(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Deerslayer is not the first of the Leatherstocking Tales that Cooper wrote; in fact it is his last. Therefore, it reflects a greater maturity and sensitivity compared to his earlier works such as The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Prairie (1827). Cooper is aware of the unhappy collision of civilization and a natural, Eden like state of nature. He himself explains in his preface to the 1850 edition of the Leatherstocking Tales that his man of the forest "possessed little of civilization but its highest principles as they are exhibited in the uneducated . . . on the other hand, removed from nearly all the temptations of civilized life, placed in the best associations of that which is deemed savage, and favorably disposed by nature to improve such advantages, was a fit subject to represent the better qualities of both conditions. . ." Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, is indeed, the answer as Cooper saw it. Christianity as well as natural virtue, raise human beings above the corruption. Neither Tom nor Hurry possess this natural nobility, although they are civilized and Christian. They are willing to kill and scalp for greed. Hetty, on the other hand, is pious and good, but lacks the natural ability to live and survive. Her attempts to convert the Mingos is impractical and futile. The theme of the "Noble Savage" is expressed in the Deerslayer but tempered by realism: Natty Bumppo despises the greed of the white scalpers, but he is also willing to kill for self-defense and survival....

(The entire section is 624 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Initiation and Testing
The main theme of the novel is the initiation of the young man Deerslayer, his rite of passage into true manhood. At the beginning he is untried and untested, but he develops into an authentic hero who successfully faces all the challenges presented to him.

Deerslayer has been given a civilized upbringing by the Moravian missionaries and the Delawares, and he has proved himself as a hunter, but he is not yet complete. He admits to Hurry March that there is no great valor in killing a deer. Now he must prove himself by going on his first warpath, with his friend Chingachgook, to rescue Hist, the Delaware’s betrothed, from the Hurons. Unlike Hurry, his more experienced and ruthless companion, Deerslayer has never killed a man. His deadly encounter with Lynx is, therefore, of the greatest significance. During this incident, Deerslayer shows himself to be calm and self-possessed. He does not seek a quarrel with this Indian whom he encounters by chance, and he makes every effort to settle the matter peacefully. But when Lynx wrongly claims that one of the canoes belongs to the Indians, Deerslayer stands firm, insisting on the actual facts of the matter. He does not become angry, and he has no wish to kill, but he acts quickly when it becomes a matter of kill or be killed. Even then, he is courteous and considerate to the treacherous enemy Lynx, carrying the dying man to the lake, giving him water, taking his head in his lap and trying to comfort him in whatever way he can. He also refuses to scalp Lynx to gain a bounty from the colony, even though many would consider such an act to be legitimate. After the death of Lynx, Deerslayer refuses to exult or boast of his deed. He remains humble. Throughout this long incident he has behaved as a chivalrous warrior.

This key incident sets the tone for everything that follows. Immediately after the death of Lynx, Deerslayer behaves honorably toward the Indian he discovers in the canoe, allowing him to escape. He does not believe that the treachery of Lynx has somehow given him license to kill any Huron who crosses his path. But in the few days of adventure that follow, Deerslayer clearly demonstrates that he is a master of the art of legitimate warfare; he has the skill and the courage to excel. Yet he never sacrifices his principles. He refuses to go on a scalping expedition with Hurry and Hutter, because he does not regard scalping as a legitimate practice for a white man. In all things Deerslayer shows himself to be honest, patient, modest, pure-hearted, and loyal. He speaks the truth but does not speak hastily or without due consideration. He honors his word by returning from the furlough, even though on the surface this would appear not to be in his best interests. When he faces the ultimate test after being captured by the Hurons, he will not betray his friends to save his own life. Facing torture and imminent death, he remains stoic and self-possessed, never wavering for a moment, ready to endure whatever comes to him with courage and equanimity. Also, like the chivalrous hero of a medieval romance, Deerslayer proves his purity by resisting the female...

(The entire section is 1295 words.)