Although the entire action takes place in a very short period of time, the few days spent by Natty Bumppo bring important changes in his life and personality. He passes from adolescence to manhood despite the fact that he is already about 23 years old. He is still a boy rather than a man because the real crisis of maturity on the frontier has not been encountered: the necessity to resort to violence or to kill another man in combat. This test is indicated by Cooper as a major theme of his romance as well as one of his primary concerns about his hero in the book's subtitle; The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath. Also, Cooper in the "Preface" writes immediately and frankly that "the hero is represented as just arriving at manhood. . . ."
The first few chapters deal with Deerslayer's impressions of Glimmerglass — the largest body of water he has as yet seen — and his introduction to the other leading characters of the story. The problem, however, is mentioned in the first chapter when Hurry Harry taunts Deerslayer about the latter's lack of any experience in battle. There are other indications, before Deerslayer's encounter and fatal shooting of the Indian in Chapter 7, that the hero has doubts about his reactions under fire. Of course, Deerslayer is confident that he will prove himself valiant and honorable when the confrontation with another human being requires that he shoot with the intention to kill. There are various clues that Deerslayer, prior to this test of firearms, will emerge as an epic hero: his cool command of the situation aboard the ark as the boat is maneuvered to the center of the lake; his poise with Tom Hutter; the respect felt for him by Judith and Hetty; his skill in parrying Hurry Harry's jealousy; and his honorable rejection of the scheme to scalp Indian women and children.
Cooper devotes several pages to the important trial of the "first warpath," and he analyzes carefully the reactions of Deerslayer during and after the fatal confrontation with the Mingo. The symbol of Deerslayer's emergence into manhood or a new stage of his career is the dying Indian's complimentary naming of his victor, Hawkeye. After the Indian dies, Deerslayer is visibly affected by what he has done. He knows that he fired in justification; he realizes also that he has been initiated into the problem of the frontier and that he will have to kill again.
His success in conducting himself nobly and honorably helps Deerslayer to face the other two problems in the book: the ordeal at the stake and the love of Judith Hutter. The first problem is of course concerned with Deerslayer's physical survival, and the several long efforts of Cooper to lend suspense and excitement (for example, the furlough, the escape, recapture, and torture by tomahawk) make The Deerslayer a thrilling adventure story. The effect of Deerslayer's honorable treatment of his dying foe, Le Loup Cervier, is two-fold in this trial: Deerslayer is accorded recognition and even the offer of acceptance into the tribe by the Mingos; and he gains an inner strength to help him sustain the promised agonies at the stake. He shows heroism increasingly as all the participants (including his friends on the ark) admire his stance and listen to his comments about his apparently hopeless situation.
The other trial for Deerslayer is psychological because he must cope with the beautiful Judith Hutter who represents another form of temptation: love, sex, and marriage. If, as contemporary critics seemingly agree, Cooper's hero has one outstanding flaw, the defect is observed in the inability to deal successfully with women. Judith, beautiful and intelligent, has great strength of character although, of course, she is proud and haughty at times. Deerslayer, despite his adherence to Christian teachings and frequent references to charity, has been prejudiced against Judith by the gossip of Hurry Harry, whose motivations should have been suspect because of his wish to marry Judith. Deerslayer's greatest test extends throughout the book, from the third to the last chapter. Cooper seeks to balance the struggle between the heroic and the placid lives, represented respectively by Deerslayer and Judith, by depicting Deerslayer in doubt about his decision, especially in the conversation with Judith the evening before his return from "furlough."
Criticism has been leveled against Deerslayer's attitude toward Judith, but Cooper had no other choice in his portrayal of this American epic hero. Deerslayer could not have yielded to Judith's entreaties; otherwise, he would have vanished into the great mass of average pioneers and woodsmen, clearing land, building homes, and raising families. The book also would have had the familiar "happy ending" of boy meets girl, and so on. The conflict and contrast between Deerslayer and Judith is effectively presented: He must rely on his innate feelings of duty and his intuitions about honor; she shows keen mental prowess and shrewdness in their conversations.
Cooper's technique in rejecting marriage with Judith for his hero is likewise a romantic pattern because the last chapter, when Deerslayer revisits Glimmerglass, is characterized by melancholy and nostalgia about the past, so evident a trait of romanticism. Thus, Deerslayer, passing swiftly through three trials in a few days, is a very changed person in the last chapter. He is sure of himself, and confident of his coming tests, but his personality has been tempered by experiences and issues he has not met previously in his rather protected and isolated existence among the Delawares and missionaries. Deerslayer has encountered violence and death, love of a woman about whom he must make a major decision, the application of his Christian teachings and beliefs to practical situations, the sad realization that his life of fame and glory is also a lonely road, and the necessity to explain his code to enemies (and friends) who do not always understand and appreciate his way of life. Cooper's vision, then, is tinged realistically and yet with the romantic example about Natty Bumppo, the American epic hero.