In this novel of forest adventure, Natty Bumppo joins with his Mohican friends, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, to escort the daughters of the commander to the besieged Fort William Henry. When the daughters are captured in the subsequent retreat from the fort, the three friends join with others to rescue them.
Magua, a renegade Huron, captures Cora and Alice in order to avenge an insult from their father, Munro. Because the spirited Cora proves attractive to him, Magua eventually decides to keep her as his squaw.
Magua takes his captives into Canada. Major Heyward joins the pursuers to regain his beloved Alice. Uncas has fallen in love with Cora. Natty and Chingachgook are loyal to Munro and to the ideals of filial piety. These motives suggest different thematic levels in the plot.
Of special interest is the problem of racial mixture. Natty often speaks of his pure white blood, implying that mixing races is evil. Cora, who has mixed white and black blood and who attracts Indian suitors, is an early example in literature of the tragic mulatto who has no place in a racist culture.
Cooper uses the American wilderness as a moral landscape. When the civilized English enter the wilderness, they must learn to read it like a book. Though the Indians are divided into good and evil forces, the British cannot tell them apart. They first choose an evil guide in the pagan Magua, but eventually find good guides in the Christian Natty and his “noble savage” Mohican friends. Without good guides, they would be lost in a moral as well as a physical wilderness.
These allegorical elements underline Cooper’s belief that although evil cannot finally triumph, good men will often fall victim to evil if they are not courageous and skillful. Because so few men have the knowledge, skill, and integrity of Natty and Chingachgook, it is crucial to seek the protection of law and authority in civilization. The wilderness frees evil men to do their worst, requires good men to display heroic qualities, and teaches ordinary men the necessity of civilization.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. A beautiful edition that includes the definitive text, a historical introduction, sixteen illustrations, commentary from the early nineteenth century, and explanatory notes and textual commentary. Exhaustive.
McWilliams, John. “The Last of the Mohicans”: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York: Twayne, 1995. An excellent starting place. Provides literary and historical contexts, as well as a reading of the novel that focuses on style and genre, race and gender, and the use of history. Four illustrations, a chronology of Cooper’s life and works, and a bibliography.
Martin, Terence. “From the Ruins of History: The Last of the Mohicans.” In James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. An exploration of the strategies Cooper employs to make actual historical events serve the thematic concerns of his novel.
Peck, H. Daniel, ed. New Essays on “The Last of the Mohicans.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An introductory critical guide with six social, historical, feminist, and psychological reassessments, all written at the end of the twentieth century. The introduction provides information on the novel’s composition and critical reception. Bibliography.
Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. In the introduction, Rans discusses why interest in Cooper has lasted so long. The chapter on The Last of the Mohicans, “The Death of a Nation, the Denial of a Genre,” focuses on the fact that the Indians’ superiority does not protect them from annihilation.