Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072
Set in the waning months of the American Civil War, this deeply affecting historical novel betrays only minimal interest in that war's celebrated commanders. In fact, its main use of such figures is to characterize its protagonist by rejecting, as he does, their views of war and death. In the first chapter, Inman, the wounded protagonist, remembers fighting at Maryes Heights in Fredericksburg, where generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet "spent the afternoon up on the hill coining fine phrases like a pair of wags" while under their detached gazes men died in one of the most horrendous military engagements in history. Inman is troubled by the fact that "Lee seemed to think battle . . . stood outranked in sacredness only by prayer and Bible reading." This common soldier cannot accept the view of war as a divine instrument. He has fought with his regiment at Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg. He fought only because his homeland was being invaded. Now, somehow still alive after suffering a catastrophic neck wound, he has had enough of war.
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In Cold Mountain the great figures of history thus appear only in the remembered action of the book, recalled, as are the batdes they launched, by the man who wants only to get home. But some of Cold Mountain's other characters also have their origins in history. Author Charles Frazier had an ancestor named Inman who fought in the Civil War and who as the war drew to a close simply deserted like many Confederates and returned on foot to civilian life. Also during his research Frazier learned that two apparently harmless civilians in western North Carolina, models for the characters Stobrod and Pangle, were killed by a group of Confederate Home Guard led by a man named, like Frazier's villain, Teague. And historians know that there were numerous women like Ada and Ruby in Frazier's novel, most of them unrecorded in history, who kept farms going through the worst times of the war. In their details, however, Cold Mountain's characters are Frazier's creations. Inman and Ada, the man and the woman at the center of this narrative, share a tendency toward the unconventional as well as a timeless, fundamental decency.
At the beginning of the novel, however, these two main characters are meant to contrast sharply, and for most of the book they are dealt with in alternating chapters. One is on the move; the other stays home. Inman encounters people of all descriptions, peculiarities, dispositions, motives, and backgrounds, each in one way or another a help or a hindrance to his journey home and most providing lessons in domestic lives or sexual loves that have gone badly awry. Ada encounters balky animals and resistant plants, each a lesson in the ways of nature and a problem to be solved in the quest for survival. Inman is a stoic male of few illusions and apparently no family ties, a man who seems surrounded by death, indeed infected by it. Ada is a sheltered and imaginative female, a recently orphaned Charleston socialite brought up by her minister father on the Transcendentalism of the Romantic writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. She sees life everywhere, although at first the life she encounters proves obdurate and puzzling. Inman possesses survival skills of a most ferocious nature; the LeMatt's pistol he carries, "the fiercest sidearm in existence," is a symbol of his "gift" for killing and for surviving. Although witty and headstrong, Ada has remained something of a dreamy and impractical child into adulthood; she spends the first three months after her father's death not growing and preserving food but reading novels.
As the narrative unfolds, the despairing and damaged but extraordinarily competent soldier of the first chapter and the lively and hopeful but comically inept young woman of the second chapter grow to be more like each other. As they draw geographically closer and are finally reunited, the self-reliant warrior heals and begins to hope, and the Victorian lady not only sheds the protective shell of corset that was once the emblem of her inhibitions, but she dons a man's clothing, symbol of her new freedom, then hunts and kills her own food, and finally becomes confident enough to step out of all clothing to accept the ultimate vulnerability of physical love.
In the final chapters Inman moves decisively away from despair toward a kind of mysticism in his encounters with the mysterious life force of animals, in particular bears; and in the penultimate chapter passionate words pour from this ordinarily laconic character. In those final chapters Ada gives up nearly the last vestiges of her literary, generalized view of life as she buries the murdered boy Pangle, seeing clearly the bitter particularity of death; and she has given up the "pose and irony" of witty, self-protective language, having taught herself to speak from her heart, "straight and simple and unguarded."
Inman is shot by both Yankees and Confederates. By the end of the novel he has long since crawled literally out of the earth, out of the shallow grave he was shoveled into with other "outliers." When chance again grants him an inexplicable escape from death, for the first time since his wounding at the siege of Petersburg he wills himself to live. Without further "backsliding" he begins to rise into the mountains toward a vision of life. And at the end Ada has long since bent from airy Transcendentalist heights to plant in the earth both seeds and a corpse. Inman rises from a Darwinian savagery. Ada descends from a Platonic ether. They meet among the cycles of nature, where the physical and the spiritual are one and the same.
Inman and Ada are at the heart of the novel's narrative. In some ways they are co-protagonists. The other characters generally function to motivate, educate, and illuminate them. This is not, however, to say that Inman and Ada are the only notable characters in Cold Mountain. The novel is populated with dozens of memorable figures, most of them encountered by Inman from the late summer to the winter of 1864 on his long journey from the hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, to the Smoky Mountains beyond Asheville.
The most important secondary character in Cold Mountain, however, is one associated with Ada. Ruby Thewes is an illiterate backwoods individualist of astonishing practical knowledge and skills. Sent by neighbors to Ada's Black Cove to help Ada survive on the farm, Ruby's first act upon arrival is the wringing of a troublesome rooster's neck. To this young woman there is nothing quaint about a farm and its demands. A farm is not a place to contemplate the beauties of nature. It is a place to work. Ruby is clearly no Transcendentalist, but she is no simple materialist either. She believes in plowing, planting, butchering, harvesting, cutting according to seasonal and astrological signs. Ada takes Ruby's "signs" as methods for attentiveness, expressions of a genuine respect for nature, and she learns from them.
Ruby has neither the despair of Inman nor the nebulous optimism of Ada. Ada learns not only survival from her, but a kind of reverent husbandry. Ruby's plainness and coarseness demonstrate the relative unimportance of Ada's fashionable beauty. And Ada shows her lack of vanity and lack of class snobbery by allowing Ruby, the "help," to run the three hundred acre farm that Ada merely holds the deed to. Ruby gives the orders, and Ada empties her own night jar. In the first profound weariness of her life, in her first experience of back-breaking labor, Ada recognizes that Ruby will simply not let her fail, and she loves her for that. And Ruby learns something from Ada: that self-reliance is not everything. She learns compassion and forgiveness. Ruby, neglected then abandoned by her wastrel father, Stobrod, has raised herself from girlhood to an age she estimates to be twenty-one. Under Ada's influence Ruby's resentment about her childhood ebbs away. By learning friendship toward Ada, Ruby eventually learns love for her father. In the "Epilogue" we find that Ruby has not only been reconciled with Stobrod but has married and trained a young Georgia boy, Reid, into a reliable farmer and a loving husband and father. Hard work, common sense, a heart resistant to malice, and a measure of good luck grant Ruby a full and satisfying life.
Stobrod Thewes, Ruby's father, is what is still called in some parts of the South a sorry man. Ruby says that "he got his nickname from being beat half to death with a stob after he was caught stealing a ham." When the war began, he had surprised Ruby by enlisting, but he proves to be as irresponsible a soldier as he has been a father, husband, and neighbor. Ruby discovers not only that he is alive but that he is in the area when she catches him in a trap she has set to nab corn thieves. Although in no way a hero, Stobrod is basically a gentle man. And he has one consummate gift: He makes music, heart-felt, original music. He learned to make inspired music during the war by fiddling for a dying girl in Richmond. After that, "it seemed worthwhile to go at every tune as if all in earshot had been recendy set afire." In this novel Stobrod's gift is one of the things that makes life worth living.
As emblems of human types, Stobrod and Ruby together represent the unkillable spirit of backwoods and small farm folk who want nothing to do with wars or grand endeavors. Stobrod's helpless state also allows Inman, who has been shown shooting men, to help at least one man who has been shot. And it provides the circumstance for Inman's final heroic acts.
The two preachers in the book represent contrasting versions of religion, extreme versions that Inman and Ada come to reject. Ada's father, the good-hearted Monroe whom we see only in flashbacks, has a naive faith in human goodness and nature's benevolence that the novel's violence, cruelty, and hardship clearly deny. Also, Monroe preaches the existence of a supernatural realm that in effect devalues the utility, beauty, and complexity of the natural world. His death frees Ada to embrace the reality of the physical world, including the reality of sexual love.
Solomon Veasey is the disgraceful preacher Inman prevents from murdering an innocent girl whom the "pulpiteer" has gotten pregnant. The vigorously sinful Veasey represents the kind of religion that accepts human evil all too easily. Veasey uses a perverted form of Calvinism to allow himself free pursuit of his appetites. He whores and steals with a clear conscience that Inman finds not only repugnant but astounding. Because of his traumatic battle experiences, Inman has been struggling to find some good in the world. Veasey's hypocrisy is itself perhaps an argument against acceptance of a thoroughly evil world, since in such a world his hypocrisy might not be hypocrisy at all, but plain logic. Inman's innate goodness instinctively rebels against Veasey and all that he stands for.
Monroe and Veasey are both in their different ways comic examples of all-too human theorizing and rationalizing. Each character represents a view that ignores some salient features of their world. Some of Cold Mountain's characters are as depraved and destructive as Veasey implies we all are: the Confederate soldier who wants "everything north of the Potomac" to resemble the field of mangled bodies at Fredericksburg, Junior and his parody of a family in the tilting house, the raiding Union soldiers who threaten the lives of innocent women and children, Teague and his Home Guard. But many are as kind and generous as Monroe's benevolent vision implies we all are deep down: the "yellow slave" who hides Inman, the "goatwoman" who heals him and soothes his physical pain, the grieving mother who feeds him despite her sorrow. And some characters are almost heart-breakingly innocent: the victimized Laura Foster, the brave girl-widow Sara and her doomed infant.
Teague, the leader of the local Home Guard, is a stock villain of perhaps more cruelty than most fictional villains. Teague represents the most lethal and heartless aspects of the war and a cruel, murderous strain of human nature that, the novel implies, it takes little to bring forth at any time in human history. As the force that prevents men from returning to family and farm, Teague is the ultimate enemy of life in Cold Mountain.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2088
Birch is the youngest member of Teague’s Home Guard. He appears to have some measure of humanity when after he listens to Pangle and Stobrod play, he is so moved that he calls them holy men. Yet he does not hesitate to help kill the two an Inman, too, at the end of the novel.
Inman meets an elderly mountain woman who is later referred to as “the goatwoman” on his journey home. Her humanity is evident as she cares for his wounds and feeds him. On the surface, she appears hardened, due to the difficult life that she has lived, but her eyes “were wells of kindness despite all her hard talk.” She has been able to retain an optimistic perspective. She insists: “our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.” At this point, Inman is not able to agree, but her kindness toward him does help provide him with the spirit to continue his journey.
Inman, one of the novel’s two main characters, initially thinks of himself as a peaceful man, but once he faces the battlefield, he discovers “fighting had come easy to him,” which he considers “a gift.” Yet this gift plagues him throughout his journey home, prompting him to wonder if after so much application of this gift, he has lost his soul.
Even though he tries to harden himself to others in an effort to ensure his own survival, his large heart cannot allow him to ignore those who are suffering, which often puts him in harm’s way. He also has a strong sense of justice, evident when he saves the woman Veasey tries to drown and forces the preacher to return to the town and face his punishment. Toward the end of this journey, Inman feels tremendous guilt over the accidental death of a bear that charges him and his subsequent killing of her cub, which he knows will not survive without her. He forces himself to eat the cub, following the laws of nature, but it tastes “like sin” and “regret.”
Inman had a great desire for freedom, as evident in his story about being bored in the classroom and his constant desire to walk out the hospital window. He enlists in the war not to uphold slavery but to stave off the influence of the North, which he sees as a threat to his way of life. He also values solitude and self-reliance, dreaming of the time when he can live up on Cold Mountain with Ada. He shows his resourcefulness when he repeatedly finds a way out of a predicament, as when he determines how to best get a dead bull out of a stream before it poisons it.
Junior lures Inman and Veasey to his home in order to entrap and sell them to the Home Guard. He and Teague exhibit more depravity than other characters in the novel. Junior is able to convey a sense of normalcy, however, long enough to make Inman trust him. Soon after the three arrive at Junior’s home, his true character emerges in his harsh treatment of his wife and her sisters. He shows no remorse after turning over Inman and Veasey to the Guard and reveals a sick sense of humor when he forces Inman to marry his wife.
Monroe is devoted to his daughter, Ada, but has no foresight and so leaves her completely unprepared to take care of herself after he dies. His romantic nature prompted him to buy the farm, but he was never interested in the daily running of it. Initially, he feels superior to those in his new community, and he patronizes them, which earns him ridicule. Yet his good nature and dedication to his church eventually win others over. His congregation also comes to admire his stubbornness in refusing to follow tradition.
When Ada first comes to Black Cove, she is, according to Inman, “somewhat thistleish in comportment,” having little patience with and making quick, often harsh judgments of all she meets. Inman tells her that speaking to her is “like grabbing up a chestnut burr, at least thus far.” She had not been satisfied with Charleston society either, finding all of her suitors defective in some way.
Yet, she begins to recognize this quality in herself and is willing to change it. When Inman comes to say goodbye, he tells her a Cherokee story about Cold Mountain that she dismisses, calling it folkloric. She later recognizes that she “had been glib. Or flinty and pinched. None of which she really wished to be,” and “she feared that without some act of atonement,” these qualities “would take hold and harden within her and that one day she would find herself clenched tight as a dogwood bud in January.”
She fits in neither city nor country, until Ruby shows her how to make real connections. Through Ruby’s tutelage, Ada learns to live fully in her world by paying attention to its smallest details. Even though “simply living had never struck Ada as such a tiresome business,” she soon comes to envy Ruby’s “knowledge of how the world runs.” Monroe had insisted that she gain a good education, but that did not prepare her for the rigors of life on the farm. She gains a sense of independence through her work with Ruby as the latter teaches her how to be self-sufficient.
Ada soon feels a sense of pride in her accomplishments, acknowledging that her friends in Charleston would no longer recognize her, that “all such rough work” that she has done on the farm “has changed” her. She recognizes that her thoughts have changed, too; she no longer sees things as a metaphor for something but as the thing itself, and this fills her with contentment. This paring down of things to their essence prompts her to write to Inman, determined to say “what [her] heart felt, straight and simple and unguarded” and to accept him fully when he returns to Cold Mountain.
Pangle is a mentally challenged thirty-year-old who attaches himself to Stobrod. His love of music is evident by his devotion to learning how to play the banjo, which he does quite well. The narrator describes Pangle this way: “He was gentle and kind and looked on everything that passed before him with soft wide eyes.” His innocence is also revealed by his attitude toward the world: “Everything he saw was new-minted, and thus every day was a parade of wonders.” His trusting nature causes him to smile at the Home Guard, even as they prepare to execute him.
Inman meets eighteen-year-old Sara during his journey home. Her husband has been killed in the war, leaving her with the care of their newborn. She becomes a symbol of the profound sense of loss experienced by families whose relatives are killed in military action. The narrator notes that “etched in every angle of her body [are] all the lineaments of despair.” Her desperation and fear that she will not be able to save her child emerges in her song, which speaks of “resentment, [and] an undertone of panic.”
Like his wife, Esco Swanger is open-minded and kind-hearted. He shows his penchant for humor when he plays a trick on Monroe after the later underestimates his knowledge of the world. He had been generally sympathetic with the Federals, which was common among those living in the mountains, but had grown angry with both sides after the killing wore on. The war has made him bitter.
Sally Swanger, Ada’s neighbor, shows her kindness and concern for Ada when she invites her to stay with them after Monroe’s funeral. Like her husband, Esco, Sally is quiet and gentle. She literally saves Ada’s life when she sends Ruby to Black Cove. She also took pity on Ruby when she was a child, often providing her with food and shelter.
The brutal leader of the Home Guard, Teague looks like a traveling preacher in his black coat. He and his men “moved as a partnership of wolves will hunt, in wordless coordination of effort toward a shared purpose,” which is the joy of the kill rather than any sense of justice. His total lack of humanity emerges when he refuses to help speed the death of one of his victims and sounds “festive” after the murder of others.
Ruby is an example of the mountain people researched by Frazier for the novel. In an article published in Salon, Frasier explains that the people who lived in the mountains of North Carolina exhibited a “limitation of desire, stability, [a capacity for] making do, a healthy suspicion of change for its own sake, extreme independence of thought and action, reluctance to acknowledge authority.” He also found “beneath it all, a hint of deep earth spirituality.”
Ruby is unsure how old she is since her father never celebrated her birthday. Even though she had a difficult childhood, she has “a willing heart” as she proves when she teaches Ada to be as self-reliant as she is, and she accepts Stobrod after he has deserted her. She determines not to let Ada fail. Ruby also has seemingly boundless energy. Even though she is uneducated, she has gained confidence in her abilities and refuses to allow anyone, including Ada, to treat her as less than an equal. She is self-sufficient, learning how to live off the land when she was a child, and “she had whipped men single-handed.”
She appreciates the world around her with an almost spiritual sense, gained from a night that she spent outside alone when she was a child. Ada marvels at how she can blow in the nostrils of her skittish horse and calm him, creating “an understanding between them.” Her connection with the natural world causes her to regard “money with a great deal of suspicion . . . especially when she contrasted it in her mind with the solidity of hunting and gathering, planting and harvesting.”
When Ruby’s forty-five-year-old father, Stobrod Thewes, appears at Ada’s farm asking for a handout, Ruby rejects him, citing his appalling treatment of her when she was a child. Stobrod was not well-suited for this task. He had simple needs, evinced by his lack of care for the cabin where they lived: “If not for the inconvenience of his having a daughter, he might happily have taken up dwelling in a hollow tree.” He was also averse to hard work, which made it difficult for him to provide food or shelter for Ruby. He had been “a man so sorry he got his nickname from being beat half to death with a stob after he was caught stealing a ham.”
When he arrives at Ada’s, however, he has found a calling that appears to have transformed him. His musical prowess on the fiddle is “proof positive that no matter what a waste one has made of one’s life, it is ever possible to find some path to redemption, however partial,” which becomes evident when Pangle notes to Ada after she has listened to one of his tunes, “he’s done you some good there.” When Stobrod plays, Ada and Ruby see “a saint’s blithesome face, loose and half a-smile with the generosity of his gift and with a becoming neutrality toward his own abilities.” His music has also provided him with an “appetite to live,” which helps him survive after he is shot by the Home Guard.
Solomon Veasey, the young preacher whom Inman meets on his journey, becomes an apt illustration of hypocrisy, reinforcing Inman’s disgust with humanity. Veasey is “overly charmed by the peculiarities of the female anatomy,” which often gets him in compromising situations, most notably when he tries to drown a woman whom he has impregnated. His greed becomes apparent when he tries to rob a shopkeeper. He continually tries to excuse his actions by either declaring that he has seen the light and will become a better person or waxing philosophic in an effort to confuse the issue. An example of the later occurs when Inman notes that he is “mighty free and easy with the property of others,” and Veasey responds that “such things distract you from the grand view.”