Dale Harding is one of the most self-aware and coherent of the patients at the hospital, and somewhat of a leader for the Acutes before McMurphy arrives. He’s an intellectual man who is characterized by his dry humor and eloquent, old-fashioned diction. Besides Chief Bromden, who doesn’t speak for much of the novel, Harding is the only patient on the ward who can actually articulate meaningful thoughts about the hospital, the system of oppression the men are experiencing, and Nurse Ratched’s role in their lives. In fact, he’s the first person to explain to McMurphy just how dangerous the Nurse is. He’s also the only person sharp enough to warn McMurphy at the end of the novel that the party with Candy and Sandy will be the men’s last stand, and that something disastrous is looming on the horizon.

Harding, like most of the Acutes in the ward, is a voluntary patient, meaning that he can check out of the hospital at any time of his own accord. He’s seeking treatment due to marital problems ultimately caused by Harding's failure to embody a traditionally masculine persona. Harding is intelligent and mentally competent, but rather physically effeminate, with a pretty face and a delicate physique. He also often talks with his hands – which Bromden describes as beautiful and pale, as if they were carved from soap – but attempts to put a stop to this behavior, because “grown men aren’t supposed to wave their pretty hands that way.” Harding’s wife, on the other hand, is an attractive, well-endowed woman, and when she visits Harding at the hospital, her presence overshadows his. In the context of their relationship, Harding’s wife seems to be the more powerful or dominant party. This fact bothers both Harding and his wife. They both feel that their dynamic would be healthier should Harding be able to take on a more traditionally masculine role in the relationship, but Harding isn’t confident in his abilities to do this, especially since he’s been continuously emasculated by his wife, Nurse Ratched, and his fellow patients for not being able to sexually satisfy his wife. However, through McMurphy’s help in building the men’s confidence, Harding is able to eventually leave the ward and return to his marital life.