Technique and Style in The Last of the Mohicans
Cooper's technique is the use of repetition, oppositions, and contrasts, the elements of each being quite clear and identifiable. Repetition is seen most obviously in the plot device of the trap and escape of the sympathetic party of characters, but it is also used effectively to drive home the plight of the Indians and the historical events that have brought them to their present condition. Some repetition is incremental — that is, it restates but with a difference, with something new added. This is true of Indian and rifle lore, of the miscegenation theme, of motifs like the father-child one and that of disguise. At its best, the redundancy furnishes emphasis to something that Cooper feels is important; at its weakest, it amplifies material (folklore, for instance) in which Cooper is interested or feels that his reader will be interested.
Oppositions abound and afford numerous frontier clashes: French against English, Indians against Indians and against whites, Magua against Hawkeye's party. In one instance of the father-child motif, the Huron father, in admitting and accepting his son's differences that are negative to the tribal code of conduct, finds himself honor bound to oppose and kill the young, unprotesting warrior. At times opposition takes the form of debate such as Hawkeye's arguing religion with Gamut or procedure with Chingachgook and Uncas. The major and controlling opposition in the novel, of course, is that between evil and good.
The most looming contrast in the novel is that between the condition of nature and the condition of humans. Cooper is so effective with this that his following violent and bloody scenes with calm interludes of the natural world reasserting itself becomes a kind of ironic rhythm. In the realm of the characters are contrasts of cruelty with nobility, of hate with love. The Munro sisters make a blonde-brunette contrast from without, while within Hawkeye rest contrasts between his inherent isolation and his sporadic involvements with others and between his reverence for life and his ability and occasional delight in killing.
Similar to his technique, Cooper's style is a simple one. He uses the figurative language of simile and metaphor sparingly, so that his exposition and description are usually factual and straightforward. Nonetheless, his diction is sometimes wordy. He writes that "David (Gamut) began to utter sounds that would have shocked his delicate organs in more wakeful moments" when all he needs to say is that "Gamut began to snore." At other times, the diction may cloy. For instance, when Heyward and Hawkeye (disguised as a bear) take the reviving Alice to the safety of the forest, Cooper writes this sentimental verbiage:
The representative of the bear had certainly been an entire stranger to the delicious emotions of the lover while his arms encircled his mistress; and he was, perhaps, a stranger also to the nature of that feeling of ingenuous shame that oppressed the trembling Alice.
Such stylistic lapses, fortunately, are overbalanced by general lucidness, Cooper's delineation of nature often achieving poetic simplicity. His description of action — Hawkeye's competitive shooting to prove his identity, for instance — can be as clear and accurate as a stated fact:
The scout had shook his priming, and cocked his piece, while speaking; and, as he ended, he threw back a foot, and slowly raised the muzzle from the earth: the motion was steady, uniform, and in one direction. When on a perfect level, it remained for a single moment, without tremor or variation, as though both man and rifle were carved in stone. During that stationary instant, it poured forth its contents, in a bright, glancing sheet of flame.
It would be difficult to improve these sentences for clarity and economy without losing the meaning and drama of the situation and action. Cooper's punctuation is sometimes erratic by standards of today, but his sentences — even the overstated ones — are always clear as to meaning.
His use of dialogue is another matter. Hawkeye's talk varies awkwardly from the literary to the vernacular, though his subject of discussion sometimes accounts for the verbal difference. Conversation of other characters is often stilted or too formal under the circumstances. In the case of the Indians, Cooper was attempting to imitate their figurative oratory in formal situations as he understood that declamation to be. Perhaps the kindest we can be to him is to say that he apparently lacked an ear for the rhythms of human speech in ordinary situations.
Finally there is the consideration of symbolism. Aside from the mythic symbolism of the scout, Cooper does not do a great deal with symbols. Caves serve a vital function for plot and setting, but they never conjure up the image, say, of Plato's cave or of the classic myth of the Labyrinth, and it would doubtless be stretching matters too far to find Freudian meaning in them. Some critics have felt that Hawkeye's description of the water falls constitutes a symbol for the occasional chaotic tumults along the river of life and thus represents the period of human conflict and chaos in the novel. Such is an ingenious and very tempting reading of the passage, and it does no violence to the import of the novel as a whole; but if Cooper consciously or unconsciously meant it to be a symbol for the novel, one might expect him to revert to the same or a parallel image now and then, especially near the end of the story. When he wants a reader to be aware of symbolic possibilities, he is generally as straightforward as with his exposition and description. When at mid-novel the five protagonists return to the scene of the massacre, for instance, Cooper says that the landscape, which had appeared different before, now looked "like some pictured allegory of life, in which objects were arrayed in their harshest but truest colors, and without the relief of any shadowing." We may say that, with the great exception of the mythic Hawkeye, Cooper's use of symbolism is rather haphazard and inadequately developed.
Cooper's major failing is probably in his style. It can be wordy, heavy, and awkward. But it does have the virtues of simplicity and clarity, both of which are appropriate for his plot, setting, and characters, and both of which make bas-relief of the frontier chaos, ugly and carbuncular against the healthy life of nature, nature's influence, and nature's Hawkeye.