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.
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon

It’s both correct and incorrect to describe Cold Mountain as a “Civil War novel.” The book is set in the United States during the mid-1860s, when the Civil War between the Northern and the Southern states was still underway. (See Background Info for more on this topic.) And yet the Civil War itself—the bloodshed, the political battle to secede from the Union, the military strategies—is almost entirely absent from this book (when there’s a battle, for instance, it’s always presented in flashback). So even though this is a novel about the Civil War, Frazier prefers to write about the war by studying its impact on individual people; i.e., the literal and emotional wounds it causes.

By presenting the actual events of the Civil War mostly in flashback, Cold Mountain makes an important point: the destruction of the war was psychological as well as literal. Inman, the protagonist of the book, is a former soldier on the Southern side. At the beginning of the novel, Inman is in the hospital with a nasty neck wound, the product of his service in battle. But although Inman’s neck wound eventually heals, the trauma he’s sustained in battle only gets more vivid with time. He has vivid nightmares about the deaths of his friends and peers during the war, and feels a tremendous amount of guilt at having killed enemy soldiers. Even Ada Monroe, the novel’s other protagonist, feels the trauma of the Civil War, despite the fact that she’s never set foot on a battlefield. The war drags Inman, Ada’s lover, away from her, leaving Ada to a lonely, uncertain future. Furthermore, the things that people usually turn to in times of crisis, such as family or religion, are nowhere to be found: the only priests or parents in the book are corrupt, absent, or dead.

If the devastation of the Civil War is largely psychological, the overarching question posed by Cold Mountain is, “How do the survivors of a war move on with their lives?” While there’s definitely not an easy answer to this question, the book suggests that the only way to conquer one’s traumatic memories of the past is to look ahead to the future. At first, Ada is living a stagnant life; alone on her father’s farm, she has no future. It’s only after Ada begins to set herself definitive goals—maintaining her property, most of all—that she begins to recover from some of her psychological scars. By the same token, Inman’s journey to return to Ada could be interpreted as a kind of “therapy” for his experiences in the Civil War: he can either look ahead to a new future with Ada, or settle for a lifetime of nightmares. The harsh truth, which Ada realizes toward the end of Cold Mountain, is that there’s nothing inevitable about the healing process—it takes tremendous willpower to get over one’s trauma. Inman and Ada begin to move on with their lives because they want to move on, and work hard at it every day. As we can imagine, other veterans of war aren’t so lucky.

The ultimate tragedy of Cold Mountain is that willpower and the desire to look ahead to the future aren’t always enough. The war’s impact may be largely psychological, but it’s not only psychological: in the final chapters of the novel, Inman is murdered by members of the Home Guard (a vestige of the Southern army), who want to punish Inman for desertion. We arrive at the depressing conclusion that tragedy is unpredictable and basically uncontrollable. Even so, we see in the novel’s Epilogue that Ada hasn’t let Inman’s death weigh her down with further traumas; instead, she continues to work on her farm and care for the child she had with Inman, looking ahead to each new day of work. Optimism and willpower aren’t always powerful enough to restore peace and order to one’s life, but they’re still important.

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War, Memory, and Trauma ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Cold Mountain related to the theme of War, Memory, and Trauma.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance where you wished you were blind.
Where to begin? Inman wondered. Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg. Any would do admirably as example of unwelcome visions.

Related Characters: The Blind Man (speaker), Inman
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Inman--one of the two protagonists of the novel--thinks back on his experiences in the Civil War. He's speaking to an old blind man whom he meets while he's far away from his home. The blind man asks Inman to name a time when he wished he were blind--i.e., a time when he witnessed things that he wishes he could forget.

The passage is important because it establishes the theme of trauma. Inman isn't just trying to journey back to his hometown; he's also trying to rid himself of his own guilt and anxiety at having lived through the bloodiest war in American history. The passage is also interesting insofar as it alludes to Homer's Odyssey, one of the key inspirations for Cold Mountain. The presence of the old blind man at the start of the tale might allude to Homer, the legendary blind poet who arranged and wrote the Odyssey


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But what Inman did not tell the blind man was that no matter how he tried, the field that night would not leave him but had instead provided him with a recurring dream, one that had visited him over and over during his time in the hospital. In the dream, the aurora blazed and the scattered bloody pieces—arms, heads, legs, trunks—slowly drew together and reformed themselves into monstrous bodies of mismatched parts. They limped and reeled and lunged about the dark battlefield like blind sots on their faulty legs.

Related Characters: Inman , The Blind Man
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're given a window into Inman's inner life, as he experiences a recurring nightmare. In the nightmare, Inman is back on the battlefield during the Civil War. While Inman's experiences were frightening and traumatizing enough by themselves, they become even more so in his dreams; the dead bodies that Inman saw on the battlefield seem to come back to life, menacing Inman and seeming to draw him toward death.

Throughout the novel, the Civil War itself is practically a "character"--a powerful, almost indomitable force that pains Inman and prevents him from returning to Cold Mountain alive and well. One could say that the Civil War symbolizes the specter of death itself. Inman has survived his military service, and yet death still seems to haunt him and call out to him.

Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

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 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. 

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.

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

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 9 Quotes

Junior raised up his face and looked at him but seemed not to recognize him. Inman stepped to Junior and struck him across the ear with the barrel of the LeMat's and then clubbed at him with the butt until he lay flat on his back. There was no movement out of him but for the bright flow of blood which ran from his nose and cuts to his head and the corners of his eyes.

Related Characters: Inman , Junior
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Inman has been ambushed by the Home Guard, and it's revealed that they were in cahoots with Junior, the man who offered Inman a place to sleep at night. The Home Guard tries to kill Inman, but Inman manages to escape. To avenge his near-death, Inman returns to Junior's property and beats Junior over the head with his rifle, perhaps killing him.

Does Inman do the "right" thing here? Junior has violated the most basic code of Southern society at the time--the code of hospitality. There's an unwritten law that a host must offer lodgings to travelers in need, provided that the traveler can provide some kind of service or trade in exchange (Inman gave Junior a saw, sealing the transaction). By violating the terms of their deal (i.e., turning Inman over to the Home Guard) Junior proves himself to be a villain, below all contempt or sympathy.

Whether or not one agrees that Junior "deserves" his beating, it's important to note that Inman seems to be giving in to his desire for blood and violence. Long months of serving in the Civil War have left Inman deeply scarred and with a mind still full of violence--and he gives in to this violence when avenging Junior's crimes.

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 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 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.

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.