Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, in 1935. His family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where he attended public schools. After graduation, Kesey attended the University of Oregon at Eugene and married while still in college. In 1957, he received his Bachelor of Arts Degree. He was then granted a Saxton Fellowship and the Woodrow Wilson scholarship to Stanford University, where he enrolled in the creative writing program.
While he was at Stanford, he volunteered for an experimental program at a local hospital to test the effects of newly discovered drugs. Here he was introduced to LSD and its mind-altering properties.
Kesey took a night job at a mental hospital, where he held long conversations with the inmates in order to gain an understanding of them. It was during this period that he wrote the first draft of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Most of the characters in the novel are based upon actual patients he met while working at the hospital.
Because of the financial success of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey was able to buy a farm in California, where he and his friend experimented with LSD. He was also the king of the Merry Pranksters, a group that traveled the West Coast staging happenings. He was accused and later convicted of possessing marijuana and took refuge for a time in Mexico. When he returned to the United States, he was jailed for a short period of time. Kesey became a cult hero that was acknowledged in Tom Wolfe's documentary book and best seller entitled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Besides One flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which is considered a modern classic, Kesey has also written Sometimes a Great Notion, a conventional and unsuccessful novel, and published a collection of shorter writings, Ken Kesey's Garage Sale. He currently lives and writes in Oregon.
The novel starts with the admission of McMurphy to the hospital. After introducing himself to his fellow patients, he tells them that he is used to being top man. Nurse Ratched, the "big" nurse, sizes him up and immediately decides that he is a troublemaker. During a group therapy session, McMurphy takes a look at how each patient tears the others to pieces by spying and telling on them. Once he has seen the ward in action, he tells the men exactly what he thinks of them, calling them chickens. They explain that they are afraid of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy laughs and lays a wager with them saying that within a week he can "get her goat".
McMurphy tries to make as much trouble as he can. He sings when he is not supposed to, asks for things when it is not time to, and appears half naked, which really flusters the Nurse. He tries putting the patients at ease, securing a game room for them, which is more to his advantage than anything else. However, when he asks them to vote on whether they will watch the World Series on television, they chicken out. He finally wins them over by making a very good attempt at lifting the control panel, something that no one has ever tried doing. This makes the patients see that he is really sincere in bringing about a change on their behalf.
When there is a group meeting, another vote is taken on the World Series issue; all the Acutes in the ward vote in his favor. McMurphy has won a big victory over Nurse Ratched, but she refuses to let him get away with it; she switches off the main power to the television set when it is time to watch the World Series. This does not faze McMurphy; he just pulls up a chair and sits watching the blank screen. Observing him, all the Acutes stop what they are doing and join McMurphy. All of the next week, the patients sit in front of the blank screen, laughing and joking.
When the next staff meeting comes up, the doctors try to diagnose McMurphy with everything from latent homosexuality to schizophrenia; the only thing that they can agree on is that he is no ordinary man. Nurse Ratched, however, disagrees. She says that he is an ordinary man and that he will eventually settle down. Yet McMurphy continues to irk her. For example, he refuses to clean the toilets when he is asked to do latrine duty.
When the other patients see him crossing Nurse Ratched, they join his opposition, complaining at group meetings. Just as the patients begin to believe that McMurphy will cause some changes to be made, a new development takes place. While swimming in the hospital pool, McMurphy learns from the lifeguard that Nurse Ratched is the one who decides when to let a patient leave the hospital if involuntarily committed. McMurphy realizes that his making trouble will only be harder on him, so he backs off. The other patients are disappointed that he is trying to save his own hide. Cheswick, McMurphy's strongest supporter, drowns himself in despair.
The Nurse has her next victory when Seefeld, an epileptic who refuses to take his medication, has a seizure. She tells everyone that she is always right. She says that if Seefeld had followed her medication orders, the seizure would have been avoided. The other patients believe her; McMurphy cannot believe they listen to her.
The next major event is when McMurphy finds out from Harding that most of the Acutes are voluntarily committed to the hospital. McMurphy is amazed at this information and does not understand how they can stand living in the hospital. He then realizes that it is their sense of hopelessness and self-condemnation that make them stay. He believes that he is their only savior and decides to fight for them. McMurphy shows he is again opposing Nurse Ratched when she takes away the game room. He smashes his arm into the Nurses' station and breaks the glass. He apologizes and says that he didn't see the glass.
For awhile, McMurphy has his own way about things because of the glass incident. When his request for an Accompanied Pass is turned down, he breaks the newly installed glass in the nurse's station, hurting his hand in the process. He also intentionally breaks the nose of one of the Black orderlies while playing basketball. Before long, the patients are again following McMurphy's behavior patterns. Scanlon breaks the glass in the nurse's station with a basketball.
McMurphy's next move is to get the patients to sign up for a fishing trip; the Nurse tries unsuccessfully to stop this. Even Chief Bromden, who previously pretended to be a deaf mute, starts talking to McMurphy and accompanies them on the trip, which turns out to be a success. Everyone drinks, fishes, and has a good time. The outing seems to make them all braver and stronger.
Nurse Ratched's next move is to belittle McMurphy in the eyes of the other patients. She gets them to have a meeting behind his back and plants a seed of doubt about his altruistic intentions. The patients are easily convinced that McMurphy's only purpose is to make money; this belief is strengthened when he gets them to bet on whether the Chief can lift the control panel. McMurphy wins the bet. Later, the patients realize they are mistaken about McMurphy when he gets into a fight with the Black boys. As a result of the encounter, McMurphy and the Chief are sent to the Disturbed ward and given shock treatment. McMurphy gets several treatments because he refuses to apologize.
When Chief Bromden is returned to the ward, it is obvious that he is improving. He talks to the other inmates for the first time in years. When McMurphy is returned to the ward, it is just as obvious that he is NOT doing well. Although he tries to act like nothing is wrong, McMurphy reveals in his facial expressions and in his actions that he is tired and worn down. As he has taught the other patients to be stronger, he has grown weaker and more insane himself. When the other patients plan an escape from the hospital, McMurphy does not even join them; he is no longer strong enough to face the outside world.
Shortly after McMurphy returns to the ward, it is time for Billy's party, which is to be the patients' last gathering before their escape. McMurphy smuggles in prostitutes to help Billy Bibbit, who is a virgin, reach manhood; all the patients join in the celebration. McMurphy falls asleep in the arms of one of the prostitutes and is found with her the next morning. When the Nurse finds Billy with another prostitute and threatens to tell his mother what he has been up to, he slits his own throat and bleeds to death.
This time McMurphy is in real trouble with Nurse Ratched. To retaliate, he tears open the Big Nurse's uniform, exposing her large breasts that have caused such a sense of wonder amongst the patients. As a result of this action, McMurphy is taken away and given a lobotomy. When he returns, he has been changed into a vegetable. Chief Bromden cannot bear to see McMurphy in such a state. He refuses to let Nurse Ratched use him as a symbol of her authority over the patients; therefore, he smothers him to death in order to save his friend from such a miserable existence. After the murder, Bromden -- the Indian, the noble savage -- escapes to freedom, securing a victory over Nurse Ratched. Ironically, the dead McMurphy has given this man a new life.