In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, how are McMurphy and Harding's hands different? What might this symbolize?
Harding and McMurphy's hands say a lot about their respective personalities. McMurphy's rough-hewn hands are indicative of his rugged, blue-collar background and of his many adventures traveling the length and breadth of the West in search of manual work:
The palm was callused, and the calluses were cracked, and dirt was worked in the cracks. A road map of his travels up and down the West. That palm made a scuffing sound against my hand.
When we're first introduced to Harding, he's described as having hands "so long and white and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap." As well as being unusually pretty for a man, Harding's hands appear to have a life of their own:
[S]ometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him free as two white birds until he notices them and traps them between his knees; it bothers him that he's got pretty hands.
Harding's obvious embarrassment at having such soft, feminine hands represents how he feels about himself. In hating his pretty hands, he hates himself and what he really is—gentle, bookish, and unworldly. Harding doesn't feel able to express himself fully around the other men, who in their less than enlightened state, regard his pretty hands as indicative of effeminate homosexuality. So he traps them beneath his knees, not wishing to draw attention either to them or to himself.
Yet Harding starts behaving differently when McMurphy's around. McMurphy shakes things up in general around the hospital, allowing the inmates to gain a sense of freedom they've never had before. And Harding's no different. McMurphy's frankness and vulgar sense of humor causes Harding to laugh out loud, and more importantly, to set his hands free:
Harding looks around, sees everybody’s watching him, and does his best to laugh . . . Eee-eee-eee. He can’t stop it. He wrings his hands like a fly and clinches his eyes at the awful sound of that squeaking. But he can’t stop it. It gets higher and higher until finally, with a suck of breath, he lets his face fall into his waiting hands.
Harding is described as "limp wristed," and his hands are long and delicate. His hands are used to imply that he is homosexual and that his wife, who refers to him as "limp wrested," does not find him pleasing. On the other hand, McMurphy's hands are described as strong. Chief writes about McMurphy, for example, saying that "all of a sudden his hand shot out and with a swing of his arm untied the sheet" (224). McMurphy's hands are vehicles by which others, such as Chief, are freed, while Harding's hands are described as too weak to help others. Their hands are symbols of their strength. In this way, hands function as synecdoche, or parts that stand for the whole. McMurphy is able to free other men from the ward with his strong hands, while Harding, while escaping himself, is not able to free others with his delicate and useless hands.
McMurphy's hands are big and rough, while Harding's hands are small and soft.
It is clear that McMurphy has done a lot of manual labor in his day. He has made his living by using his hands. McMurphy, and his hands, represent the "man's man". They tend to be rougher, rowdier, and more rambunctious. They often don't have much formal education, but they have what is known as "street smarts" which has to do with learning from personal experience and having common sense.
Harding's small, soft hands represents his loss of manhood. He is an intellectual with a lot of book knowledge, but he struggles to cope in the real world due to his lack of personal experience. He is physically and emotionally weaker and suffers from a loss of identity. His wife cheats on him, and for much of the book he's a closet homosexual.