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Inman - Inman is a native of the Cold Mountain region. He loves his homeland. After meeting and falling in love with the beautiful, cultured Ada Monroe he enlists in the Confederate army. He is wounded in battle twice. The second, a neck wound, is expected to be fatal. Inman does not die but he has been changed by the horrors of the battlefront. He has no illusions about glory or patriotism and deserts the army from the hospital. He longs for his home, Cold Mountain, and his love, Ada. The war and monotonous terrain that Inman is walking away from and the mountains and love that he is walking toward shape his character as he walks 300 miles home. He learns something from each obstacle he encounters along the way (much like Homer’s Odysseus), yet despite the pain and bloodshed he witnesses, he is always portrayed as a man of character.
Ada Monroe - Ada is a Charleston-raised socialite who is an anachronism on her deceased father’s farm in the mountains. The war’s new social and economic conditions have upended all that is familiar to her. She begins the story helpless and childlike, mostly due to her privileged and sheltered upbringing. She has no way of knowing that Inman is on his way home to her but wishes it were so. When Ruby enters Ada’s life, Ada begins to discover not only how a farm works, but also how she herself works. She and Ruby become friends and grow to depend on each other. Eventually Ada becomes strong and capable finding comfort in the land and in who she has become.
Ruby - Ruby is a drifter who comes to Ada and teaches her how to make a subsistence living from Ada’s neglected land. Ruby is hard on the outside and fully capable of living off the land. She knows “the signs” from nature and, being without a mother and untended by her father, can survive without anyone’s help. She has hurt feelings on the inside, however, which surface when her father, Stobrod, reenters her life. Her newfound friendship with Ada teaches her to accept her father and that it is all right for people to rely on each other.
Though the novel is a narrative, it borders on the expository in that there is no true dialogue. When characters communicate, it is largely through the author’s explanation of what was said. Actual spoken words are offset from the text by dashes. No quotation marks or conventional indications of dialogue are used.
The most outstanding theme is the desire for home. The entire story of Inman centers on this goal. When the landscape appears more like home, he is driven onward. When he thinks of being home with Ada, he perseveres. For Ada the desire for home is less physical. She is pursuing an emotional need to find her place in nature and to establish the feeling of being at home on the mountain.
Another major theme is that of endurance. It is clear that no matter what obstacle Inman is confronted with, he will go on. His longing for home and for Ada persist. He drives himself, unyieldingly, despite all dangers.
A less dramatic but more pervasive theme is man’s relationship to the land. Humanity has a place in nature that aligns with the old life ways. Few, if any, contemporary readers thread beans to make leatherbritches or make home made harrow, yet these and other early nineteenth century practices are paid homage to in the writing of this book. There is a value in the old way of life where people depended on the land, limited desires, and made due with what nature provided.
A lesser theme is that of how the lives of soldiers and civilians alike are transformed by the war. The mountain people especially were caught between the two different economies of the war. Though they had no ties to either slave agriculture or industrial capitalism, their homes and lives were all but destroyed.
The theme of the danger of solitude is also presented. In scenes where Inman or Ada are left to their own thoughts, their moods degenerate and their thoughts become negative. They do battle with their own psyches that have been assaulted by loneliness. Also, the goat woman’s thoughts and Inman’s views on her life exemplify this theme.