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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Kesey's great madhouse epic best for older teens.

What parents need to know

Educational value

While this book requires a mature reader because of its harrowing setting and adult themes, it does offer a cultural snapshot of the mid-20th century and the effects of rapid industrialization that will resonate with today's nature-vs.-tech issues. Also, while Kesey's style is vernacular, he's well steeped in literary tradition, so fans of mythology and heroic tales will find much to delight them here.

Positive messages

With the stipulation that this is not a kids' book, there's a positive message in the various ways characters find their strength and stand up for themselves, and the overall sense of justice being done.

Positive role models

While no parent would choose McMurphy as a role model for their children, his indomitable spirit would be admirable even if Kesey didn't load him up with so much Christ-figure baggage. Chief Bromden, the narrator, is notable for his steadfastness, strength of character, and, as it turns out, wise perspective.


While the book is not awash in gore, it's fraught with violence. Most of its characters are confined to a mental hospital, where the employees regularly subject them to mental and physical abuse. Some of the patients are there because they're violent themselves. The narrator has dreams and visions involving worse violence. Physical attacks, some resulting in injury and death, occur in the book.


While no actual sex is described except as happening offstage, references to it abound, sometimes in bragging, sometimes in juvenile teasing, sometimes in hostile rants. McMurphy is serving time for statutory rape; Nurse Ratched uses her patients' sexual inadequacies to keep them in thrall; there are various references to porn magazines, etc. Two related episodes involve prostitute friends of McMurphy's.


The occasional f-word and liberal profanity, plus definitely jarring racial language (e.g. "black boys," "Jap").

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

There is drinking, smoking of both cigarettes and marijuana, and ingesting of everything that can be stolen from the pharmacy case.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that while this book is on many short lists for the Great American Novel, and with good cause, it is one big Parental Advisory from cover to cover, starting with politically incorrect racial references in the second sentence and progressing rapidly to variations on sex, violence, hatred, and people treating each other badly before the plot's even gotten under way. And this in the context of a mental hospital, so there's an extra element of pathology to it all. There is not merely smoking, drinking, cursing, drugs, and gambling, but also hookers. The protagonist reminisces fondly about having sex at age 9 with one of his contemporaries. In short, it's not for innocents or the faint-hearted, yet it is often assigned to upper-grade high school students. Parents may want to read it themselves in preparation for discussing any issues that arise -- both the peculiar behavior and the literary themes. One can also check out the 1975 film version, which won five Oscars, including one for Best Picture.

What's the story?

As told by Chief Bromden, the giant, half-Indian inmate who's been in the mental hospital for decades, pretending to be deaf and dumb, Nurse Ratched has the ward running with fine-tuned precision till the day Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives. McMurphy, a career con man currently serving a sentence for statutory rape (he claims the charge is bogus, though his sex drive clearly isn't), figured his sentence would be easier if he pretended to be crazy, so he got transferred from the work farm to the mental hospital. Soon he's encouraging the patients to stand up for themselves, which throws Nurse Ratched's carefully managed world into disarray. Cosmic, tragicomic clashes follow.

Is it any good?


This mature novel is excellent, although it's certainly possible to find fault with the over-the-top quality of Kesey's writing or his fondness for the larger-than-life. But the themes of the individual being swallowed up by the Combine, of industrialization destroying nature to our peril, and what we should be doing about it, to say nothing of the universal human imperative to develop a spine, all remain timeless.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the fact that Kesey was using the mental hospital as a metaphor for the larger society of his time. Why? Also, do you think treatment for mental illness has progressed since this era?

  • This book is considered a seminal work of the 1960s. What do you know about Kesey and his influence in that era, and his later work?

  • Chief Bromden talks about how his people lost their land and had it taken away for a dam. Today some of those tribes are involved in salmon restoration efforts. What do you know about that, and other work to restore rivers to their natural state?

Book details

Author:Ken Kesey
Genre:Literary Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Penguin Classics
Publication date:December 31, 2002
Number of pages:312

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Adult Written byJeffRC March 4, 2012

All around a great, classic book.

I teach high school English, and I use this in my 11th grade American lit class. There are so many topics that can be discussed and analyzed, and the characterization is rich and in depth. It has many positive messages as the characters find ways to gain strength in the face of adversity. It also gives us a glimpse of what psychiatry was like at that time, so provides some historical perspective. I think it's a great example of the finest American lit has to offer, my students always love it, and although there is some risqué content, it's no worse than many classics that are standard fodder for high school English (think of Native Son, read in many high school classes, which contains a graphic description of two men masturbating in a movie theater, as well as a graphic description of Bigger murdering his girlfriend by smashing her head with a brick until it felt like "wet cotton"). I only wish I could follow the book by showing the film, unfortunately the language in the film is even worse than in the book, and I'm not comfortable showing it to 17 year old kids.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Too much swearing
Teen, 15 years old Written byDanny Macca May 3, 2013

AWESOME (but slightly mature) BOOK

Tragic, epic, and hilarious, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is one of the best books I've read in a long time. The writing was an impressive mix of poetic and vernacular language, the plot was always engaging and surprising, and the ending was shocking. Some of the imagery and depictions of mental illness are disturbing, and the book is a bit heavy on the sexual stuff, but a definite must-read for anyone looking for a provocative, entertaining, and enlightening novel.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 13 years old Written byrbrooksie12 April 11, 2013

rbrooksie12 "One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest"

"One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest" tells the tale of Randle P. McMurphy, a brash rebel who at a mental institution leads a revolt against Nurse Ratched, a woman more dictator than Nurse
What other families should know
Too much swearing