Chief Bromden, nicknamed “Chief Broom” because the aides make him sweep the halls, narrates One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although he says that he is telling the story about “the hospital, and her, and the guys—and about McMurphy,” he is also telling the story of his own journey toward sanity. When the novel begins, Bromden is paranoid, bullied, and surrounded much of the time by a hallucinated fog that represents both his medicated state and his desire to hide from reality. Moreover, he believes that he is extremely weak, even though he used to be immensely strong; because he believes it, he is extremely weak. By the end of the novel, the fog has cleared, and Bromden has recovered the personal strength to euthanize McMurphy, escape from the hospital, and record his account of the events.
Bromden is six feet seven inches tall (or six feet eight inches, the book is inconsistent), but because he has been belittled for so long, he thinks he “used to be big, but not no more.” He has been a patient in an Oregon psychiatric hospital for ten years. Everyone in the hospital believes that he is deaf and dumb. When McMurphy begins to pull him out of the fog, he realizes the source of his charade: “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” As Bromden himself is demystified, so too is the truth behind what has oppressed him and hindered his recovery.
This oppression has been in place since Bromden’s childhood. He is the son of Chief Tee Ah Millatoona, which means The Pine That Stands Tallest on the Mountain, and a white woman, Mary Louise Bromden, the dominant force in the couple. Chief Bromden bears his mother’s last name; his father’s acceptance of her name symbolizes her dominance over him. In one telling experience, when Bromden was ten years old, three government officials came to see his father about buying the tribe’s land so they could build a hydroelectric dam, but Bromden was home alone. When he tried to speak to the officials, they acted as if he was not there. This experience sows the seeds for his withdrawal into himself, and initiates the outside world’s treatment of him as if he were deaf and dumb. Bromden’s mother joined forces with some of the members of the tribe to pressure Bromden’s father to sell the land. Bromden, like his father, is a big man who comes to feel small and helpless.
The reason for Bromden’s hospitalization is cloaked in ambiguity. He may have had a breakdown from witnessing the decline of his father or from the horrors of fighting in World War II. Both of these possible scenarios involve an emasculating and controlling authority—in the first case the government officials, in the second the army. These authority figures provide Bromden with fodder for his dark vision of society as an oppressive conglomeration that he calls the Combine. It is also possible that, like McMurphy, Bromden was sane when he entered the hospital but that his sanity slipped when he received what is rumored to be 200 electroshock treatments. The paranoia and hallucinations he suffers from, which center on hidden machines in the hospital that physically and psychologically control the patients, can be read as metaphors for the dehumanization he has experienced in his life.