The male protagonist. The novel follows Inman’s journey home from the slaughter he has witnessed in the Civil War. Inman is intelligent, literate, and sensitive, although he often appears emotionally reserved. Troubled by the carnage he has witnessed, Inman seeks spiritual solace in the natural world and in his memories of Ada. He attempts to retain his hope and his faith in a better world in the face of incomprehensible violence and cruelty.
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The female protagonist and Inman’s lover. Roughly half of the novel is written from her perspective. Ada is a highly educated, literate, and intensely private young woman. The novel begins six years after she moves with her father from Charleston to Cold Mountain. She has experienced the hardship and loss of her father’s death, and she has been left penniless and in charge of the farm. Ada feels alienated from small town society and rejects its restrictive mentality.
To an extent, Ruby is a foil to Ada. Uneducated and illiterate, Ruby possesses a store of knowledge about the natural world that she gleaned while younger, when her father would leave her for weeks at a time to go drinking. Ruby speaks plainly and insists on being treated like an equal. She possesses a warm and loyal heart underneath her gruff exterior. She supports her father when he returns as an army deserter to seek her help.
Ada’s dead father and the old preacher of Cold Mountain. Monroe moved with his daughter to Black Cove to speed his recovery from consumption. His wife died giving birth their daughter. A kind man and unconventional preacher, Monroe recognizes in hindsight that he has been overly protective of Ada.
Ruby’s father. Despite his drunk and disreputable past, Stobrod partially redeems himself through music. He delights in composing and performing his own fiddle tunes. As an outlier living in a cave on Cold Mountain, Stobrod looks to his daughter for help in evading the Home Guard. Even when down on his luck, Stobrod always manages to pull through, as evidenced by his narrow brush with death at the hands of Teague’s men.
A preacher whom Inman exposes for trying to murder his pregnant lover. Veasey reunites with Inman on his journey west, proving to be an unintentionally dangerous, though humorous, traveling companion. As he uses religion to justify his immoral acts, Veasey symbolizes both the hypocrisy of false faith and unrestrained selfishness.
A fellow outlier and friend of Stobrod’s. Though simple-minded, Pangle possesses a talent for playing the banjo and teams up with Stobrod to form a musical duo. Pangle’s death stands as a testament to man’s heartlessness in times of war and to wasted human life.
A woman who lives in the mountains and raises goats, whom Inman encounters on his journey. The goat-woman possesses a strong connection to the natural world, healing Inman’s wounds with the help of food and medicine. Frazier uses her character to highlight the advantages and the disadvantages of a reclusive life (advantages and disadvantages which Inman ponders throughout his journey). Although the goat-woman finds her solace in nature, Inman realizes that she has sacrificed a deeper human relationship in order to do so.
The leader of a band of the Home Guard, a local militia charged with rounding up the deserters. Teague is a cunning sadist who is mentioned by both the Ada’s neighbors, the Swangers, and the captive with fear and disgust. He represents the assumed authority of the army whose crimes are justified in the name of war. His execution of Pangle and other outliers in the text foreshadows Inman’s death at the hands of Birch.
Teague’s young associate who kills Inman. Although Birch convinces Teague to bring the captive into town instead of hanging him, he is not a sympathetic figure. With his white hair and glassy eyes, the boy appears deadened by the violence he has witnessed.
Junior befriends Inman and Veasey before handing them over to the Home Guard. Inman’s unsettling experiences at Junior’s home suggest the character may be a murderer who feeds his family human flesh.
A peddler who meets Inman at an inn and tells him the sad tale of his lifelong search for Lucinda, the slave-girl that he loves. Odell’s story parallels Inman’s own quest to return to Ada and acts as a reminder that the Southern army was fighting in part to uphold the legality of slavery.
A deserter awaiting execution whose tale Ada and Ruby overhear one day in town. The man tells of his experiences at the hands of Teague’s band of Home Guard, who shot his father for harboring outliers. The captive insists that the world is about to end because of the evil perpetrated in the name of war. The prisoner is the only character to speak out against the war because he has nothing left to lose.
Ada’s closest neighbors and friends. The Swangers oppose the war, although both their sons are off fighting. Deeply religious, the couple was offended by Monroe’s assumptions when he first arrived at Cold Mountain that they did not know the Bible. In an important, neighborly gesture, Sally sends Ruby to help out at the farm after realizing that Ada intends to run it herself. The Swangers possess the quiet endurance that characterizes many people in the novel.
An eighteen-year-old widow who offers Inman food and shelter. Inman feels bound to help when Federal soldiers steal her hog, the only thing she and her baby have to live on. Her husband died in battle, and she characterizes the resilience of many people in the novel whose lives have been blighted by the war.
A young man who sets out with Stobrod and Pangle to found a community of outliers at Shining Rocks. He avoids getting shot by Teague by hiding in a thicket, and he later marries Ruby.
A Cherokee boy Inman met in his youth. Inman recalls Swimmer’s tales about gateways to an invisible spirit world found atop high mountains.
The prostitute Veasey spends a night with at the inn. Big Tildy is strong and seems capable of overpowering most men. As a black woman who is not a slave, she does not conform to social conventions.
The girl Veasey attempts to murder because she is pregnant with his baby.
A man Ada met at the last party she attended in Charleston.
A friend of Monroe’s who lives in Cold Mountain town.
The kind slave who gives Inman food and shelter after he gets shot by the Home Guard.