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 Quest to Return Home Quotes in Cold Mountain
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.
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…
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.
—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.
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.