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.
Romance, Sexuality, and Repression ThemeTracker
Romance, Sexuality, and Repression Quotes in Cold Mountain
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.
—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.
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.
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.
—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.
—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?
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.
—I'm ruined beyond repair, is what I fear, he said. And if so, in time we'd both be wretched and bitter.