Gayle E. Clark
Like a master artist who produces a complete concept with a few lines and perhaps a suggestion of shading, Cooper had the enviable ability to create a full character from fragments of narrative and dialogue. Thus, many of his characters assumed a history and significance that resulted, not from his painstaking development of the character, but from the response of his readers' imaginations to the poignant sketches of human failures and triumphs.
In committing sketches and impressions of people to paper without exhaustive analysis and editing, Cooper gave us several studies of heroes and heroines with intriguing combinations of strengths and weakness which frequently led them to diverge from his ideal of social acceptability, but for whom he appeared to harbor a sympathy and even a secret grudging admiration. However, he then was left with the awkward problem of outcomes, and he produced both successes and some failures on this front.
In the ordinary course of literary events, an author creates his characters to echo, demonstrate, and hopefully vindicate his lessons of moral probity and the rewards and punishments attendant upon compliance or non-compliance with accepted moral dictates. In current literature the tendency is to identify clearly the characters of whom the author approves or disapproves, and to demonstrate the truth of the author's moral judgements by matching rewards and punishments with approved and unapproved behavior and thought. The counterpoint to this clarity is, of course, the tragic hero or heroine who achieves authenticity by becoming a victim of of the designated villain. Loosely speaking, this is what Cooper attempted to do, and what in most cases, he did very predictably.
In Cora Munro of The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper had created an ideal heroine - beautiful, noble, self-sacrificing, chaste, courageous, and resourceful. However, having centered much of the story around the dilemma of her mixed blood, Cooper could not envision a place for her in society. Availing himself of the traditional literary device of the tragic heroine, Cooper was able to dispose gracefully of the problematical character and in the process, heighten the magnificent drama of an already heart-rending story. Despite her noble qualities, Cora was destined from the beginning to be a Loser in Cooper's lottery of life.
In Narra-mattah of The Wept of Wish Ton Wish, Cooper developed another very admirable and appealing character. She was well adjusted to her Indian life, a loyal wife and loving and responsible mother, and a woman who had the strength to choose between a culture which did not meet her needs and one which did. However, with the death of her husband, Conanchet, there was nothing Cooper could construct as a future for her, so again, in the time-honored tradition of the tragic heroine, she simply died quietly of grief and isolation. Like Cora, Narra-mattah had no future in a race-separate world, so her all dignity and faithfulness could not justify making her a Winner.
Mary Monson of The Ways of the Hour, was an unusually self-confident and intelligent woman who displayed independence enough to retake control of her life and fortune from an abusive husband, thus overriding the dictates of a woman's place in society. Having created a woman too independent and well-educated for the good of social order, Cooper retreated from the ultimate death sentence for her, but succumbed to complete failure of imaginative closure by being unable to produce any excuse for her temerity than heredity insanity.
Judith Hutter, heroine of The Deerslayer, was portrayed as strikingly beautiful, highly intelligent, resourceful, competent, independent to the point of willfulness, and highly pragmatic. In addition, she had just enough education and exposure to the settlements to make her aware that life held many more advantages than were available in a frontier wilderness. She had enough imagination to be lured by the possibilities of luxury and social standing, and was observant enough to realize that an attachment to a man of standing would provide her with the desired advantages. Judith subsequently developed a focus of ambition and determination, and Cooper stood back and allowed it to play itself out to the realistic end. Had Judith's fallen state been openly demonstrated by her behavior during the course of the story, Cooper could not have avoided a straightforward and severe punishment, but Cooper chose the subtle approach of having her reputation tarnished purely by rumor and innuendo. Contrary to his probable intention of branding her as an unredeemable person, the fact that she was sullied by unsubstantiated rumor tended to develop a certain sympathy for her. In a rather strange development, Natty Bumppo, inflexibly devoted to just opinions and stoutly rejecting the acceptance of unsubstantiated accusations, accepted without question the rumors and gossip that ruined Judith's reputation. The reader must be struck with the unremitting victimization of a woman who never, in the course of the book, actually does anything unseemly or blatantly suggestive. However, one can argue that Cooper made a deeper point by implying that to maintain respect a woman must guard her reputation as closely as she controls her public behavior. She could be ruined just as surely by implication as by actual transgression.
Despite the fact that the extent of Judith's transgression is left to the fertile imagination of the reader, Cooper made it very clear that Judith had no chance of attaining a virtuous future, when he recorded Captain Warley's flagrant and insolent response to Thornton's suggestion that Warley was enough in love with Judith to make an honest woman of her.
"Am I to suppose, sir, that you are about to desert your colors, in the great corps of bachelors, and close the campaign with matrimony?"
Cooper confirmed his prediction of Judith's future, when he mildly relates that "None knew her- even her person was no longer remembered. . . . though an old sergeant of the garrison,who had lately come from England, was enabled to tell our hero that Sir Robert Warley lived on his paternal estates, and that there was a lady of rare beauty in the lodge, who had great influence over him, though she did not bear his name. Whether this was Judith, relapsed into her early failing, or some other victim of the soldier's, Hawkeye never knew, nor would it be pleasant or profitable to inquire."
With Natty Bumppo's future already written, of course, Natty could not play the moral hero in this scenario and save her by making an honest woman of her. Therefore, at the end of the book, Judith has lost the opportunity to spend her life as Natty Bumppo's wife - the rewarding soul-purifying experience of living a life of hardship, deprivation and misery as the chastened and reformed wife of a subsistence hunter, in which all her passion and good intentions would have survived for perhaps a month or two. Instead, Natty led the rest of his life in deprivation and hardship, while Judith returned to England with Captain Warley and spent the rest of her life in the luxury of a landed estate. We picture her magnificently dressed and coiffed, with servants to do her every bidding, a varied and interesting social life in London and the triumph of possessing at least a predominant position in the life of the man she loved, if not his exclusive attention. There was an implied mournful shaking of the head and clicking of the tongue at the compromise Judith chose to make, but in effect Cooper allows her to attain every dream she has in life.
Circumstances change, politics change, culture changes: but people do not change. Few women on the frontier would have had the courage to grasp any opportunity to raise themselves out of their situations, let alone above their stations. But I would venture to say, few women, whatever their station in life, however pious or compliant with the accepted social norms, would not have secretly envied Judith's successful escape and the advantages of her situation in England. Cooper's implication is that God would have to judge her in His own good time, but in effect, Judith Hutter stole the impact of Cooper's moral lesson right out from under him. Judith was a Winner!
Hetty Hutter, despite Cooper's characterization of her as weak of intellect, or perhaps as a result of a weak intellect, his description of her embodied all the most desirable traits of a frontier woman well adjusted to her environment and to the station of society she occupied. Chaste, humble, pious, righteous and simple in needs and aspirations, she would appear to be a perfect candidate for the rewards accruing to an unadulterated personification of Cooper's social and moral principles. And she would appear to be the best possible wife in an environment in which women were expected to bring a some material advantage to a marriage and to be content with keeping a tidy hearth and home and not raising conflicting or inconvenient issues.
"You've only to marry Hetty to inherit half the estate," cried Hurry, laughing; "the gal is comely; nay, if it wasn't for her sister's beauty she would be even handsome; and then her wits are so small that you may easily convart her into one of your own way of thinking, in all things. Do you take Hetty off the old fellow's hands, and I'll engage he'll give you an interest in every deer you can knock over within five miles of his lake." (29)
Thus we see the first indication that Hutter finds the disposition of Hetty a problem and that, strangely enough, Cooper will have difficulty fashioning a place for a woman who presents so many virtues and so few troublesome traits. Cooper's endorsement of her as an ideal wife - would even have qualified her as a good enough wife for the just, honest and idealistic Natty Bumppo, had Natty not been previously committed to a celibate life. In fact, Cooper easily could have conjured up a nice, cleancut respectful footsoldier to rescue her and take her for his wife, rewarding her constancy and serviceability. Instead, Cooper chose to make her a tragic heroine. She was caught in the crossfire between the British and the Hurons and killed. Cooper appeared to have little interest in rewarding the ideal Hetty represented. He unwisely chose make her, like Cora Munro, a victim of frontier violence, thus losing his opportunity to reinforce his moral lesson.
Mabel Dunham of The Pathfinder can be read on two distinctly different levels. Ostensibly, she was a delightful little heroine - attractive, pious, dutiful, appreciative of the majesty of the frontier wilderness, courageous, coyly playful, and appropriately aware of the obligations of her humble station in life.
In reality, she was a whole different package of trouble. Mabel was a sly, prideful, spiteful, manipulative social climber who did not hesitate for a minute to turn her back on a deathbed promise to her father and retract her acceptance of a marriage proposal to serve her own interests. Mabel had no intention of remaining in her station in life. She unblushingly states to Jasper Western:
"You say my father wishes me to marry a soldier; and yet there is no soldier at Oswego that he would be likely to give me to. I am in an awkward position; for while I am not good enough to be the wife of one of the gentlemen of the garrison, I think even you will admit, Jasper, I am too good to be the wife of one of the common soldiers." (153-154)
When confronted with the firm cultural sanctions proscribing the wearing of certain fabrics and styles by the lower classes, Mabel indulges in a display of spiteful revenge that little becomes the ideal of a Cooper heroine:
"Perhaps you will be disposed to sell that calash, Mabel, when it has been a short time in your possession?" inquired the captain's lady. "Wear it, I should think, you never can." "I may not wear it, madam," returned our heroine modestly; "but I should not like to part with it either."
One can raise the issue that Mabel could not have married Natty Bumppo, because Natty's future had already been written, but that is not the conflict with Cooper's handling of the character. The issue is that, through Natty Bumppo, Cooper's perennial spokesman, the reader is constantly and unremittingly instructed in the pitfalls of unequal marriages and the undesirable consequences of overstepping class boundaries. Cooper then creates a heroine who is, due to a little education and being raised by a lady of higher station than her own, is a clever and inveterate social climber. Mabel gave only lip service to ideal behavior and attitudes. Cooper tried to portray her as simply spirited and kttenish, but could not disguise the fact that although she was beautiful, educated above her station, courageous and resourceful, her piety and obedience were thoroughly expedient, and she was exceedingly disdainful of her father's class, willful and manipulative, as well as relentlessly ambitious on her own behalf.
In the end Cooper rewards her for aspiring to climb above her station by allowing her to raise herself well above the level of her birth and into the burgeoning wealth and social predominance of the new merchant class in New York. She marries the hero, Jasper Western, who presented her with the dishonestly won silk calash, but whom, Cooper proudly states, "eventually became a successful and respected merchant". In stark contrast, Natty Bumppo, representing honesty, humility and staunch adherence to his place in the class structure, goes off into the forest to continue a life of hardship, dispossession, deprivation and isolation, routed from pillar to post to the end of his life by an unthankful and unforgiving race of men. The authorized representative of Cooper's approved behavior is Cooper's perennial Loser. Meanwhile, Mabel Dunham and the avowedly dishonest Jasper Western defeat every principle Cooper supports in the building of an orderly society, and Cooper makes them the triumphant Winners of the story.
In The Prairie, Paul Hover and Ellen Wade stayed with their station as to marrying, but Cooper, again contrary to his professed principles of an orderly society, raised them both well above that level in the future.
The local importance Middleton had acquired, by his union with the daughter of so affluent a proprietor as Don Augustin, united to his personal merit, attracted the attention of the government. He was soon employed in various situations of responsibility and confidence, which both served to elevate his character in the public estimation, and to afford the means of patronage. The bee-hunter was among the first of those to whom he saw fit to extend his favor. . . . He became a landholder, then a prosperous cultivator of the soil, and shortly after a town-officer. By that progressive change in fortunes, which in the republic is often seen to be so singularly accompanied by a corresponding improvement in knowledfge and self-respect, he went on, from step to step, until his wife enjoyed the maternal delight of seeing her children placed far beyond the danger of returning to that state from which both their parents had issued. Paul is actually at this momenta memmber of the lower branch of the legislature of the State where he has long resided (397)
Alice Munro of The Last of the Mohicans was, to all intents and purposes, Cooper's ideal heroine. She was small, delicate, blond, blue-eyed, weak, dependent, of the requisite high social class to marry a hero and displaying not an original thought or even an instinct for survival. She was unconscious through most of the book, and had to be either supported or frankly carried by someone from beginning to end, requiring endless drains on the physical and emotional resources of all of the other characters, whining, complaining and sobbing her way across the frontier while overlooking any inconvenience, discomfort or downright danger her helplessness imposed on the other characters. Duncan, in an appropriate pairing as her suitor, was as Hawkeye noted in a classic understatement, "over young and inexperienced for his position. However, Duncan was of a higher social standing and politically elevated to a highly desirable military command position.".
"Yes, yes, I have heard that a young gentleman of vast riches, from one of the provinces far south, has got the place. he is over young, too, to hold such rank, and to be put above men whose heads are beginning to bleach; and yet they say he is a soldier in his knowledge, and a gallant gentleman!" (31)
Cooper presented Alice Munro as a lovely and lovable child and a desirable wife for an officer of high station. And in truth, Alice and Duncan were a match made in heaven - both were vacuous, duty bound and self-serving. While Cooper could find no future for the strength , humility, piety, chastity, resourcefulness and constancy of Cora Munro, and thus expediently disposed of her, for lack of an appropriate suitor, Cooper rewarded the admirable Alice and Duncan with an entirely suitable marriage, complete with honor, wealth and generations of children and grandchildren. He apparently brought the love story to a happy and justified ending, and Alice and Duncan were the only Winners in the story.
However, in the short time between the publication of The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie, it is evident that Cooper either rethought the character of Alice and formed a different view of her qualities, or wished to make it clear to his readers that Alice was not, in fact, his practical ideal of womanhood. In one wonderfully brief and wryly humorous statement, combined with a brilliant touch of body language, Duncan Uncas Middleton makes clear the entire result of his grandfather's choice of a bride, and the reader's imagination is provided with a rich and instantaneous mental panorama of what it must have been like to live a lifetime with Alice Munro.
"Ah!" exclaimed the trapper, tossing a hand into the air as his whole countenance lighted with the recollections of the name revived. "They called her Alice - Elsie or Alice; 'tis all the same. A laughing, playful child she was, when happy; and tender and weeping in her misery. Her hair was shining and yellow, as the coat of the young fawn, and her skin clearer than the purest water that drips from the rock. Well do I remember her! I remember her right well!"
Thus, it appears that Cooper, with a barely concealed grin, gave us a rare touch of his sardonic humor in an admission that helpless and compliant females do not always make the most agreeable wives, and Winners sometimes turn out to be Losers in spite of the author's best efforts.
Each of Cooper's characters could have been developed and disposed of in complete compliance with the straightforward lessons of what was and was not acceptable in maintaining an ordered society. However, in many cases, Cooper achieved results which were paradoxical to his basic principles. It is apparent that some of his characters took on a life of their own, got completely out of control and ended up defeating Cooper by the very intensity and realism of their personalities. As he wrote, his characters became products of his observations of the realities of the human condition, and he found them tending away from the accepted norms of appropriate rewards and punishment. That he allowed them to do so implies a number of possibilities. Cooper maintained a certain ambivalence toward, and a strong distrust of the developing democracy, and it is a reasonable assumption that his rewarding of less than admirable characters posed a caustic prediction for the future of American society. However, he seemed also to possess a subconscious admiration for personalities who were strong enough to rebel against the narrow limits set for them by social structure, and was forced to leave sufficient room for the argument that the new nation would be built by those who showed the strength to deviate from the established norms. Finally, there is the possibility that, believing firmly in his own vision of social order, Cooper did not anticipate the variety of interpretations of his message that might well be applied by readers even in his own time, let alone in the course of two centuries of democratic evolution.
Cooper, James Fenimore, The Wept of Wish Ton Wish.