Study Guide

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest What's Up With the Ending?

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What's Up With the Ending?

The ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest pulls off the amazing trick of being both insanely sad and incredibly triumphant at the same time.

The Bummer

On the one hand, it's super sad because we realize that McMurphy has been given a lobotomy, which dooms him to live the rest of his life as a drooling zombie. All of the rebellion he once stood for is now gone and the mental hospital has won. Or at least it seems that way until Chief Bromden takes over the role of hero.

The Bright Side

Instead of letting McMurphy live as a zombie, Chief Bromden smothers him with a pillow after saying, "I wouldn't leave you here like this." In doing so, he symbolically sets McMurphy free, then frees himself by tossing a water fountain through a window and running off into the forest.

In the end, Chief gains the courage he needs to assert his independence and to remind all of us that freedom is still possible even in a world of total confinement and discipline. Chief gives hopes to all of us who want to remain individuals even as the world tells us to behave ourselves and to act like everyone else.

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