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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
The Last of the Mohicans is a novel about
race and the difficulty of overcoming racial divides. Cooper suggests
that interracial mingling is both desirable and dangerous. Cooper
lauds the genuine and longtime friendship between Hawkeye, a white
man, and Chingachgook, a Mohican Indian. Hawkeye and Chingachgook’s
shared communion with nature transcends race, enabling them to team
up against Huron enemies and to save white military leaders like
Heyward. On the other hand, though, Cooper shows his conviction
that interracial romances are doomed and undesirable. The interracial love
of Uncas and Cora ends in tragedy, and the forced interracial relationship
between Cora and Magua is portrayed as unnatural. Through Cora,
Cooper suggests that interracial desire can be inherited; Cora desires
Indian men because her mother was part black.
Nature functions both literally and metaphorically in The
Last of the Mohicans. In its literal form, nature is the
physical frontier that surrounds the characters and complicates
their battles and their chances for survival. In the opening paragraphs
of Chapter I, Cooper describes the unpredictability of the colonial
terrain, pointing out that the cleared, flat battlefields of Europe
are no longer the setting for war. The New World has a new set of
natural difficulties, and the men at war must contend not just with
each other but with the unfriendly land. The forbidding landscape
seems even more daunting to the English because their adversaries,
the Indians loyal to France, know the land so well. The skills of
the English have no place in the forests of America. David Gamut’s
religious Calvinism, a European religion, becomes ridiculous in
Metaphorically, the land serves as a blank canvas on
which the characters paint themselves. Cooper defines characters
by their relationships to nature. Hawkeye establishes his claim
to heroism by respecting the landscape. The English Major Heyward
establishes his incompetence by misunderstanding the landscape.
While he means well, his unfamiliarity with the wilderness thwarts
him. Magua uses the landscape to carry out his villainy, hiding
women in caves, jumping wildly over abysses, and hiding behind rocks.
The character David Gamut allows Cooper to explore the
relevance of religion in the wilderness. In theory at least, the
American frontier is untouched by human culture. It is a fresh start,
a piece of land not ruled by the conventions of European high culture,
a place without a firm government or social code. Gamut’s aggressive
Calvinism symbolizes the entrance of religion, a European model
that enters the blank slate of the New World. We know Gamut is a
Calvinist because he talks about predestination, the idea that God
has a plan for each person and no amount of human effort can change
that plan. Hawkeye’s frequent mockery of Gamut’s psalmody provides the
novel’s comic relief. The mockery, which comes from the mouth of
the hero, also suggests that institutional religion should not attempt
to penetrate the wilderness and convert its inhabitants. Because
Cooper makes Gamut ridiculous and Hawkeye heroic, it seems that,
like Hawkeye, Cooper scoffs at Calvinism’s tenets.
Gamut’s fatalism contrasts with Hawkeye’s pragmatism.
Hawkeye adapts to his surroundings and helps the other characters
to achieve improbable survivals, all of which suggests that Cooper believes
humans do have the ability to determine their own
fates. By the end of the novel the Calvinist Gamut learns to move
beyond the rigidity of his religion and become a helpful and committed
ally. He succeeds when he finds the ability to leave behind his
fatalistic passivity and adapt to the demands of the forest. Cooper’s
exploration of Calvinism sets the stage for many American writers
of subsequent generations. For example, Herman Melville’s tragic
hero Ahab subscribes to the rigid belief in fate that Calvinism
Cooper uses the frontier setting to explore the changing
status of the family unit. Cooper posits that the wilderness demands
new definitions of family. Uncas and Hawkeye, for example, form
a makeshift family structure. When Uncas’s real father, Chingachgook,
disappears without explanation in the middle portion of the novel, Hawkeye
becomes a symbolic father for Uncas. As Uncas develops his leadership
qualities and emerges as a hero at the Delaware council of Tamenund,
he takes on some of the charisma and skill of Hawkeye, just as a
son would inherit behavior from his father. Not only do Uncas and
Hawkeye form a family not related by blood, they form a family that
transcends race. Despite this redefinition, however, the novel does
not allow new family formations that mix race, for Uncas and Cora
do not get to act on their interracial attraction. The tragedy of
this sentimental novel is that Cora and Uncas cannot redefine the
notion of family according to their desires.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Last of the Mohicans!