Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

Cold Mountain is Charles Frazier’s debut novel, based predominantly on stories of Frazier’s ancestor William P. Inman that were passed down from generation to generation following the American Civil War. Though highly fictionalized, much of the novel is based on fact, including several of the battles and the political landscape of the late-war South.

The novel is, at its core, two separate coming-of-age stories that intersect into a single love story. The first coming-of-age story is that of Inman, whose journey not only is the physical journey from Raleigh to Cold Mountain but also is a spiritual one, as his character attempts to come to terms with the meaning of his life. While it is easy to claim that Ada, Inman’s purported true love, is the reason for his being, Frazier takes great care to depict Inman as someone lost in purpose, even though Ada and Cold Mountain remain his ultimate goal. Though Inman does take his place as the soldier who no longer knows what is worth fighting for, his odyssey does not lead him to answer that question but rather the questions he asks along the way.

Religion and philosophy, while never directly addressed, criticized, or praised, present themselves throughout Inman’s journey. Veasey, in particular, seems to represent a facet of religious thought that Inman does not accept. Indeed, it is one Inman wholly rejects. He seems keen to discover religion anew, remembering with fondness the tales told to him by an old American Indian friend, Swimmer.

The second coming-of-age story is that of Ada, whose journey is unlike that of Inman in that it is not physical or overtly spiritual. Instead, Ada evolves from a life of leisure and education into a life of physical labor, survival, and an appreciation for natural things. Whereas Inman utilizes an internal catalyst in his journey—he simply wants to go home—Ada is forced to accept external influences, personified in the form of Ruby, who seems to represent Mother Nature and becomes both her teacher and her friend. There are clear hints of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) in Ada’s transformation, and she ultimately finds joy in her shedding the materialism of her previous life.

Frazier balances these two stories with a rigid structure, alternating chapters featuring Inman and Ada until interjecting a chapter about Ruby’s father, Stobrod. This chapter, “naught and grief,” is the only part of the novel not directly experienced or narrated by either Inman or Ada. Nevertheless, the chapter is significant, for Frazier uses the change in narrative pattern to set up the novel’s climax. Prior to “naught and grief,” Frazier makes heavy use of flashbacks to fill in background details and to offer deeper characterization, particularly for the deceased Monroe, Ada’s father. This rigidity in structure is also found in the supporting characters. Those whom Inman encounters are blatant in their attempts to either help him or impede him. Those characters Ada encounters, in a reflection of her own personal journey, gradually shift from assisting her to relying on her. While Frazier’s supporting characters are used effectively, most remain little more than archetypes.

There is a great deal of symbolism in Cold Mountain, largely focusing on flora and fauna. Animals play an extremely large part in Inman’s journey and include an encounter with a dead bull just prior to his arrest by the Home Guard, the slitting of a goat’s neck to provide food, the slaughter of a pig following Inman’s slaughter of the federal soldiers, and the mercy killing of a bear cub after Inman explains that he had promised to never again kill a bear. Birds are present in the novel as well. Owls, crows, peregrines, roosters, and countless other birds appear as signposts or memories in the book. Indeed, Inman takes the symbolism one step further and muses on the ability to fly.

Much of the novel deals with moral ambiguity inherent in war. While little of Cold Mountain deals with actual combat, except for a few of Inman’s recollections, much is concerned with the effect the war has on those who are not directly involved in the fighting. Though clearly a Confederate tale, Frazier takes great care in not depicting soldiers (on either side) strictly as villains; one notable exception involves Sara, the lonely widow who assists Inman late in his journey. The villainy in the story is reserved for the motivations of individual characters, usually that of the greedy or, in the case of the Home Guard, the bloodthirsty.

Complementing the coming-of-age stories of Inman and Ada is the ultimate theme of Cold Mountain: the perceived meaningless of the war. Both Inman and Ada are affected by this perception, with Ada initially disturbed by the war’s interruption of her old way of life and Inman, who has never been a slaveholder, wondering why everyone is fighting each other. Admittedly pro-South at the start of the conflict, Inman comes to realize that the Civil War has devolved into an excuse for soldiers to kill each other. At one point he witnesses Confederate generals waxing poetic about warfare, leading to Inman’s revulsion to war. Ironically, his pacifism never extends to the act of killing itself, and he remains pragmatically aware that he will kill to be able to return home. Ada, however, learns how to sustain life. It is perhaps for this reason that Inman’s fate results in death and Ada’s fate results, in the form of their child, in life.

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Critical Overview