Inman stands on the road, staring out into the distance. He’s been traveling for a few days, but he hasn’t gotten very far at all; in fact, his view right now isn’t too different from his view in the hospital. He’s passed by dozens of farms, and been sleeping under the stars. At times, he’s had to defend himself from wild dogs, sustaining a nasty bite in the process.
This is the start of Inman’s “odyssey”—though Frazier doesn’t give us details, it’s clear that he has deserted the army and is walking home to Black Cove. At first, Inman’s journey doesn’t seem like a journey at all—he feels like he isn’t getting anywhere. If the hardest part of a task is convincing yourself to begin with, the second hardest part is sticking with it for the first few hours, days, or weeks.
It’s still early in the day, but as time goes on, Inman gets hot and dizzy. The insects buzz around him. In the distance, Inman can see two men sitting on a store porch: one reading a newspaper, the other cleaning his fingernails with a pick. Inman walks into the store, noting that one of the men owns a Whitworth .45, an exceptionally fine gun. Inman buys food and supplies from the store, then goes to sit outside. The two men abrasively ask Inman where he’s headed, but Inman doesn’t reply.
As in many “quest stories” (starting with the Odyssey) Inman’s encounters will be episodic in nature, as he encounters different characters along his journey. These men (his first encounter) don’t seem at all friendly—we can sense that they’re hostile to strangers of any kind, suspicious of deserters or “Federals,” and willing to use force against anyone they don’t like.
The two men Inman noticed on the porch stand up and approach him (Inman notices that the man with the gun has left his weapon behind). They’re accompanied by a third man, a smith, who’s carrying a heavy scythe. Inman reaches for the knife in his pocket, but before he can the three men have attacked him. Inman manages to jerk the scythe out of the smith’s hand and fend off his aggressors. Instead of hurting the three men, Inman waits until they’ve backed off, then begins to walk away. Before Inman gets far, however, the smith has picked up the Whitworth. Quickly, Inman backs up, snatches the gun from the smith’s hand, and beats him over the head with it.
This is the first major fight scene in the novel, and it sets the tone for the similar scenes to follow. As is the case here, Inman is almost always outnumbered by his opponents, symbolizing his isolation and loneliness along the road to Black Cove. And yet Inman manages to outmaneuver his opponents, using his superior intellect and strength (this might seem a little unrealistic—could a severely wounded soldier actually outmaneuver three armed men?).
Inman walks out of the town, still carrying his supplies. He remembers a spell that Swimmer taught him years before: a spell called “To Destroy Life.” He repeats the incantation to himself, centering on the phrase, “Your soul will fade.” As he talks to himself, Inman remembers a sermon that Monroe delivered years ago, quoting from Emerson: “That which shows God in me, fortifies me.” Monroe delivered the sermon on the day that Inman first met Ada.
We can’t help but ask ourselves—how did Inman manage to defeat three armed men? Frazier suggests one possible answer here: Inman is fortified by his memories of Ada, and his desire to return to her as soon as possible. And yet there’s another possibility: Inman is so traumatized and nihilistic that he feels he has nothing to lose, and so can be recklessly brave and indifferent to whether he lives or dies. These two sides of Inman’s character—his love and his self-hatred—are at war with each other for most of the book.
Inman remembers falling in love with Ada. He began attending church just to see her. Many of the people in Black Cove made fun of Monroe and Ada because they were out of touch with the town. Ada in particular was seen as snooty and pretentious. On the day that Inman first saw Ada, Monroe spoke in church about the beauty of Cold Mountain, and the inevitability of death (this was Monroe’s favorite topic).
As we get more of these flashbacks, we begin to see the connection between Inman and Ada. Inman is a poor, working class boy, while Ada is wealthy and privileged. In addition, Ada is seen as an outsider in Black Cove, while Inman is secure in his connection to the town. Even though in the past Ada and Inman were very different, they’ve become increasingly alike as the Civil War has stripped away all but the most basic aspects of humanity and survival..
Inman continues to think about Monroe. Monroe was fond of saying that he was on a mission in Black Cove: to bring Christianity not only to the townspeople but also to the Native Americans living nearby. Inman didn’t pay much attention to Monroe’s sermon because he was too busy staring at Ada. After the sermon, Inman’s friends, Mars and Dillard, teased him for staring. A stranger told Inman that Ada probably had a betrothed back in Charleston already.
At many points in the novel, Frazier questions the role of organized religion. Monroe may be a good man, and yet the influence he has on his congregation seems to have little if anything to do with his Christian faith. Instead, Inman (and the other characters in the novel) seem to draw more strength from their love for each other and from more personal or “natural” rituals and beliefs.
The next day, Inman went to see Sally Swanger, whom he knew to be a friend of Monroe and Ada. Sally agreed to introduce Inman to Ada. A few days later, Inman and Ada were formally introduced in the Swanger house—Sally told Ada that Inman’s parents built the chapel where her father preached. Inman noticed that Ada seemed oddly impatient with him.
For the second time in the novel, Sally Swanger is portrayed as playing a pivotal role in Ada’s life: she introduces Ada to Inman, and she introduces Ada to Ruby. At first, Ada isn’t exactly smitten with Inman—he’s just another working class boy.
Inman remembers more of his meeting with Ada. Ada teased him for being shy and silent, and Inman finally summoned the courage to tell Ada that she’d been the subject of “great speculation.” Ada laughed but didn’t ask what about. She bid good day to Inman soon afterwards. As he walked out, Inman noticed Ada touch her father’s arm and say something to him.
This section suggests that Ada isn’t really ready for a relationship with a man like Inman—the only man in her life is Monroe. Some critics have pointed to an almost sexualized relationship between Ada and her father, but even if we don’t buy this, it’s clear enough that Ada is immature and inexperienced in talking to men her own age.
Back in the present day, Inman walks along the road, noticing the tall trees and plants in the surrounding forest. He wonders to himself how he ever believed that this was his country, and worth fighting for. He imagines returning to Cold Mountain and building himself a big, empty cabin where he’ll never have to use his ears again.
For the time being, the nihilistic, self-hating part of Inman’s personality seems to be the more powerful one. He feels no sense of connection with the land around him—bitter after his service in the Civil War, Inman questions why he was ordered to fight for a country that he’d never really seen. At this point he just wants to be away from the rest of humanity forever.
Inman comes to a river, next to which there’s a sign for a ferry. A young woman, possibly Native American, ferries Inman across for 20 dollars. Inman is intrigued by the woman’s exotic appearance and strong arms. The woman tells Inman that they’re moving across Cape Fear River. Inman notices big fish swimming in the murky depths of the water, and compares them to the small, timid fish in the lakes near Cold Mountain.
At many points in the novel, Inman crosses paths with young, attractive women. One could say that these women provide Inman with a sexual awakening—or temptation—as they represent a kind of freedom, sexual or otherwise, with which Inman is more or less inexperienced. (Even though Inman doesn’t do anything romantic with the Native American woman, he’s attracted to her appearance.)
Inman then notices the three men he attacked standing on the shore, pointing their gun at him. Suddenly, Inman notices a small hole in the boat—there’s a leak. The young woman yells that she and Inman will need to hang onto the boat to avoid drowning (Inman knows that he can’t swim). Inman holds on to the remains of the boat, frightened of getting eaten by a monstrous catfish.
This whole scene has a fantastical, larger-than-life tone, and Inman’s fears of getting eating by a giant catfish seem particularly childish. Perhaps this is meant to suggest that Inman, for all his experiences in war, is still a young, callow man with a lot to learn about the world.
Eventually, Inman and the young woman reach the shore. Inman pays the woman for her trouble, including extra money for the ruined boat. He walks inland toward the woods, and discovers that his neck wound has opened again, though he’s not sure when this occurred.
The symbolism of the neck wound becomes clearer and clearer as the book goes on. Inman continues to be haunted by his experiences in war, just as his neck wound continues to cause him pain and consternation, even long after he’s out of the hospital.