Inman’s character reflects a conflict between moral precepts and the horrific realities of life. When the novel opens, Inman is wounded and psychologically scarred by memories of war. The ghosts of dead soldiers haunt his dreams at night and thoughts of Ada fill his days. Despite his crippled psyche, Inman remains an honorable and heroic man. Throughout the novel, Inman’s conscience guides his actions. Although he is troubled by the deaths he has witnessed and doesn’t wish to add to them, Inman is willing to resort to violence if necessary. Frazier characterizes his protagonist as a warrior equipped to fight moral and physical battles.
As a figure assaulted by evil forces, Inman justifies aggressive means in the name of protecting innocent people, himself included. Consequently, Inman’s journey is ideological as well as geographical. Inman reconsiders his spiritual ideas in light of the physical danger and suffering he encounters while traveling. Inman’s travel book, Bartram’s Travels, is a spiritual and topographical guide—it inspires Inman with idealized visions of home and directs him towards that home. Inman consults the book for spiritual sustenance and for escapist entertainment. Frazier fills Inman’s journey with shades of deeper meaning, suggesting that his physical travails mirror a more profound spiritual struggle.
Inman recalls and reinterprets past events as part of his process of spiritual awakening. In particular, he remembers Cherokee folktales and envisions a world located beyond the terrestrial realm. Inman needs this kind of comfort, for, as he delves deeper into the mountains, he becomes better acquainted with man’s capacity for both good and evil. Following his encounters with Junior and his near-death experience, Inman’s faith in himself falters. However, his faith in a better world does not. Frazier suggests that Sara’s and the goat-woman’s bravery also bolster Inman’s resolve. Inman preserves his humanity under the weight of intense psychological strain because he believes in a distant and better reality.
Inman’s name (we never learn his first name) suggests that he is a self-reflective man, alone in the thrall of forces greater than his own will. Inman cannot direct what happens to him, so he seeks a measure of control by inwardly questioning his past and speculating about his future. While it would be too simplistic to state that Inman finds himself in Ada, he clearly identifies in her the kind of life he wants to live—a life of peace, stability, and affection. Thus Inman grows from a tortured and disillusioned man into a calmer, more self-aware individual. Indeed, after a journey fraught with suffering and spiritual turmoil, Inman is temporarily redeemed by love. Ultimately, however, Frazier suggests that Inman’s true redemption—an escape from the world with which he has become so disillusioned—can only be attained through death.
During the course of this novel, Ada’s character matures dramatically. Critical of the self-interest displayed by Charleston society, Ada ultimately is able to conclude that her education has sheltered her from the real world. Used to burying her head in a book, she initially shies from romantic involvement. By the novel’s close, however, Ada has embraced both joy and pain. She has adapted to a life of manual labor, living according to the rhythms of nature. Ada has learned to find herself in the world by trusting in her intuition and heeding nature’s unspoken signs. Ada’s new existence thus requires her to have a deeper engagement with both the practical and emotional demands of life.
Ada’s reunion with Inman testifies to her newfound openness. She overcomes her initial feeling of estrangement by addressing her fears and hopes for the future. Having laid roots in the community of Black Cove, Ada admits to Ruby that she fears a solitary future. However, the stark topography around Cold Mountain offers her sanctuary from feeling marginalized and eccentric. This landscape, moreover, provides a homeland she can share with Inman. After Inman’s death, Ruby’s family and Ada’s own daughter continue to provide Ada with a source of emotional solace. In truth, Ada is not alone. Frazier demonstrates profound change in his female protagonist as she grows to find security living close to nature. In particular, the peaceful certainty of Ada’s domestic routine indicates her comfort with the natural world’s cycles and repetitions.
Ruby is both a role model and a friend for Ada. As a strong-willed, practical woman with keen insight, Ruby initially serves as a foil for the dreamy, intellectual Ada. (A foil is a character that reveals the distinctive traits of another character through contrast.) Ruby’s store of knowledge about the natural world teaches Ada to look outward from herself, and to interact with the surrounding environment. Ruby personifies many of the novel’s themes about living close to nature, moving at pace with its seasons, and establishing a close relationship with the land. However, Ruby’s role grows more substantial as Ada’s character matures. As Ada develops into a strong friend and co-worker, the women’s friendship becomes increasingly sisterly and profound. Just as Ada learns about practical life from Ruby, Ruby in turn learns from Ada, listening to the classic literature the older woman reads aloud and following her lead when it comes to expressing emotion (although emotional honesty does not come easily to Ada either). Resolutely levelheaded and self-sufficient, Ruby begins to let go of past resentment, particularly towards her father, and reclaims her faith in love.
Ruby’s development within the novel, though not as dramatic as Inman’s or Ada’s, is far-reaching and profound. Ruby evolves from a girl into a natural mother figure. The novel charts her transition from someone who could function successfully outside of society as a hermit (she is similar in many ways to the goat-woman) to a woman who appreciates having her whole family living and working beside her. She is a matriarchal figure who keeps her husband and father in check without being too domineering. Ruby becomes the tie that binds her family together.