Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094

Inman's and Ada's few days of joy snowbound together in the deserted Indian village bring to fruition their love for each other. But more fundamentally those days bring to fruition the mature, unsentimental love of the natural world that has been growing in each character.

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Cold Mountain celebrates the simple lives of subsistence farmers and woodsmen, ways of life nearly as old as the human race. It celebrates but does not romanticize the labor the earth requires to yield sustenance to those whose regular habits and careful attention can learn to cooperate with the seasons. In doing so it must reject competing visions of life, those full of destructive ideals and a thirst for unwholesome extremes. Ada's memory of the Savannah boy Blount who weeps with fear before enlisting and Inman's memories of Marye's Heights— these are moments when the novel examines and finds wanting the Southern myths that have turned savagery, loss, and destruction into Romantic moments of "nobility" and "beauty." Mrs. McKennet's cliched "heroic" views are rejected by Ada, just as Longstreet's comment that at Fredericksburg the Federals were "falling as steady as rain dripping off an eave" is rejected by Inman. "It was nothing like that, no similarity," thinks Inman. Inman's attitude toward war and toward the tendency of figurative language to mask the reality of pain and death is echoed in Ada's response to Pangle's grave: "Ada remembered her thoughts when they had buried the winter cabbages, how she had made it metaphoric. But she found this burial to be an entirely different matter. Beyond the bare fact of two holes in the ground, there was no similarity at all between the two."

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Frazier's is a reverent book, but it is not a religious one. It is a book that asserts the spiritual but not the supernatural. Ada, Inman, and Ruby are skeptical about an afterlife. But if they are skeptical about the next world, they do believe in a spiritualized natural world, a world whose apparently infinite connections and cycles imply a spiritual force animating the material.

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Latest answer posted November 7, 2007, 11:27 pm (UTC)

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The book is also about change, about the necessity for individual people to open themselves to the flux and complexity of life and the unavoidable dangers of doing so. Both Ada and Inman express fear that they will never be able to connect with things and people outside themselves. Inman has been "stunned" by the war. His neck wound is the outward symbol of his inner wound. At the beginning of the novel, he has a condition that has been called in the twentieth century "shell-shock," battle fatigue," and "post-traumatic stress syndrome." His journey home is a perilous quest for healing. The blind man tells him at the beginning of the book, "You need to put that away from you." Inman knows this, but doubts that he can. He walks away from the hospital more spiritually dead than alive. As he kills and whips men in his path, he is fighting his way back to life. That Inman cannot kill the boy Birch at the end shows clearly that he has come to embrace life, not death. The other Home Guard are the enemies of all life, the agents of death, and to kill them is to strike a blow for the living. But the boy is relatively innocent. For a flicker of a second, Inman's subconscious recognizes that he is faced with becoming a kind of Teague, albeit in selfdefense. His hesitation is thus not the manifestation of a death-wish, the act of a death-haunted man, but the act of a life-affirming one. Only a few days before, he had given the hunter in the snow the chance to kill him with a shotgun: "having in the past taken up arms thoughtless to the consequences, he decided now to put them away the same. He let down his hammer and brushed back his jacket and stuck the pistol under his belt." That hunter turns out to be Ada, the woman who a day later proves to be "life before him, an offering within his reach."

At the beginning of the novel, Ada's situation parallels Inman's. Her ability to allow the natural world into her mind and heart, to connect with its cycles and seasons, has been damaged not by the war but by her upbringing. Only after her father's death does she begin to see the world directly, rather than through the lenses of books.

In the logic of Frazier's novel, neither brutish naturalism nor escapist supernaturalism can yield a satisfactory life. The spiritual is to be found in the physical. Thus, Cold Mountain rejects the Modernist assertion that sexual love cannot heal and cannot redeem, a theme American literature scholar Frazier will have encountered in such novels as Hemingway's post World War I novel The Sun Also Rises (1926; see separate entry). Inman had been longing for six years to kiss Ada "there at the back of her neck, and now he had done it. There was redemption of some kind, he believed, in such complete fulfillment of a desire so long deferred." Cold Mountain demonstrates that love pours the spiritual into the physical. It can satisfy Ada's "sharp yearning," a yearning she had first felt to be for the Transcendent. And it can heal Inman. At the beginning of Cold Mountain, he is plagued by a recurring dream of bloody body fragments drawing together into soulless monsters seeking life. When his soldier companions had seen the terrible wound in his neck, they had said, "We'll meet again in a better world." But at the end as he is dying Inman doesn't dream of angels or of abstract "types and symbols of Eternity." He dreams of the physical world burgeoning with the spirit of life: "the year . . . happening all at one time, the seasons blending together. Apple trees hanging heavy with fruit but yet unaccountably blossoming, ice rimming the spring, okra plants blooming yellow and maroon, . . . pumpkins shining in the fields . . . Everything coming around at once."

The belief in the natural world, the world that embraces physical love, of course cannot save Inman from the death that has stalked him from the first page. And it cannot remove from Ada's world the necessity for exhausting work in the fields. But it makes them both capable of reaching out to authentic life. That Ada conceives a child from their brief time together tells us that Inman has become more of a life-giver than a death-dealer. And it tells us that Ada no longer lives in her father's benevolent but sterile theoretical realm.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033

The Meaninglessness of War
Inman determines that the men of the mountain areas in North Carolina went to war “to drive off invaders” whom they felt would threaten their way of life. Ruby had thought that the North “was a godless land, or rather a land of only one god, and that was money.” The people of Cold Mountain, however, soon discover that they are fighting someone else’s war—those who want to protect a system that requires the subjugation of an entire race to another. Many men in the South, like Inman “had been fighting battles for such men as lived in [the grand plantations], and it made him sick.” The goatwoman insists: “N——-owning makes the rich man proud and ugly and it makes the poor man mean. It’s a curse laid on the land. We’ve lit a fire and now it’s burning us down.”

Inman also finds no clear purpose for the aggression from the North, insisting that “anyone [who thinks] the Federals are willing to die to set loose slaves has got an overly merciful view of mankind.” His cynical view of the motives on both sides causes him to experience an overwhelming sense of waste: “every man that died in that war on either side might just as soon have put a pistol against the soft of his palate and blown out the back of his head for all the meaning it had.” Ada makes a similar judgment when she declares the war to be “brutal and benighted on both sides about equally” and “degrading to all.”

In the early days of the war, Inman, along with other mountaineers, got caught up in “war frenzy . . . the powerful draw of new faces, new places, new lives. And new laws whereunder you might kill all you wanted and not be jailed, but rather be decorated.” Inman now determines that “it was boredom with the repetition of the daily rounds that had made them take up weapons.” Yet his first assumption proves to be correct as well. One of the deadly consequences of war is its ability to bring out the worst in human nature.

His battle experience shows him that men enjoy the killing: “the more terrible it is the better.” He sees evidence of this continually. One of the worst incidents occurs after Inman and Veasey have been captured by the Home Guard. Determining that taking their prisoners back to face justice is a waste of time, one of the guards decides to kill them. When one of the prisoners, a twelve-year-old boy begins to cry, one Guard member recoils, declaring, “I didn’t sign on to kill grandpaws and little boys.” But when the leader of the Guard warns him, “Cock back to fire or get down there with them,” he complies, and all but Inman are slaughtered.

Inman also finds that the war brings out the worst in him. He has been hardened by all of the violence he has witnessed, which has caused him to act with similar brutality. After beating Junior most likely to death, he “feared that the minds of all men share the same nature with little true variance.” As a result of what he has seen and experienced, Inman wants to “be hid and safe from the wolfish gaze of the world at large.”

Recognition of Randomness and the Search for Order
Disorder permeates war, concerning who wins and who loses, who lives and who dies. Inman “had seen so much death it had come to seem a random thing entirely.” In an effort to find some sort of order, he looks in the bottom of his coffee cup before he starts out on his journey, “as if pattern told something worth knowing,” but he determines that “anyone could be oracle for the random ways things fall against each other.” This sense is reinforced by a Homeric quotation he reads in the hospital: “the comeliest order on earth is but a heap of random sweepings.”

Ada too finds this sense of disorder after she and Ruby bury Pangle. Ruby has taught her that nature contains a certain order, that logical patterns can be found in the flights of birds or the growing of crops. When she discovers what has happened to Stobrod and Pangle, however, Ada’s belief in order is shaken. She had found a clear cause and effect relationship in the burying of winter cabbages to help ensure their survival during the winter, but she can find no such pattern in Pangle’s murder, no reason that an innocent man should have died in such a way. Inman has a similar reaction when he looks at Stobrod’s wounds, thinking “much in life offered little access to logic.”

Yet both Inman and Ada find clear patterns in nature that comfort them, Inman as he reads Bartram’s descriptions of the North Carolina landscape, which help him focus on home, and Ada as she learns how to work her farm. At first, Ada rejects Ruby’s superstitions about nature:

the crops were growing well, largely . . . because they had been planted, at her insistence, in strict accordance with the signs. In Ruby’s mind, everything . . . fell under the rule of the heavens.

Yet as Ada’s desire to forge a connection with the land grows, she comes to view Ruby’s signs as “an expression of stewardship, a means of taking care, a discipline.” In this way, Ada can accept paying attention to natural patterns as a “way of being alert.”

Another sense of order that comforts the characters comes from listening to Stobrod’s fiddle playing. After he plays for a dying girl, he recognizes the power of music when “the tune had become a thing unto itself, a habit that served to give order and meaning to a day’s end.” His own playing speaks to “the rule of creation . . . that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift but have a shape, an aim.” Those who listen to Stobrod’s playing find “a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen.”

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