Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466
Atala, a young Native American woman and convert to Christianity who falls in love with Chactas, a Native American of an enemy tribe and religion. Together, she and Chactas escape into the forest and come on a mission where they think they will be safe. On Atala’s birth, her mother had so feared for the child’s life that she swore to the Queen of Angels an oath of virginity for Atala if the child survived. When Atala is about to succumb to Chactas, she kneels in prayer, and virtue overcomes passion. Ultimately, Atala poisons herself because she believes that if she marries Chactas, her mother will be damned. Thus, her struggle is between passion and duty. As a Romantic heroine, she remains pure and unattainable, yet passionate. Atala dies in the arms of Chactas and is buried in the Indian cemetery. In her death, which is caused by religious duty misunderstood, there is an implicit criticism of missionary zeal.
Chactas, a young, melancholic Natchez brave who remains faithful to ancient Indian tradition. He had at one time been exiled to France, and from the very beginning of his story he is shown in a state of continuous exile. Having lost his father in the wars against the Muskogees, he is captured by the enemy tribe and is to be tortured and put to death; however, Atala rescues him. He tells his tale of his flight from exile and his love for Atala. Chactas refuses to flee certain death unless Atala accompanies him. He rages against the Christianity of Atala, because it appears to contradict nature, yet he admires the beauty and passion of her beliefs. His is a poetic struggle between natural love versus Christian notions of virtue and propriety.
Father Aubry, a wrathful missionary who rescues Atala and Chactas in a storm. He scornfully reproaches Chactas for complaining about Christianity when Chactas has not earned the right to judge providence through either his virtues or his suffering. Atala and Chactas perceive religion first as an expression of Father Aubry’s compassion, then as a “civilizer.” Father Aubry states that Atala’s religion (incorrectly understood) led her to try to repress natural desire; when repression proved impossible, it led to her suicide. The religious rites he performs in the story are described against a backdrop of rose and golden colors, but the splendor of these rites ultimately is undercut and even annihilated, and virtue is regarded with regret at the end of the story. The mission, attacked and ravaged by the Cherokees, lies in ruins; its beauty is fleeting and vulnerable. Father Aubry dies at the hands of hostile Native Americans.
René, a young French exile to whom Chactas tells his tale. He and Chactas both have suffered estrangement.