But he did not know what he was getting into. He found himself in a ward run by Nurse Ratched, a former army nurse, who exerted absolute control over her domain. She favored order and discipline over everything else - including helping the patients under her care. McMurphy's rebellious ways and his questioning of authority conflicted with Nurse Ratched's routine and the two butted heads often. Ratched mostly used a passive-aggressive strategy to manipulate her patients, but she would stop at nothing - up to and including shock therapy and lobotomy.
McMurphy's antics inspired the other men to stand up for themselves and to think for themselves. To a man, they have been repressed and emasculated since their arrival.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is told by "Chief" Bromden - a gentle Native American who has been in the ward for years. Everyone mistakenly believes the Chief is a deaf mute, so he observes everything and reports it to the reader with a mostly dispassionate eye.
But this is far from a dispassionate novel.
Kesey fills the ward with colorful characters, who are intimidated by Ratched, but inspired by McMurphy's free spirit to assert their own rights. They begin to demand human respect.
McMurphy is no angel. He offers no apologies for his past crimes; and he is a misogynist and he exploits those around him. But he offers hope for the emasculated victims of Nurse Ratchet. He inspires them to regain their lost dignity. And he does so at great personal risk to himself.
And Nurse Ratched is one of the great villains in the history of literature (and in cinema; she was portrayed brilliantly by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman's excellent 1975 adaption).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of order versus chaos; of independence versus control; of the rights of individuals versus the demands of the establishment. It is about power and abuse of power.
Kesey makes us feel the pain of those who have lost their dignity and their hope. And he inspires us to regain it.