The overall setting of the novel is the American South during the Civil War, a time when the old world, agrarian culture of the South was shattered by the mechanisms of war. Frazier uses language, detailed descriptions, and folkways to capture this setting.
Frazier uses word choices that are distinctly “old timey” and Southern to modern readers. Characters live in cabins with “latches” and “corncribs,” they use “whetstones” and tobacco “chaws,” they drive wagons and have “daguerreotypes” made. Characters also use nineteenth-century, Southern speech patterns. Veasey’s favorite exclamation, for example, is “They God”; Ada writes Inman asking, “Come back to me is my request.”
Frazier also uses details that portray the people and land during the Civil War. Ruby wears homespun, plant-dyed clothing, while Sara has only briars with which to button her dress. The goat woman lives in a gypsy-like caravan decorated with fading hellfire and brimstone paintings. Inman crosses a land of stumps and muddy rivers to reach Cold Mountain, where in winter the trees are black shapes against white snow.
Frazier also captures the cultural flavor of the time with music and folklore. Stobrod composes fiddle music about love and dying, while Sara sings ballads about lost love and murder. The Swangers and Ruby pay close attention to “signs” in nature. Inman recalls various Cherokee stories, especially the myth of the Shining Rocks.
By using old-fashioned language and dialects, as well as detailed descriptions of people, their daily lives, and their folklore, Frazier succeeds in immersing readers in a rural, Southern world that no longer exists, except in isolated pockets of the South.
In Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier explores the different ways humans try to understand their lives, especially when their lives are torn apart by war. They ask “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and they rely on a variety of sources to help them find self-knowledge. Some characters, like Ruby Thewes, link their sense of self to nature. Stobrod Thewes finds himself through music. Ada’s father, Monroe, finds answers in Christian teachings. Other characters, such as Veasey, seek knowledge in depravity, while characters such as the Goat Woman turn to complete solitude. Neither of these extremes works for the main characters, Inman and Ada Monroe.
While in the hospital, Inman fixes Cold Mountain in his mind as the place where he might heal his broken spirit. He keeps images of Cold Mountain and of Ada in his mind during his dangerous journey back to Cold Mountain. Inman faces many tests, especially moral tests, on his journey. Violence seems to find him wherever he goes, yet he finds that he has enough goodness to help others and to “do the right thing” in many situations. By the time he reaches Ada and Cold Mountain, he realizes that he is a scarred man, but he can live with his scars.
Ada tries to define herself after her father dies and she is left alone at Black Cove. She sees herself as overeducated and useless, a woman with no purpose, but she sees Cold Mountain as an anchor to which she can cling. It is steady, ancient, and powerful. With Ruby’s help, Ada learns to shed niceties for hard work and to embrace the land. She comes to understand her connection to the land through its seasons and its natural lessons. She is a self-reliant, deeply thoughtful woman by the time she is reunited with Inman.
Both characters, in visualizing Cold Mountain, visualize a better life, a purposeful life, and each understands that they are part of a larger world that can be seen in the seasons, in the stars, and in the cycle of life and death.
Inman is told the story of the Shining Rocks by an old Cherokee woman. The story is an allegory for the fall of the Cherokee nation, for in the story Cherokee villagers are offered a place in the land beyond the Shining Rocks if they will fast and make themselves worthy. Otherwise, terrible times will come for them. When one villager does not believe that terrible times are coming and refuses to fast, he ruins everyone’s chances to enter the Shining Rocks, and he therefore dooms his village. The story captures the real failure of the Cherokee people to heed changing times brought by the white man, and so the Nation fell.
Inman first tells this story to Ada at their parting. He is upset that she does not seem more emotional about his departure, and so he tells her this story to illustrate that she cannot know whether he will come back from the war or not. Neither of them can see what future the war will bring. Ada, unable to understand Inman’s meaning, speaks flippantly about the Shining Rocks myth.
Yet the myth comes to figure prominently in their lives. As Ada changes from a helpless, citified woman into a strong woman who understands the land, she begins to understand that the old stories and myths hold universal truths about humans. When she and Ruby come to the abandoned Cherokee village, the myth seems to come to life for her; everywhere is evidence of a people who lived and loved there, but who did not see their doom coming.
Inman, as he gets closer and closer to Cold Mountain, identifies himself with those Cherokee villagers who sought to make themselves worthy of the Shining Rocks. Just as they fasted, he too fasts, and he tries to clean himself as well as he can. He has all along worried that the “promised land” he has worked toward—a life on Cold Mountain with Ada—will be denied to him because he is too stained by war.
When Inman and Ada are reunited, both imagine a future together, yet the lesson of the Shining Rocks myth hovers over their dreams. They cannot know that “what lay ahead was another country entirely” and that the new, violent world would come crashing down on them just as it had come down on the Cherokee. That world—in the form of the Home Guard—does not care whether Inman is a worthy man or not; they kill him anyway.
Cold Mountain depicts a shift from the old, agrarian world and its values to a new world with “a metal face” through the landscape that Inman traverses and the people he encounters.
Cold Mountain is continually described as a land spread thick with timber and wildlife and graced with fresh-running streams. It is old, a place once inhabited by Indians and those who came before them. To Inman, it is the epitome of the good, simple life, a life untouched by factories or battles. He compares it to the bloody battlefields, where the engines of war have ripped up the earth and men have become automatons, numbly killing the wounded enemies and scavenging from the dead. War, with its sabers and cannons and guns, has not improved men, but debased them in the name of justice.
Throughout Inman’s journey across North Carolina’s lowlands, he sees signs that the countryside is slowly being churned up in the name of progress. He comes across acres of land dotted with burned tree stumps in preparation of clearing the land for large-scale farming. He crosses filthy, turbulent rivers downstream from towns. Instead of old-fashioned hospitality, he encounters snarling dogs and suspicious, silent landowners.
The people Inman meets likewise reflect a change in values from the simple old ways to more mercenary ways. Veasey, Junior, and the ferry girl are all motivated primarily by a need for money; none of them helps Inman out of kindness, as the goat woman and assorted slaves do. In Sara, Inman finds someone bravely clinging to the rural ways, barely subsisting on her land and defiantly crooning folk songs to the darkness. Inman himself repeatedly must put aside his peace-loving origins and embrace violent to protect himself.
Inman’s death on Cold Mountain at the hands of the Home Guard shows, in one final, ironic statement, that the hard new world is pressing in.
- Setting—the time and place in which a story takes place—is very important in Cold Mountain. What is the setting of Cold Mountain, and how does Frazier create this setting in readers’ minds?
- One of the main themes of Cold Mountain is the journey to self-knowledge. How do Inman and Ada, as well as other characters, undergo this journey?
- The story about the people denied entrance to Shining Rocks because they were not worthy has significant meaning in Cold Mountain. How does Inman interpret this story, and how does it connect to Inman’s and Ada’s relationship?
- In an interview, Charles Frazier describes Cold Mountain as, in part, an “elegy for a lost world,” meaning the rural, nineteenth century American world. How does Inman’s journey reveal that this old world is losing ground to the new, industrialized world ushered in by the Civil War?
- When Ada is reunited with Inman and explains how she has changed while he was gone, she tells him that she realized Monroe had tried to “keep her a child” instead of letting her grow up. What does Ada mean by this remark, and how has she “grown up” during the time that Inman was away?
Taking to heart his task of rearing his daughter alone, Monroe deeply loved Ada and gave her the best of everything, but in doing so he kept her dependent, like a child. When he suddenly dies, Ada realizes that, exactly like a child, she cannot manage in the hard adult world.
Even before Monroe’s death, Ada is childlike. Monroe has educated her to be his companion, a perpetual daughter. She has all the accomplishments a lady should have—needlework, music, painting, dancing, making menus—but Monroe has also made her into a “monster, a creature not entirely fit for the society of men and women” by giving her an education fit for a man. She is unusual, “too bristly and eccentric,” even for Charleston society. She is, like many women of the time, reared to be ornamental rather than truly useful. She seems to realize this herself when she admires a beautiful woman in a mauve dress and realizes it is her own reflection in a mirror.
Once her father dies and the servants leave the farm, Ada becomes almost baby-like. She can barely feed herself because she does not know how to cook; she cannot wash her own clothing; she does not groom herself. Even the characters in novels seem to have more substance than she does.
Ada begins to grow up when Ruby appears. Ruby, who has had no childhood to speak of, takes on the role of parent to Ada. She teaches Ada how to care for herself and for the farm through hard work, and in doing so she teaches Ada what it means to be an adult, to do for oneself. Most of all, she helps Ada’s spirit mature into one of deep understanding for the land, of the perpetual turning of the seasons, of the place she has in the order of things. By the time she sees Inman again, she acknowledges that she is not the same woman he left behind; instead, she is better.
Ada’s maturity is most evident in the novel’s epilogue, where she is seen as a mother and a landowner. She has survived Inman’s death and remains on the land, choosing to rear her daughter there, steeped in a blend of the old folkways and, with a nod to Ada’s own education, the Greek myths. She is now a woman who clears trees by herself in order to mark the sun’s progress. There is nothing timid or empty about the grown-up Ada.