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Inman is the leading man of this story. It's easy for readers to connect with his longing to go home from the suffering and fear of the Civil War…especially knowing he's had a bad wound. He's a talented fighter when he needs to be, but there's more to him than your standard hero type.
Like Odysseus, he's clever and often uses brains to defeat superior numbers. He's somewhat on the quiet and introspective side, but he definitely tries to help people when he can. He's also intelligent and reflective in other ways, thinking about what life means, taking stories to heart, and seeking to understand the world in spite of all the ugliness he's seen at war.
He'd probably be played by Jude Law in the movie—oh wait, he is.
Inman just wants to go home. Home means the area of North Carolina known as Cold Mountain, but it means so much more than that. It means peace of mind, connection to a place he loves, and a deeper romance with a woman named Ada Monroe. How does all that go down in the novel? Home means:
You know that feeling when you've made it through the math test, the long work day, or the extra long gym session, and now you're finally home? You can go chill with music, TV, or a good book. Inman hopes to find that, too. Only the memories he has to leave behind are of a traumatic war, not just a tough math test.
Hopefully home isn't just an escape; it's also a place we actually love and feel a connection to. That's what Inman feels about Cold Mountain: there's something about the place that draws him back, especially the beauty of the natural world and the sense of familiarity that comes from his past history there. Maybe he's hoping that connection will help give him the peace of mind he wants.
Cold Mountain really does have it all, including a great love story at its heart (pun intentional). And one of the things that makes it a great love story is that the characters are slow at discovering how much they long for each other.
Frazier sets up a great romantic tension by showing us how much Ada and Inman long for each other, but also how long it takes them to realize that completely. At the beginning of the book, Inman has realized he wants to come home to Ada, but that's recent; Ada isn't totally sure where they stand, though she cares about Inman and wants to see him again.
Frazier keeps that romantic tension high by giving us glimpses of how Ada and Inman realized they were interested in each other, and also of Ada's slowly growing realization of how much she loves Inman.
For Inman to experience all those things—peace, connection to a place, and romantic love—he needs something else. He needs some sort of healing and redemption after all the terrible experiences of war. Inman hopes that Ada's love may give him that. He also sees Cold Mountain itself as a place that symbolizes a better world, a kind of experience beyond the sorrow and suffering of war.
He keeps thinking of the story a Cherokee woman told him about Cold Mountain being a portal to another world, free from the struggle of war. (See the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more on this.)
Inman needs healing and redemption because he's scarred, physically and spiritually. The war has shown him things he never wanted to see, and he fears that it might be hopeless for him to heal. He tells Ada near the end "I'm ruined beyond repair, is what I fear" (18.87). One of the central questions driving the story is whether he can heal or not.
Part of the reason he's scarred is that sometimes the circumstances of his life lead him into tricky moral situations. Like Odysseus, he tries to do the right thing but sometimes does pretty scary stuff if there aren't any other options.
Think of the time the three escaped Federal prisoners of war steal a pig from Sara, a woman who's given Inman food and shelter in spite of having very little herself. Using a combination of clever trickery and fighting skill, Inman kills all three soldiers and brings the pig back to Sara.
It's a really murky situation ethically—killing people by trickery to reclaim a pig is pretty dicey, and Inman isn't proud of it. But leaving Sara to starve because the soldiers stole her food would be pretty awful, too. Like Odysseus, Inman uses a combination of intelligence and fighting skill to do what he considers necessary to help someone who's taken care of him and get back on his journey.
So can Inman find healing and redemption? At the end of the book, Inman finally does find Ada. He doesn't know it, but she's been gradually realizing that she loves and longs for him too. When they are finally reunited in the hills of Cold Mountain, they slowly recognize each other and they slowly learn to express their love for each other. Happy endings all round. Or not. The Home Guard turns up and ultimately kills Inman.
The question is whether Inman has found the sense of healing and homecoming he needs before that happens. We think so:
Nevertheless, over all those wasted years, he had held in his mind the wish to kiss her there at the back of her neck, and now he had done it. There was a redemption of some kind, he believed, in such complete fulfillment of a desire so long deferred. (18.93)
Inman finds a redemption that makes the end of the book truly satisfying, for him and readers. But you don't have to take our word for it. You can make your own call: does the end of the book provide a satisfying end for Inman? Or is it tragic and disappointing?
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