“Without distinction of sex, rank, or color”: Cora Munro as Cooper’s Ideal and the Moral Center in The Last of the Mohicans

J. Gregory Harding (Northeastern University)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 36-40).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

{36} When he tells the young warrior chief, “I loved both you and your father Uncas, though our skins are not altogether of a color, and our gifts are somewhat different” (373), Natty Bumppo identifies the basic premise behind Cooper’s rationale and message in The Last of the Mohicans — superficial characteristics are insignificant in this new world. Social, physical, and psychological differences among the primary characters in the novel seem to locate them at various steps on a continuum “progressing” from the absolute “savagery” of Magua to the over-civilized ways of David Gamut and Alice Munro. And Cora Munro, being not entirely white, and neither wild nor tame, seems to be situated in the exact center of this continuum. The story superficially attributes much of the “civility” of some characters to racial, and social standards; however, under the surface we see that Cooper’s true focus is on the moral and ethical strengths and weaknesses of each individual, and those nearer the center of this line of “civility” are represented as having fewer weaknesses. A closer look at this structure reveals a two-way dynamic, in which movement from savagery to civility runs from one end to the other, but movement toward the ideal is toward the center of the scale from either end, toward the standard set by Cora Munro. A detailed analysis of the characters of The Last of the Mohicans reveals that James Fenimore Cooper foregrounded Cora Munro by creating her as the only character with no significant flaw, and dismissed superficial criteria such as race, class, and gender as irrelevant in depicting her as his ideal character, a woman who is unconstrained by traditional limitations and exhibits the most ideal qualities of each of the other major characters.

Cora — an outspoken, not quite genteel, racially mixed female — externally represents qualities that Americans in Cooper’s time would have probably deemed antithetical to any model they could have conceived of. Cooper then, must have been composing an ideal based on considerations other than these, on internal characteristics such as fortitude, propriety, morality, and adaptability that we know to be qualities that Cora possesses. At the same time, Cooper does not convey to us that she owns any of the negative characteristics displayed in each of the other characters, such as vengefulness, impetuousness, or prejudice.

First, what is necessary is to identify and justify the positions of all the characters on the continuum: Magua, Uncas, Chingachgook, Cora Munro, Hawkeye, Duncan Heyward, David Gamut, and Alice Munro. This is roughly the order in which they appear on the scale, from most “savage” to most “civil,” although in some cases, the line of demarcation is not so clear. Each character’s position relative to the center simultaneously represents his or her proximity to Cooper’s ideal, Cora. It’s important to note that this continuum of civility is constructed based on just the type of superficial characteristics that I contend Cooper is disregarding, which accentuates the irrelevance of such a scale when the criteria for judgment consider truly ideal qualities. Those furthest from the center will be considered first.

Magua, “Le Renard Subtil,” represents the far left of this scale. He is described as one motivated by vengeance, ferocious and dangerously eloquent, a “cunning savage” in every white man’s sense of the word (394-5). His deceptiveness, and an ability to deceive with words, are employed time and again to serve Magua’s purposes, and are that much more detestable in that they are employed solely to serve his selfish aims. He presents a brilliant rhetorical argument to the Huron tribe that ostensibly establishes him as the leader of the community, positioning him well for his own intentions to be carried out (333-5). Regardless of the implications for others, “Magua never lost sight of his individual motives,” and this fact reveals the impossibility of his ever changing for the better (333). The motive is revenge that stems from a long past encounter between him and Colonel Munro (122), and his mind is so closed that this blind vengeance results in his death. When Magua raises Cora’s arm and calls out, “He has his revenge!” it is against Munro that he speaks, illustrating the selfish resentment that he cannot overcome; his decisions are devoid of morality and reason. He takes Cora, despite pleas and bargains, and even the offer of the exchange of his most hated enemy, Hawkeye, who eventually kills him (372-4).

On the other end of the spectrum of “civility” sits Alice Munro, a girl seemingly too fragile to even carry herself, who spends more of the novel swooning from fear and anxiety than moving under her own power. She is nearly too ineffectual to even be considered on the scale. Constantly being supported by Cora, Alice serves three purposes in the story, as a motivating factor for Heyward, as a restraint used by Magua for keeping Cora in check, and as a foil to her sister that illustrates Cora’s distance from the stereotypical woman of the Colonial period. Heyward falls in love with {37} Alice, not for her virtues (or lack thereof), but her “beauty.” It is a love “that would conceal a thousand faults, though she had them,” which Cora is sure to make Heyward aware of (374). And while requesting Alice’s hand from the Colonel, he is forced to acknowledge his disregard for the praiseworthy qualities of Cora — whom her father assumes would be the more desirable (186-8).

Near Alice on the scale appears David Gamut. He shows a concern for traditional propriety, but no ability beyond his singing, and no knowledge of the behaviors and characters of the frontier. David Gamut could be considered too civilized to ever achieve success in this new harsh land. He has little ability to adapt, and no inclination for a need to. His entrance into the story expresses this notion. Once accepted into the travelling party, he begins to sing, completely unaware that “common prudence would teach us to journey through this wilderness in as quiet a manner as possible,” as Heyward points out, unaware himself of the nearby danger of which he warns (30). Gamut moves through the story relatively unscathed, since he is perceived to be mad, and thus absolutely harmless. At one point, when Hawkeye asks why David didn’t follow his own trail out of danger, the scout answers his own question by remembering the skills required to do so, skills that Natty now takes for granted, which Gamut neither has nor will ever acquire (265). David, along with Alice, represents those citizens unable to adapt to a changing world of changing values in which ultimate civility is no longer the mark of an ideal. In the new world, David Gamut, Hawkeye tells us, is one “whose death can profit no one” (383).

It is important here, before going any further, to express the nature and characteristics qualifying the ideal person as I see Cooper identifying her. It seems that what is most important is the possession of, and an ability to manage a range of emotions and qualities that allow for the best possible conduct given any situation. It seems to be a sense of virtue, a confidence and peace of mind allowing for adherence to a sort of redefined propriety. Who lives and dies is of less consequence than how they live or die. The remaining characters are situated far nearer the ideal, and exhibit many of those qualities that constitute the ideal Cooper has in mind, but none achieve the flawless character that Cooper has given Cora Munro.

Returning to the more “savage” side of the scale, with Uncas the young warrior chief, son of Chingachgook, we reach a new level at which the characters represented possess far more desirable qualities than undesirable. Though it is difficult to say which of the Mohican warriors is nearer the ideal, what could be said is that the combination of these characters’ good qualities is what constitutes the ideal seen in Cora.

Uncas is “an unblemished specimen of the noblest proportions of man” (61). He also displays a sensitivity and ability to adapt appropriately to new situations despite customary beliefs. In the cave at Glenn’s Falls,

Uncas acted as attendant to the females, performing all the little offices within his power, with a mixture of dignity and anxious grace that served to amuse Heyward, who well knew that it was an utter innovation on the Indian customs, which forbid their warriors to descend to any menial employment, especially in favor of their women. (65)

Uncas also exhibits a passion and loyalty which Cooper portrays admirably in a dialogue between him and Tamenund, as the younger defends his friendship with Hawkeye despite the fact that it seems to temporarily compromise his credibility. Uncas states, “I call him so who proves himself such” (369), meaning that he chooses his friends based on who they show themselves to be, not what they appear to be. This statement, besides illustrating an ideal quality in Uncas, gives us an indication of Cooper’s ideal by reducing the importance of common opinion and prejudice based on superficial criteria. But Uncas is not faultless, and his major flaw is also the one that gets him killed. His passion is a good quality which surfaces most clearly in the final chase to save Cora (395-399), but it spurs the eagerness, the “impetuousness,” that causes his death. This impulsive and not quite civil action, also identified as characteristic of Magua, and the Hurons in general (298), is not seen in Cora.

Neither does Chingachgook possess this passion-fueled attribute. He does possess passion; however, it has become for him no more than either a tool or a nuisance, to be summoned or suppressed. For Chingachgook now, “It was only necessary to arouse his passions in order to give full effect to the terrific device which he had adopted to intimidate his enemies” (66). On the battlefield, he suppresses a feeling of resentment toward the Mingoes over the atrocities done there: “turning calmly from the sight, his countenance settled into a repose as deep as if he never knew the instigation of passion,” showing a control that is both admirable and pathetic (216). The stoic chief, described as acting “with unmoved resolution” (84), had become the product of his own life, no longer fired by the positive type of passion so clearly still alive in his son.

{38} He was the embodiment of all that Indian custom required, and in this was his own weakness. At Glenn’s Falls, when all seems hopeless, Chingachgook prepares for his death quietly, unable to even conceive of the possibility for escape because of the ingrained code of honor and the pride of his people (90-91). Excepting the expressions at Uncas’ graveside, the strongest emotional connection the chief displayed with anyone was a moment of appropriately timed affection for his son that ended as abruptly as if it were metered (236-237). He was never free from the guarded awareness that experience had forced upon him, even at his most tender moments. At Uncas’ burial, he remained “conscious of the wishes of the people,” because, as was his duty, “he had not yet spoken, and something consolatory and instructive was expected from so renowned a chief on an occasion of such interest” (413). So the same spontaneous quality that kills his son is that which Chingachgook no longer possesses. Here is an argument for balance between not yielding to emotion and becoming driven by it, for having feelings yet not being too impulsive, for appropriate emotional expression. Thus, while Cora certainly could not be faulted for pleading at the feet of Tamenund in a last ditch effort to be released from Magua, despite the apparent impropriety (365), one cannot help but feel that Chingachgook’s tears at his son’s grave were in part due to regret over the emotional distance between him and his son.

The “evolution” toward the ideal position from the white (civilized) side of the continuum is represented by Duncan Heyward and Natty Bumppo, with Hawkeye more nearly approaching Cooper’s ideal.

As with the Indians, we also see in Duncan Heyward certain negative characteristics. The Southern gentleman admits begrudgingly, to himself, that he is a racist as he disclaims his unreasonable prejudice to Munro while he “is at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been grafted in his nature” (186, emphasis added). He is not alone with his prejudices, but is certainly not joined by Cora, who — before knowing his true nature, one that is not connected with his skin color — says of Magua, “Should we distrust this man because his manners are not our manners, and because his skin is dark” (24). While Duncan is reputed, as Natty tells us, to be “a young gentleman of vast riches,” his wealth is mentioned only once elsewhere, and is seemingly insignificant given the setting he finds himself in, indicating that Cooper had no regard for wealth as a measure of character (44). It’s quite possible that his bitterness toward the closed-minded attitudes of the aristocracy that ensued from his own economic experiences is represented here as a disregard for financial status (Taylor 21).

Heyward’s status as a gentleman and officer brings with it connotations of an elite civility that are less neutral than negative. Even being a major, he is inadequate in the new type of soldiering necessary in the frontier wilderness. He knows this and conveys to the scout, “I proved myself a sluggard on my post ... and have less need of repose than you, who did more credit to the character of a soldier” (150). It is precisely this humility which allows Heyward to confess his inadequacy, in turn allowing him to adapt and improve later in the story. His willingness to try and the knowledge he gains on the journey allow him to pull off the masquerade that leads to saving Uncas from execution by the gauntlet (275-283).

Hawkeye seems to suffer from the same shortcomings that are emblematic of Heyward, though they are of a different degree and manifested in different ways. Natty is a man “whose prejudices contributed so largely as to veil his natural sense of justice in all matters concerning the Mingoes” (134), and although these prejudices don’t cause him any serious harm in the story, they do cause him undue distress at times. In a comical scene at a watering hole, we see him launch into a tirade of blinding anger against the Mohawk Indians for vandalizing the spring and stealing the water gourd, after which “Uncas silently extended toward him the desired gourd, which the spleen of Hawkeye had hitherto prevented him from observing, on the branch of an elm” (140). Despite being so adamant and unduly proud of being a “man without a cross” (35, 40, 63, 188, 224, 316, ... ), the scout, in a more subtle way, is an argument that whites are not so superior as they think. Confessing that Uncas, not he, had found the women’s trail, Hawkeye states, “To what, as a white man who has no taint of Indian blood, I should be ashamed to own; to the judgement of the young Mohican, in a matter which I should know better” (142; emphasis added). At the same time he is degrading Natives, he is also admitting their superiority. The second half of this paradox inclines us toward those aspects of “the Long Rifle” that Cooper sees as more endearing. Despite his pride, the scout is willing to admit his mistakes, and to accept help, which he frequently needs when tracking. Natty shows undeniable loyalty throughout the story, and most fiercely when Duncan asks about his plans to save Uncas: “Had they mastered your scalp, Major, a knave should have fallen for every hair it held, as I promised; but if the young Sagamore is to be held at the stake, the Indians shall see also how a man without a cross can die” (314).

{39} To this point, it has been shown that all of the significant characters in the novel suffer some undesirable characteristics that cause them difficulty. Pride, vengeance, fragility, inability to adapt, prejudice, and impetuousness, are each manifested in at least one of the characters discussed thus far. Cora Munro is the only one unencumbered by a notable flaw. The juxtaposition of Cora to any of the other characters foregrounds her as Cooper’s representation of an ideal 1 by illustrating that she exhibits the universally esteemed qualities found in most of the others. Further, it does so regardless of those superficial attributes of race, gender, and class she possesses that have been so significant, in the context of the period, in determining a person’s status or value. She is not characterized as any less credible due to them; rather, their existence only serves to further enhance her lack of a legitimate weakness.

Cora is a woman of mixed blood, yet she exhibits those characteristics and principles esteemed in each of the other characters. Her father’s surprise at Duncan’s choice of Alice over Cora may in part be hypersensitivity to the fact of her being “mixed,” but is enunciated as his considering Cora to be more desirable when he immediately presumes that she is the choice. His response, “Cora Munro is a maiden too discreet, and of a mind too elevated and improved, to need the guardianship even of a father,” reinforces the underlying superiority of Cora (186). She is a beautiful woman, equal to Alice in that respect, but in a different and less traditional way. Cora is describes as “molded with the same exquisite proportions,” but where Alice is fair and flushing, and delicate, Cora is “charged,” and possesses “a countenance that was exquisitely regular and dignified, and surpassingly beautiful” (21). The proof of Cora’s superiority to Alice, however, comes not in superficial appearances, but in her ability to cope with adversity, to apply her abilities, and endure difficulties without faltering.

As a captive, keeping her wits and remembering to leave trail markers, she displays an unwavering composure and firmness that is only seen in Chingachgook (115). Yet she is twice his better in the story, first in that she contrives a scheme to get them out of Glenn’s Falls when he was literally unable to do so (91-92), and second when she defies custom and orders to plead with Tamenund (359-360). Both are acts that he could never — being bound by custom and ancient values — allow himself to undertake, even to save his own life. She shows the passion that we see so clearly in Uncas, and the loyalty of Hawkeye, through her thoughts and actions concerning her sister. For example, after Alice has yet again “dropped senseless to the earth, and Cora had sunk by her side, hovering in untiring tenderness over her lifeless form,” she heartfully confronts Magua, as he steals Alice away (208-10). He proposes to her — in a sense — and undaunted, she responds “Never! Strike if you wilt, and complete thy revenge,” thus choosing death before dishonor. Then, as he sweeps Alice away, Cora calls after him fearlessly and takes up pursuit (210).

More important than the possession of any characteristic illustrated thus far as comprising an ideal citizen, are her sense of propriety and her ability to adapt. Her intelligence, independence, and fortitude, which I have already illustrated, combine to give her that adaptability and sense of propriety which set her apart from most of the others, who are either incapable of or are just now learning them. At the Falls, she speaks up to save the party from certain death when no one else can; she is not too proud to plead with Tamenund — the only time she pleads with anyone — when it is her only recourse to release. Also, she knows when to confront and when to defer to Magua. At one point, “Cora met his gaze with an eye so calm and firm that his resolution wavered,” showing the fortitude and stoicism seen in the Mohican (359). But later, when she knows it will do no good to fight, she retains her dignity in submission to the unavoidable:

The maiden drew back in lofty womanly reserve, and her dark eye kindled, while the rich blood shot, like the passing brightness of the sun into her very temples at the indignity. “I am your prisoner, and at a fitting time shall be ready to follow, even to my death. But violence is unnecessary,” she coldly said. (373-374)

Thus we have seen in Cora not just the good qualities which are prevalent in other major characters, but the ability to discern the most appropriate or effective behaviors in any given situation. Unlike the rest of the characters, she cannot be restrained by the standards or customs of others. Cora is continually breaking barriers that the others would not dare approach. The scout and the Mohicans are examples of those bound by tradition, frequently required to maintain order, or to wait their turn, out of respect, and as was the custom. At one sitting, despite their impulses,

No exclamation of surprise escaped the father, nor was any question asked, or reply given, for several minutes; each appearing to await the moment when he might speak, without betraying womanish curiosity or childish impatience. The white man seemed to take counsel from their customs ... he also remained silent and reserved. (38)

{40} Cora, instead, speaks her mind when she feels it necessary, regardless of customs that would not even allow her a turn to speak, let alone force her to wait her turn. At Glenn’s Falls, Cora emerges, overcoming what Cooper qualifies as “natural,” thus perfectly acceptable, “horror,” to express her idea which avoids certain death for all of them, and they listen, though Hawkeye seems surprised at the wisdom of the young lady (91-93). Further, Cora feels no shame in approaching Tamenund, whereas even his own warriors know not to infringe too closely upon the sage; they “were content with touching his robe, or even drawing nigh his person” (348). The women of the tribe are not even mentioned. Cora, however, disobeys her captor, disregards the judgment of the sage, and defies all expectations as she throws herself at the feet of the sage and pleads her case (359). It appears that the stereotypes and prejudices so carefully constructed in the other characters, which regulate their behaviors, are pointedly disregarded in the formulation of Cora’s character, as if Cooper is telling us that his ideal has nothing to do with race, gender, or class, or any characteristic that does not transcend these superficial boundaries.

Cora Munro is foregrounded in The Last of the Mohicans by the fact that, when juxtaposed to the other characters in Cooper’s novel, she alone is portrayed without fault. A close reading of the text reveals the significant shortcomings of every other major character, and the most highly esteemed characteristics that make up each of them. The characters can be ordered on a continuum of superficial qualities that identify Cora Munro as the center of a range of “civility.” But this continuum coincides with a progression by the characters from either end to the middle, toward Cora, based on more significant standards of a new propriety and morality existing in the frontier world. She embodies the passion of Uncas without the impetuousness, the fortitude of Chingachgook without the inflexibility, the femininity of Alice without the frailty, the loyalty of Hawkeye without the closed-mindedness, and the ability to adapt that we see in Duncan but without the prejudice. In Cora Munro, Cooper has set apart a character of ideal qualities, and he has confined them within a “lower class citizen,” an atypical female of mixed blood, and has thus ultimately disregarded gender, class, and race, in his efforts to redefine a standard.

Works Cited

  • Baym, Nina, “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.” American Quarterly, 23 Dec. 1991, pp. 696-709.
  • Blakemore, Steven, “Without a Cross: the cultural significance of the sublime and beautiful in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.” Nineteenth Century Literature, 52 (June 1997) pp. 27-57.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans [1826]. New York: Penguin/Signet, 1980.
  • Rans, Geoffrey, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Ringe, Donald A., James Fenimore Cooper. Twayne’s United States Author Series, 11. New Haven: Twayne, 1962.
  • Taylor, Alan, “Fenimore Cooper’s America.” History Today, 46 (February 1996) pp. 21-27.


1 A similar argument and conclusion are expressed by Steven Blakemore in an article found in Nineteenth Century Literature entitled “Without a cross: the cultural significance of the sublime and beautiful in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.” This article, in which he considers Cora as Cooper’s new American heroine, bases that conclusion primarily on the notion of a mixtures of races and traditionally male or female characteristics. Alternatively, what I am proposing here is that Cooper’s ideal is created with disregard for these notions, not because of them.