Study Guide

Cold Mountain Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier

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Cold Mountain

Yep, this one is no surprise. When a book is named after something, that something is often pretty darn symbolic. And boy, is Cold Mountain symbolic in this book. There are so many layers of symbolism, it's like a lemon raspberry cream torte.

Let's devour some of those layers:

Cold Mountain Area of North Carolina

First off, there's a literal place called Cold Mountain in North Carolina. You could even go hiking there on your next vacation or check it out on webcam. But are we going to stop at that? No way. This is the symbolism section, after all.

Cold Mountain is doing a ton of symbolic work in this novel. It's standing for home, that elusive but amazing place you find when you know you're where you're supposed to be. Maybe it's where you grew up, or where you found love, or where you know you want to spend the rest of your life, but it's the place you belong. A lot of those layers can be seen in this quote, when Inman first starts to see Cold Mountain after all that walking:

Bleak as the scene was, though, there was growing joy in Inman's heart. He was nearing home; he could feel it in the touch of thin air on skin, in his longing to see the leap of hearth smoke from the houses of people he had known all his life. People he would not be called upon to hate or fear. He rose and took a wide stance on the rock and stood and pinched down his eyes to sharpen the view across the vast prospect to one far mountain. It stood apart from the sky only as the stroke of a poorly inked pen, a line thin and quick and gestural. But the shape slowly grew plain and unmistakable. It was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland. (14.54)

Inman wants to get back to the people he's known since childhood, and like a lot of people he feels he can trust the people who live near his childhood home. He also longs for specific elements of the landscape and culture, the feel of the air and the familiar hearth smoke. That's part of what makes it home for him.

Cold Mountain seems to be all these for Inman, and it eventually becomes the place where Ada belongs, too, even though she didn't grow up there. Early in the book, she doesn't feel this way. When someone asks her if she's going home, this is her response:

"Home?" Ada said, momentarily confused, for she had felt all summer that she had none. (2.81-82)

But by the end of the novel, she's settled into Cold Mountain. One of the most telling pieces of evidence for this is that Ada is still in Cold Mountain at the end of the Epilogue ten years later. She's found a way to make a home there.

Partly this sense of belonging is explored through all the stories the characters tell about things that happened around Cold Mountain, and partly through all they do to get back to it (Inman) or stay there and become part of it (Ada). And partly it's explored through the incredibly rich descriptions of the place itself in the novel: whether it's Ada's farm or the abandoned Cherokee village in the mountains, Frazier's descriptions just sing.

Chinese Poetry

But are we content with all that symbolism? No way! We wouldn't settle for just a few layers of torte, and we're not going to settle for just a few layers of symbolism, however rich.

The whole book starts with an epigraph about a different Cold Mountain:

"Men ask the way to Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain: there's no through trail."

Scholars disagree about whether Han-shan was a real person, when he lived, etc. But the story about him is that he was a Chinese poet who retired to a mountain in China called Cold Mountain, where he wrote about spiritual life, influenced by Buddhism.

To make a long story short, the quote above probably uses Cold Mountain (the one in China) to symbolize Enlightenment. You can get to Enlightenment at Cold Mountain, as the poet is trying to do. But you can only do it if you've achieved something in your inner life as well as your outer one: getting to Cold Mountain literally only helps you if you use that experience to achieve Enlightenment in your mind.

This interpretation makes total sense for Cold Mountain, the book set in North Carolina. Inman desperately wants to get home to his Cold Mountain, but it will only help him find redemption if he can also transcend his bruised state of mind and find inner hope and healing.

There's probably a lifetime's worth of study in how Han-shan's Cold Mountain and Frazier's Cold Mountain relate, and you can start it right here if you're so inclined. Check out Burton Watson's introduction to Han-shan and the one by Robert Henricks.

Story Attributed to a Cherokee Woman about Cold Mountain

The last layer we're going to savor is also central to the book. Remember that story Inman tells Ada, the one he heard from a Cherokee woman claiming to be 135 years old? This story sounds like a digression, but it's one of the central symbols of the whole book. It tells the tale of a village named Kanuga. A man the villagers don't know comes and says he lives in a nearby town and is their relative.

The villagers are surprised, since they really don't know this guy, and he claims to live in a town on a part of Cold Mountain that seems deserted. He says that it does have a village, and the Shining Rocks are the gateposts to it. He says it's a different kind of land, where there's peace between people. There's still death, and still a need for food, but there isn't war and contention.

He invites the village to join him there, but says they have to go seven days without food and without raising a war cry to be able to see it. If they do that, the Shining Rocks will open like a doorway and let them into the land the stranger is talking about.

The people talk it over and decide they want to go. They all fast. Well, all except one. Yep, you know where this is going. The dude cheating on the deal keeps all the people from going to the better world. A door opens in the side of the mountain, and they can see the beautiful land within, but they get locked out because of the guy who didn't fast.

Like Han-shan's poetry about Cold Mountain, this story hints that you can't get to a better world just by walking there. You need to be in the right state of mind, to seek it and to want it in the right way. When Inman first tells Ada the story before he leaves for the war, she doesn't know how to respond. But it's clear how important the story is to Inman. When Ada asks if he takes it as true, he replies:

"I take it that she could have been living in a better world, but she ended up fugitive, hiding in the balsams." (10.80)

This story is already important to Inman at this point in the novel, but as the book goes on it becomes a central symbol of what Inman wants—healing and redemption—and of how hard it is to achieve. When he's coming back to Cold Mountain and thinking about what he'll do if Ada says no, he thinks about the story again:

If she would not have him he would go on to the heights and see if the portals at the Shining Rocks would open to him as the woman with the snake tattoos had suggested they would to one with a fasting heart, empty in all his faculties. Inman could think of no reason to hold back. He doubted there was a man in the world emptier than he at that moment. He would walk right out of this world and keep on going into that happy valley she had described. (17.8)

Inman knows he's empty, having lost so much of himself in the war. He longs for a better world, a place of peace beyond his current experience. He hopes to find that with Ada, but if that doesn't work he plans to see if he can reach the place the Cherokee woman described. For him, the story symbolizes healing, hope, and a better world.

It's terribly hard to achieve the kind of detachment from the expectations of Inman's current war-torn world that would let him enter another one, but Inman seems to hope that he can do it. And the story of the Shining Rocks does have hope: like Han-shan's poetry, it implies that you can get to a better world if you really look for it.

Does Inman achieve this by the end of Cold Mountain, through a relationship with Ada and/or through some other kind of transcendence? We think yes, but feel free to draw your own conclusions.

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