Cold Mountain

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Isolation, Survival, and Community Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Isolation, Survival, and Community Theme Icon
The Quest to Return Home Theme Icon
Romance, Sexuality, and Repression Theme Icon
Hospitality and Quid Pro Quo Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Cold Mountain, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Isolation, Survival, and Community Theme Icon

One of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War was that it tore entire communities apart. The men who were old enough to serve in battle left their families behind, while the women were faced with the unenviable task of surviving by themselves in lonely, empty households. The two protagonists of Cold Mountain, Ada Monroe and Inman, face many different kinds of isolation. In general, it’s fair to say that the novel is interested in two different kinds of challenges posed by isolation: first, the literal, practical challenges of surviving on one’s own; and second, the more abstract, psychological challenges of loneliness.

As far as the first challenge goes, Cold Mountain keeps coming back to the same point: it’s difficult, if not impossible, to survive on one’s own. On the contrary, survival—eating, keeping warm, caring for one’s wounds—requires people to cooperate with one another. As the novel begins, Ada Monroe is slowly dying of starvation. She’s been trained her entire life to study books and music, meaning that she has almost no knowledge of how to maintain a thriving farm. It’s not until Ruby Thewes, a capable, well-trained farmer, offers Ada help that Ada begins to survive: she has to learn how to pull a plow, plant seeds, and so on. In much the same way, Inman only succeeds in returning to Cold Mountain because people offer him help (above all, food and lodgings—see Hospitality theme) along the way home. Even when Inman makes it back to Cold Mountain, he’s on the verge of starvation: if not for the help of people like the Old Woman, who cares for his wounds, or Sara, who feeds him and hides him from the Home Guard, Inman would never have made it home alive.

One interesting question we might ask is why Ruby offers Ada her help, assuming that Ruby is so capable of taking care of herself. While it’s certainly true that Ruby is getting a great deal by teaming up with Ada (she gets half a farm to herself), Frazier also suggests that Ruby befriends Ada because she needs human companionship as well as nourishment and shelter. This leads us to the second main challenge of isolation: the psychological toll of loneliness. During Inman’s journey back to his home, many people offer him food and shelter—and one reason they do so is that they’re lonely, and angling for some human contact. Even the Old Woman, who boasts that she doesn’t get lonely at all, peppers Inman with questions about his experience in battle, his love for Ada, etc.—no matter what she claims, it’s clear enough that she needs company, the same as everyone else in the novel.

In the end, Cold Mountain shows us that community is the cornerstone of the human experience. In two different senses, it’s fair to say that no man is an island: no one can truly provide for themselves and survive without some kind of assistance, and no one can live a fulfilling life without craving some kind of interpersonal contact. Because this is the case, human beings need a community, based on cooperation between people. As the novel draws to a close, we see the fledgling community that Ruby, Ada, Stobrod Thewes (Ruby’s father), and Reid (a friend of Stobrod’s) have built for themselves on Ada’s farm, a powerful reminder that in the midst of a dangerous and divisive war like the Civil War, community becomes more important than ever.

Isolation, Survival, and Community ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Isolation, Survival, and Community appears in each chapter of Cold Mountain. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Isolation, Survival, and Community Quotes in Cold Mountain

Below you will find the important quotes in Cold Mountain related to the theme of Isolation, Survival, and Community.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Cookery had become a pressing issue for Ada. She was perpetually hungry, having eaten little through the summer but milk, fried eggs, salads, and plates of miniature tomatoes from the untended plants that had grown wild and bushy with suckers. Even butter had proved beyond her means…

Related Characters: Ada Monroe
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Ada Monroe, another resident of the area around Cold Mountain, has come to live all by herself on her father's farmland. Ada is an intelligent woman, but she has no practicality--she can read and write, but she can barely cook, let alone farm.

Although the novel is partly the story of Inman's odyssey to return to his childhood town, the novel is also the story of Ada's coming-of-age. Over the course of the book, Ada learns to take care of herself and take care of her father's property at the same time. In this early scene, Ada is barely able to feed herself; just as she is spiraling into starvation, her farm is spiraling into decay. Thus, Frazier will pair external description of Ada's attempt to control her land with the more psychological story of how Ada grows into a confident young woman.


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Teague and his Home Guard roaring around like a band of marauders. Setting their own laws as suits them, and them nothing but trash looking for a way to stay out of the army.

Related Characters: Esco Swanger (speaker), Teague
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Ada learns from Esco Swanger, a neighbor, about the Home Guard, one of the key antagonistic forces in the novel. Because the novel takes place during the Civil War, there is a draft in place. Thousands of young men desert or run away, however, rather than risking their lives in a long and increasingly bloody war. In order to ensure that the Southern troops do their duty and serve the army, members of the Home Guard (including Teague and his gang) ride around the country, tracking down deserters and punishing them. The irony is that even though Teague is punishing deserters too cowardly to fight in the army, Teague himself is a coward, exploiting his position in the Home Guard so that he himself doesn't have to fight in the war.

Even now, return to Charleston was a bitter thought and one that her pride rejected. There was nothing pulling her back there. Certainly not family. She had no relatives closer than her cousin Lucy, no kindly aunts or doting grandparents welcoming her return. And that state of kinlessness too was a bitter thought, considering that all around her the mountain people were bound together in ties of clan so extensive and firm that they could hardly walk a mile along the river road without coming upon a relative.

Related Characters: Ada Monroe , Lucy
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Ada Monroe has just lost her father, her closest relative in the world. Ada has no mother and no siblings, so she's essentially alone in the world. Frazier draws an important contrast between Ada's state of alienation and the claustrophobic "closeness" of other families in the area. Where Ada has no family to speak of, at least not in Cold Mountain, Ada's neighbors have huge families, and they all live in the same place.

The passage establishes kinship as the informal structure of society in a war-torn United States. Because the formal governments of the country are in chaos, American citizens must rely on other forms of law and order to survive. Family provides a natural point of organization--even if there's no governor, mayor, or president, the "family unit" provides a check on crime and misbehavior, encouraging loyalty and respect. And yet Ada doesn't even have a family--thus, in the midst of the Civil War, she is doubly isolated. And yet Ada's isolation--both from her family and from her society--is a blessing as well as a curse. Because she has no family, Ada will have the freedom to create her own artificial family with Ruby, Inman, etc.

Chapter 4 Quotes

After Ada made her decision known, Ruby wasted no time. She knew who had excess animals and produce, who would be willing to trade favorably. In this case it was Old Jones up on East Fork she dealt with. His wife had coveted the piano for some time, and knowing that, Ruby traded hard. Jones was finally made to give for it a pied brood sow and a shoat and a hundred pounds of corn grits.

Related Characters: Ada Monroe , Ruby Thewes
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Ada joins forces with Ruby, a young woman who's vastly experienced in farming and living independently. In this passage, Ruby shows Ada how to survive on her farmland--the two women trade Ada's "useless" possessions, such as her piano, for useful items like corn grits and animals.

The passage illustrates the vast, informal economy that flourished in the United States during the Civil War. Without a reliable system of currency, people exchanged goods for other goods--a pig for a piano, etc. Frazier also suggests that Ada is turning a corner, abandoning the time in her life when she had the luxury of indulging in "useless" pleasures like piano music. From now on, she'll have to be practical, spending all her time and energy surviving and keeping up her property.

Looking back on her life so far, she listed as achievements the fact that by the age of ten, she knew all features of the mountains for twenty-five miles in any direction as intimately as a gardener would his bean rows. And that later, when yet barely a woman, she had whipped men single-handed in encounters she did not wish to detail.

Related Characters: Ruby Thewes
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Frazier introduces us to Ruby Thewes, one of the novel's key characters. Ruby is a young woman, but she's vastly experienced with farming, fighting, and generally surviving. While Ada may be older than Ruby, her life has been characterized by luxuries like travel and music--unlike Ruby, Ada knows nothing about taking care of herself.

Ruby is a key character in the novel because she embodies the changing gender norms that accompanied the Civil War. In the antebellum period, many women were in a position to do no work. However, following the beginning of the Civil War--and the rapid depletion of the male workforce--women discovered that they had no choice but to do the work that had previously been reserved for men (farming, planting, etc.). Historians have argued that women's growing role in farming and manufacturing during the Civil War paved the way for the rise of the feminist movement in the U.S. in the late 19th century. By the same token, Ada's increased involvement in the care of her own property paves the way for her growth from a timid, childish individual into a strong, confident woman. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Inman had dealt with gypsies before and thought them possessed of a fine honesty in their predatory relationship to the rest of mankind, their bald admission of constantly seeking an opening. But they were benign-seeming in this quiet bend of the river. It was no concern of theirs how the war concluded. Whichever side won, people would still need horses. The contest was no more to them than a temporary hindrance to business.

Related Characters: Inman
Page Number: 97-98
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Inman crosses paths with a group of traveling gypsies. (For the purposes of consistency with the novel, we'll continue to use the word "gypsy," though it's unclear whether they're actually Roma.) The gypsies, we're told, are friendly--they even give Inman food and shelter--and pose no threat whatsoever to Inman's safety. Inman is fascinated by the gypsies, precisely because they have no allegiance to either side in the Civil War; they'll sell their products to whomever wants to purchase them.

Inman--still reeling from the devastation he's witnessed during the Civil War--envies the gypsies for their freedom from the draft and from the violence of war. At other times in history, the gypsies' lifestyle might seem derelict and unenviable--in the midst of a bloody war, however, it's liberating.

Chapter 6 Quotes

And, as with most things, Monroe had an explanation. He said that in their hearts people feel that long ago God was everywhere all the time; the sense of loneliness is what fills the vacuum when He pulls back one degree more remote.

Related Characters: Monroe
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Ada, who is newly confident in her ability to control her own farmland (thanks to Ruby's help), experiences a strange crisis of faith here. As she stares out onto her property and onward into the wilderness, she feels a profound sense of loneliness. She remembers her father, Monroe, a preacher, telling her that loneliness is the sense of the absence of God.

Monroe's explanation for Ada's loneliness is both relevant and oddly insufficient. Ada is feeling lonely, but her reasons are far more concrete than Monroe's ideas would suggest. Ada isn't just missing God--she's missing her father, Inman, and her old life. Even so, Monroe's observations suggest that Ada continues to view the world with a mixture of fear and anxiety. Surrounded by Cold Mountain, Ada feels isolated--it's as if she's trapped on the tiny "island" of her own property. Over the course of the novel, Ada will learn to explore the natural world and "find God" there.

Chapter 7 Quotes

He made a motion as if to backhand the preacher, but the man did not run or fight or even try to raise his staff to parry. Rather, he hunched his shoulders to take the blow like a cowed dog, and so Inman pulled up and did not strike. He reasoned that lacking the will to drive the man off, he'd just walk on and see what came about.

Related Characters: Inman , Solomon Veasey
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Inman takes pity on Solomon--the corrupt priest who'd made off with Laura, the young girl he'd impregnated. Although Inman clearly despises Solomon, he doesn't strike him, and he doesn't yell at Solomon when Solomon tries to follow him.

It's worth wondering why Inman behaves so passively when confronted with Solomon's presence. First, the fact that Inman refrains from hitting Solomon suggests that he continues to abide by a strong personal code of right and wrong, even after enduring the trauma of the Civil War. Moreover, the fact that Inman doesn't protest when Solomon tries to follow him along the road suggests that Inman--in spite of what he says--might secretly be desperate for human companionship. After months of isolation in a hospital, Inman will take whatever he can get, even if he has to team up with a corrupt priest.

When Odell finished talking he was drunk and sat blotting at his eyes with his shirt cuff.
—It's a feverish world, Inman said, for lack of better comment.

Related Characters: Inman (speaker), Odell
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Inman meets a strange man, Odell, who claims to be the owner of a vast fortune, based in land holdings, which the Civil War prevents him from enjoying. Odell complains about the agony he's endured over the course of a lifetime--he's been forbidden from marrying the woman he loves, a slave. Inman can think of nothing to tell Odell, other than to agree that the world is a strange, "feverish" place.

In the traumatic aftermath of the Civil War, Frazier suggests, the only real "bond" between Americans was the mutual recognition of the war's devastation. Inman and Odell don't necessarily share common beliefs or a common religion, but they're united in their disgust with the brutality of the war itself. And Inman's choice of adjective--"feverish"--is interesting: with it Frazier suggests the surrealism and nightmarish qualities of postwar life, in which Inman and the other characters encounter a variety of bizarre characters and situations.

Chapter 8 Quotes

The months when we knew you were to come seemed a strange blessing for a pair such as we were: old and marred by the past. When Claire died in childbirth, I could not hardly think that God would be so short with us. I could do little for weeks. Kind neighbors found a wet nurse for you and I took to my bed.

Related Characters: Monroe (speaker), Ada Monroe , Claire Dechutes
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Monroe continues to tell Ada about her mother, Claire. As Monroe explains, Ada's birth was a bittersweet experience, since Claire died in childbirth. In part, Claire died giving birth to Ada because she was a little older than the average mother--Claire had already been involved in a long relationship before she settled down with Monroe.

The passage foreshadows one of the key themes of the novel--the tradeoff between life and death, between happiness and misery. Here, Ada's birth is "balanced out" by Claire's death, much as the birth of Ada's child will be balanced out by Inman's untimely death. A spirit of gloom and sadness hangs over even the happiest moments in Cold Mountain, reflecting the mood of the post-war United States.

Chapter 11 Quotes

—What is it you do in those books? Inman said.
—I make a record, the woman said. Draw pictures and write.
—About what?
—Everything. The goats. Plants. Weather. I keep track of what everything's up to. It can take up all your time just marking down what happens. Miss a day and you get behind and might never catch back up.
—How did you learn to write and read and draw? Inman asked.
—Same way you did. Somebody taught me.

Related Characters: Inman (speaker), The Old Woman (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In this strange scene, Inman is taken in by an old woman who spends all day taking care of goats. The woman is a hermit--she lives alone, and seemingly relishes her aloneness, spending all her time writing and drawing.

Frazier portrays the Old Woman with a mixture of admiration and subtle pity. The woman claims to be entirely self-sufficient, saying she doesn't really need human company at all. There is something both awe-inspiring and pathetic in the way that she spends all her time recording her experiences; one could say that the old woman is trapped in an "eternal present," living from day to day.

In short, the old woman represents the kind of life that Inman--still traumatized by his experiences in battle--is tempted to embrace. Perhaps it's possible to be happy on one's own, far from one's home and the troubles of human society. (It's worth noting that the old woman seems to be based on Calypso from Homer's Odyssey--i.e., the woman who tempted Odysseus to live in an "eternal present" and abandon his quest to return home.) And yet Frazier subtly implies that the kind of lifestyle the old woman celebrates--the life of a hermit--is never entirely possible. "Somebody" taught the old woman how to read, and she seems to need the occasional company of travelers like Inman; in other words, true self-sufficiency is just a pipe dream.

Chapter 12 Quotes

To Ada, though, it seemed akin to miracle that Stobrod, of all people, should offer himself up as proof positive that no matter what a waste one has made of one's life, it is ever possible to find some path to redemption, however partial.

Related Characters: Ada Monroe , Stobrod Thewes
Related Symbols: The Fiddle
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:

Ada and Ruby meet Stobrod, Ruby's deadbeat father. Stobrod is, in many ways, a contemptible character: instead of raising Ruby as a father should, Stobrod has spent most of his life on the road, traveling from town to town in search of money and food.

Yet in spite of his lackluster parenting, Stobrod now seems to be a symbol of redemption and self-improvement. For all his former moral ugliness, Stobrod is now capable of playing beautiful fiddle music--he brings great joy and contentment to both Ada and Ruby by performing. Ada concludes that Stobrod has proven that it's possible to find at least "partial" redemption for one's sins.

Notice that Ada uses the word "partial." In the world of Cold Mountain, it's impossible to forget the agony of the past altogether (whether "the past" means the nightmare of the Civil War or the pain of abandonment). Human beings are capable of striving to overcome their sins, but there's no evidence that it's possible to surpass one's sins altogether.

Chapter 13 Quotes

—If I was to ask you to do something, would you do it?
Inman considered that he should frame an answer here on the order of Maybe, or If I can, or some like provisional phrase.
What he said was, Yes.
—If I was to ask you to come over here and lay in bed with me but not do a thing else, could you do it?
Inman looked at her there and wondered what she saw looking back. Some dread shape filling the clothes of her husband?

Related Characters: Inman (speaker), Sara (speaker)
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Inman finds shelter in the home of a young woman named Sara. Sara has a child, but her husband--the father of the child--has been killed in the Civil War. Sara is clearly lonely and attracted to Inman, but she's also still loyal to her husband and his memory. So Sara asks Inman to lie next to her in bed. As Inman correctly guesses, Sara is trying to use Inman to "channel" a sense of her own deceased husband, whom she still loves.

It's important to notice that Inman is reluctant to play the part of a dead man--and yet he agrees to help Sara without any protest ("Yes"). When confronted with another person's trauma and grief, Inman--who has plenty of trauma and grief of his own--immediately tries to help. In general, the passage evokes the (possibly futile) ways that humans try to cope with their own sadness. Sara's request to Inman might seem bizarre, but it's the best way for her to regain some contact with a man she continues to love.

Chapter 19 Quotes

—I'm ruined beyond repair, is what I fear, he said. And if so, in time we'd both be wretched and bitter.

Related Characters: Inman (speaker), Ada Monroe
Page Number: 333
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Inman lays bare his deepest fear to Ada: the Civil War has destroyed him, turning him into a violent, nihilistic wreck. Inman fears that he’ll spend the rest of his life reliving the horrors of the battlefield. It’s only in this moment that we fully recognize the scope of Inman’s quest to return to his childhood home in Cold Mountain. With his life and body in ruins, Inman turns to the last place where he can remember being happy—Cold Mountain—in the hopes that he’ll be able to “turn back the clock” to a time before he was "ruined beyond repair."

By the same token, Inman has also returned to Cold Mountain in the desperate hope that Ada will be able to help him through his troubles. Inman fears that he’ll marry Ada, but then poison her with his trauma and “bitterness.” Nevertheless, Inman looks to Ada—desperately, and maybe even a little selfishly—as a relief for his pain.

Epilogue Quotes

Ada had tried to love all the year equally, with no discrimination against the greyness of winter, its smell of rotted leaves underfoot, the stillness in the woods and fields. Nevertheless, she could not get over loving autumn best, and she could not entirely overcome the sentimentality of finding poignancy in the fill of leaves, of seeing it as the conclusion to the year and therefore metaphoric, though she knew the seasons came around and around and had neither inauguration nor epilogue.

Related Characters: Ada Monroe
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Epilogue to the novel, we learn what happens to Ada after Inman’s tragic death. Ada simply carries on with her life—she carries on taking care of her farm, proving that she’s truly “come of age” and become a confident, capable adult. At the same time, Ada never entirely forgets Inman—she hangs on to her grief, year after year. And yet Ada doesn’t allow her grief to weigh her down. Instead of wallowing in the tragedy of her lover’s passing, she turns to her work, her friends (Ruby, for example), and above all her child (with Inman) for happiness and contentment. In short, the rest of Ada’s life is bittersweet—full of joy and yet haunted by tragedy.

In the end, then, Frazier leaves us with the idea that pain and tragedy can be overcome, if not forgotten, if one chooses to move forward with one’s life and accept pain along with joy. Ada certainly doesn’t forget about Inman, but neither does she allow Inman’s memory to shape her reality. It’s appropriate that Frazier ends his novel with the melancholy image of the autumn trees—a symbol of both decay and rejuvenation.