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The Last of the Mohicans | Themes

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James Fenimore Cooper develops several major themes in The Last of the Mohicans, all of which revolve around the growth of a new nation—America—and what happens when different cultures interact. Cooper uses historical events, detailed description, and characters' dialogue to convey the themes of his novel.

Man in the Wilderness

Cooper uses the theme of the wilderness to explore the challenges of life on the frontier and the effects of settlement on the pristine landscape. In Chapter 1, Cooper introduces the wilderness as the ideal setting for remarkable acts of bravery because it presents the characters with daunting physical obstacles such as cliffs, caves, and thundering waterfalls they will have to overcome: "The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict."

Cooper portrays the unsettled American wilderness as majestic and awe inspiring yet dangerous and threatening. The Munro sisters, Heyward, and Gamut do not know how to survive in the wilderness and require protection and guidance. In contrast, the woodsmen—Hawkeye and the Mohicans—are able to find their way in the untamed wilderness. They know how to deal with wolves and other wild animals, how to hunt for food, where to locate drinking water, and where to find shelter. They understand the perils and the beauty of the land.

Culture Clash

The novel points out conflicts that arise because of differences in beliefs, values, customs, languages, ethnicity, and history. Cooper explores the clash of cultures that takes place as a result of colonization and expansion. The novel addresses the tensions among different groups: the French and the English in the French and Indian War; white Europeans and Native Americans; and Hurons, Delawares, and other Native Americans groups. For example, Cooper contrasts Christian rites with non-Christian rites at the funerals for Cora and Uncas in Chapter 33 to illustrate cultural differences between the white Europeans and Native Americans.

The interaction between Magua and Cora also supports this theme; Magua's quest to marry Cora serves to highlight the wide division between white Europeans and Native Americans. The novel's portrayal of civilization versus savagery further illustrates this division, making a brutal distinction between civilization, which white Europeans believe they represent, and savagery, which, with a few exceptions, white Europeans believe Native Americans represent. This ultimately provides an excuse for white Europeans to slaughter Native Americans because they consider them inferior--insufficiently civilized, or too savage, to have the right to exist.

Shifting Loyalties

The alliances among French, English, and Native American characters shift as a result of the French and Indian War. In the novel, Magua leaves his own tribe and ultimately betrays both the English and the French, while Hawkeye remains steadfastly loyal to the Mohicans. In Chapter 16 Colonel Munro learns that General Webb has declined to send additional troops to defend Fort William Henry. Even though the two leaders remain on the same side during the war, Colonel Munro feels betrayed because his countryman is "afraid to support a friend." The theme of changing loyalties creates suspense in the plot and suggests that the mixing of disparate cultures as a result of European colonization makes civilization less stable and predictable. In a world beset by conflict, it is vital to know who one's friends and enemies really are.

Racial Prejudice

Racial prejudice and the mixing of races is a dominant theme in the novel. While Uncas is a full-blooded Mohican, Hawkeye is viewed as a hybrid of white and Native American cultures. Likewise, Cora is the product of a Scottish father and Afro-Caribbean mother. The issue of interracial relationships drives the plot as the ill-fated love triangle between Uncas, Cora, and Magua sets tragic events in motion. At the same time, the strong bonds between Hawkeye and both Chingachgook and Uncas show that interracial friendships are desirable in the frontier setting.

Religion

Hawkeye was educated by Moravian missionaries but does not believe in their form of Christianity. David Gamut is a devout Christian who teaches hymns to young people. The Native Americans in the novel believe in the Great Spirit, or Manitou. As these characters express their beliefs, they wrestle with concepts of right and wrong and morality. Hawkeye, who is referred to as a "man without a cross," represents the middle ground of balancing varied beliefs, for he is a man who walks the line between two cultures.

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