Critical Essays Themes in The Last of the Mohicans


In considering theme, one may well keep in mind Marius Bewley's apt statement in Major Writers of America, Vol. I (1962): "The novels of Cooper are an exercise in national definition." In The Last of the Mohicans, the national phase being defined is the frontier, a major theme composed, like the plot, of significant constituent parts. Enough about the frontier has perhaps been said already, so that all is needed is a reminder that it is a place and a condition where differences meet head-on and often result in conflict. Since conflict is a basic ingredient of the frontier in the novel, the story's action of flight, skirmishing, disguise, warfare, etc. literally becomes theme. Rather than to illustrate something else, the conflict is meant to illustrate — that is, be — itself.

Embodied in the various elements of conflict is something sad and tragic — and universal. Revenge similar to Magua's may be found anywhere and at any time. So may the problem of divided loyalties, though seldom on such a scale as that of the nations of Indians. Conflict rarely ends in a lasting stalemate, and this fact is given tragic emphasis in the thematic passing of the Indians from the American scene. Although humans' natural, instinctive urge to mate and procreate might at first appear as a possible solution to the problem of differences, miscegenation also seems doomed to failure since it compounds differences by isolating individuals even more from their backgrounds, particularly isolating any offspring like Cora. (This very view, along with his great respect for individualism, may have been greatly responsible for Cooper's voiced opposition, through Hawkeye as a spokesman, to miscegenation.)

Cooper's treatment of his theme is not all negative. The solution to these differences is to accept them and thereby rise above them. This answer is an ideal one, at best only seldom realized; and that is why Hawkeye, in his role as a messiah figure, is a mythic hero. What he embodies is great and potentially generic, but so far it has usually been beyond the full realization of people. It is the ideal of universality, of loving acceptance of others with their individual "gifts." In treating this concept, which of course extends further than any frontier condition but is inherent to it, Cooper does not let his idea of "place" limit him to mere description and action. Instead, he unobtrusively but clearly points to nature as the most influential force in making Hawkeye what he is. The scout has little regard for organized religion and its books. In fact, he says he has never read but one book, the book of nature, "and the words that are written there are too simple and too plain to need much schooling, though I may boast that of forty long and hard-working years." His eagerness to talk about religion and the hereafter even at highly inopportune times indicates his interest in the matter, but he is what he is and believes what he does because for forty years he has been instructed by nature. Part of the answer, then, is simplicity and fundamentalism, both of which are implicit, for example, in the recurring father-child motif. Hawkeye does not find his needs answered in the usual love between the sexes, but in a vicarious father-child relationship with Uncas. Like the story's real fathers (including the father of the cowardly young Huron), he accepts responsibility toward the other with his differences in a way that is redolent of his brotherhood with Chingachgook. The splendid isolation that is his stems from his charitable and humane individualism, which paradoxically binds him closer than usual to others. Because this is a pure ideal, investing a fictional human being with it makes that person a myth. It is nonetheless worthy of mortal pursuit, and Cooper's presentation of it in The Last of the Mohicans, while by contrast it deepens the sense of tragic failings, functions like a thematic image of hope.

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