It’s early morning. A man named Inman wakes up to find himself in the hospital, surrounded by grotesquely buzzing flies. Inman stares out the window and sees only the flatlands. He thinks about how he’s used up all of his candles, meaning that he can’t read his book to pass the time.
The novel begins on a tone of hopelessness and gruesomeness. The main character, Inman, wakes up to the sound of flies—often a sign of rotting meat. The implicit message is that Inman is dying, or is surrounded by death.
Inman has been in the hospital for three weeks. His first week was hot and painful, and he was also bored out of his mind. As Inman settled into the routine of life in the hospital, he began to contemplate the “metal face of the age”—a face that seemed to prophesize the end of everything he cared about. Inman remembers being a child long ago, sitting in school on the side of Cold Mountain, and listening to his teacher lecture him on old, noble English wars.
Inman’s education can hardly prepare him for the harsh realities of modern warfare (symbolized by a “metal face”). Indeed, nothing could have prepared people in the 19th century for the carnage unleashed by industrial technology. Notably, we’re not told which war Frazier is talking about, though we’ll quickly surmise that it’s the American Civil War (see Background Info).
As the morning passes, Inman becomes conscious of the man sitting next to him in the hospital—a man who needs crutches to walk. Every morning, this man spits out the window and then sits at a desk with a big pile of papers. The man’s name, Inman remembers, is Balis, and before the war he’d studied Greek in North Carolina. Balis spends all his time translating ancient Greek texts into modern English. Balis has lost one of his legs to gangrene, and he smells disgusting.
The presence of Greek in this book is an early sign of Frazier’s literary debt to Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational works of Western literature, and an important influence on the plot of Cold Mountain. Just like the hero Odysseus, Inman will have to journey back to his home and loved ones after being away at war.
Inman thinks about how he ended up in the hospital. He was fighting in “the war” near Petersburg when he was injured. His companions in battle had been so sure he was going to die of his wounds that they’d read a prayer for him. But he somehow survived, and was moved to a field hospital. After two days, Inman was sent to another hospital. Inman remembers little of this period, except the incredible heat and horrible smells of the hospitals.
Civil War buffs will recognize Petersburg as one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War. The vast majority of soldiers there died in rapid gunfire, something that was unprecedented in war up to that point. Interestingly, Frazier doesn’t give a very clear description of Petersburg: instead, he goes for psychological realism, describing Inman’s trauma and disorientation.
Inman had several wounds, the worst of which was a deep neck injury. After a few days, his neck injury “spat out” a collar button that had gotten jammed into the injury by a bullet. Slowly, Inman’s neck began to heal. He’s spent all summer in the hospital, slowly recovering from his wounds. He spends hours at a time staring out of a window. He sees birds flying by, and wanderers walking down the road.
Inman’s neck wound will return again and again in the novel to remind us of his time in the war. Frazier’s point is that Inman’s experiences in the Civil War continue to impact his behavior—the neck wound is a physical injury, but it’s also a symbol for the other kinds of psychological wounds that Inman sustains.
As he eats breakfast, Inman sees an old man walking down the road. He’s hunched over, and uses a cane to find his way. Inman walks outside the hospital and greets the man, who is blind. Inman asks the blind man how much he’d pay to be able to see, then comments that he’s seen a lot of things he’d wish he could un-see. The blind man invites Inman to tell him about “one instance when you wished you were blind.”
The blind man is another sign of Frazier’s debt to Homer (traditionally, Homer is said to have been blind, like his character the blind prophet Tiresias). Furthermore, the blind man reinforces the scope of Inman’s trauma in the Civil War: Inman has witnessed so much pain and tragedy that he wishes he could un-see it, even if it means losing his vision altogether.
Inman thinks about all the ways he could answer the blind man’s question, remembering the battles at Malvern Hill, Petersburg, Fredericksburg. Inman decides to tell the blind man about Fredericksburg. Inman fought in Fredericksburg alongside many other soldiers. At the beginning of the fight, a bullet grazed Inman on the wrist, causing him enormous pain but doing no serious damage. Inman and his fellow soldiers ran to a road, where they found themselves under fire from the “Federals” (i.e., the Union soldiers). Inman and the other soldiers shot down the Union troops from an extremely close distance—in some cases, Inman shot enemy soldiers point-blank. As the hours of battle went by, Inman found himself falling into a dreamlike rhythm: he’d shoot down dozens of Federals, until all the pleasure of killing them disappeared.
Fredericksburg was another brutal battle during the Civil War, where a huge number of soldiers were wounded or killed by modern gunfire—weaponry far deadlier and more precise than it had been in previous American wars. The real horror of the war for Inman, we can see, isn’t just that he was wounded—it’s that he witnessed his peers passively murdering other Americans. Inman is so inundated with pain and tragedy that his brain “turns off,” and becomes numb to any feeling whatsoever. For the rest of the novel, Inman will struggle to fight this state of numbness (which is often a part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD).
By the end of the first morning of fighting, Inman and his peers were caked in dust, dirt, and gunpowder. A fellow soldier of Inman’s named Lee told Inman that war was hellish—otherwise men would enjoy it too much. Inman sensed that Lee thought of war as a holy act—a test of one’s faith in God.
One of the overarching questions of this novel is, Is there a God?—or, more broadly, Does life have any meaning? For Lee, pain and tragedy have a purpose, and there is a divine plan for everything. From Inman’s perspective, however, there’s no “reason” or “meaning” for tragedy—it’s just tragedy.
In the late afternoon in Fredericksburg, there were dead Federals everywhere. Some of Inman’s peers stole the dead soldiers’ boots. In the nighttime, Inman witnessed his peers killing wounded Federals with hammers. The look on Inman’s peers’ faces was calm and dreamy.
The calm, dreamy look on the soldiers’ faces is a sign of their trauma—they’re so dissociated from reality by what they’ve done that they’re scarcely human anymore. This is an early sign of what Inman will have to deal with for the rest of the book: men and women who’ve been turned into monsters by the fallout of the Civil War.
The blind man listens as Inman explains all this. He tells Inman to forget what he’s seen at Fredericksburg, and Inman agrees with him. Privately, though, Inman thinks about a dream he keeps having, in which he sees a huge pile of bloody limbs crawling on the ground. He also has a recurring dream of a corpse calling him by name.
Inman can’t escape his own memories of the Civil War. This suggests that his quest to return to his childhood town is motivated by a desire to forget as much as anything else—he’s going to return to his old home in the hopes that he can “return” to his state of mind before going off to war.
Inman returns to the hospital. He sees Balis working at his Greek translations. Inman passes the time by reading a book—Bartram’s Travels. In it, Inman finds a passage about the Flower Gatherer, a kind of Cherokee wanderer. It makes Inman happy to read about Bartram’s experiences traveling through America and learning the names of the flowers and mountains. Partly because he’s enjoying his book, Inman is careful not to look too healthy in front of his doctors.
Inman is afraid that he’ll be sent off to fight once again—as the South was desperate for men at this point—so he pretends to be sicker than he really is. This is an early sign of the importance that the characters attach to staying out of the war at all costs. Many of the people in the novel are military deserters—men traumatized by what they’ve seen, afraid of dying, or disillusioned by whatever “cause” they’re fighting for.
Inman receives money from “home.” He uses his money to buy clothes and other items in the town near his hospital. Inman buys a great number of items, including shoes, socks, knives, etc. By the end of the day he’s spent a big pile of money. He goes to get a drink at a tavern nearby. He sits outside with his coffee, clutching a handkerchief to his still-wounded neck, and thinks of the blind man.
In this short scene, we see Inman trying different kinds of “therapy” for his trauma: buying things, drinking, touching his wound, etc. Nothing works—his only option left, as we’ll see, is to return to his home and try to rebuild the life he had before the war..
Inman reads the paper, and learns that at Petersburg, Cherokee warriors working with the Southern army are scalping Federals. Inman remembers meeting a young Cherokee named Swimmer—Swimmer and Inman met years ago when they were teenagers. Swimmer worked as a herder near the Balsam mountain. Once, Swimmer and his herders played a ball game with Inman and his friends. They ate and drank and talked late into the night.
Inman is deeply nostalgic for the period in his life before he had to go to war. He envies Swimmer, his childhood friend, because Swimmer represents a kind of freedom for Inman. But as Inman acknowledges, Swimmer probably ended up being relocated by the U.S. government, proving that nobody in America can escape the government’s authority for long.
Inman learned that Swimmer was an intelligent, knowledgeable explorer and navigator. Swimmer also told Inman about spells he learned for spreading death and sickness, and Inman listened to Swimmer talk about these spells with fascination. Swimmer gave Inman a ceremonial gift—a ball racquet made of hickory. Sitting outside the tavern, Inman hopes that Swimmer isn’t fighting in the war.
In a time of need, Inman turns to his own past. He remembers idyllic days of playing with Swimmer. But even these memories are tainted by Inman’s experiences in Petersburg: he can’t help but accept that Swimmer could be fighting in war—in other words, that Inman’s pleasant memories are just memories, nothing more.
Inman looks at the coffee grounds swirling in his cup and remembers an old method of divination: reading discarded tea leaves. He wonders how a seer would read the coffee grounds in his cup, and looks around for signs of the future. Finding none, he remembers something Swimmer told him: the spirit can be torn into tiny pieces, even while the body is alive and well. Inman also remembers a story Swimmer told him about dead spirits being reborn in the sky. When Inman first heard this story years ago, he told Swimmer that he’d climbed to the top of Cold Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the world, and didn’t see anything like a spirit world. Swimmer replies, “there’s more to it than just the climbing.”
This section of the novel spells out the relationship between uncertainty, superstition, and quests. Inman is tempted to believe in the magic of tea reading. There’s a special kind of comfort in his superstition—in a time when Inman’s own future is completely uncertain, he likes to believe that there’s some way of understanding and perhaps controlling the future. Swimmer’s example suggests that life is more complicated than that: in other words, the future can’t be predicted. Instead, the only thing that can redeem Inman is work—a quest, like the one Inman’s about to embark on.
Inman writes a letter (we’re not yet told to whom). In the letter, he describes his experiences in the war as “awash with blood.” He concludes the letter, “I am coming home one way or another, and I do not know how things might stand between us.” He completes the letter, and senses that his neck and hip—which is also wounded—ache. When Inman returns to the hospital, he notices that Balis isn’t present—his bed is empty. Inman learns that Balis has died that afternoon. He examines the notes Balis was writing. They seem like gibberish, though Inman can make out one phrase, “We mark some days as fair, some as foul, because we do not see that the character of every day is identical.” Inman finds this notion absurd.
In this section, we see Inman rejecting Balis’s ideas, which Inman dismisses as cynical. Contrary to what Balis says, Inman believes that he can work hard to improve his life, instead of accepting that his future is out of his own control. It’s because Inman refuses to give in to his own trauma—because he refuses to spend the rest of his life reliving the horrors of Fredericksburg and Petersburg—that he sets out on a quest to return to his home. We don’t know who, exactly, Inman is planning to reunite with, but we can tell that his desire to do so reflects his refusal to spend the rest of his life in the hospital.