”The Deerslayer” follows the novel’s hero, Natty Bumppo, as he engages in various conflicts with the Hurons.
The book focuses on Natty’s courage and morality in contrast with the behavior of other European settlers as they come into conflict with the Hurons, and deals with themes such as racism, religion, and what ownership means on the frontier.
The Deerslayer is the first of five novels in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales. The novel opens as Natty Bumppo, also known as Deerslayer, and Henry March, known throughout the work as Hurry Harry, are traveling to Glimmerglass Lake together.
Natty is on his way to meet his friend Chingachgook, and Hurry is going to see his friends the Hutter family. The Hutter family consists of Tom, the father, and his daughters, Judith and Hetty. Judith is quite attractive, and Hurry is in love with her and wishes to marry her. Hetty is less attractive, quite religious, and simple-minded.
Hurry and Tom Captured
After Natty and Hurry find the Hutters living on their ark in the lake (they have since abandoned their house on the lake, known as Muskrat Castle), Hurry and Tom devise a plan to attack a nearby Huron camp at night and take scalps, which they will later sell for money. Natty refuses to participate in this plan, as he believes it is morally wrong for white people to take scalps, since it is not part of their culture. Hurry and Tom are captured, and Natty is left to decide how to rescue them from the Hurons.
On his way back to the ark to tell Judith and Hetty what has happened to their father, Natty comes into conflict with a Huron; both men believe they have a rightful claim to the same canoe. When Natty sees that the Huron is about to kill him, Natty kills him first. It is significant that Natty chooses not to scalp the Huron: this stands in contrast to Hurry and Tom, who try to collect scalps only for financial gain. This contrast between the characters highlights Natty as the novel’s hero.
Ultimately, Natty and Chingachgook meet at their arranged spot, and Chingachgook tells Natty that he has seen Hurry and Tom, and that they will probably be scalped. He also explains that his betrothed, Wah-ta-Wah, has also been captured and is being held in the same Huron camp. Judith offers to provide some of her possessions for the release of the captives.Hetty, however, leaves to attempt to rescue Tom and Hurry herself.
On her way to the camp, she meets with Wah-ta-Wah, who brings her to the camp. At the camp, Hetty argues that they should release the captives, basing her argument on Biblical teachings. The Hurons point out that white men do not behave in a Christian way in their dealings with them. The chief says, ‘The pale-face comes from beyond the rising sun, with this book in hand, and he teaches the red man to read it, but why does he forget himself all that it says? When the Indian gives, he is never satisfied; and now he offers gold for the scalps of our women and children, though he calls us beasts if we take the scalp of a warrior killed in open war.’Ultimately, Natty ransoms Hurry and Tom with valuables from the castle, and he and Chingachgook return later to rescue Wah-ta-Wah.
As Chingachgook escapes with Wah-ta-Wah, Natty is captured and held at camp.
Tom’s Death, Final Conflicts
Meanwhile, Hurry and Tom approach the castle in spite of Chingachgook’s warnings that it appears that the Hurons might have taken it. Tom ends up being captured and scalped. His daughters find him and speak to him before he dies from his injuries, and he admits to them that he is not their natural father.
Hurry asks Judith to marry him again, and she refuses.Natty is sent to negotiate with his companions in the castle, and then returns to the enemy camp as he had promised to do. He refuses to marry the widow of the Huron he killed, which she finds deeply insulting. Judith attempts to rescue Natty from the camp, but fails. The Hurons begin to torture Natty. Ultimately, Hurry enters the camp with soldiers, and in the chaos that follows Hetty is injured and ends up dying.
As we get to know the characters, we learn that Natty Bumppo is fair and reasonable, and Hurry Harry is often quick to jump to judgment and eager for a fight.
For example, in one of their debates, Natty explains that white men and Indians are all equal in the eyes of God, while Hurry sees white people as superior to other races. Furthermore, Natty admits at the beginning of the book that he has never taken the life of another human being, an admission that Hurry teases him about. We can see that their characters are intended to stand in contrast to one another, with Natty being the hero of the story, and Hurry being a seriously flawed character. Similarly, Hetty and Judith stand in contrast to each other, as Judith is beautiful and worldly, while Hetty is plainer and very religious. Chingachgook and Wah-ta-Wah are Native Americans in the novel whose actions are far more moral than many of the white characters, which underscores some of the racist themes, discussed in the following paragraph.
As discussed above, The Deerslayer deals with racism, as we see how Natty deals in a fair and friendly way with Native Americans, unlike Hurry and Tom. The novel also looks at issues of ownership, and how it is determined by white people (who have seized land from Native Americans), and the Native Americans who were there first. We also see how the European settlers’ religion is not always consistent: while they preach Christianity, their behavior toward the Native Americans is not necessarily consistent with what they preach.
The Deerslayer describes the wildness of life on the frontier, and deals with questions of morality and ownership that arise when white Europeans are sharing land with the Native Americans who used to control these areas. Natty is a consistent hero, who engages fairly and morally with Native Americans, and is reluctant to take human life.