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.
War, Memory, and Trauma ThemeTracker
War, Memory, and Trauma Quotes in Cold Mountain
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
—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.
—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.
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.