Nurse Ratched (also known as "Big Nurse") is a fictional character and the main antagonist of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as well as the 1975 film of the same name. A cold, heartless, and passive-aggressive tyrant, Nurse Ratched became the stereotype of the nurse as a battleaxe. She has also become a popular metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority in bureaucracies such as the psychiatric treatment center in which the novel is set.

Nurse Ratched
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest character
Nurse Ratched.jpg
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
First appearanceOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
Last appearanceOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Created byKen Kesey
Portrayed byLouise Fletcher
Ingrid Torrance
(Once Upon a Time)
Sarah Paulson (Ratched)
AliasBig Nurse
BirthplaceSalem, Oregon, United States

The role in the film version of the novel was turned down by Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, and Ellen Burstyn before Louise Fletcher received it.[1] Fletcher had only acted once in the 13 years before appearing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She was thought of for the role after Shelley Duvall was suggested for an alternative role and Miloš Forman saw Fletcher appear with her in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us.[1]


Author Kesey stated that he based Ratched on the head nurse of the psychiatric ward where he worked. He later ran into her at an aquarium, realizing "She was much smaller than I remembered, and a whole lot more human."[2] The 1940s hairstyle was, according to Louise Fletcher, "a symbol that life had stopped for her (Ratched) a long time ago".[1]

Character biographyEdit

Nurse Ratched is the head administrative nurse at the Salem State Hospital, a mental institution where she exercises near-absolute power over the patients' access to medications, privileges, and basic necessities such as food and toiletries. She capriciously revokes these privileges whenever a patient displeases her. Her superiors turn a blind eye because she maintains order, keeping the patients from acting out, either through antipsychotic and anticonvulsant drugs or her own brand of psychotherapy, which consists mostly of humiliating patients into doing her bidding. Her tyrannical rule and her hurtful personality stems from her time as an army nurse during World War II.

When Randle McMurphy arrives at the hospital, however, he flouts her rules with impunity, and inspires other patients to follow. Her attempts to cow him into submission—at first with threats and mild punishments, then with shock therapy—are unsuccessful, serving only to fuel his defiance.

Eventually McMurphy sneaks his prostitute girlfriend into the asylum, and encourages her to relieve fellow patient Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. When Ratched discovers what has happened, she threatens to tell Billy's mother about the transgression. Mortified, Billy commits suicide. Enraged with what Ratched has done to Billy and presumably fed up with her cruel nature in the mental institution, McMurphy attacks her and very nearly chokes her to death.

In retribution, Ratched has McMurphy lobotomized. Chief Bromden, another patient and the narrator of the novel, later smothers McMurphy with a pillow as a mercy killing after seeing what Ratched has done to him. Chief then escapes by lifting up the hydrotherapy cart and throwing it through a window. Ratched's injury from her near-strangulation leaves her voicebox almost completely disabled, thereby ending her reign of terror.

Other mediaEdit

Nurse Ratched was a recurring character in the ABC series Once Upon a Time. She is portrayed by Ingrid Torrance and works for the Evil Queen as a nurse in the Storybrooke Sanitarium. Although she appears in several episodes starting in the first season, her name is revealed in the fifth season premiere "The Dark Swan".

Sarah Paulson will portray the character in Ryan Murphy's upcoming Netflix adaptation, Ratched.[3]


Fletcher won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Ratched in the film. Ratched was named the fifth-greatest villain in film history (and second-greatest villainess, behind only the Wicked Witch of the West of The Wizard of Oz) by the American Film Institute in their series 100 Years... 100 Heroes & Villains.


  1. ^ a b c Harmetz, Aljean (30 November 1975). "The Nurse Who Rules The 'Cuckoo's Nest'". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  2. ^ Kirkpatrick, David D. (2001-05-10). "Ken Kesey, Checking in on His Famous Nest". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (2017-09-06). "Ryan Murphy's Nurse Ratched 'Cuckoo's Nest' Origin Series Starring Sarah Paulson Scores Netflix Order; Michael Douglas EPs". Deadline. Retrieved 2017-09-10.

Further readingEdit