Whimsical Women and Manly-Man Mohicans: Feminist Perspective on Women, Native People, and Nature in The Last of the Mohicans

Keni Sabath (James Fenimore Cooper Society)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 99-101).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

In The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper makes a decisive and disheartening judgment regarding women: A woman’s help is worthless — but possessing a woman is worth everything. Martin Barker and Roger Sabin note that the rigid gender roles and chivalric social codes that bind the actions of the protagonists are partially due to Cooper’s association with the American Romantic movement (18). More significantly, Nina Baym explains that women are necessary for classes and societies since marriage is the primary means by which males create groups of inclusion and exclusion (698). Even so, Cooper uses the juxtaposition of his heroines to suggest a specific kind of woman as more valuable to the European American colonization of North America. As W.H. Gardiner noted in a literary review in 1826, “The respective characters of these young ladies are as opposite as their complexions” (110). Indeed, the dichotomy between the Munro sisters is quintessential to the novel. They form two distinct aesthetic and cultural feminine archetypes: Alice Munro is a timid, innocent gentlewoman, while her elder sister Cora Munro is a more mature, seductive, brave beauty. Their “characters” and even “complexions” correspond with gendered aesthetic concepts pervasive during the Romantic era: sublime masculinity and feminine beauty. Cooper projects these aesthetics onto three groups which were of increasing import during the 1800s when, as Barker and Sabin note, the expansion of European American civilization across North America became increasingly vital to the American Dream (11). These groups include women as the means of furthering civilization; nature as the land to be conquered; and, as Barker and Sabin specify, Native Americans seen as standing in the way of Manifest Destiny (11-12). Cooper uses the contrasting natures of Cora and Alice to create a highly romanticized dichotomy, mirroring the fearful and often fantastical feelings of early nineteenth-century European Americans towards Native American peoples.

Through a combination of de-feminization and Indianization, Cora Munro comes to embody the fears of European Americans regarding the American frontier. Cora’s femininity contradicts European society’s ideal. Superficially, Cora’s “exquisitely regular and dignified and surpassingly beautiful” countenance seem to confirm her exceptional physical femininity (11). According to Oxford English Dictionary, “regular” refers to both “harmony in physical form” and “restrained” nature (“Regular”). The first denotation fulfills physical standard of harmonious beauty, while the second corresponds to the subdued and subordinate social expectations for eighteenth and nineteenth Century gentlewomen. Nevertheless, Cora departs from the ideal femininity because, according to Steven Blakemore, she possesses a “seductive and fatal” sense of beauty which derives from her greater maturity, understanding, and unfortunate role as the subject of Magua’s vengeful affections (29). Additionally, Leslie Fiedler contends that Cora’s mixed darker skin color symbolizes a temptress and seducer (207). Indeed, Cora demonstrates greater sexual awareness in a scene under Glens Falls: When Duncan attempts to awake the sisters, his “motion cause[s] Cora to raise her hand to repulse him, while Alice murmured in her soft gentle voice” in a dreamt up conversation with her father (62). Cora moves to defend herself as if she were being sexually attacked, demonstrating her recognition of their perilous situation and her unique vulnerability as a woman. In contrast, Alice naively assumes she is in the safety of her home with the one male who, excluding Freudian speculation, has absolutely no sexual interest in her. Furthermore, Cora views both Magua and Uncas with undertones of sexual desire. Upon first seeing Magua, Cora “betray[s] an indescribable look of pity, admiration, and horror as her dark eyes [follow] the easy motions of the savage” (11). The “easy motions” of Magua suggest an adept sexual power while the “horror” foreshadows his later proposal that they marry — horror, because as Dana D. Nelson notes, Cooper and his contemporaries viewed miscegenation as stain on womanhood (131). Duncan and Alice admire Uncas as an intriguing anthropological specimen, as a Noble Savage, while Cora is the only one to view him as an individual person: “[Cora asks,] ‘[W]ho, that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shade of his skin!’ A short, and apparently an embarrassed silence succeeded this remark ... ” (182). Cora’s disregard for skin color threatens the European social structure based on race — social structure being the aspect of civilization women putatively buttress. Her candid admiration of Uncas-and the potential for miscegenation from her attraction to him as a man — “embarrasse[s]” her company, signifying her comment’s utmost impropriety. Still, David T. Haberly points out that Cora’s mixed ethnicity rendered her semi-attraction to Uncas excusable to contemporary audiences (439-440).

Cora also disrupts European social structure by striving to protect Alice and herself; according to Blakemore, the allegedly civilized man has the sublime duty to protect the cultural feminine beauty (29). Actions of self-reliance and protection thereby further distance Cora from the ideal femininity as exemplified in the way her European male companions consistently view her: Major Duncan Heyward “regard[s] [Cora] in open admiration“ (13 emphasis added). Blakemore notes that “admiration” directly corresponds with the masculine aesthetic category of sublime (28). Cora grows to become more self-reliant like the Native women and attracts Native males. According to Haberly, Cora even adopts Native people’s rhetorical style when she argues for her release in front of Chief Tamenund (439). Cora’s noble attributes and her increasing Indianization parallel her with the Noble Savage. Lora Romero explains that the Native’s idealized “equilibrium of body and mind” is the antithesis of civilized femininity according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s anti-feminist theory on civilized education (395). Thus, Cora’s “admirable” and “noble” qualities actually distance her from traditional, idealized feminine power.

European Americans also project their gender ideology onto the wilderness — the space of the unknown — to advocate westward expansion. Cora represents the wild, Indianized wilderness, a seductive, dangerous sense of beauty, and powerful, sublime nobility, all of which comprise “red beauty.” Alice contrastingly signifies “white beauty,” or timid, innocuous European femininity. Blakemore describes how Cooper projects gendered aesthetics upon nature: White sublimity (expansion of civilization) ultimately conquers red beauty (wilderness) which Europeans desire to make into white beauty (civilization) (34). When nature and European establishments collide like with Fort William Henry, Cooper uses masculine language: “[T]he party began slowly to climb a steep and rugged ascent by a path that curiously wound among rock and trees ... in a manner ... devised by men long practiced in the arts of wilderness” (140). “Rugged” denotes toughness, a traditionally masculine quality. Cooper also explicitly suggests that civilization only spreads when skilled men have strategically subjugated nature. Directly outside the fort, “bold rocks thrust their black and naked heads above the undulating outline of the mountain ranges” (141). “Bold” denotes characteristically male courage, and black connotes masculine impurity. The rock’s “thrust[ing]” “naked heads” are a phallic symbol, while the far-off mountains which demark uncivilized territory retain “undulating,” feminine contours. Cooper thereby associates masculine nature with patriarchal civilization on the frontier. In contrast, when the group enters Indian Territory, Hawkeye warns them to “[t]ouch the leaves lightly” (192). There is a sense that masculine abruptness has no place in the sacred shrine of the wilderness. In order to be effective, the male must control his power and take on a gentler disposition. According to Baym, the sublimation of male power parallels Romantic ideals of male chivalry (701). To reinforce masculinity, nature must possess feminine beauty. The Indian land is “verdant and undulating surface of forest, which spread itself unbroken, unless by stream or lake, over such a vast region of country” (338). “Verdant” invokes nature’s life-giving essence, and which can be paralleled with female sexuality and fertility. According to Oxford English Dictionary, it also can figuratively mean “[g]reen, inexperienced, gullible” — attributes which correspond to Alice’s innocence (“Verdant”). “Unbroken” aligns with the highly feminized language often used when describing “virgin” land. The way the company views nature is also gendered: “Their anxious and eager looks ... rested on naked rocks, and straight and immovable trees” (59). “[N]aked rocks” implies that nature is open and exposed to human scrutiny, while the visual component of “eager looks” suggests male sexual visual inclinations and desires. The phallic trees further sexualize the scene. The cataracts of Glens Falls are “wild beauty” (50) in an “impregnable position” (106). Although it provides temporary shelter for the company, nature is “impregna[ted]” or penetrated by the Hurons. The Indian beauty of the wilderness is thus painfully finite. The projection of such feminized language on Indian land serves to feminize the unknown wilderness and subjugate it for masculine purposes, specifically the white man’s goal of expanding civilization’s frontier.

Alice represents European civilization and an ideally feminized terrain. Alice’s utility is the same as nature’s function: to be a projection of male fantasy in order to bolster civilized masculinity. By making Alice such a passive and two-dimensional figure, Cooper objectifies his ideal feminine heroine — ideal, since Alice actually survives and enters a prosperous marriage. Unlike Cora, Alice is marriageable and can represent civilization because of her pure European blood, timid nature, and innocence. For instance, in contrast to Cora, Alice is not sexually attractive. While waking Alice up in the scene under Glens Falls, Heyward whispers, “Yes, sweet innocence ... Duncan is here, and while life continues or danger remains, he will never quit thee” (62). First, even though Duncan is in love with Alice, his name for her negates any chance that he is being sexually seduced. Baym notes that theory on social origin postulates that no civilization can exist without repression of female sexuality (705). Therefore, Alice is more desirable for the spread of civilization because she simply is less sexually desirable and distracting for males. Second, Alice’s femininity succeeds in helping men fulfill their chivalric role. Heyward’s masculinity is enhanced by Alice’s extreme femininity because it allows for him to assume the noble role of eternal protector. According to Baym, romantic love invokes the chivalric code which implicates two distinct yet symbiotic roles for men and women: Women who renounce all independence and self-defense have the right to demand constant protection from males (701). Alice, who exhibits no independence throughout the entire novel, easily meets the chivalric notion of woman. Gary Dyer explains that for Cooper, the notion that European women are treated better than those of Native Americans is a key claim to moral superiority for the European civilizations (357). Thus, even though Cora would be a more practical companion on the frontier, to lose the chivalric code would render civilization unworthy of expansion. Aesthetically, Alice’s innocent beauty is exemplified during the Huron attack on the evacuating civilians: “’Father — father — we are here!’ shrieked Alice ... . ‘Come to us father, or we die!’ The cry was repeated, and in terms and tone that might have melted a heart of stone, but it was unanswered ... . Alice had dropped senseless on the earth” (181). Alice’s melodramatic response shows an exaggerated idealization of femininity. Aesthetically, her utter helplessness resonates with Blakemore’s Romantic definition of fragile, female beauty which always includes weakness and contains distress in its most potent form (47). Thus, Alice embodies the ideal, submissive femininity which Europeans desired for both their women on the frontier and in the nature of the frontier itself.

In conclusion, Cooper makes very clear what he believes to be the best traits for a woman: timidity, passivity, and arguably, vapidity. By disposing of the independent minded Cora, Cooper reinforces the feminine ideal that Alice represents, which complements Romantic and chivalric gender roles. The feminine ideal is also projected upon the wilderness, in an attempt to justify further European expansion. Thus, in spite of stunted character development and lack of personhood for the heroines of Mohicans, Alice and Cora are the most important characters in the novel because of how they are used. Understanding their roles is key to understanding the novel’s greater message about Native American peoples and westward expansion.

Works Cited

  • Barker, Martin and Roger Sabin. The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Print.
  • Baym, Nina. “The Women of Leatherstocking Tales.” American Quarterly 23.5 (1971): 696-709. JSTOR. Web. 2 November 2010.
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