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 the wilderness.
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 endorses.
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.