(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Chactas is an old, blind, and wise Indian of the tribe of Natchez, whose hunting ground is in the territory of Louisiana. Because of his great age and deep wisdom gained through countless years of tragic misfortune, Chactas is the patriarch of the tribe. Thus it is that when a young Frenchman named René presents himself for membership in the tribe in the year 1725, it is Chactas who questions him to determine his fitness to join the Natchez nation. Finding René fixed in his determination to become one of the tribe, Chactas accepts him. As the Indians prepare for a beaver hunt, Chactas—even though he is blind—is made the leader of the party. One night as they lie in their canoes, Chactas recites the story of his adventures to René.

When Chactas had lived but seventeen summers, his father was killed in battle and he himself was taken prisoner by the enemy and led away by the Spaniards to St. Augustine. There he was befriended by an old Castilian named Lopez and his sister. The two white people cared for the young man and tried to educate him as their son. After thirty moons had passed, however, Chactas tired of this civilized life and begged Lopez to allow him to return to his people. Lopez, knowing the dangers awaiting a lonely youth in the forests, at first tried to dissuade Chactas. At last, seeing that the youth was firm in his resolve, the old man sent him on his way with his blessing.

The warning given by the good Lopez soon proved correct. Chactas, having lost his way in the woods, was captured by an enemy tribe and taken to their village to await death by burning. Because of his youth and bravery, the women of the tribe took pity on him. One night, as he sat by the campfire, he heard a rustling and then felt the presence of a woman beside him. In low tones, she told him that she was Atala, daughter of the chief and his wife, now dead. She asked Chactas if he was a Christian, and when he told her that he had not forsaken the gods of his father, she departed.

For many days the tribe marched, taking Chactas with them, and each night Atala visited him by the fire. One night, after Chactas was tied to a tree, Atala appeared and told his guard that she would watch the prisoner for a time. Since she was the daughter of the chief, the guard gladly gave her his place. She quickly untied the cords and gave Chactas his freedom, but, just as quickly, he placed the cords in her hand, telling her that he wanted to be chained to her forever. She cried out in anguish that their religions separated them. She also seemed to have some other terrible secret that she feared he would learn. Atala begged him to flee without her, but Chactas said that he would rather die by fire than leave her. Neither would change, and so Atala tied Chactas again, hoping that soon he would change his mind. Each night they slipped off into the woods together, but Chactas did not possess her, for her God helped her to deny her passion for Chactas. She prayed that the young man might give himself to her God so that one barrier to their love would be broken.


(The entire section is 1253 words.)