Cold Mountain

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Romance, Sexuality, and Repression 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.
Romance, Sexuality, and Repression Theme Icon

In addition to being a novel about war, trauma, and survival, Cold Mountain is also about the romance between its two main characters, Inman and Ada Monroe. Inman and Ada live in a time when it’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak openly about sex and sexuality. As a result, they’re both extremely sexually inexperienced, and more or less completely ignorant of the anatomy of the opposite sex. Keeping this in mind, it’s worth thinking about the nature of Ada and Inman’s mutual attraction in more detail, especially since Inman walks hundreds of miles to be with Ada. And how does Frazier, a writer from a far more sexually liberated time, depict love and sexuality in the 19th century?

As the novel begins, sex is a mystery—sometimes enticing, sometimes frightening. The society of the 19th century forbids frank discussions of sexual desire and tries to repress free and open sexuality at all times. In particular, women are encouraged to hide their beauty from men: they wear heavy dresses, dark blouses, and tight corsets that render the female body strange and unknowable. By the same token, the sexual acts that we learn about at the beginning of Cold Mountain seem bizarre, forbidden, and frequently disgusting: the priest Solomon Veasey impregnates a girl, and a father, Junior, sleeps with dozens of married women. These misdeeds reveal individual characters’ neuroses, but also reflect (and are in some ways caused by) the era’s limited, repressed understanding of sexuality. When society presents all sexual desire as dangerous and scary, it’s more likely that one’s sexuality will emerge in unhealthy ways.

As the novel moves on, sex and sexuality gradually become less frightening and abusive: instead of a man assaulting a woman for his own pleasure, we see men and women making love and falling in love out of mutual desire. On his way home, Inman strikes up a brief romance with Sara, a woman who desires him as much as he desires her. Sara, whose husband, Jonathan, has died, wants Inman’s emotional companionship, and his physical presence in her life—even if it consists of nothing more than his lying in bed next to Sara—is a vital part of that. With these episodic encounters, Cold Mountain paves the way for what is by far the most passionate (and mutual) relationship in the novel, the romance between Ada and Inman. It’s not until Ada and Inman have sex that they feel truly comfortable with each other. Only after their lovemaking do they open up about their traumatic pasts, their secrets, and their dreams of the future. In this way, the novel puts forward a very un-19th century message: sex is an important, natural aspect of the love between two adults, as well as an important part of maturity.

On one level, Cold Mountain is a novel about the destruction of American antebellum culture following the Civil War, one important part of which was the repression of women and of sexuality. The characters find themselves in a strange new world in which sexuality is no longer so guarded and forbidden. While some of these characters treat the collapse of society as an invitation to engage in sexual perversions—rape, incest—the two protagonists, Ada and Inman, find a way to love one another without the sexual repression they’ve experienced their entire lives.

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Romance, Sexuality, and Repression ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Cold Mountain related to the theme of Romance, Sexuality, and Repression.
Chapter 4 Quotes

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. 


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Chapter 5 Quotes

—Listen to me, Laura, he said. That preacher does not speak for God. No man does. Go back to sleep and wake up in the morning with me just a strong dream urging you to put him behind you. He means you no good. Set your mind on it.

Related Characters: Inman (speaker), Solomon Veasey , Laura
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Inman encounters a corrupt priest, Solomon, who has kidnapped a girl, Laura, whom he'd previously impregnated. Fearing that Laura's life is in danger, Inman fights Solomon and brings Laura back to her home. After Inman returns Laura home, he gives her some advice--don't trust Solomon, or any other man who claims to speak on behalf of God.

Inman's advice to Laura is important for a number of reasons. First, it reflects his disillusionment with the institutions of antebellum America--the same institutions that have sent him to fight in the Civil War and be gravely wounded. Following his time in battle, Inman has learned to distrust authority of any kind, as trusting authority is what sent him to the hospital in the first place. Moreover, Inman's advice to Laura reflects the informal code of right and wrong that he's slowly developing. Inman doesn't trust priests or politicians, but he's no nihilist. On the contrary, he continues to protect those like Laura who are too weak to defend themselves. So in spite of the trauma he's endured during battle, Inman continues to fight for what he knows to be right.

Chapter 8 Quotes

He wished Claire not to marry before her eighteenth birthday. I agreed. Two years seemed not too long to wait, and a fair request on his part. Within a few days he took me home to dinner as his guest. My introduction to your mother was at his hand. I could see in her eyes that she knew me from the night in the yard, but she said not a word of it. I believed from the beginning that my feeling toward her was returned.

Related Characters: Monroe (speaker), Ada Monroe , Claire Dechutes
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Ada remembers everything her father, Monroe, told her about her mother, Claire. As the passage makes clear, Monroe and Claire both grew up in a society in which sex and sexuality were strictly monitored at all times. Women like Claire were policed in their sexual behavior--their fathers forbade them from marrying before a certain age, for instance, and even then only to someone the father approved of. The passage also suggests how romance works in a strictly controlled society like this--Monroe is forced to "guess" whether or not Claire returns his affections, because his interactions with her mostly pass through the mediation of her father.

It's interesting that Ada's only real memories of her mother are likewise mediated by her father. Since Claire died giving birth to Ada, Ada has never had a strong female presence in her own life. The absence of a mother-figure suggests why Ada's coming-of-age arrives so late in her life: without a strong maternal presence to guide her into adulthood, Ada is forced to fend for herself.

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 10 Quotes

—Here is far enough, she said. Go on back. As you said, I'll see you when I see you.
—But I hope that's soon.
—We both do, then.

Related Characters: Inman (speaker), Ada Monroe (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Inman says goodbye to Ada Monroe, with whom Inman has struck up an intimate romance. Inman is about to ship off to fight in the Civil War, and he's unsure if he'll ever see Ada again. Inman's final interaction with Ada before he leaves is poignantly understated--the two lovers agree that they wish to see one another very soon.

It's interesting to recognize that while Inman is traveling back to Cold Mountain in large part to reunite with Ada, it's not clear that he's doing so until now--about halfway through the book. Because of Frazier's careful structuring, readers get the sense that Ada and Inman are gradually "remembering" their love for one another--they're slowly emerging from the haze of war and depression to reunite. Furthermore, the understated tone of the passage suggests that Inman and Ada's love is far from over--indeed, it's not until they're separated from one another that their passion for each other truly begins to flourish.

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 18 Quotes

He would come walking up the road into Black Cove, and he would be weary looking. What he had been through would show in his face and in his frame, but only so much as to suggest heroism. He would be bathed and in a clean suit. Ada would step out the door onto the porch without knowing he was coming, just going about her doings. She would be dressed in her fine clothes. She would see him and know him in every feature. She would run to him, lifting her skirts above her ankle boots as she came down the steps.

Related Characters: Inman , Ada Monroe
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Inman imagines how his reunion with Ada might play out: perhaps he'll get a chance to bathe and wear a suit, and perhaps the sight of Inman will delight Ada to the point where she'll rush down to greet him and embrace him.

As we'll see very soon, Inman's actual reunion with Ada will be very different from the one he's imagining. And yet it's important to consider the importance of Inman's "reunion fantasy." Inman has traveled hundreds of miles by foot, just so that he can see Ada once again. Throughout his journey, his reunion fantasy has been a beacon of hope, inspiring him to keep moving forward, even when his chances of ever seeing Ada again seem pretty hopeless. In short, Inman has decided to overcome his trauma by reuniting with Ada. His idea of how the reunion will play out might not be realistic, but it provides the spiritual nourishment he needs.

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.