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
Isolation, Survival, and Community Quotes in Cold Mountain
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
—What is it you do in those books? Inman said.
—I make a record, the woman said. Draw pictures and write.
—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.
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.
—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?
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.