Hawkeye, the protagonist of the novel, goes by several names: Natty Bumppo, La Longue Carabine (The Long Rifle), the scout, and Hawkeye. Hawkeye stars in several of Cooper’s novels, which are known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales. Hawkeye’s chief strength is adaptability. He adapts to the difficulties of the frontier and bridges the divide between white and Indian cultures. A hybrid, Hawkeye identifies himself by his white race and his Indian social world, in which his closest friends are the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas.
Hawkeye’s hybrid background breeds both productive alliances and disturbingly racist convictions. On one hand, Hawkeye cherishes individuality and makes judgments without regard to race. He cherishes Chingachgook for his value as an individual, not for a superficial multiculturalism fashionably ahead of its time. On the other hand, Hawkeye demonstrates an almost obsessive investment in his own “genuine” whiteness. Also, while Hawkeye supports interracial friendship between men, he objects to interracial sexual desire between men and women. Because of his contradictory opinions, the protagonist of The Last of the Mohicans embodies nineteenth-century America’s ambivalence about race and nature. Hawkeye’s most racist views predict the cultural warfare around the issue of race that continues to haunt the United States.
Magua, an Indian of the Huron tribe, plays the crafty villain to Hawkeye’s rugged hero. Because of his exile by Colonel Munro, Magua seeks revenge. He does not want to do bodily harm to Munro but wants to bruise the colonel’s psyche. Magua has a keen understanding of whites’ prejudices, and he knows that threatening to marry the colonel’s daughter will terrify Colonel Monroe. Magua’s threat to marry a white woman plays on white men’s fears of interracial marriage. When Magua kidnaps Cora, the threat of physical violence or rape hangs in the air, although no one ever speaks of it. Whereas the interracial attraction between Uncas and Cora strikes us as sweet and promising for happier race relations in the future, the violent unwanted advances of Magua to Cora show an exaggerated fulfillment of white men’s fears. However, while anger originally motivates Magua, affection eventually characterizes his feelings for Cora. He refuses to harm her, even when in one instance his actions put himself in danger. Magua’s psychology becomes slightly more complicated by the end of the novel, when sympathy tempers his evil.
Heyward plays a well-meaning but slightly foolish white man, the conventional counterpart to the ingenious, diverse Hawkeye. While Hawkeye moves effortlessly throughout the wild frontier, Heyward never feels secure. He wants to maintain the swagger and confidence he likely felt in all-white England, but the unfamiliar and unpredictable landscape does him in. Some of Heyward’s difficulties stem from his inability to understand the Indians. Still, despite Heyward’s failings, Cooper does not satirize Heyward or make him into a buffoon. Heyward does demonstrate constant integrity and a well-meaning nature, both of which mitigate his lack of social understanding. Cooper also treats Heyward gently because Heyward plays the most typical romantic hero in the novel, and so he must appear strong and handsome, not ridiculous and inept. Heyward and Alice, although presented as a bland couple, make up the swooning, cooing pair necessary to a sentimental novel.
The raven-haired daughter of Colonel Munro, Cora literally embodies the novel’s ambivalent opinion about mixed race. She is part “Negro,” a racial heritage portrayed as both unobjectionable and a cause for vitriolic defensiveness in her father. She becomes entangled with the Indian Uncas, a romantic complication portrayed both as passionate and natural and as doomed to failure. Dark and stoic in comparison to her sister Alice’s blonde girlishness, Cora is not the stereotypical nineteenth-century sentimental heroine. Though she carries the weight of the sentimental novel, she also provides the impetus for the adventure narrative, since her capture by Magua necessitates rescue missions. Cora brings together the adventure story’s warfare and intrigue and the sentimental novel’s romance and loss. With Cora, Cooper makes two genres intersect, creating the frontier romance.
Uncas changes more than any other character over the course of the novel. He pushes the limits of interracial relationships, moving beyond Hawkeye’s same-sex interracial friendships and falling in love with Cora, a white woman. Whereas Cooper values interracial friendship between men, he presents interracial sexuality as difficult and perhaps always doomed. In the end, Uncas is punished for his taboo desires, perhaps because Cooper thinks he should be punished, or perhaps because Cooper wants to show that Uncas’s close-minded society will punish racial mixing. Hawkeye becomes a father figure for Uncas, and Uncas eventually becomes a natural leader of men by combining the skill of Hawkeye with the spirituality of a revered Indian leader.