Study Guide

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

By Ken Kesey

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Part I, Chapter Five

  • Chief loses himself in the fog but the fog clears just before one p.m. when the orderlies come in to tell the Acutes to clear the floor for a meeting.
  • Big Nurse watches everything through her window. She hasn’t moved from that spot for three hours.
  • A doctor comes in and sits in his chair to the left of the door. The patients sit down and then the nurses and residents come in. That’s when Big Nurse gets up and comes out with the log book and a pile of notes. She sits to the right of the door.
  • Old Pete Bancini starts moaning about how tired he is.
  • Big Nurse asks somebody to sit next to old Pete and keep him quiet so the meeting can start.
  • Billy Bibbit sits next to him.
  • Nurse Ratched says, "Shall we get into the meeting?" and looks around, smiling, to see if anybody is going to interrupt her. Nobody will meet her gaze except McMurphy.
  • She waits a minute, then says that when Friday’s meeting closed, they had been discussing Harding’s problem with his wife. Apparently, Harding’s wife has such large breasts that it makes him uneasy when other men stare at her. He may have even beaten his wife a few times because her bosom makes him feel inferior.
  • Nurse Ratched asks if anyone wants to touch upon this subject?
  • McMurphy wonders aloud if she means touch upon the wife.
  • The Big Nurse is almost startled. Then she pulls out some information on McMurphy and begins to readhe’s 35, never married, gets into lots of fights, has problems with gambling, arrested for rape, etc.
  • The doctor gets interested when she says "rape" and Big Nurse clarifies that it was statutory rape (meaning, it wasn’t violent, but the girl was underage).
  • McMurphy explains that the girl wouldn’t testify so the charges had to be dropped. And furthermore, she was so willing that he had to sew his pants shut to get her off him and leave town to escape the girl.
  • They start to analyze McMurphy. The doctor calls him McMurry because of Big Nurse’s mispronunciation of his name, and McMurphy corrects him. It’s clear in this exchange that Big Nurse has deliberately called him the wrong name in an attempt to get to him. Her tactic doesn’t actually work.
  • This is McMurphy’s first time in a mental institution, though he’s been in and out of prison many times.
  • He gets up to show the doctor part of his record—the part Big Nurse left out, which is that he’s overzealous in sexual relations. He asks the doctor if that is "real serious."
  • The doctor claims he’s more interested in the report that McMurphy is possibly faking mental illness to escape work at the work farm.
  • McMurphy stands up and challenges the doctor by saying, "do I look like a sane man?"
  • Big Nurse finally realizes that McMurphy is out of control and she asks the doctor to explain the "protocol" for these meetings.
  • So the doctor lets McMurphy know that patients are supposed to remain seated during meetings.
  • As the meeting proceeds, Chief notices that McMurphy is beginning to look confused. The new Admission doesn’t understand why the patients won’t cut loose and have a good time. He’s beginning to notice how carefully controlled everything and everybody is.
  • The theory of the Therapeutic Community is that a guy has to learn to get along in a group before he can get along in society. In this group, you are supposed to talk, confess, and confront. The key is to never let a problem fester. Usually, the meetings end with old Pete standing up and saying, "I’m tired!"
  • Here Chief begins a story within a story.
  • Keep in mind that this all happened a few years ago: Big Nurse opens the meeting right up by asking people to let out their secrets. All of the patients are stunned and sit in silence for twenty minutes.
  • Finally, Nurse Ratched asks if anybody has ever done anything they’ve kept secret. People open up and start confessing their worst sinslike raping their sister or robbing a gas station or killing a cat.
  • Then old Pete stands up and said, "I’m tired!" Everybody hushes and the Big Nurse is furious.
  • (Some backstory: Old Pete is a Chronic. He’d always been chronically ill due to a botched birth when the doctor used ice tongs instead of forceps. The tongs were too hard and actually squeezed Pete’s skull together.)
  • Big Nurse tries to get one of the orderlies shut Pete up. Pete, however, attacks the orderly with a big rusty iron ball on the end of a chain. The other orderlies try to calm him but they’re afraid.
  • Finally, Pete begins to talk about how he was born dead and he’s tired of talking and standing up.
  • That’s when Big Nurse manages to knock him out with some medicine in a needle. She’s swift and fast, that one.
  • Poor Pete had actually tried to tell everybody something, but he just got punished for it. He never tried anything like that again.
  • The story ends. We’re back in the present.
  • At 2 p.m., the group is still analyzing Harding.
  • The doctor begins to get impatient. He’d rather be in his office with real patients.
  • The Acutes snap out of it and feel ashamed, realizing that they’ve been tricked into grilling one of their own friends again. They get up and leave.
  • McMurphy sits where he is, still watching and trying to figure out what’s happening. Then he goes over and sits in front of Harding, who doesn’t notice him. They seem to ignore each other.
  • McMurphy puts a cigarette in his mouth and begins to talk. He asks Harding if this is the way these meetings usually go, like a bunch of chickens at a pecking party. In other words, the flock gets the sight of blood and starts pecking someone to death and it might not end until the entire flock is dead.
  • McMurphy also notes that the person who delivers the first peck that draws blood is definitely Nurse Ratched.
  • McMurphy tells Harding that he must have done something to create enemies, because during the meeting the whole ward seemed out to get him.
  • Harding denies that the group is against him, instead insisting that the session was done for his own benefit. According to Harding, McMurphy must be a stupid brute not to have understood what was really happening during the meeting.
  • McMurphy doesn’t take the bait. He just asks if Harding is really convinced that all of this was done for his own good.
  • Harding says he doesn’t believe that Nurse Ratched is pecking at his eyes. McMurphy assures Harding that the Big Nurse isn’t pecking at his eyes she’s pecking at his balls.
  • Harding flinches.
  • But as McMurphy continues, Harding persists in denying it, saying delusional stuff like, "Our dear Miss Ratched? Our sweet, smiling, tender angel of mercy, Mother Ratched, a ball-cutter? Why, friend, that’s most unlikely."
  • They continue to argue until Harding realizes everybody’s staring at him. He begins to wail. Then he begins to whisper, "Oh, the b****, the b****, the b****."
  • The two men agree that Dr. Spivey is exactly like themhelpless in Nurse Ratched’s hands. He can’t fire her because her friend is the one who does the hiring and firing.
  • Harding explains that she keeps the doctor in line by insinuating that he’s addicted to opiates.
  • Harding tells McMurphy that the patients and ward staff are all rabbits and Nurse Ratched is the wolfthe world is divided into the weak and the strong. He even says that McMurphy is a rabbit too.
  • McMurphy doesn’t like being called a rabbit or dividing the world in such a black-and-white way. He wonders if it’s all the "whambam" (a.k.a. sex) that makes him a rabbit.
  • Well, Harding says that all of the banging only makes McMurphy a better-functioning rabbit than the rest of the patients, who have been emasculated by Nurse Ratched.
  • Then Harding leans forward and tells McMurphy that he may, in fact, be a wolf.
  • McMurphy doesn’t like that any better than being called a rabbit. He’s insistent that nobody is a rabbit or a wolf. Nobody. He tries to encourage the patients not to answer Nurse Ratched’s questions, play into her manipulative games, or turn on each other.
  • The guys try to explain to McMurphy what happens if you resist her. You’re either a) shipped upstairs to the Disturbed Ward, b) go to the Shock Shop, or c) get an operation (that is, a lobotomy).
  • McMurphy persists in trying to organize collective resistance, and Harding continually attempts to show how futile resistance is because Nurse Ratched’s power is so extensive.
  • Harding claims that the only way to control a woman is through your penis. The only weapon they have against power like hers is sex. But, is that even possible with Nurse Ratched? Could you even get it up for her?
  • No, McMurphy admits, he wouldn’t be able to get it up for her. Apparently, she’s none too inspiring.
  • McMurphy tries to figure out how to get under her skin without getting sent to the electroshock therapy or for an operation or to the Disturbed Ward. If he’s nice, she can’t do anything about it, right?
  • According to Harding, as long as you keep control and don’t lose your temper, you’re safe.
  • So McMurphy makes a bet with the men that he can get under Nurse Ratched’s skin. He says he’s not crazy and he’s smart, two qualities that she won’t be expecting.
  • So they line up and bet him.

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