Justifying Cora Munro’s Death: Social Usefulness
in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans
In James Fenimore Cooper’s fiction, ‘women are of central social significance. [Cooper’s] theme is society, and he defines women as the nexus of social interaction,’ Nina Baym argues[i]. She claims that the author is not interested in women’s personhood or individuality, but rather in their usefulness for society. According to Baym, matrimony is ‘the chief “statement” of the social language’.[ii] Therefore, if a woman is apt for marriage, she is socially utile. One of the main aspects of The Last of the Mohicans is the dichotomy between the half-sisters Cora and Alice Munro, to whom the concept of social usefulness can be applied. On the one hand, Fenimore Cooper presents Alice, who is fair, helpless and infantile, as marriageable. On other hand, Cora, the dark, courageous and initiated sister, is considered unsuitable for wifehood. Instead of letting Cora be united in marriage with the Indian Uncas in the end of the novel, the author decides to kill both of them. Many of his contemporaries have urged Cooper to change the unhappy ending. One critic, for instance, writes:
Every event as we go along points to a favourable termination, when just at the winding up, the design seems to be capriciously reversed, and [Cora and Uncas] are most summarily and unnecessarily disposed of. The vessel, having braved all the dangers of her voyage, sinks as she is floating into smooth water.[iii]
James Fenimore Cooper, however, ignored such criticism and kept his original ending. Nevertheless, the issue of Cora’s death is still open to controversy. This essay will explain why, to the author, killing his heroine was preferable to letting her marry either Major Heyward or Uncas. The composition will achieve this task by, first of all, comparing Cora to her sister Alice. It will furthermore focus on Baym’s concept of social usefulness in the light of gender expectations of 18th and 19th century America and attitudes towards race. Finally, Cooper’s opinion on multiracialism in the New World will be examined.
To begin with, Cora and Alice’s outward appearance and racial background will be discussed. In The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper introduces his readers to a duality of a dark and a light heroine. Describing the sisters in detail in the first chapter, Cooper praises about Alice’s ‘dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue eyes’ and points out that she looks very young.[iv] In contrast to this, Cora whose face is at first hidden behind a veil, looks ‘fuller and more mature’ (9). When the fabric opens its folds, the reader gets a first glimpse of Cora’s blackness. ‘Her complexion was not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the colour of the rich blood that seemed ready to burst its bounds,’ Cooper describes (9). Nevertheless, Cora is by no means uglier than her sister. Cooper remarks: ‘And yet there was neither coarseness nor want of shadowing in a countenance that was exquisitely regular and dignified, and surpassingly beautiful’ (9). At this point, the reader is left to wonder about Cora and Alice’s diametrically opposite looks. It is the girls’ father, Colonel Munro, who accounts for the truth when he feels insulted by Major Heyward’s preference of Alice to Cora. Munro explains that when living in the West Indies, he formed
‘a connection with one who in time became [his] wife and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady whose misfortune it was … to be descended remotely from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people’ (146).
Cora’s mother, he admits, was partly black and passed on her racial impurity to her daughter. After the death of his first wife, the Colonel returned home to Scotland and remarried. He tells Heyward that his second wife, Alice’s mother, was ‘the only child of a neighbouring laird of some estate’ and consequently makes clear that she was as racially pure, that is, white, as he himself is (146).
Even though their racial background explains why Cora and Alice look different, it does not provide an explanation for their dichotomous character traits. In contrast to Alice, Cora displays courage and self-reliance throughout the novel. For example, in Chapter 8, when the group is encircled by the Iroquois, Cora knows that she herself cannot escape. However, instead of fainting and sobbing like her younger sister, Cora stays calm and insists that the men attempt to flee. ‘… [T]ry the river,’ she suggests, ‘Why linger, to add to the number of the victims of our merciless enemies?’ (68). She instructs the men to try to reach Colonel Munro as quickly as possible and ask for his assistance, and then adds:
‘…if, after all, it should please Heaven that his assistance come too late, bear to him … the love, the blessings, the final prayers of his daughters, and bid him not mourn their early fate, but to look forward with humble confidence to the Christian’s goal to meet his children.’ (68)
Cora’s Christian faith and her maturity give her the strength to act rationally in the face of danger. She also trusts in her own ability to judge any situation adequately and to find a way of dealing with it. Alice, on the other hand, only knows one way of coping with peril: hoping that someone else, preferably a white man, saves her. Alice’s weakness is, in fact, her most prominent character trait. She sobs, cries and faints innumerable times throughout the novel. ‘Alice’s extreme passivity constantly endangers her and her companions,’ Nina Baym writes.[v] Untrained for survival in the wilderness, Alice is ‘helpless, dependent, and infantile.’[vi]
The fact that the girls are opposed in character as well as racial background explains why only one of them is labelled marriageable. However, modern readers of The Last of the Mohicans may find it paradoxical that it is Alice whom Cooper considers socially useful, and not Cora. To illustrate this, from a contemporary point of view, Cora is far superior to her sister. The traits that she possesses are, today, very desirable in a woman. Her intelligence and eloquence are as remarkable as her activeness and courage. Nevertheless, Heyward, who ‘functions in the novel as the reader’s surrogate,’ prefers Alice to Cora[vii]. Why does Heyward, why would any man, prefer the weaker, childish sister, the one who constantly faints and sobs? Is it, as Heyward himself claims, because of ‘the sweetness, the beauty, the witchery’ of Alice (147)? It is necessary for a thorough analysis of the novel to consider 18th as well as early 19th century gender roles – the novel is set in 1757, but was published in 1826 - and to examine in how far Cora and Alice fulfil the expectations of their times.
The society that Cooper depicts in the Leatherstocking tales in The Last of the Mohicans is dominated by men and strongly patriarchal. Women are at best marginal figures whose individuality is of no particular importance. They are seen as objects rather than persons. Men consider women priceless and fragile possessions that need to be protected at all costs. Therefore, it is Alice who ‘fulfils the implicit definition of a lovable woman.’ [viii] She clings to Heyward with the dependency of a helpless, innocent child. As Baym puts it,
A white man does not need a woman fighting by his side, to inspire him, still less a woman mediating between him and the Indian enemy; he needs a woman to fight for and to fight about. White women best serve the white nation by sacrificing their dangerous dreams of independent selfhood, reining their sexual fantasies, and recognizing that they are most useful to civilization as protected possessions of white men. [ix]
This statement also explains why Cora neither matches the gender expectations of the 18th century nor those of a 19th-century readership. She is too independent, too eloquent, too strong willed and too self-reliant. In fact, she crosses gender boundaries throughout the novel by acting wisely and rationally in the face of imminent danger instead of begging for the protection and help of her male companions. To the male characters of The Last of the Mohicans, Cora’s character traits are threatening. If manhood is predicated on the successful defence of white women, no masculine character will marry a woman who embodies virtues such as courage, firmness and self-reliance. The fact that Cora is relatively independent endangers the concept of manhood of a society in which men are valued for their skill at rescuing or protecting the weaker sex, and in which ‘this skill is an important source of … pride and self-respect’[x]. In short, Cora’s refusal to conform to gender norms and expectations makes her socially useless for white man, that is, inapt for matrimony.
[i] Nina Baym, ‘The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales’, American Quarterly 23 (1971), p. 697.
[ii] Ibid., p. 698.
[iii] Unsigned review, The United States Literary Gazette, iv (May 1826), pp 87-94, reprinted in George Dekker and John P. McWilliams (eds.), Fenimore Cooper the Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 100.
[iv] James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, Wordsworth Classics, 2002, p. 9. All subsequent references are to this edition.
[v] Nina Baym, ‘How Men and Women Wrote Indian Stories’, in H. Daniel Peck, New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 72-3.
[vi] Baym, ‘The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales’, p. 704.
[vii] Baym, ‘How Men and Women Wrote Indian Stories’, p. 73.
[viii] Ibid., p. 76.
[ix] Ibid., p. 73.
[x] Baym, ‘The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales’, p. 701.
- Quote paper
- Nina Dietrich (Author), 2002, Justifying Cora Munro's Death: Social Usefulness in Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/19971