Critical Essays Characters in The Last of the Mohicans


With the relatively minor exceptions of David Gamut, Colonel Munro, and Uncas, the characters in The Last of the Mohicans are static ones. We learn more about them as the novel progresses, not because they develop within themselves, but because through their talk, actions, descriptions, and sometimes authorial comment Cooper reveals more about them to us. Many American writers — Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, and others — emphasize change in character, with concentration on growth and development. Why does Cooper do so little with this?

One reason is the influence of the sentimental novel, in which a character and desires, even when fulfilled, are approximately the same. He begins and ends with these concerns, these needs in the face of difficulties which must be and usually are overcome. Thus Major Heyward remains the same throughout, always, in relation to the frontier, the outsider primarily aware of his love for Alice; he undergoes no change from his frontier experience, and his attitude toward miscegenation is unaltered although it involves someone very close to him indeed. Other features of stereotyped sentimentalism abound: the delicate, flower-like Alice Munro swoons at the most inopportune times of crisis; her beloved Heyward sometimes postures and blusters with the best of intentions; the conflict between absolute good and absolute bad is sometimes too obvious and pat. Sentimentalism, however, does not explain the static quality of more important characters.

A much more significant reason is Cooper's belief in "place." As a son of eighteenth-century rationalism, he accepted the concept of stratification is both society and government. It is true that he believed in the ascendency of the uncommon man, but this man was to better himself within his own stratum. Within his limited state — his freedom of individuality — he might even prove himself more worthy than someone socially above him. It is thus that Hawkeye, the most comprehensively noble personage in the book, always defers to the superior social and military rank of Colonel Munro, who proves himself unable to cope with the situation. Though it does not necessarily have to have such control over characterization, this concept of "place" probably was the most important reason for Cooper's static characters. While it is for Cooper an up-to-date and rational idea, it has its parallels with the ancient physiological theory of "humours," those four chief liquids of the human body which were believed to determine character. Substitute Hawkeye's emphasis on people's "gifts" for the belief in "humours," add the great variety that the subtlety of rational stratification would allow, and one may well come up with Cooper's static view of characterization in which it is more important to show what a man is like — and hence what his "place" is — than to show how he may basically change.

What of the characters that do show some change? The one evincing most potential for change is Gamut. He begins as a stock comic Yankee, as ungainly a putting together of arms, legs, body, and dress as Irving's Ichabod Crane of 1820. He is the only really unmanly male in the book (if we discount the cowardly young Huron, a very minor personage). He is a dedicated, simple-minded, blindly blundering psalmodist whose abrupt contacts with frontier realities give him pause to reflect. At the end of the story, he develops a belated manliness in giving chase and pathetically offering battle, in the final scene succumbing to the chanting of the grieving Delawares. In spite of the extended, intermittent presentation of his development, however, Cooper never quite convinces that there is any real inner change (Gamut's going into battle, for instance, is motivated as much by his seeing in it a Biblical parallel as by anything else). Colonel Munro's change is only that of a man whose disappointment and grief are rapidly making him senile. Once Cooper points to Uncas as an Indian coming close to losing some of his savage condition, yet the cause is not civilization but his growing interest in a woman. At best the change in him is only partial, and that is shown mostly through instinctive deferential good manners toward Cora. Two of these characters, then, indicate potential inner change, but all three reveal only outward manifestations. In none of them is there anything like an inner development that means a rebirth of his essential being.

Among the other noteworthy characters, Cora Munro, though she indicates some timid affection for Heyward and some cautious interest in Uncas, goes beyond the usual sentimental heroine. She takes on depth because of her moody nature and her innocent involvement in miscegenation, but she too does not develop within herself. Chingachgook throughout is the quiet, stoic, and noble Indian who has been dispossessed of land and tribe. He is a chief (one notes that when he joins the battle near the end, Hawkeye relinquishes to him his "place" as rightful leader of the armed Indian band) whose sadness and loss are intensified, not altered, by the final turn of events. The venerable patriarch Tamenund, who does not appear until late in the novel, is nonetheless significant as an Indian who, in growing very old, has watched and felt the decimation of his race. Much as in a Shakespearean tragedy, he, as the most important personage left on the scene, gives the final, summary oration. Yet his too is a static characterization.

Magua deserves separate consideration as perhaps the second most important persona in the novel. He is the archenemy in whom all the evil side of savagery is illustrated. Other bad Indians are common but are usually in the background or come to the fore only occasionally. Magua is a constant threat, motivated by revenge, a man of great strength and cunning. He is an individual in his own right, pursuing his personal cruelty and desires, but he is also representative. As such, he embodies the salient attributes of evil, yet he is not merely evil. Within his way of life, his is a worthy ambition to reinstate himself with his people, to regain a chance to lead an existence that to him is noble and right. His real attitude toward Cora is revealed in his final inability to kill her and his immediate attack on the man who does stab her to death. Since Magua, who represents the evil Indian, is not all bad, he stands as a caution against a too easy assumption that Cooper invariably separates his Indians into the good and the bad. As an antagonistic character seen mostly from across the line of conflict, Magua is yet one of the best developed ones in the novel.

The most important character, of course, is Hawkeye. He is the mythic hero, the true democrat who accepts everyone according to his "gifts" and differences but who, because he is (as D. H. Lawrence has described him) a saint with a gun, will right wrongs and avoid evils when possible, destroy them when necessary. He is a solitary in spite of his companionship with Chingachgook and Uncas, and he is such because he is the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the natural moral law. That is, he stands single above both savagery and civilization in that he contains within himself the best of both; he can, for instance, see that justice is a constant and bigger principle than any man-made laws, whatever good or bad society they may spring from. He has been thus elevated by going to the source of principles, that interconnected source which is simultaneously within nature, within himself, and within the relationship between himself and nature. This elevation is why he is an ideal human messiah image, for he stands revealed as a way of earthly salvation, an upright man among frontier strifes, a man with a coonskin cap instead of a halo. While he is an ideal, he is also a human being. He is garrulous and sometimes fussy about things like firearms and tracking. He is almost irritating about the certainty of his marksmanship. But he can also be humble and retire into the background with real modesty. He is, in short, a messianic mythic hero who is also a recognizable man.

All of Cooper's personages, while they generally act in keeping with their characters, are primarily static. Reasons for this may be found in the influence of the sentimental novel and in Cooper's concept of "place." But this characterization may also be part of a bigger plan, though Cooper may have felt rather than known the plan. These static characters function within a total situation that is one of dynamic change. They are caught in something far larger than themselves as a group or as individuals. The frontier conflicts are born of a more encompassing continental movement which projects its dynamism with additional strength simply because it rests in subtle contrast to the outwardly active but inwardly static characters. They are static as individuals, active as parts of a dynamic whole.

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