One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is divided into four parts. Part I is the longest of the four and it establishes the hospital setting, introduces the patients and the staff, and begins to develop the central theme and the conflict of the novel
The entire story is narrated in third person by Chief Bromden and he tells the story in retrospect, from inside the hospital. Kesey’s choice of Bromden as the narrator is very significant, for the reader is quickly caught up in his world. The Chief often makes the patients seem more sane than the staff, who act in repressive ways.
From the very beginning of the novel, Chief Bromden, one of the schizophrenic patients, is the narrator of the story, and his explanations and descriptions are often unreal. He frequently makes it difficult for the reader to sort out fact from fiction, especially in Part I when he is at his worst emotionally and psychologically. Bromden has been treated horribly by the repressive society of the novel, but as the book progresses his self-assurance will improve until he is finally well enough to escape from the hospital.
The novel begins with the admission of a new patient, Randle McMurphy, to the hospital in Oregon. He has feigned insanity in order to get himself admitted into the mental hospital so that he can escape from his prison punishment. McMurphy also sees an opportunity to make money from his fellow patients and quickly tries to make friends with them. He also lets them know that he is used to being in charge and immediately usurps the position of “bull goose loony” from Harding.
Nurse Ratched, the head nurse in charge of the ward, carefully watches the newcomer and sizes McMurphy up as a troublemaker. In the first group meeting after McMurphy’s arrival at the hospital, his record is discussed; during the discussion, he learns about the theory of the Therapeutic Community. When Harding is discussed in the meeting, McMurphy gets the rest of the patients to see what they are doing by tearing Harding to pieces verbally. Later, when he asks them why they are so destructive, McMurphy is told that Nurse Ratched is in charge and wants them to be at each other’s throats. They also warn him that she does as she pleases.
The Chief sees Nurse Ratched as the centre of the repressive society. He calls her a big tractor with cogs and wheels inside; when she gets angry, he sees her swelling up to the size of a diesel truck, and he smells the machinery inside of her working. His paranoia about machines extends everywhere. He thinks that the Nurse controls the patients by means of hidden wires and connections, which she uses to numb them into submission. He paints an image of her as a huge spider at the middle of a web of electric wires, which she controls to administer electro-shock therapy to punish unruly or disobedient patients. The Chief also believes that the Nurse uses a fog machine to confuse the patients. He sees the fog when he has been given shock treatment or is heavily medicated. The fog, in truth, is part of the Chief’s paranoia, and he wonders why no one else notices it. It also appears to him when he wants to hide from the Nurse. The better the Chief gets, the less the fog appears, for the Nurse has less power to exert her influence over him. When the fog finally disappears completely, Bromden is cured.
Part I focuses on how MacMurphy tries to irk Nurse Ratched, which he tries to do at every opportunity. He asks her to switch off the radio, which blares at all times. He makes fun of the hospital rules by brushing his teeth with soap when he is not given toothpaste. He sings too loudly and appears half-naked in front of the Nurse, which really flusters her. He even gets the Doctor to requisition a separate game room for the younger men, against Nurse Ratched’s advice.
After the patients have the new game room, McMurphy teaches them to play cards and gamble for money, which is forbidden to the patients. He also tries to get Nurse Ratched to change the television viewing time so that the patients can watch the World Series, but she refuses. When he fails to convince the patients to vote in favour of watching the World Series, he tries unsuccessfully to lift the control panel. After this incident, the patients begin to support McMurphy and even vote in favor of watching the World Series. When the Nurse still refuses to change their viewing time, all the patients, led by McMurphy sit in front of the television and stare at the blank screen, instead of performing their required duties. This is McMurphy’s first major victory over Nurse Ratched. As a result of his success, he becomes the leader of the patients.
In Part I, as in the rest of the novel, Kesey causes the reader to empathise with the patients and criticise Nurse Ratched and the rest of the repressive “Combine”. McMurphy is depicted as a likable fellow, who is powerful and knowing. Also, everything is coloured through the Chief’s narration to the patients’ benefit. Even Bromden’s paranoia and McMurphy’s bullheadedness do not stand in the way of their being sympathetic characters. On the other hand, everything about Nurse Ratched is depicted as being despicable, including her appearance, her methodology, and her power. When the Nurse switches off the power to the television set, it is indicative that a battle for power has begun between her and McMurphy. It will be a hard battle, for the Nurse has the Combine (the symbol of restriction and repression) on her side, but McMurphy has the patients (the symbol of the individual and freedom) behind him. McMurphy himself becomes the real symbol of natural and rugged individualism.