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Definition: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Novel 1962 by US writer Ken Kesey. Set in a mental asylum ruled by the sadistic Big Nurse, the story describes the attempted overthrow of her regime by McMurphy, a rebellious new patient. The conflicts ends with McMurphy's lobotomy and his mercy killing by the narrator, a mute American Indian who escapes into the free world. The novel serves as a broad allegory of the political and social state of post-war America.


Summary Article: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
from Brewer's Curious Titles

A novel (1962) by Ken Kesey (b. 1935). The narrator is the Chief, a Native American whose father was the last chief of his tribe. He is a patient in a mental hospital, in which authority is represented by ‘ Big Nurse’. The admission of McMurphy from prison precipitates a struggle between ‘ good’ (the patients) and ‘ evil’ (Big Nurse), with the ‘ liberation’ of the patients from institutional restrictions as the stake. The film version (1975), directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, was an unexpected commercial success.

The term ‘ cuckoo’ for an eccentric, fool or madman dates back to the late 16th century, deriving from the expression ‘ a cuckoo in the nest’, denoting an oddity. ‘ Cuckoo's nest’ (along with ‘ cuckoo academy’ and ‘ cuckoo farm’) arose as a term for a psychiatric institution in the USA in the 1960s; cuckoos notably don't make their own nests, but lay their eggs in those of other birds. The ‘ one flew over’ in the title refers to the final escape of the Chief.

© Cassell 2002

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