One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Ken Kesey

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ken Kesey

Born to dairy farmers in Colorado, Kesey then moved with his family to Springfield, Oregon. In college at the University of Oregon, he married his high school sweetheart Norma “Faye” Haxby in 1956 and they had three children: Jed, Zane, and Shannon. Kesey later had another child, Sunshine, with Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams in 1966. Kesey enrolled in a creative writing program at Stanford University in 1958 and joined a study called Project MKULTRA, which analyzed the effects of psychedelic drugs. He worked as a night aide in the veteran’s hospital. His work there inspired him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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Historical Context of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a part of the Beats literary movement, one which rejected conventional social norms and protested the government’s lack of concern for certain neglected categories of society: the insane, the criminal, the homeless, etc. as well as the government’s intervention in The Vietnam War (1955-1975) because of its commitment to abolish communism, while maintaining an opposition to totalitarian regimes.

Other Books Related to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

“Howl,” by Allen Ginsburg (1955) is a long-form poem that is emblematic of the Beat culture of the fifties and sixties. He decries the government and society for failing to recognize the brilliance of its youth. In one of the more famous American poetic openings he writes, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” The Beats culture celebrated drugs, like psychotropic drugs, that freed the mind, while chastising the use of drugs meant to ‘control’ behavior, like those given in a mental institution or addictive substances that made individuals dependent, desperate for an “angry fix.” On the Road, by Jack Kerouac (1957), chronicles Kerouac’s exploits on a cross-country journey in America with his friends and lovers in a sexually fluid, drug-addled tale of anti-establishment life. Ginsberg was a friend of Kerouac’s, and is featured as a character in the novel, though Kerouac went through and changed all of the names, including his own.
Key Facts about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • Full Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • When Written: Late 1950s
  • Where Written: Stanford University, while Kesey was a student of the creative writing program.
  • When Published: 1962
  • Literary Period: Beats
  • Genre: Counterculture/Protest Novel
  • Setting: Mental hospital in Oregon during the 1950s
  • Climax: At the end of Part II, McMurphy violently rebels against Nurse Ratched’s decision to close off the game room. He punches through the glass window at the nurse’s station. It signals that McMurphy is beyond trying to get a rise out of Nurse Ratched for selfish reasons, but now believes she is a corruptive, evil force. It is here that McMurphy commits himself to truly rehabilitating the other men.
  • Antagonist: Nurse Ratched
  • Point of View: Chief Bromden (Narrator)

Extra Credit for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Movie Disputes. Kesey was originally involved in the film production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but left after two weeks because of a monetary rights dispute. He refused to see the movie because Chief Bromden didn’t narrate it like in the book, and he disagreed with the casting of Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy. Kesey wanted Gene Hackman.

Wrestling Star. Ken Kesey was a champion high school and college wrestler, and even nearly qualified for the Olympic team, but because of a shoulder injury couldn’t compete.