Cold Mountain

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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.
The Quest to Return Home Theme Icon

In interviews, Charles Frazier has acknowledged Cold Mountain’s debt to Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational works of Western literature (see Background Info for more on this work). Unsurprisingly, Frazier’s novel touches on one of the oldest themes in the Western canon (and the key theme of the Odyssey): the quest to return home. Inman, the novel’s main character, spends most of the book trying to walk back to his hometown of Black Cove, where the love of his life, Ada Monroe, still lives. It’s worth thinking about why and how Inman goes about his quest.

The first question we need to think about is why Inman wants to return to his home so badly—why walk hundreds of miles, risking his life? This is an especially tough question to answer, since Inman himself never explicitly states his reason for wanting to go home. It’s easy to surmise that Inman is afraid of being sent back into battle as soon as he recovers from his wounds. And yet Inman’s reason for wanting to return to Black Cove, specifically, is a little different. Black Cove is Inman’s home—he’s lived there all his life. One reason that Inman loves Black Cove is that, as far as he can tell, it never changes: Cold Mountain (the mountain near Black Cove) will always be Cold Mountain. In the midst of a terrifying, traumatic war, Inman wants to return to Black Cove to remind himself of who he was before. He wants to forget about the Civil War and carry on with his life, uninterrupted. But there’s also another reason why Inman wants to return: he wants to move forward with his relationship with Ada Monroe, whom he’d been in love with before he was shipped off to battle. The key point here is that Inman’s quest to return to Black Cove is intimately personal. With every step he takes toward his home, Inman reminds us, and reminds himself, of his identity: his lifelong connection to the town, and his passionate love for Ada. Even if we can’t exactly understand Inman’s connection to Black Cove itself, we can all understand his desire to go home, and in this way, Inman’s quest for home makes him a sympathetic and believable character.

One interesting feature of quest narratives, beginning with the Odyssey (and extending through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness, and even Apocalypse Now) is their episodic structure. In Cold Mountain, Inman’s encounters along the road to Black Cove have an episodic, self-contained quality. The characters he meets along the way often disappear from the novel after one or two chapters; i.e., after Inman moves on with his quest (notable exceptions include Teague, the leader of the Home Guard, and Solomon Veasey, the priest). The “thread” connecting these brief, chapter-long encounters together is Inman himself. This quality of the novel suggests all kinds of interesting questions, most notably, “How do the ‘episodes’ challenge or change Inman?” As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that Inman’s encounters with strangers along the road back to Black Cove test his commitment to his quest. With every life-threatening encounter, Inman’s devotion to Ada becomes more impressive—it’s easy to imagine a weaker man giving up on the quest entirely. By the time we get to the end of the book, then, Inman’s “episodes” have had an undeniable impact on his character: they’ve made him strong, mature, and even heroic.

The Quest to Return Home ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Cold Mountain related to the theme of The Quest to Return Home.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

As Inman walked, he thought of a spell Swimmer had taught him, one of particular potency. It was called To Destroy Life, and the words of it formed themselves over and over in his mind. Swimmer had said that it only worked in Cherokee, not in English, and that there was no consequence in teaching it to Inman. But Inman thought all words had some issue, so he walked and said the spell, aiming it out against the world at large, all his enemies. He repeated it over and over to himself as some people, in fear or hope, will say a single prayer endlessly until it burns itself in their thoughts so that they can work or even carry on a conversation with it still running unimpeded…

Related Characters: Inman , Swimmer
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Inman recalls a childhood friend, Swimmer, who taught Inman a Cherokee spell to annihilate life. Swimmer, a Cherokee himself, seemed not to understand the seriousness of his own incantation (or at least assumed that saying it in English robbed it of power). And yet now that Inman is a fully-grown man, he takes Swimmer's spell very seriously--indeed, he repeats the spell over and over again.

Inman's decision to repeat Swimmer's spell reflects his traumatic experience in the Civil War. Inman's experiences in battle have been so vivid and frightening that they've left his faith in humanity and life itself shaken. Surrounded by violence and death, Inman has come to question the value of life. As the novel goes on, Inman will have to choose between embracing life and embracing violence and bloodshed. As we can see in this passage, Inman seems to have adopted a dark, nihilistic worldview, in which everything is his enemy and he could find solace in destruction.

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.

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 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.