|LAST OF THE MOHICANS – JAMES FENNIMORE COOPER: Notes
James Fennimore Cooper was one of the first popular American novelists. Born in September 1789 in Burlington, New Jersey, Cooper grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a frontier settlement that he later dramatized in his novels. Cooper had a rambling and unpredictable early life. He attended Yale when he was only thirteen but was expelled for instigating a practical joke. His father forced him to join the Navy. Cooper began writing almost by accident. When reading a popular English novel aloud to his wife one day, Cooper suddenly tossed the book aside and said, “I could write you a better book myself!” He lived up to his claim by writing Precaution in 1820 and The Spy, his first popular success, the following year. For the rest of his life, Cooper attracted a massive readership on both sides of the Atlantic, a following rivaled in size only by that of Sir Walter Scott. When he died in 1851, Cooper was one of the most famous writers in the world.
After achieving success as a novelist, Cooper spent seven years living in Europe, during which time he wrote many of his most memorable stories. Cooper drew on his memories of his childhood on the American frontier, writing high-spirited, often sentimental adventure stories. These frontier romances feature his best-known character, the woodsman Natty Bumppo, also known as “Hawkeye” or “Leatherstocking.” This heroic scout was featured in five novels, known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales: The Pioneers, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, and, most famously, The Last of the Mohicans.
Written in 1826, The Last of the Mohicans takes place in 1757 during the French and Indian War, when France and England battled for control of the American and Canadian colonies. During this war, the French often allied themselves with Native American tribes in order to gain an advantage over the English, with unpredictable and often tragic results. Descriptions of certain incidents in the novel, such as the massacre of the English soldiers by Huron Indians, embellish accounts of real historical events. Additionally, certain characters in the novel, General Montcalm in particular, are based on real individuals. Creating historically inspired stories was common in nineteenth-century adventure tales. In writing The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper followed the example of his contemporaries Sir Walter Scott and the French writer Alexandre Dumas, whose novel The Three Musketeers takes even greater liberties with historical events and characters than The Last of the Mohicans.
Since his death, Cooper’s reputation has fluctuated wildly. Victor Hugo and D. H. Lawrence admired him, but Mark Twain considered him a national embarrassment. Twain wrote harsh, humorous criticism of Cooper’s stylistic excesses, inaccuracies, and sentimental scenes. Even The Last of the Mohicans, widely considered Cooper’s best work, is an implausible story narrated in a fashion that can seem overwrought to modern readers. Cooper’s work remains important for its portrait of frontier life and its exploration of the traumatic encounters between races and cultures poised on opposite sides of a shrinking frontier.
full title · The Last of the Mohicans
author · James Fenimore Cooper
type of work · Novel
genre · Sentimental novel, adventure novel, frontier romance
language · English
time and place written · 1826, Europe
date of first publication · 1826
publisher · Carey & Lea of Philadelphia
narrator · Anonymous
point of view · Third person. The narrator follows the actions of several characters at once, especially during combat scenes. He describes characters objectively but periodically makes reference to his own writing.
tone · Ornate, solemn, sentimental, occasionally poetic
tense · Past
setting (time) · Several days from late July to mid-August 1757, during the French and Indian War
setting (place) · The American wilderness frontier in what will become New York State .
protagonist · Hawkeye
major conflict · The English battle the French and their Indian allies; Uncas helps his English friends resist Magua and the Hurons.
rising action · Magua captures Cora and Alice, beginning a series of adventures for the English characters, who try to rescue the women.
climax · Uncas triumphs over Magua in the Delaware council of Tamenund in Chapter XXX.
falling action · Magua dies; Cora and Uncas are torn apart.
themes · The consequences of interracial love and friendship; literal and metaphorical nature; the role of religion in the wilderness; the changing idea of family
motifs · Hybridity; disguise; inheritance
symbols · Hawkeye; “the last of the Mohicans”
foreshadowing · Cora’s unexpected attraction to Magua in Chapter I; Magua’s deceit in Chapter I; Chingachgook’s reference to Uncas as the “last of the Mohicans” in Chapter II.
It is the late 1750s, and the French and Indian War grips the wild forest frontier of western New York. The French army is attacking Fort William Henry, a British outpost commanded by Colonel Munro. Munro’s daughters Alice and Cora set out from Fort Edward to visit their father, escorted through the dangerous forest by Major Duncan Heyward and guided by an Indian named Magua. Soon they are joined by David Gamut, a singing master and religious follower of Calvinism. Traveling cautiously, the group encounters the white scout Natty Bumppo, who goes by the name Hawkeye, and his two Indian companions, Chingachgook and Uncas, Chingachgook’s son, the only surviving members of the once great Mohican tribe. Hawkeye says that Magua, a Huron, has betrayed the group by leading them in the wrong direction. The Mohicans attempt to capture the traitorous Huron, but he escapes.
Hawkeye and the Mohicans lead the group to safety in a cave near a waterfall, but Huron allies of Magua attack early the next morning. Hawkeye and the Mohicans escape down the river, but Hurons capture Alice, Cora, Heyward, and Gamut. Magua celebrates the kidnapping. When Heyward tries to convert Magua to the English side, the Huron reveals that he seeks revenge on Munro for past humiliation and proposes to free Alice if Cora will marry him. Cora has romantic feelings for Uncas, however, and angrily refuses Magua. Suddenly Hawkeye and the Mohicans burst onto the scene, rescuing the captives and killing every Huron but Magua, who escapes. After a harrowing journey impeded by Indian attacks, the group reaches Fort William Henry, the English stronghold. They sneak through the French army besieging the fort, and, once inside, Cora and Alice reunite with their father.
A few days later, the English forces call for a truce. Munro learns that he will receive no reinforcements for the fort and will have to surrender. He reveals to Heyward that Cora’s mother was part “Negro,” which explains her dark complexion and raven hair. Munro accuses Heyward of racism because he prefers to marry blonde Alice over dark Cora, but Heyward denies the charge. During the withdrawal of the English troops from Fort William Henry, the Indian allies of the French indulge their bloodlust and prey upon the vulnerable retreating soldiers. In the chaos of slaughter, Magua manages to recapture Cora, Alice, and Gamut and to escape with them into the forest.
Three days later, Heyward, Hawkeye, Munro, and the Mohicans discover Magua’s trail and begin to pursue the villain. Gamut reappears and explains that Magua has separated his captives, confining Alice to a Huron camp and sending Cora to a Delaware camp. Using deception and a variety of disguises, the group manages to rescue Alice from the Hurons, at which point Heyward confesses his romantic interest in her. At the Delaware village, Magua convinces the tribe that Hawkeye and his companions are their racist enemies. Uncas reveals his exalted heritage to the Delaware sage Tamenund and then demands the release of all his friends but Cora, who he admits belongs to Magua. Magua departs with Cora. A chase and a battle ensue. Magua and his Hurons suffer painful defeat, but a rogue Huron kills Cora. Uncas begins to attack the Huron who killed Cora, but Magua stabs Uncas in the back. Magua tries to leap across a great divide, but he falls short and must cling to a shrub to avoid tumbling off and dying. Hawkeye shoots him, and Magua at last plummets to his death.
Cora and Uncas receive proper burials the next morning amid ritual chants performed by the Delawares. Chingachgook mourns the loss of his son, while Tamenund sorrowfully declares that he has lived to see the last warrior of the noble race of the Mohicans.
Hawkeye - The novel’s frontier hero, he is a woodsman, hunter, and scout. Hawkeye is the hero’s adopted name; his real name is Natty Bumppo. A famous marksman, Hawkeye carries a rifle named Killdeer and has earned the frontier nickname La Longue Carabine, or The Long Rifle. Hawkeye moves more comfortably in the forest than in civilization. His closest bonds are with Indians, particularly Chingachgook and Uncas, but he frequently asserts that he has no Indian blood. As a cultural hybrid—a character who mixes elements of different cultures—Hawkeye provides a link between Indians and whites.
Magua - The novel’s villain, he is a cunning Huron nicknamed Le Renard Subtil, or the Subtle Fox. Once a chief among his people, Magua was driven from his tribe for drunkenness. Because the English Colonel Munro enforced this humiliating punishment, Magua possesses a burning desire for retaliation against him.
Major Duncan Heyward - A young American colonist from the South who has risen to the rank of major in the English army. Courageous, well-meaning, and noble, Heyward often finds himself out of place in the forest, thwarted by his lack of knowledge about the frontier and Indian relations. Heyward’s unfamiliarity with the land sometimes creates problems for Hawkeye, the dexterous woodsman and leader.
Uncas - Chingachgook’s son, he is the youngest and last member of the Indian tribe known as the Mohicans. A noble, proud, self-possessed young man, Uncas falls in love with Cora Munro and suffers tragic consequences for desiring a forbidden interracial coupling. Noble Uncas thwarts the evil Magua’s desire to marry Cora. Uncas also functions as Hawkeye’s surrogate son, learning about leadership from Hawkeye.
Chingachgook - Uncas’s father, he is one of the two surviving members of the Mohican tribe. An old friend of Hawkeye, Chingachgook is also known as Le Gros Serpent—The Great Snake—because of his crafty intelligence.
David Gamut - A young Calvinist attempting to carry Christianity to the frontier through the power of his song. Ridiculously out of place in the wilderness, Gamut is the subject of Hawkeye’s frequent mockery. Gamut matures into Hawkeye’s helpful ally, frequently supplying him with important information.
Cora Munro - Colonel Munro’s eldest daughter, a solemn girl with a noble bearing. Cora’s dark complexion derives from her mother’s “Negro” background. Cora attracts the love of the Mohican warrior Uncas and seems to return his feelings cautiously. She suffers the tragic fate of the sentimental heroine.
Alice Munro - Colonel Munro’s younger daughter by his Scottish second wife, and Cora’s half-sister. Girlish and young, she tends to faint at stressful moments. Alice and Heyward love each other. Alice’s blonde hair, fair skin, and weakness make her a conventional counterpart to the racially mixed and fiery Cora.
Colonel Munro - The commander of the British forces at Fort William Henry and father of Cora and Alice. As a young man, Munro traveled to the West Indies, where he married a woman of “Negro” descent, Cora’s mother. When Munro’s first wife died, he returned to Scotland and married his childhood sweetheart, who later gave birth to Alice. Although Munro is a massive, powerful man, circumstances in the war eventually leave him withdrawn and ineffectual.
General Montcalm - Marquis Louis Joseph de Saint-Veran, known as Montcalm, is the commander of the French forces fighting against England during the French and Indian War. He enlists the aid and knowledge of Indian tribes to help his French forces navigate the unfamiliar forest combat setting. After capturing Fort William Henry, though, he is powerless to prevent the Indian massacre of the English troops.
Tamenund - An ancient, wise, and revered Delaware Indian sage who has outlived three generations of warriors.
General Webb - The commander of the British forces at Fort Edward.
Summary: Chapter I
The novel takes place during the third year of the French and Indian War. The narrator explains that the land itself, populated by hostile Indian tribes, is as dangerous as the war. The armies do not want to battle, and the unpredictability of the terrain unnerves them. The French general Montcalm has allied himself with several of the Indian tribes native to America and is moving a large army south in an attempt to take Fort William Henry from the British. Magua, an Indian scout, intercepts the information about the impending attack on the fort and relays it to the British General Webb, to whom he is loyal. Webb decides to send reinforcements to Fort William Henry to help Colonel Munro, who commands the fort. Shortly after the reinforcements leave for Fort William Henry, Webb dispatches the young Major Heyward to accompany Alice and Cora Munro, the colonel’s daughters, who insist upon visiting their father. As they leave, an Indian runner dashes by them. Alice watches him with mixed admiration and repulsion.
Summary: Chapter II
The Indian runner, whose name is Magua, agrees to guide Heyward and the young women to Fort William Henry by means of a shortcut known only to the Indians. Soon after they leave Fort Edward, they meet a stranger. We later learn his name is David Gamut. Gamut is a psalmodist, a man who worships by singing Old Testament psalms. The mincing and dainty Gamut is out of place in the menacing forest. He left Fort Edward and lost his way. He announces his intention to join the group. Annoyed at Gamut’s presumption, Heyward nevertheless shows interest in Gamut’s claim to be an instructor, and asks Gamut if he is a mathematician or a scientist. Gamut replies humbly that he knows only the limited insights of psalmody, the then-popular practice of setting biblical teachings to music.
Cora is amused by the stranger. Gamut joins their party and sings a religious song native to New England. He behaves seriously and venerably, as though delivering a sermon, and accompanies his psalmody with dramatic hand gestures. Magua eventually interrupts this performance, muttering a few words to Heyward, who translates his words to the others: they must be silent since hostile Indian tribes fill the forest.
Major Heyward quickly and confidently scans the forest, pleased that he sees no sign of Indians. His unfamiliarity with the forest makes him unable to see what the trees hide, and he does not notice a wild-eyed Indian peering out at them through the branches.
Summary: Chapter III
The narrator shifts the focus of attention from Magua and his party to another group of people in another part of the forest, a few miles west by the river. We meet the remaining primary characters: Hawkeye, a white hunter, and Chingachgook, his Mohican ally. Though both men are hunters, they dress differently. Hawkeye wears a hunting shirt, a skin cap, and buckskin leggings; he carries a knife, a pouch, and a horn. Chingachgook is almost naked and covered in war-paint. Both men carry weapons. Hawkeye carries a long rifle, and Chingachgook carries a short rifle and a tomahawk. They discuss the historical developments that have caused them to both inhabit the same forest. Hawkeye proclaims his inheritance of a genuine and enduring whiteness, and Chingachgook laments the demise of his tribe of Mohicans. Of the Mohican tribe, only Chingachgook and his son remain. At this mention of the diminishing tribe, Chingachgook’s son Uncas appears and reports that he has been trailing the Maquas, the Iroquois enemies of the Mohicans. When the antlers of a deer appear in the distance, Hawkeye wants to shoot the animal, but then realizes that the noise of the rifle will draw the attention of the enemy. In the place of the long rifle, Uncas uses an arrow to kill the deer. Shortly thereafter, Chingachgook detects the sound of horses approaching.
Summary: Chapter IV
Heyward and his party encounter Hawkeye. When Hawkeye questions the group, Heyward and Gamut explain that their guide, Magua, has led them away from their desired destination. Hawkeye finds this explanation suspicious, because he does not believe that an Indian could be lost in the forest that is his home. He thinks his suspicions are justified when he learns that Magua is a Huron. Hawkeye describes the Huron tribe as untrustworthy, unlike the Mohican or Delaware tribes. After learning that Heyward is the major of the 60th regiment of the king at Fort William Henry, Hawkeye considers punishing Magua for treachery. Though Hawkeye considers shooting Magua on the spot, so that the traitor will not accompany the party to Fort William Henry, Heyward opposes that violence. Instead of shooting Magua, Heyward approaches him while Chingachgook and Uncas surround him. So that Magua will not suspect the plot to capture him, Heyward engages Magua in conversation. As they talk, Magua discloses the name he prefers: Le Renard Subtil (The Subtle Fox). Magua feels suspicious of Heyward, but eventually he warms to him and agrees to sit and eat. Sounds in the forest make Magua agitated, and Heyward dismounts and makes a move to capture the guide. Magua cries out and darts away from Heyward just as Chingachgook and Uncas emerge from the thickets and give chase. Hawkeye, meanwhile, fires his rife toward the escaping Huron.
Summary: Chapter V
Magua escapes from Heyward and Hawkeye, but Hawkeye finds blood on a sumac leaf and realizes that his rifle shot has wounded the fleeing Indian. Heyward wants to chase Magua, but Hawkeye resists, upset that he has fired his rifle and perhaps incited the unseen enemy. Moreover, the others are anxious to reach a safe place as night approaches. Uncas suggests that they retreat to the Mohicans’ secret hideout in the forest. Once Heyward promises not to reveal this location to his English troops, they proceed there. The noise their horses make poses a danger in the forest. When Gamut’s colt makes too much noise, the Mohicans kill it and dispose of the body in the river. Gamut shows great remorse at this violence, and Hawkeye respects his sorrow. They hide the remaining horses and travel upstream toward a waterfall, pushing the young women in a canoe. When they reach the falls, Hawkeye reflects that the horses seemed nervous, as though they could smell wolves in the night. This suggests that Indians might be near, since wolves appear to feed on deer killed by Indians. Gamut sings a sad song in memory of his colt, and the two Mohicans and Hawkeye vanish, as though disappearing into a rock
Summary: Chapter VI
Those left behind soon see that the Mohicans have entered their secret hideout, a cavern in the falls concealed by a blanket. Hawkeye lights a pine bough, and the light reveals the hideout to be an island of rock amid the streaming falls. The group eats a meal of venison. Uncas serves the two Munro sisters, showing more interest in Cora than in Alice. Hawkeye continues to worry about Gamut’s mourning and produces a keg to cheer him. The group again inquires about Gamut’s curious profession. Gamut and the women sing a religious song that affects Hawkeye powerfully. He nostalgically recalls his childhood in populated settlements. Amid this sentiment and calm reflection, a strange cry pierces the night. Uncas slips outside to investigate, but he sees nothing that could have produced the haunting sound. Heyward, Cora, and Alice withdraw into an inner cave for protection during sleep. Suddenly, the strange sound recurs. For the first time, Cora laments the decision to join her father at his fort. Hawkeye comes back from investigating the noise, and the others can see mystification on his face.
Summary: Chapter VII
Hawkeye believes the group has heard cries of warning, and the party hurries out of the cave. As Heyward describes the loveliness of the natural landscape, another shrieking cry pierces the calm. Heyward then realizes that the cry is the sound of a horse screaming in fear, perhaps because wolves have approached it. The howl of a nearby wolf proves Heyward right. The group hears the wolves recede into the forest as if scared off, which makes Hawkeye think that Indian enemies are nearby. Obeying Hawkeye’s confident instructions, the group hides in the deep moon shadows, and all but Hawkeye and the Mohicans soon fall asleep.
Summary: Chapter VIII
Just before dawn, the Iroquois attack with rifles and wound Gamut. Chingachgook returns fire. Heyward takes Cora, Alice, and Gamut to the protection of the outer cave. Hawkeye fights valiantly throughout the day. He believes their only hope is to defend the rock until Munro sends reinforcements. Dawn approaches, and a long, quiet watch begins. Hawkeye and Heyward hide in the thickets to monitor the enemy. Hawkeye detects four Indians swimming dangerously close to the rock. Hawkeye calls to Uncas for assistance, and another battle begins. When an Indian wounds Heyward slightly, firing down from an oak tree, Hawkeye retaliates with his rifle, which he calls Killdeer. However, the shot only wounds the Indian.
Hawkeye’s first impulse is to show no mercy, but he uses his last bullet and gunpowder to kill the Indian and end his suffering. Uncas looks for more ammunition but discovers it has been stolen by the Iroquois. Outnumbered and outgunned, the group feels defeated until Cora suggests a plan. She proposes that the men escape down the river. The Indians will not kill the women, and the men can rescue them later. Chingachgook slips into the river and swims away, followed immediately by Hawkeye, who must leave behind his rifle. Though Uncas does not wish to leave Cora, she urges him to go to her father as her personal messenger, at which point he too slips into the river. Heyward refuses to go, saying that his presence may preserve the safety of the girls.
Summary: Chapter IX
Heyward, Cora, Alice, and the wounded Gamut huddle together in the deepest part of the cave, awaiting their capture. Outside, Indian voices shout, “La Longue Carabine!” (The Long Rifle), a name Heyward recognizes. He realizes that Hawkeye is the famous hunter and scout called La Longue Carabine, celebrated throughout the English army. The Indians enter the cavern, but they do not see the group hidden behind a blanket. The Indians express outrage at the discovery of their dead allies and frustration that they do not see comparable numbers of dead enemies. The English party begins to think they will escape, when suddenly Magua discovers them. Heyward tries to shoot Magua, but he misses. As a result of this failed assassination, the whites become prisoners, dragged outside by the Hurons.