Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1068
The Pilot is a novel that combines military adventure, a certain romantic interest, and a political analysis within the confines of a particular historical era. The mixture is not always successful, but aspects of The Pilot remain interesting as both literature and political argument.
James Fenimore Cooper said that The Pilot was originally conceived as a sea novel, one that would be accurate in its details of naval life and strategy. One way that Cooper demonstrates his expertise is in the multitude and variety of the technical terms he uses. This terminology is so pervasive in The Pilot that much of the action, especially during sea battles, is nearly incomprehensible. On the other hand, this mystification (resembling the “wood lore” of the Leatherstocking series) does work to make the pilot himself, the hero of the novel, appear superhuman. The reader, to whom much of the terminology remains inaccessible, can only marvel at the skill and knowledge of Cooper’s hero, who not only defeats the enemy in several battles but stands above the other officers (such as Griffith) in seafaring skill.
In The Pilot, Cooper claims to have drawn his characters according to “palpable nature,” without reference to unknown or metaphysical qualities. This intention, though undoubtedly sincere (and a reaction against the excesses of romantic fiction), is not carried out in practice in regard to the pilot himself who, the reader is meant to understand, embodies the ideal qualities of a leader. For example, the pilot is calm even under the most severe stress. Cooper opens the novel with Mr. Gray extricating the ship from a severe storm. Everyone else is terrified, and with good reason, it appears, but the pilot is completely steady and absolutely unafraid.
Furthermore, when the pilot gives an order, the crew obeys as if he were the commander. Cooper describes this obedience in almost mystical terms. The pilot is able to impose discipline when no one else can. So Cooper’s intention to describe his characters only according to palpable nature is subordinated to the need he felt for portraying an authentic leader, hero, and warrior. This need flows from the political intent of the work. The Pilot raises a political question that was important in Cooper’s own life and, more significantly, was critical during the Revolutionary War. The issue was one of loyalty.
The Pilot is a novel centered on characters torn between conflicting loyalties. When the American War of Independence began, men and women in the colonies were faced with a clear choice. Those Americans who remained loyal to England were disloyal to the emerging nation. Those who fought on the side of the revolution were accused of treason. This accusation is, for example, repeated frequently by Colonel Howard and his supporters against the rebels.
To answer this charge, it was necessary for Cooper to show both that a noble conception of loyalty was maintained by the Americans and that there were leaders among the rebels—wise, cool-headed, and selfless—who could inspire genuine loyalty. It was to fill this requirement that Gray is described by Cooper as an authentic leader and hero and, most of all, is defended against the charge of treason. (John Paul Jones, born in Scotland, served in the English merchant marine before emigrating to America.) Treason and loyalty, then, cease being absolute terms, as Colonel Howard argues, and become politically relative.
It is in the romantic threads of the novel that Cooper attempts to show the divisions of loyalty, and the relative nature of the term, in its sharpest and most dramatic form. Alice Dunscombe is an old friend and sweetheart...
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of Gray, but she was born in England and, unlike Gray, has remained passionately loyal to the land of her birth. The two are united in the friendship of the past and, indeed, in their current feelings for each other. At the same time, they are divided by conflicting political loyalties. Thus, the reader is asked to judge the political beliefs and feelings of characters, not in absolute terms but in historical terms. Cooper wants these characters understood as they understand themselves; so, although readers may tend to sympathize with the views of one rather than the other, they are still able to feel sympathy for each as a person.
The villain in The Pilot is Christopher Dillon; Dillon’s villainy lies not in his loyalty to England and to Colonel Howard, but in his cowardice and opportunism. Mr. Gray, or John Paul Jones, has not committed treason, precisely because he is loyal to his own beliefs; he is honest and not a coward—because he openly defends what he believes. The content of these beliefs is another matter. As characters such as Alice Dunscombe and Colonel Howard debate with the Americans, two distinct political positions emerge. On the one hand, the colonel supports a notion of loyalty based on birth and on the established social and political order. Disruption of that order, he argues, leads to nothing but misery and bloodshed. The Americans answer that loyalty can only be freely and consciously given. Theirs is a romantic view, derived from the theory of social contract, a theory that states that political society is based only upon the agreement of each of its members to participate. Hence the Americans argue that they are loyal only to liberty and, furthermore, that liberty is a necessary condition for genuine loyalty. Cooper does capture the political arguments raging during the Revolutionary War. He not only expresses these arguments in terms of conflicting loyalties, but he also penetrates the political assumptions behind the labels.
The Pilot, however, suffers from a weakness common to many novels that attempt to explore the political reality within a historical conflict. This weakness is especially evident in Cooper’s big scenes (those scenes, for example, between Alice Dunscombe and John Paul Jones), in which there is a tendency for characters to make speeches to the reader rather than to talk with one another. In other words, the ideas are expressed verbally rather than through dramatic action.
In The Pilot, Cooper faced the double necessity of creating a hero—which he could accomplish through action at sea—and, at the same time, of exploring the historical and political motives of that hero. The shape of The Pilot, and its strengths and weaknesses as a novel, flow from Cooper’s attempt to resolve this difficulty.