Coopers series of five novels The Leather-stocking Tales have always been among the most popular books based on the adventurous and intriguing history of the USA. Yet, critical response to the series is not this unanimous. Cooper has often been criticized for making his characters one-dimensional, stereotypical and unrealistic. In "A Fable for Critics," Lowell writes: His Indians, with proper respect be it said, // Are just Natty Bumppo daubed over with red... (qtd. in Alicino). However, a closer look will prove that Natty Bumppo is a well-written, rounded character whose personality better reveals itself in its psychological evolution when analyzed together with the image of Chingachgook, the Great Serpent.
When comparing the two images, one will see that they have many features in common, indeed. They are shown as idealized human beings: both of them exhibit unprecedented unselfishness, generosity, fearlessness, self-sufficiency and spiritual power. These traits reflect the characters organic connection with nature which determines the uncompromising rejection of the civilization, essentially alien to them. In Coopers novels, the majestic nature of America is the personification of the national character. The landscape becomes one of the means of establishing the national identity, a necessary component of the epic story of a young country. When Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook are introduced to the reader in Chapter 3 of The Last Of The Mohicans they are portrayed as an organic part of the mighty American forest and their voices do not differ from other natural sounds: Still that breathing silence, which marks the drowsy sultriness of an American landscape in July, pervaded the secluded spot, interrupted only by the low voices of the men, the occasional and lazy tap of a woodpecker, the discordant cry of some gaudy jay, or a swelling on the ear, from the dull roar of a distant waterfall (Cooper 80-81). Both characters are the children of the frontier forest and their being an integral part of this world logically endows them with common features such as love of freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, and uncompromising attitude.
Yet, these two friends possess traits that individualize their portraits. If Natty is characterized by certain naivete and simplicity (charged with an expression of sturdy honesty (Cooper 82)), Chingachgook is portrayed as a wise and cunning man who sees deep into the human soul. He got his proud nickname The Great Serpentnot only for being able to move silently and attack unexpectedly, but also for his profound knowledge of the human nature. He is also better socialized than Natty: he is a chief of his tribe, has a wife and a child. Chingachgooks strong, proud character and high social status are reflected in the way he looks: The expanded chest, full formed limbs, and grave countenance of this warrior, would denote that he had reached the vigor of his days (Cooper 81). In comparison, Natty is represented as a marginal character holding himself aloof and shying away from human relationships. He has seen a lot in his life and was psychologically scarred by this: The frame of the white man was like that of one who had known hardships and exertion from his earliest youth (Cooper 81). But suffering has not hardened his heart and deep inside he is much more emotional than it might seem (as indicated by the inner tension felt in his whole body): His person, though muscular, was rather attenuated than full; but every nerve and muscle appeared strung and indurated by unremitted exposure and toil (Cooper 81). Thus, though Natty and Chingachgook have much in common, they are obviously shaped by different past and present experiences.
Natty and Chingachgook are both the key characters in the series and yet their roles are different. A bearer of the wisdom of many generations of Indians, Chingachgook is composed and philosophical in the face of danger and tragedy. He is thus represented as a stoic and a natural philosopher. As for Natty Bumppo, he is portrayed as a very emotional, cordial and empathetic man. He cannot stand the suffering of his friends and rushes to offer his help setting the whole plot into action. Probably, this emotional responsiveness is what helps him retain his strength of character, and vitality in the later years of his life, portrayed in The Pioneers. He feels sympathy towards every living creature and his philosophy is deeply humanistic at its very core. With profound tenderness he speaks of the pigeons, drawing symbolic parallels with the destruction of the frontier forest with its animal and human inhabitants:
I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body, hurting nothing - being, as it was, as harmless as a garter-snake. But now it gives me sore thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know its only a motion to bring out all the brats of the village. Well, the Lord wont see the waste of his creatures for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as others, by and by (Cooper 76).
Leatherstocking is a rounded, vivid character that evolves over time. He exemplifies the best features of the frontier spirit, but also its vulnerability. Chingachgook is more idealized and often serves as a contrasting background that highlights Nattys unaffected and genuine nature.
Though these two friends closely resemble one another in the way they are represented as an idealized embodiment of the adventurous and strong American character of the time, there are details that make their literary portraits distinctly different and thus more credible and convincing.
Alicino, Nicholas . Character Development in Natty Bumppo. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website, James Fenimore Cooper Society, July 2004, www.oneonta.edu/external/cooper/articles/other/1979other-alicino.html.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed., B, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 8086.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed., B, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 6579.
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