are quiet and docile, since the Combine has crushed the life force out of them, McMurphy is bright and lively, an exemplar of the life force. Somehow, Bromden thinks, McMurphy hasn't allowed the Combine to destroy him.

While McMurphy himself probably wouldn't understand what the Chief was talking about, it's clear enough that he embodies a certain kind of strength and self-confidence that is sadly lacking in the hospital, and perhaps in society as a whole. In other words, the passage clarifies the point McMurphy made earlier about Bromden having his own "kind of sense." Bromden's descriptions of the Combine might not be true, literally, but they have a kind of poetic truth about them.

McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, McMurphy prepares to defy the authority of Nurse Ratched one more time. He's angry that Ratched has punished the men for their disobedience by taking away their rec room--in retaliation, he's planning to shock Ratched and undermine her power. As always, Bromden interprets McMurphy's actions in his own terms--terms like "Combine," "fog," etc.

Although it's hard to take everything the Chief says literally, his words clearly have a metaphorical truth. It's been clear for some time that the hospital in the novel is a microcosm for modern American society--a society in which people's vitality is taken and they're forced to accept the identities society gives them. So when Bromden says that Nurse Ratched is only one small part of the total "Combine," we can't help but agree: Ratched is just a metaphor for the mechanization (and, as Kesey portrays it, the emasculation) of social order.

Please understand: We do not impose certain rules and restrictions on you without a great deal of thought about their therapeutic value. A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside World, because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them. At some time—perhaps in your childhood—you may have been allowed to get away with flouting the rules of society. When you broke a rule you knew it. You wanted to be dealt with, needed it, but the punishment did not come. That foolish lenience on the part of your parents may have been the germ that grew into your present illness. I tell you this hoping you will understand that it is entirely for your own good that we enforce discipline and order.

Related Characters: Nurse Ratched (speaker)
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Nurse Ratched gives one of her longest explanations of why she treats the patients the way she does: in short, sees everything she does as being for the patients' own good. Ratched doesn’t go into any details about her medical or psychological theories; rather she states as a given that the patients are insane because of their inability to measure up to society’s “rules.” Ratched never bothers to justify or explain the rules of society—she accepts them dogmatically, and therefore treats the patients like children and animals for their failure to obey.

The main difference between Ratched and McMurphy is that where Ratched accepts society’s rules as the truth, McMurphy questions the same set of rules. A good example of a questionable rule would be the ban placed on sodomy and homosexuality in the United States at this point in history—a ban that plays a decisive part in sending Harding to the hospital. Ratched would never doubt that homosexuality is against the rules, and therefore wrong—McMurphy, on the other hand, seems to embrace all ways of life, even those that he doesn’t understand.

Part Four Quotes

[Nurse Ratched] knew that people, being like they are, sooner or later are going to draw back a ways from somebody who seems to be giving a little more than ordinary, form Santa Clauses and missionaries and men donating funds to worthy causes, and begin to wonder: what’s in it for them? Grin out of the side of their mouths when the young lawyer, say, brings a sack of pecans to the kids in his district school—just before nominations for state senate, the sly devil—and say to one another, He’s nobody’s fool.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Nurse Ratched
Related Symbols: Gambling
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

Nurse Ratched tries a shady strategy for wearing away at McMurphy’s authority. Instead of trying to censor him or punish him, she tries to convince his army of followers—i.e., the patients—that he doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Ratched implies that McMurphy is only trying to steal the patients’ money, and that he’s only humoring the patients, pretending to treat them normally so that they'll gamble with him. As Bromden notes here, Ratched’s attack is clever, because humans naturally question generosity of any kind—they ask themselves why the other person is being so generous and cheerful, and tend to assume that such a person is in fact selfish.

It’s fair to say that Ratched has a point: McMurphy is no saint, to say the least, and he has in fact been conning the patients out of their money. And yet Ratched’s attack totally misses the point: McMurphy is a charismatic leader to the other patients because he treats them as normal human beings. Ratched, who’s used to treating the patients as children, can’t conceive of a situation in which McMurphy treats his peers as adults. So even if McMurphy is conning the other hospital patients, his status as a therapeutic and normalizing force among patients hasn’t changed.

I tried to talk to [McMurphy] into playing along with [Nurse Ratched] so’s to get out of the treatments, but he just laughed and told me Hell, all they was doin’ was chargin’ his battery for him, free for nothing.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

Chief Bromden, now McMurphy’s closest ally, tries to convince McMurphy to back off of intimidating Nurse Ratched. McMurphy and Bromden have been given the dreaded EST—shock therapy that gives them a seizure. Bromden has been terrified by his experiences with EST, and wants McMurphy to avoid having to receive the treatment in the future.

McMurphy, as tenacious as ever, refuses to back down. By this point in the novel, he’s decided that Nurse Ratched can’t defeat him. Even though he was previously worried that Ratched would use her authority to confine him to the hospital forever, he’s now more concerned about undermining her authority for its own sake. In another sense, McMurphy is trying to assert his own identity—masculine, strong, charismatic—instead of devolving into a docile, demure child.

First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives—gambling with human lives—as if you thought yourself to be a God!

Related Characters: Nurse Ratched (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Billy Bibbit, Charles Cheswick
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy Bibbit has just committed suicide. Billy has had sex with a woman (with McMurphy’s encouragement) and afterwards seems to have lost his stammer and neurotic behavior. Nevertheless, he is humiliated when Nurse Ratched finds him with the woman, and immediately regains his neuroses. When Billy kills himself, Ratched blames McMurphy for egging Billy on and pushing him to do things he didn’t really want to do.

First, it’s important to note that Ratched accuses McMurphy of “playing God.” McMurphy has always been trying to challenge Ratched’s absolute authority over the hospital. Ratched sees herself as the “God” of the building, meaning that any other authority figure must be a “false prophet.” Also, of course, Ratched is the one who really drives Billy to kill himself, with her guilt and reminders of authority.

Second, it’s worth asking if Ratched has a point. Certainly, McMurphy has urged his friends, mental patients, into some bizarre, unfamiliar circumstances. As Ratched puts it, McMurphy is a gambler through and through—he’s organized parties and group outings without knowing how they’re going to turn out. In the end, then, what Ratched really objects to isn’t the fact that McMurphy threw a party or encouraged Billy to have sex—it’s that he did so without knowing what would happen next. McMurphy’s laid-back, uncertain approach to living life is the antithesis of Ratched’s orderly, authoritarian worldview (in McMurphy’s world, there’s no schedule; in Ratched’s there is only a schedule). In general, then, Ratched’s outburst sums up the differences between herself and McMurphy.

She tried to get her ward back into shape, but it was difficult with McMurphy’s presence still tromping up and down the halls and laughing out loud in the meetings and singing in the latrines. She couldn’t rule with her old power any more, not by writing things on pieces of paper. She was losing her patients one after the other. After Harding signed out and was picked up by his wife, and George transferred to a different ward, just three of us were left out of the group that had been on the fishing crew, myself and Martini and Scanlon.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Dale Harding, George Sorenson, Martini, Scanlon
Related Symbols: Laughter
Page Number: 277
Explanation and Analysis:

After McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched, her authority is broken forever. McMurphy is severely punished for his actions, as we’ll see. And yet by attacking Nurse Ratched, he accomplishes exactly what he wanted to: he liberates the patients of the hospital from Nurse Ratched’s tyranny. Like many a martyr, McMurphy is more powerful absent than present: in person McMurphy was a threat to Ratched’s power; now that he’s been sent away, the idea of McMurphy acts as a constant, 24/7 attack on Ratched.

The effects of Nurse Ratched’s loss of power are obvious: her patients leave. One by one, they regain certainty that they can control their own lives, and don’t need Ratched telling them what to do. Some, such as the Chief himself, remain behind, but by and large it’s clear that Ratched can no longer convince her subjects to obey her.

I was only sure of one thing: [McMurphy] wouldn’t have left something like that sit there in the day room with his name tacked on it for twenty or thirty years so the Big Nurse could use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system. I was sure of that.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bromden comes face-to-face with the new McMurphy, who has been lobotomized as punishment for attacking the nurses. Bromden immediately recognizes what Nurse Ratched is aiming for: by lobotomizing McMurphy and then sending him back to his old hospital ward, Ratched is desperately trying to salvage her sinking authority. By parading McMurphy's lobotomized self around, Ratched is showing the other patients what happens to people who disobey her. McMurphy's fate, it seems, is to be a frightening reminder of why it's crucial to obey Ratched's authority. Notice that Bromden refers to the new McMurphy as an “it,” not a “he.” Bromden doesn’t really think of “McMurphy” as a human being at all any more: even though McMurphy’s body is intact, his mind (and, even more important, his indomitable spirit) is long-gone. McMurphy is as good as dead—the only question is, what will become of the body?

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Nurse Ratched Character Timeline in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The timeline below shows where the character Nurse Ratched appears in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part One
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Nurse Ratched, also known as the “Big Nurse”, enters the ward. Bromden knows it’s her by the... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched composes herself. Bromden describes her face as being precisely made, like a doll, with everything... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched proposes that to get a good start to Monday the aides should shave Bromden. He... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched is calling for McMurphy (initially as McMurphy, her error) about his refusal to follow protocol.... (full context)
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Bromden relates how strictly Nurse Ratched runs her ward. He believes that she’s part of a larger conglomerate of the outside... (full context)
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The group meeting takes place and Nurse Ratched brings up what they had discussed on Friday: Harding’s relationship with his wife. Nurse Ratched... (full context)
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...larger world. Bromden recalls one time when the doctor was giving this speech and Nurse Ratched asked if anyone would like to start, and a bunch of Acutes started confessing dark... (full context)
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...party can wipe out the entire flock if you aren’t careful. McMurphy says that Nurse Ratched is the first to peck, and she’s pecking at Harding—and the rest of the men’s—balls.... (full context)
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...Harding says that Dr. Spivey is like the rest of the men, submissive to Nurse Ratched. She can’t be fired because the doctor doesn’t have the power, it’s the supervisor’s power... (full context)
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...to say he’s not a rabbit. McMurphy suggests that the men just shouldn’t answer Nurse Ratched’s questions but McMurphy learns what The Shock Shop is: where men are sent by Nurse... (full context)
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...nurse who they see as icy. McMurphy makes a bet that he can make Nurse Ratched lose her temper by the end of his first week. McMurphy says he conned his... (full context)
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Bromden believes that Nurse Ratched has the power to set the clock at any speed to alter time to either... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched arrives and prepares to punish McMurphy when she learns of his behavior, but he exits... (full context)
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McMurphy is especially cocky after his mild victory with Nurse Ratched. He spends the morning playing blackjack again with IOUs instead of cigarettes. The music is... (full context)
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...Series on television (something for which McMurphy had been taking bets). McMurphy proposes to Nurse Ratched that the men be allowed to watch the games, even though it deviates from the... (full context)
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...and Bromden feels the fog starting to thicken in the room, which he believes Nurse Ratched turned on because she’s going to do something to McMurphy. Bromden can vaguely hear what’s... (full context)
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...watching the World Series, and Bromden watches as all twenty Acutes raise their hands. Nurse Ratched responds that the proposal is defeated because McMurphy needs a majority and there are forty... (full context)
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...it’s game-time and he sits down in front of the TV and turns it on. Ratched cuts off the power, but McMurphy stays seated and the other Acutes pull up chairs... (full context)
Part Two
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The Acutes and the aides are watching Nurse Ratched after her outburst while she sits in the nurse’s station. Bromden notes that the fog... (full context)
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...to discuss McMurphy and the other residents (i.e. doctors in training) are all present. Nurse Ratched sits quietly at the meeting, and the residents take her silence as approval of their... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched immediately assigns McMurphy to latrine duty after the staff meeting, i.e. cleaning the communal bathroom.... (full context)
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...the latrine. McMurphy is satisfied with how things have changed, but is surprised that Nurse Ratched isn’t putting up more of a visible fight. He muses that perhaps she just needed... (full context)
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McMurphy learns why Ratched is so calm when, that Wednesday, the ward is taken on a mandatory trip to... (full context)
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Some of the patients suspect that McMurphy is playing a long con against Nurse Ratched, and that’s why he didn’t speak up—but Bromden heard him speaking with the lifeguard and... (full context)
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Soon after, while waiting in the lunch line, Sefelt has an epileptic seizure. Nurse Ratched comes and stands over him saying Sefelt has been refusing his anti-seizure medication. Nurse Ratched... (full context)
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...explains the Shock Shop (EST). Harding says it isn’t always used for punishment, like Nurse Ratched uses it, and can sometimes actually help people. Harding says McMurphy shouldn’t worry about it... (full context)
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...he was unaware of the stakes and the danger it put him in with Nurse Ratched: shock treatment, lobotomy, not being able to leave. Harding shocks McMurphy by responding that Scanlon... (full context)
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...persists until that afternoon when they have a group session. After the meeting finishes, Nurse Ratched says that she has decided with Dr. Spivey that because of the lack of remorse... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched ends the discussion. McMurphy shrugs and stretches as he stands up. Bromden says he can... (full context)
Part Three
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...the glass at the nurse’s station, he goes back to his rebellious ways while Nurse Ratched bides her time until she can come up with another idea to get her ahead... (full context)
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...days later, the same day a new glass is installed at the nurse’s station. Nurse Ratched rejects the request, saying that Candy doesn’t seem wholesome. McMurphy shrugs and walks to the... (full context)
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...two of his nice aunts who live a small town outside of Oregon City. Nurse Ratched posts a newspaper clipping about rough seas and suggests the men think carefully about whether... (full context)
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...by her beauty, and how she doesn’t hide her femininity under a white uniform. Nurse Ratched threatens to cancel the trip because not all the men can fit in Candy’s car,... (full context)
Part Four
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Nurse Ratched’s next play against McMurphy starts the day after the fishing trip. She posts a “statement... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched ensures that everyone who went on the fishing trip has to get a mandatory shower,... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched visits Disturbed the next day and says that the patients agreed with the staff that... (full context)
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...treatments that week alone. As soon as the old spark in him would return, Nurse Ratched would come up and order another round. Bromden tries to talk McMurphy into playing along... (full context)
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Knowing that Nurse Ratched will only keep hounding McMurphy, many of the patients tell him he should make a... (full context)
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...McMurphy had managed to get out, he wouldn’t bear to be away to “let the Big Nurse have the last move and get the last play…It was like he’d signed on for... (full context)
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...wake up, they are amazed at the party they had the night before. As Nurse Ratched discovers more and more damning evidence, the patients start laughing uncontrollably, which only makes Nurse... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched discovers Billy and Candy in the Seclusion Room and is shocked and appalled, though Billy... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched approaches McMurphy with the news of Billy’s death and asks him if he’s satisfied with... (full context)
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In the week after McMurphy attacked Nurse Ratched, while Ratched is on medical leave, Sefelt and Fredrickson signed out of the hospital Against... (full context)
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Nurse Ratched tries after that to return the ward to the way it was before McMurphy, but... (full context)
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...that in the day room for the next twenty or thirty years just so Nurse Ratched could use him as “an example of what can happen if you buck the system.”... (full context)