Judith is perhaps the most tragic character in the story because of her return to a life of sin, as Cooper emphasizes at the end. In fact, the author calls attention to Judith's weaknesses: her love of luxury, her interest in fine clothes, and her attraction to the officers at the garrison. She is contrasted obviously and repeatedly with her sister, Hetty, who is Judith's superior in moral qualities. Nevertheless, Judith is depicted so realistically that she is one of Cooper's greatest successes in characterization throughout all his works.
Judith's faults are certainly the cause for Deerslayer's rejection of her love and for his warnings to her about the need for reform. Judith is intelligent, proud, and independent; and these traits make her both appealing and unattractive. Her most unpleasant behavior occurs after Tom Hutter's death when Judith, pleased to learn that he is not her father, condemns him orally and tries to prevent his burial near her mother's grave. Deerslayer's and Hetty's objections to Judith's conduct express very effectively Cooper's attitude toward the uncharitable actions of Judith. The situation is ironic for Judith because she pleads for charity from Deerslayer in the form of forgiveness for her affairs.
Judith, nevertheless, proves her courage on several occasions: the escape of the ark from the attacking Indians in the beginning Chapters; the determination to escape in the canoe when the Mingos are in pursuit after the ambush at the castle; and the bold appearance among the Indians in an effort to save Deerslayer at the stake. Judith is almost always poised and in command of the situation, no matter how serious the crisis appears. Her independence serves Judith in good stead when Hurry Harry keeps trying to convince her to marry him, and Judith can reject her persistent suitor even at the end when she remains alone.
Judith's redeeming features are also seen in her kind treatment of Hetty. Judith is always prepared to help Hetty and to sacrifice her own interests for her sister's welfare. Although they must obviously disagree because of their different philosophies, Judith is never disdainful of Hetty's lesser mental qualities. Illustrating Cooper's use of irony and his moral code by her rather pathetic courtship of Deerslayer, Judith is nevertheless portrayed as a woman in love who humbles herself to win the only man she has truly loved. She uses her superior intelligence (admitted by Deerslayer) to endeavor to win him by logic and argument; she appeals to his emotions by showing a future happy life together; and she makes use of all her charms to break down his resistance.
It seems possible that Cooper, without the aim of creating an epic hero, could have made Judith into a happy heroine who wins the man she loves. Judith, however, would not have secured the higher place as a tragic figure that she now occupies in the novel. Likewise, Judith is closer to the romantic concept of the heroine who is doomed to suffer defeat in her efforts to achieve love and happiness. The romantic heroine, in fact, is often condemned to suicide or death in early 19th-century works, and Cooper, adhering to the tradition of romanticism, has provided typical literary portraits in Judith and Hetty Hutter.