In the emotional climax of the novel, Ree Dolly, with the help of Merab and two other Thump women, finally finds her father Jessup’s body. Ree’s search for Jessup has formed the entirety of the novel’s physical and emotional structure, and her discovery of his corpse—frozen beneath the surface of an icy lake—is both redemptive and horrific. In order to prove to the law that Jessup is in fact dead—and thus retain the deed to her home and her land—Ree and the Thump women use a chainsaw to sever both of Jessup’s hands from his body so that Ree can deliver them to the authorities. Jessup’s severed hands represent the severance and the destruction of many things: of Ree from whatever small shreds were left of her childhood and innocence; of the code of silence in Ree’s labyrinthe Ozark community; of Ree from her father’s legacy. The severed hands, though grotesque, symbolize a sort of freedom and a new way forward for Ree. With the sacrificial offering of Jessup’s hands, she can make a new life for herself and her younger brothers, one that seeks to creep out from beneath the shadow of her outlaw father.
The Winter’s Bone quotes below all refer to the symbol of Jessup’s Hands. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one: Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Back Bay Books edition of Winter’s Bone published in 2007.).
The timeline below shows where the symbol Jessup’s Hands appears in Winter’s Bone. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...asks. Ree refuses to operate the saw, so Merab takes control of it, sawing off Jessup’s hands while Ree protests, weeps, and vomits. After sawing off both hands, the Thump women walk... (full context)