Study Guide

Last of the Mohicans Disguises

By James Fenimore Cooper

Disguises

Men dressed up like bears. Men dressed up like beavers. Men dressed up like other men and women dressed up like other women. White dudes dressed up like Native Americans. Sane men dressed up like crazy men.

Sheesh, The Last of the Mohicans has more disguises than a Shakespeare comedy. But why? What in the name of all that's dressed up in a big bearskin does it all mean?

Well, first of all, it's a clever narrative move. Things get pretty frickin' grim in The Last of the Mohicans, and Cooper was a smart enough author to know that readers cannot live on dour historical bloodshed alone. Sometimes you just have to have a heist with a dude dressed up in a beaver costume, fooling some evil Native Americans that happen to think beavers are holy.

But on a deeper level (and you know we at Shmoop go for the deep cuts) it speaks to the nature of appearance vs. substance, and illusion vs. authenticity. Fun-filled romps with mistaken identity show up in this novel for the same reason as all that talk of "pure blood" does—many people in this novel are obsessed with true identity.

You can pretend to be a chief, but if chief blood doesn't run in your veins, you ain't a chief at all. Disguises are similar: you can pretend to be a madman, but if you're actually sane, that fact will eventually make itself clear. You can dress up like a Native American, but that doesn't make you a Native American. Identity can be masked, but never truly abandoned.

The preoccupation with identity is at its goofiest with bear and beaver costumes, but it also shows up in the character of Hawkeye. That dude may have the know-how and cultural habits of a Native American, but he makes it clear that his identity is white. He's not wearing any disguises at all.

One of the big reasons that all these disguises and questions about "true" identity crop up in this novel has to do with the setting of The Last of the Mohicans. This novel takes place during the French and Indian War, a war that shaped American identity perhaps even more than the Revolutionary War (check out our analysis of this novel's "Setting" for more historical goodness).

With a national identity-crafting conflict in the background, is it any wonder that these characters are super-preoccupied with disguising (and exposing) individual and racial identities? Remember, these are people who have no idea what kind of allegiance they're going to have to have in the near future—they don't know if the colonies are going to be French or English-controlled.

So these characters aren't just having fun in bear costumes, they're playing out a global conflict on a micro-scale.