Cold Mountain: Theme Analysis
The Journey Towards Self-Knowledge
Both of the main characters in Cold Mountain undertake a journey to discover who they really are after all they have ever known—and all they ever believed about themselves—is shattered by the Civil War.
Growing up in the clean air of Cold Mountain, Inman was a quiet, hardworking, hopeful young man, but the horrors of the battlefield have turned him into a spiritually dead man. He wonders if he will ever find the earnest, good man he once was, a man worthy of Ada Monroe, and he sets out for Cold Mountain on a quest to find that man again. His journey constantly tests his moral fortitude, yet he emerges with his moral compass intact. His sense of justice helps him survive encounters with thieves and swindlers like Veasey and Junior; his sense of compassion leads him to help the widow Sara, a bereaved mother, and others who are struggling to make sense of the chaos caused by war. And even though he endures heat, rain, snow, and rough terrain, Inman still retains an appreciation of nature and its beauty. He arrives at Cold Mountain knowing that he can indeed restore himself to the good man he once was.
Ada Monroe comes to Cold Mountain from Charleston, where she has been educated and trained to be a “lady.” Her reserve and genteel manners are useless, however, when she is suddenly orphaned, abandoned by servants, and left penniless. She discovers that the woman she was required servants, suitors, pianos and parties to exist; without them, she is nothing—until Ruby Thewes makes her into something. Through Ruby she learns to listen to the land, to truly see it, and to co-exist with it. Milking and plowing give her a purpose for her life; even the simple act of making a scarecrow offers her contentment. The Ada Monroe who greets Inman upon his return is not just a southern belle. She is, instead, a strong and wise woman.
A World Passing Away
The world that Inman and Ada inhabit is an old one, a world of self-reliance in an agrarian economy, a world deeply connected to the earth. Ruby Thewes exemplifies this old world. She has “grandmother knowledge” gleaned from generations of women, and she understands that such knowledge—learning the “signs,” using herbs, “talking” to animals—is essential for survival. Inman, too, understands the power of the old Cherokee myths and spells. He relates the Shining Rocks myth to his own desire to be worthy of a better life. He feels a spiritual, totem-like connection to the bear. And he knows that Cold Mountain, that nature, is where healing can be found. Ada likewise learns that living by the old folkways is a means of “taking care” of the land. People like the Swangers understand the importance of neighbors helping neighbors. Characters like Stobrod and Sara, the widow, express the age-old awareness of life and death through fiddle music and folk songs.
Yet there are signs in the novel that this world is passing away. Inman walks across a South made ugly by burned stumps and polluted rivers and crime. Federal raiders and Home Guard alike savage innocent citizens, like Sara and Pangle. Inman encounters hypocrites like Veasey; he falls into the snares of country people, like Junior, whose sense of neighborliness is perverted and self-serving. The war has uprooted people from the homes and values upon which they always relied.
The Scope of Human Knowledge
Characters in Cold Mountain seek knowledge through various channels—books, astronomy, Christian teachings, natural history, myth, and folklore—yet it is the characters who possess hands-on, intuitive knowledge that are most enlightened.
Inman acknowledges the ancient beliefs of the Cherokee, clings to the nature writings of Bartram, and fixes Cold Mountain in his mind as a fixed star by which he can steer himself. He finds more answers to the questions “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” in these forms of knowledge than he does in the cryptic Christian preaching of Monroe. His practical knowledge helps him stay his course when he is—against his will—involved in the “messes” of people such as Veasey, people who have lost their way.
Ada, too, comes to question her father’s way of using books and philosophy to understand the world. She finds the answer to her question of “Where am I?” in the changing seasons and the shifting sun, in the simple act of placing her hand on the ground and feeling the earth. She finds a peace of mind in the natural world that she never had during her life in Charleston.
Ruby, the character most sure of her bearings in the world, is guided by her intuition and by her spiritual connection to nature. Her experiences as a child have made her self-reliant, and her encounter with “a voice” one night taught her that there existed a “tender force of landscape or sky, an animal sprite, a guardian” in nature. She teaches Ada that book learning cannot hold a candle to hands-on knowledge (wringing a chicken’s neck, planting crops, chopping wood) when it comes to “knowing thyself.”