Fire in the Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
One of the most prevalent and recurring symbols to appear throughout James Fenimoore Cooper’s novel, The Pioneers, is fire. Fire is a force of nature which is conventionally beyond man’s control, and beyond the control of all but one of nature’s elements — water. As such, it is typically utilized within works of literature to symbolize power and dominance. However, what is of particular interest in the way that Cooper has chosen to utilize the concept of fire in this novel is as a means of man mastering that force of nature. As such, there are characters which are referred to as Fire-eater, and there are characters within this work of literature that appear capable of controlling fire — and their fates as well. Thus, a thorough analysis of Cooper’s symbol of fire in The Pioneers reveals that it contributes to the novel as a means by which men — those related to the handle of ‘Fire-eater’ — are able to assert their power and dominance.
One of the characters who is most closely associated with fire in this novel is Natty Bumppo, who is an elderly woodsman. Natty’s ties to fire are plentiful: Natty was the former servant of the original Fire-eater, Major Effingham, and he frequently invokes and conquers fire at various points in the novel to assert his dominion over it, the other characters, and over some of the most challenging circumstances in the novel. The most poignant instance in which Cooper utilizes fire to demonstrate how powerful Natty is occurs when there is a raging forest fire that has surrounded Elizabeth, Oliver, and John Mohegan. While these characters are trapped by the forest fire which appears to be on the verge of killing them, Natty is able to break through the fire to rescue all of them. The subsequent quotation implies this fact.
At the next instant Natty rushed through the steams of the spring, and appeared on the terrace, without his deerskin cap, his hair burnt to his head, his shirt, of country check, black and filled with holes, and his red features of a deeper color than ever, by the heat he had encountered (Cooper).
The most significant aspect of this quotation is that it alludes to Natty’s ability to actually conquer fire itself — which is an august realization of potency. He bursts through the fire twice, once to reach those imperiled by it, and again to lead them from danger and away from it. Doing so is no easy task, and is something that not even the best of the other characters — such as Oliver and Mohegan — are able to accomplish. Natty’s rescue of the others symbolizes his mastery of fire, which can all but nature itself, and merely underscores the degree of power that Natty has.
Natty also asserts his will over fire and deploys it according to his volition. This fact is very important, since fire is usually thought of as a raging, uncontrollable force of nature. However, Natty is able to not only overcome it at his own desire, he is also able to use it to suit his own particular needs. There is a point in the novel in which agents of the law desire to enter the domicile of Natty in order to pursue evidence pertaining to the unlawful shooting of a deer. After, initially rebuffing the forces of law physically, Natty does so eternally by effectively burning down the house. The subsequent quotation, in which the arrest party discovers the burnt house, suggests as much. “â€¦a tall form stalked from gloom into the circle, treading down the hot ashes and dying embers with his callous feet; and, standing over the light, lifted his cap, and exposed the bare head and & #8230;and features of the Leather-Stocking” (Cooper). The diction in this quotation is important because it alludes to Natty’s mastery over fire. He is literally walking on its “dying” form, which symbolizes his domination over it. Moreover, he was able to use its devastating power for his own purposes, and to effectively circumscribe it when he so desired. By doing so Cooper emphasizes Natty’s power over fire itself.
Lastly, it is worth noting that Natty is related to the original Fire-eater in this part of upstate New York, Major Effingham. Although Natty is not directly related to this man, he was his servant. Moreover, his affection for and ties to the older man extended beyond the bounds of mere servitude; even after the major was old and senile and unable to care for himself, Natty and Mohegan cared for the man. The significance of this fact is directly attributed to Natty’s prowess with fire. Although he is not a direct descendant of the one known as Fire-eater, Natty is an extension of this man and of his title as Fire-eater. This fact helps to explain Natty’s dominance over fire and his ability to manipulate it as well as to overcome it. Natty’s close affiliation with the major connotes his own rightful ties to a title of Fire-eater. As such, he is able to assert his volition over fire at many points during this novel. Some of these actions of assertion are literal such as the burning of his home and the rescuing of Oliver, Mohegan, and Elizabeth. Other actions are more figurative, such as Natty’s proficiency with fire arms and shooting. In fact, he rescues the aforementioned trio under the pretensions of securing “gunpowder” from them with which to fuel his fire arms. These facts, as well as his ties to Major Effingham as a de facto Fire-eater, account for Natty’s mastery over fire.
Fire has a significant amount of meaning in Cooper’s novel. It functions as a way for certain characters to show their power and domination. The character who does this the most is Natty. Natty is able to show that he can mend fire to his will, and overcome it to help others. He is largely able to do so because of his relationship with Major Effingham, the original Fire-eater.
Fenimore Cooper, James. The Pioneers. www.online-literature.com 200. Web. http://www.online-literature.com/cooperj/pioneers/32/