One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Gambling Symbol Icon
Randle McMurphy is quick to introduce himself as an avid gambler, and tries to find the patient on the ward in charge of gambling and debts. McMurphy uses gambling throughout the book as a way to feel comfort and camaraderie with the men. He enjoys winning money, but gambling comes to represent how the men are given the opportunity to actually own something and realize that they have the agency to decide how to use their money. Moreover, gambling is symbolic of the ongoing game between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched—how they keep raising the stakes in their continuous battle against one another for control.

Gambling Quotes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest quotes below all refer to the symbol of Gambling. 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

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.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker)
Related Symbols: Laughter, Gambling
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chief describes the society of the mental hospital in more detail, and how McMurphy sees it. As he sees it, the society is composed of docile subservient men, submitting to the authority of the female Nurse Ratched. The passage suggests a crisis of manhood itself: instead of acting like strong, confident men, the patients act like babies, thanks to the overpowering maternal presence of the nurses.

The passage is also important in that it places a lot of emphasis on study and close observation. As the Chief says, it's important to study the game before you play yourself. (MCmurphy is an avowed gambler, so Bromden observes him "playing" here.) By the same token, we spend a lot of time "studying" the structure of hospital society before we really meet any of the characters who inhabit it. The Chief wants to show readers the basic features of life at the hospital, because it's only when we understand such features that we can truly understand the patients who live there.

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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 still had my own notions—how McMurphy was a giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine that was networking the land with copper wire and crystal, how he was too big to be bothered with something as measly as money—but even I came halfway to thinking like the others. What happened was this: He’d helped carry the tables into the tub room before one of the group meetings and was looking at me standing beside the control panel.

Related Characters: Chief Bromden (speaker), Randle P. McMurphy
Related Symbols: Gambling, The Control Panel
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chief Bromden expresses some of his doubts about McMurphy’s character. Nurse Ratched has just implied that McMurphy is treating the other patients as “suckers,” winning away all their money in card games. Bromden doesn’t fully believe Ratched’s suggestions—he likes McMurphy too much to do so—and yet he does consider the possibility that McMurphy is just a con artist; Ratched’s implication by itself is enough to incriminate McMurphy, even in the eyes of the Chief, perhaps his most loyal follower.

And yet the passage illustrates the full extent of McMurphy’s worth in Bromden’s eyes. As Bromden sees it, McMurphy is a liberator, here in the hospital to save the patients from Ratched’s authority, and from the authority of the sinister, tyrannical Combine. The point here isn’t that Bromden is right or wrong about McMurphy (it’s entirely possible that McMurphy is just a con artist, with no great plans of crushing Ratched’s authority or battling injustice). What counts is that Bromden believes that he’s found a role model in McMurphy; whether or not McMurphy ultimately measures up to Bromden’s worship, he’s inspiring Bromden to escape from the hospital.

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Gambling Symbol Timeline in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The timeline below shows where the symbol Gambling appears in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part One
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon
McMurphy introduces himself to everyone in the day room as a gambler and a fool, still laughing. He says he requested a transfer from the Pendleton Work... (full context)
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
The Combine: Machine, Nature, and Man Theme Icon
...McMurphy adds pennies to the game to raise the stakes so it’s more of a gamble. Bromden notes that McMurphy is making a very conscious effort not to lose his temper... (full context)
Part Four
Sanity v. Insanity Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Human Dignity Theme Icon
Social Pressure and Shame Theme Icon
Emasculation and Sexuality Theme Icon
...introducing himself like he had at the ward over a month before, asking where the gambling boss is on this floor. A Japanese nurse, who is nice to them, explains that... (full context)