One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of a group of men in a mental asylum who are encouraged to rebel against the matriarchy of nurses when a new, unruly patient is suddenly admitted to the hospital. The novel presents competing ideas such as confinement vs. rebellion and women vs. men. Students will enjoy debating whether the mentally ill first-person narrator, Chief Bromden, is actually a reliable storyteller.

In the classroom, teachers are encouraged to show the novel's film adaptation and to help students point out the similarities and differences between the two versions of the story. Students can also discuss mental illness and how it was treated back in the 1960s with harsh procedures like lobotomies and electroshock therapy.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 320 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1110
  • Publication Date: 1962
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Chief Bromden, a Native American patient at a mental asylum, narrates the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Though he tells the story to readers, he outwardly pretends to be deaf and mute to both his fellow inmates and the nurses overseeing everyone. Conditions in the hospital immediately begin to change when a new, rebellious patient named Randle McMurphy is admitted. As McMurphy's unruly antics eventually encourage a widespread rebellion, Nurse Ratched, the head matriarch of the asylum, tightens the leash on the patients and slowly breaks their spirits. With themes of conformity, rebellion, and freedom, this novel challenges readers to question how mentally ill patients should be treated, even when they act out against authority.

Content warning: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest contains violence, sex, drugs, profanity, and content that may be offensive to women and minorities.

Your students will love:

  • Chief Bromden's unique first-person perspective
  • The fascinating characters

Students may have problems with:

  • The misogyny within the work
  • An unsatisfying ending in which Chief Bromden kills McMurphy

Objectives for Teaching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

  • Identify and discuss important symbols in the novel.
  • Discuss whether or not Chief Bromden is a reliable narrator.
  • Identify and discuss the matriarchal dynamic presented in the book.
  • Recognize the importance of McMurphy's character in demonstrating conflicts between an individual and society.
  • Identify and expand upon themes of conformity, sexuality, and martyrdom.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Dark Comedy
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Symbolism
  • Unreliable vs. Reliable Narrators

Themes and Motifs

The Power of Women — More frequently in literature, a patriarchy dominates female characters and attempts to control what they do. In this novel, though, a matriarchy prevails and reminds readers that female characters can be just as evil and domineering as male characters can.

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Rebellion — McMurphy's rebellious nature encourages the other patients to realize how lifeless they have been for many years. This revelation inspires the characters to challenge the whole concept of conformity and to find new meaning in their lives.

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Freedom and Confinement — While the hospital is a very strict and unforgiving environment, many of the patients are actually there voluntarily. Because of the [atients'] unstable mental states, the structure and confinement is somewhat comforting, rather than totally restrictive.

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A film adaptation was released in 1975. While the movie was extremely well-received by most people, Ken Kesey, the author of the book, refused to watch it after the producers chose to get rid of Chief Bromden's first-person narration.

External Resources

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