One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Novel Summary: Part 2
The Big Nurse calls a staff meeting because she is concerned about McMurphy’s behavior. She has regained her composure and imposes her will on the meeting. The young resident doctors, wanting to stay on the right side of her, argue that McMurphy should be considered potentially violent. One of them suggests that he should be sent to the Disturbed ward. But to the surprise of everyone, the Big Nurse does not agree. She argues that if he is sent to Disturbed, he will be regarded as a hero by the other patients, but if he remains in the general ward, his rebellion will soon subside, and the patients will lose respect for him. The Big Nurse regards McMurphy as no more than a braggart and a coward.
Throughout the following week, McMurphy continues to be hard on the Big Nurse and the black boys. She assigns him to cleaning the latrines, and is horrified at how poorly he does it. He continues to laugh and joke with the other men, and Bromden is convinced that McMurphy is strong enough to resist the Big Nurse and continue to be himself. Under McMurphy’s influence, Bromden starts to see his world more clearly, with less “fog” clouding his vision. Also, the men start to become more assertive in the group meetings, challenging the hospital rules they do not like. McMurphy complains about the fact that the Big Nurse has taken charge of their cigarettes, and only allows each man one pack a day.
But after McMurphy talks to the lifeguard at the swimming pool, where the patients go every Wednesday, his attitude changes. The lifeguard points out that if a man is committed to the hospital, he has no say in when he is going to be released. The lifeguard tells McMurphy that he has been in the hospital for nearly nine years. McMurphy, who had been thinking that a couple of months in the hospital was far better than the same period in the work farm, now has second thoughts. On the work farm, he knew exactly when he would be released. But in the hospital, he has no knowledge of how long he will have to stay. So he decides to cooperate with the Big Nurse, to speed his release. At the next group meeting, he declines to support Cheswick when Cheswick makes a fuss about the cigarette allocation. Cheswick’s only reward is to be taken to the Disturbed ward, where he remains for a few days. The day he returns, he is drowned in the pool after his fingers get stuck in the grate. It may be that this is a suicide.
In the lunch line, Sefelt, the epileptic, has a seizure. This is because he refuses to take his medication, giving it instead to another epileptic, Frederickson, who is so scared of having a fit that he is eager to take a double dose of medicine. The medicine has bad side-effects, rotting his gums.
Harding’s wife visits him. They quarrel, and she belittles him, implying that he is a homosexual. She soon leaves. McMurphy yells at Harding, and later apologizes to him, saying that he has had a miserable week and has bad dreams.
One Friday, the patients go for X-rays. The X-ray room is near to the “Shock Shop,” where patients go for EST. Harding explains to McMurphy how it works. The electric shock to the brain induces a seizure, after which the patient is, supposedly, calmer and more peaceful. But he will also be damaged in other ways, forgetting things, for example. McMurphy is horrified by what he hears. Harding then explains even more drastic procedures, such as lobotomy, in which part of the brain is removed. McMurphy realizes that the problem he and the others face is deeper than merely the Big Nurse, but he cannot put his finger on what it is. Then he gets even more perplexed when he discovers that of all the patients in the hospital, only very few are committed. The rest are in on a voluntary basis. McMurphy struggles to understand why this should be so. He seems worried.
Near the end of the afternoon meeting, the Big Nurse announces that she intends to punish the men for the disturbance several weeks earlier when they sat around the TV and refused to do their duties. She announces that she will closes the room which they have been using for their card games during the day. McMurphy gets up from his chair and walks to where the Big Nurse is sitting, near the Nurses’ Station. Saying that he needs a cigarette, he thrusts his hand through the glass window and grabs one of his own cigarette packs. The Big Nurse does not know what to do, and is silent as McMurphy apologizes to her, brushes the glass splinters from her hat and shoulders, and walks back to his chair and lights a cigarette.
In Part 2, McMurphy is obviously having a positive influence on the men. He tends to accept them as they are, and his own example encourages them not to be so passive in the face of the treatment they receive. But equally important is the change that starts to takes place in McMurphy. His decision, after his conversation with the lifeguard, to toe the line, is only temporary. He is beginning to realize that he has some responsibility to these men, and this feeling is strengthened when he learns that almost all of them are in the hospital voluntarily. Although it will not become fully clear until Part 3, he now has a sincere desire to help the other patients in ways that he sees best, although he does not yet know how to approach the task.
The first hint of this change comes after Sefelt’s seizure. McMurphy learns of the side effects of the medicine used to control seizures, and he begins to appreciate some of the dilemmas the patients are put in. They have few choices in life, and whatever they choose, their lives remain downtrodden. As McMurphy looks down on Sefelt, “His face has commenced to take on that same haggard, puzzled look of pressure that the face on the floor has” (p. 170). This shows that McMurphy is starting to empathize with the situation of others.
After Harding’s wife visits, McMurphy is uncharacteristically depressed and moody, and he confesses to having bad dreams. He is beginning to realize that the real problem is not only the Big Nurse but the attitudes of the men themselves, that have been shaped all their lives by society. Harding’s wife, for example, is just as emasculating for his husband as the Big Nurse is. He would face the same problems, in or out of the hospital.
Whereas earlier, McMurphy’s decision to challenge the Big Nurse was entirely personal—he wanted to show he could get the better of her—his decision to renew the challenge by breaking the glass and retrieving his cigarettes, is motivated by his desire to help the patients.