Critical Evaluation

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie is the third of five historical novels to appear in his Leatherstocking series. The name Leatherstocking comes from the nickname settlers gave to the character Natty Bumppo (Trapper). Even though The Prairie is not the last of Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales to appear in print, it is the concluding saga of the five books of the series.

The setting of The Prairie is essential to the plot. Cooper sets this historical novel in 1804 in the Great Plains, a symbol for a place of peace. Natty Bumppo carries the nickname Trapper in The Prairie and the names Deerslayer, Pathfinder, and Hawkeye in other Cooper novels. In The Prairie, Trapper is traveling west to escape civilization and to find his ideal life in unsettled territory—real or imagined.

The structure of the plot of The Prairie is progressive: One must read the entire book or story to find the answers to the questions raised. The order of the plot first appears chronological and appears to foreshadow the destruction civilization may bring to the land, the animals, and the people. Like the series itself, however, this novel is not strictly chronological. Because the series employs flashbacks and is not sequentially written or published, the reader cannot be sure that a story’s “ending” is actually an ending.

As important as the plot and setting may be, the characters make the book memorable and vivid for the reader. Cooper uses many devices to make his characters round, or fully developed. His initial description of Trapper indicates to the reader that the frontiersman will be vital to the volume: “a human form appeared. . . . The figure was colossal. . . . The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful.”

Certain resemblances are evident between the characters and character relationships in The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) and those in The Prairie. The genteel Captain Duncan Middleton of The Prairie is a grandson of Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro-Heyward of The Last of the Mohicans. Trapper’s love for his adopted son, Hard-Heart, parallels his feeling for young Uncas. The enmity of Hard-Heart and Mahtoree, a Teton Sioux chief, in The Prairie is as fierce as that of Uncas and Magua in The Last of the Mohicans; the two feuds end differently, however.

The speech of the characters is revealing in The Prairie. The main character, Trapper, is the most verbose; his words make up about one-third of the instances of discourse in the book. It is he who translates the speech of others and who presents a commentary on what he sees and hears. Trapper often warns about the harm that people can cause to the land and its inhabitants; he attributes much of this destruction to their “morals” and “their wickedness and their pride,” but...

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