Rewriting the Courtship Novel: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer

Signe O. Wegener (The University of Georgia)

Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 105-108).

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

From my first reading of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, two vivid images remain imprinted on my mind. The first, is the scene when Judith’s voice rings out from the concealed Ark, the other, Natty Bumppo’s moral evaluation of Judith’s room in Muskrat Castle. However, it wasn’t until the first time I taught the novel, that a completely new and subtler aspect emerged: the reversal of the courtship plot. Of course, all James Fenimore Cooper’s novels utilize, in one form or another, this popular plot: i.e., his novels contain, in addition to the expected scenes of abduction and pursuit, the coming together of a young couple. But in this respect, The Deerslayer holds a unique place. Not only does the novel present, although in supporting roles, a young Native American couple, it also introduces Natty Bumppo as a prospective lover. Whereas Cooper earlier posited Natty Bumppo as outside the courtship plots — even The Pathfinder has him as a rather unwilling suitor and then only when egged on by Sergeant Dunham — in The Deerslayer he shows the character as the focus of romantic interest. Cooper not only details his hero reaching manhood through the reluctant killing of his first enemy, he also intimates that he faces another kind of initiation, even more reluctant, this one sexual in nature. Natty has, as Grossman puts it, “achieved the hero’s right to be the object of love” (148). 1 Furthermore, Cooper, eager to create a moral tale “that can injure none” (11), subverts the conventions of the courtship novel, he creates a tale of seduction to accomplish his literary goal. He does so, in part, by showing a woman set on seduction — the traditional male role. He casts Natty Bumppo in the “female” role. Moreover, Natty becomes not only the reluctant object of a woman’s desire; he becomes a kind of trophy. When Judith Hutter pursues him, a “masculine” undertaking, she seeks not merely a husband but a “victory that most of her sex ought to envy” (140). 2 Furthermore, judging from the textual evidence, Natty’s honesty and lack of guile appear to redeem her, a “fallen” woman, much as the nineteenth-century woman was expected to reform the roué and lead him to salvation.

Cooper not only presents Natty as an ingénue, he endows him with markedly androgynous, even feminine characteristics, characteristics that consistently link him to the heroines of the contemporary literature of Cooper’s era. Like the leading ladies of, for instance, Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok (1824) and Catherine Maria Sedgewick’s Hope Leslie (1827), as well as Cooper’s own Precaution, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Spy, etc., he is young, pious, inexperienced, artless, and self-effacing. He is a person of “sincerity ... modesty, and ... unerring truth and probity” (11), possessing the very qualities desired in the nineteenth-century ideal woman, the so-called “Angel in the House.” 3 Judith Hutter, on the other hand, who actively pursues him, displays almost stereotypical masculine traits. Although the narrator at times alludes to her “natural modesty,” several incidents demonstrate that she is outspoken adventurous, decisive, and forceful. She is, the narrator asserts, “admirable in person” and “clever,” but she is also “full of art, vanity, and weakness” (11); the negative qualities eclipse the positive ones. She is also more mature than her “prey,” seductive and decidedly manipulative. And the courtship tale, consequently, becomes a tale of seduction.

This insistence on the hero’s more “feminine” characteristics becomes clear already in the opening chapter. When the reader first encounters Natty Bumppo, the narrator takes pains emphasize his youth and inexperience, presenting him as the antithesis of the exceedingly masculine six foot plus “handsome,” “dashing,” and “reckless” Harry March. The Deerslayer, a “very different person in appearance, as well as in character” is “comparatively light and slender,” and he displays youthful candor and humility, again qualities that heroine of the domestic novels (20). His face expresses “guileless truth, sustained by an earnestness of purpose and sincerity of feeling that rendered it remarkable” (20-21); it is also “honest-looking and frank,” and “says plainer than any words, that all’s right within” (55). His youth also emerges in his clinging to inculcated beliefs. He expresses moralistic views with confidence, yet clearly lacks the experience to support his assertions. This moral high ground, which the novel’s other white characters cannot attain, also links him to “Angel in the House,” whose moral superiority derives not from experience but from natural grace.

Like many a Cooper heroine (Elizabeth Temple, Emily Moseley, Mabel Dunham, Alice Munro, etc.), Natty Bumppo enters the text on the very cusp of adulthood, and his lack of experience, for instance vis-à-vis Indian as well as white enemies, is repeatedly stressed by himself and others. Hurry Harry, perhaps trying to cover his own insecurities, refers to him as “a half grown creature,” a “boy” and a “lad,” constantly drawing attention to his companion’s youth. He comments, “You are but a boy — a sapling that has scarce got root” (25). On the Ark, Natty realizes he for the first time is “in the vicinity of enemies” (78); his ideal universe, where natives and non-natives can inhabit the same Garden of Eden in peace, has been destroyed by the reality of evil. Not all Indians are really good, not all Europeans are benign. On the Ark his position changes: he becomes a man, at least in the eyes of Judith Hutter.

Judith Hutter, the seductress, beautiful and indiscreet, first appears as the topic of rather unflattering male gossip, a circumstance that, I may add, ought to make the reader question the truth of the negative statements. According to Harry March, she is beautiful, vain, flirtatious, and fond of finery too elaborate for her social class, a fact that for instance her room at Muskrat Castle reflects. She is also, he states, straightforward, even rude, “a parter [sic] tongue is not to be found in any gal’s head, in or out of the settlements, if you provoke her to use it” (53). Her reputation, Natty reveals, is well known even among the Indians of the area, who see her as “fair to look on, and pleasant of speech, but over-given to admirers, and light-minded” (26). She is also older, and possesses more worldly experience than Natty: as Harry explains, “she has had men among her suitors, ever since she was fifteen; which is now near five years” (25). We do not know Natty’s exact chronological age, but he appears years younger than Judith.

The narrator, however, describes Judith in more positive terms; she is “quick-witted” (73) and “prompt of resolution and firm of purpose” (160). These “male” characteristics seem to elicit a grudging admiration. There is, however, always the insistence on artificiality. When she appears physically in the text, she immediately claims center stage, displaying both her outspokenness and her artifice. She smiles “graciously on the young man” but frowns at Harry in a way that is “simulated and pettish” but calculated to “render her beauty more striking, by exhibiting the play of an expressive but capricious countenance, one that seemed (my emphasis) to change from the soft to the severe, the mirthful to the reproving, with facility and indifference” (63). She clearly knows how to use her good looks to manipulate men, and the narrator later explains that she is “an expert manager of the other sex” (274), a fact he never allows his readers to forget.

Initially, Judith seems rather dismissive of the newcomer, focusing on Hurry Harry when he engages her in “a sort of recriminating discourse” (65). When her attention eventually turns to Natty, though, he fails to react to her in the manner she expects, that is, with admiration. Therefore, winning him naturally becomes an irresistible challenge. Here Cooper deploys a strategy familiar from popular fiction. Much as Mr. B. sees Pamela’s innocence as a challenge in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Judith’s competitive spirit jumps into high gear when it emerges that their young visitor has one true love in his life, the woods. Used to being the center of male attention, she is incredulous that Natty not only has “never loved a woman” but that he loves best his “haunts” and his way of life (139). Natty’s blunt statement adds to his allure. To Judith, he becomes a prize to be won, a prize that others will covet: she wants to be “the girl that finally wins” him because his “honest heart; one without treachery or guile ... will be a victory, that most of her sex ought to envy” (140). Ironically, this possessive attitude shows her as simultaneously rather immature, despite her long “experience” and strangely mature: she manages to discern Natty’s superior qualities. Furthermore, she seems “resentful” and “a bitter smile” lingers around her mouth (140), indications that she desires more of life than male attention. But immature or not: her campaign has begun; advances and tactical retreats follow.

Although Judith proves an able campaigner, she knows that she has to proceed slowly to prevent her prey from taking flight. The onus of this courtship rests solely on one person — herself. She is the one who initiates contact, bestowing upon Natty her blinding smiles, grasping his hand, and subjecting him to other coquetry. Inexperienced as Natty is, and “little skilled in the workings of the female heart” (140), he initially seems oblivious to his pursuer’s charms and designs. Or rather, he appreciates her physical appearance but does not allow her looks to overrule other concerns. Ironically, his “simplicity of mind” combined with honesty and lack of sophistication prove, to a certain degree, to be Judith’s allies, she can be more open in her approach and “less anxious to conceal” her interest in him (146).

Little by little, though, the narrator allows us to see the changes wrought in the calculating young woman through her proximity to the inexperienced and artless hunter. His honest nature helps her shed her “ordinary calculating coquetry” (158); perhaps an indication that only in his presence can she be herself without artifice. More importantly, his “unpolished sincerity” (203) awakens her natural goodness and give her “a strong taste for truth” (223), again a typical effect wrought by “the Angel in the House.” And, “for the first time in her life” she becomes “far from unfeminine and forward” (419). In other words, as a result of her interaction with Natty, she becomes a more honest person herself: she is moving from the selfishness of childhood toward a more selfless maturity.

The change in Judith’s personality, however, does not prevent her from reclaiming the masculine role and bring up the matter of marriage, a male prerogative, albeit “with much of the indirectness and perhaps, justifiable, address of a woman” (419). After all, she recognizes how good he is for her, and goes for what she desires. In a midnight setting which seems made for romance, she asks, point-blank, “Can you — do you think, Deerslayer, that you could be happy with such a wife as a woman like myself would make?” (420). The scene that follows spells out what women wish for in men, and Judith’s bitter tone reveals both her own negative experience with men, and why she sees Natty as desirable: “Above all we wish for honesty — tongues that are not used to say what the mind does not mean, and hearts that feel a little for others, as well as for themselves. A true-hearted girl would die for such a husband! While the boaster, and the double-tongued suitor gets to be as hateful to the sight, as he is to the mind” (422).

Her boldness, however, does not elicit the desired result: her advance falls on barren ground. Although flattered “and completely absorbed” (422) by Judith’s words and beauty, Natty has no “active suspicion that her feelings were seriously involved” (425). His refusal, predictably, spurs her on, giving “a piquancy to the state of affairs that rather increased her interest in the young man” (425). Moreover, she impulsively decides on a plan of deception to save his life, “and with a readiness of invention that is peculiar to the quick-witted and ingenious, she adopted a scheme by which she hoped effectually to bind him to her person” (425). This scheme, fails because the honest Hetty reveals the deceit. However, the reader realizes that Natty would never condone Judith’s deceit on his part, even when he is the beneficiary of the action.

Judith’s final full frontal attack on Natty comes after Hetty’s burial, when she contrives to have Natty transport her from Muskrat Castle. Again, the narrator stresses his hero’s artlessness: Natty is “too simple to suspect anything” (538). Now, Judith is “set upon making a desperate effort to rescue herself from a future that she dreaded with a horror as vivid, as the distinctness with which she fancied she foresaw it. This motive, however, raised her above all common considerations, and she persevered even to her own surprise, if not to her great confusion” (541). Dealing with him “as I would with poor, dear Hetty” (541), she makes the hunter an offer that she is confident he cannot refuse: the ownership of the Lake and surroundings. However, there are strings: they will marry, then return to the lake “and never quit it again” (542). Although Natty refuses her, she renews her assault with promises of behavioral change: “as a proof of how wholly I am and wish to be yours, — how completely I desire to be nothing but your wife, the very first fire that we kindle, after our return, shall be lighted with the brocade dress, and fed by every article I have that you may think unfit for the woman you wish to live with!” (542-3). This offer, however, also meets with refusal: “there was a steadiness and quiet in the manner of Deerslayer that completely smothered her hopes, and told her that for once, her exceeding beauty had failed to excite admiration and homage it was wont to receive” (543). She may feel no resentment due to his honest answer, yet this does not stop her appeals, and she bluntly asks, “You will not accept me for a wife, Deerslayer?” Natty bluntly states, “We can never marry,” adding “I do not feel towards any woman” strongly enough “to cleave unto her“ (543), a refusal which leaves Judith “rebuked and smothered” (543). It’s easy to feel sympathy for Judith at this point; she has, after all, offered herself to the only man she has ever met capable of seeing beyond physical attributes. But she knows that Natty cannot marry “without loving” and that he does not love her (544). Her acceptance of this, I think, shows how much she has matured during the course of the novel. The fact that she develops any kind of desire for honesty and truth, and is, with the exception of Natty himself, the only one of the white characters in the novel to fully appreciate these qualities, speaks favorably of her.

Cooper refuses to let Natty escape the encounter untarnished. Or rather, he ends the proposal scene on a very ambiguous note. Although our hero has in no way misled Judith, his moral armor towards the end displays a noticeable chink. Judith, trying to understand his refusal, can see “but one reason why you cannot, will not love me. ... Tell me ... if any thing light of me, that Henry March has said may not have influenced your feelings?” (545). Judith interprets Natty’s silence as proof that he believes gossip over his own experience. If this be the case, it shows a definite lack of maturity on his part. It is easy to fault Natty for his behavior at this point; he appears to tacitly admit that Hurry Harry’s words about Judith have influenced him. Her respect for Natty, her willingness to change, all comes to naught. However, is loving another person ever a question of will? Love may, perhaps, overcome failings and disappointments even in the most honest and scrupulous mind. Judith’s course of action fails, not because of slander and gossip, as she believes, but because she “had never touched his [Hawkeye’s] heart” (547). And therein lies the ultimate moral lesson.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer or, The First Warpath. Beard, James Franklin, ed. Albany: State Univerity of New York Press, 1987
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1967


1 Cooper in the 1850 Preface to the novel claims that Natty has “the power to please that properly characterizes youth. As a consequence, he is loved” (11); however, nowhere does the novel indicate that what impels Judith is a grand passion.

2 This and following excerpts come the 1987 edition, published by State University of New York Press, and edited by James Franklin Beard.

3 Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of True Womanhood 1820-1860” in The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective. 2ⁿᵈ ed. Ed. Michael Gordon. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978) gives a thorough discussion of the desired qualities (piety, purity, domesticity, and obedience) and shows how these qualities emerged in the popular press of the period. Coventry Patmore toward the end of the 1840s coined the phrase “Angel in the House” in his ode to his beloved wife.