The motive force for a plot in fiction is always, it seems, one or more of three kinds of conflict: man against man, man against environment, or man against himself. Sometimes the conflict is so subtly treated that the inexperienced reader is at best only subconsciously aware that it exists at all. Such, however, is not true of Cooper's novel. Primarily the conflict is seen as man against man: whites versus Indians, Indians versus Indians, English versus French. More softly treated but nonetheless permeating is the looming fact that man is coping with the frontier, trying to conquer, tame, and possess it; it is this, in fact, which leads to the obvious conflicts of man versus man. And it is constant, the steady principle in all the variations of the man-against-man conflict. Without it or something very like it, the plot, no matter how skillfully attempted, probably could not come into being, and there would be no novel.
Having or discovering the prime motive force, however, solves only half the novelist's plot problem. This lifelike principle must find its way into some kind of active material substance. In the case of the fiction writer, this material becomes such things as setting and characterization, which will be discussed below. The unifying element of activity and progression we call structure; when the writer structures his conflict(s), he has then realized and created his plot.
Cooper's overall structure is a simple one: two long chase sequences with a short, suspenseful interlude between them. Like any good edifice with its division into rooms, windows, etc., the novel's structure must be supported by constituent patterned details, the decoration of which will vary according to the taste of the builder or the taste to which he is appealing. Each of Cooper's chases, then, is patterned as pursuit-capture-escape-and-pursuit, a technique to which he gives vitality with variations such as letting the pursuers and the pursued change roles. Since, because of the great importance of theme, decoration may be as significant as anything else in the novel, it is often difficult to decide whether an element is pattern or decoration. From the limited standpoint of plot alone, however, we may hazard that Cooper is purposely decorating his supporting patterns when he regularly follows a scene of blood and violence with a calm scene in which the natural world reasserts itself as death is always succeeded by regeneration. Such presentations as Indian customs and rifle lore stand forth primarily as decoration, though they also give substance to the people involved or described. Even the characterizations themselves take on a decorative quality since Cooper only intermittently (with David Gamut, for instance) dwells upon developmental change in character. Thus in The Last of the Mohicans, plot is a bit more complex and complicated than it at first appears: decorative form germinates within patterned form, which in turn germinates within the overall structural form. All of this, moving forward together because of suspenseful conflict which seeks and reaches a resolution, is Cooper's kind of plot here.
The overall structure gives a unity of plot movement, which progresses chronologically from day to day. Likewise unity of place is observed in that all the action occurs in the frontier area around Lake George and the headwaters of the Hudson River in New York State. The unity of time is compact, the total action occurring over a period of days from late July to mid-August in 1757.
In spite of these unities, however, critics' attitudes toward Cooper's plot have varied. An anonymous review in the London Magazine (May 1826) said this: "The story is a tissue of common-place Indian adventures, abounding with hair-breadth escapes and surprisals." Almost exactly a hundred years later, Lucy Lockwood Hazard, in The Frontier in American Literature (1927), felt that "Cooper deserves less credit for his plots than for any other part of his romances." On the other hand, a champion of Cooper like Thomas R. Lounsbury, in James Fenimore Cooper (1882), while admitting certain improbability of action and insufficiency of motive in the story, averred that "the interest not only never halts, but never sinks." The complexities that we have already noted indicate that Cooper does deserve some credit for his plot. Probability, though, is an aspect that may warrant further exploration.
Readers generally will concede an author an improbability which gets a story going, provided that the resultant effect is compatible with and does not exceed the potentials of the initial causative situation or action. Cooper assumes this allowance when he lets Cora and Alice Munro insist upon visiting their father at Fort William Henry even though it is the worst possible time for a visit or a trip through the forests. He further presumes when he lets the small party strike out on its own through Indian-infested territory rather than accompany the army. This is unreasonable action on the part of the characters, and Cooper fails to give them sufficient motives for it, but it does get the story going in a suspenseful way that leads directly into the plot structure. In other words, it works if the reader will allow the initial improbability. In essence, all the resultant major events follow logically from this beginning.
Yet, some of the details of later events bear questioning. The hair-breadth escapes and last-minute rescues often seem fortuitous. But anything can happen in war; the unusual often becomes the usual. Furthermore, at various stages in our development we have appreciated such happenings in thousands of western and war movies because we tacitly accepted them as romance rather than realism. We might try doing the same for Cooper since he was deliberately writing romance.
Perhaps other occasional events are harder to swallow, particularly the one in which Uncas turns aside a small stream and finds there a moccasin print that leads the woodsmen on to Magua. Though Mark Twain was not the first to criticize this occurence, ever since he ridiculed it in the North American Review of July 1895, it has too often been accepted as typical of the book, but such is simply not true. Twain's satire called for exaggeration and was based on the demands of realism rather than romance; the satirist furthermore inaccurately stated that it was Chingachgook who turned aside the stream. This one event is, of course, fantastic and impossible, but it is the most flagrant one in the novel, and there are rather few other, lesser ones. While it would be better omitted, it is not representative of the novel as a whole.
In looking at the plot of The Last of the Mohicans, the reader will do best to appreciate Cooper's genuine art of improvisation and to remember that the plot is one of romantic action, the background of which is the wresting of a continent from nature and the Indians.