Wilderness in The Pioneers

Wilderness in The Pioneers

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers provides a lengthy, highly descriptive depiction of early American wilderness. In particular, Cooper characterizes the wilderness as an overwhelmingly male entity, and a place for males to explore. In chapter four (“Wilderness”) of Garrard’s Ecocriticism, he explains that “feminist critics have shown that the qualities associated with the sublime and beautiful are gendered…as the feminine and beautiful is denigrated by comparison with the masculine sublime…so women are excluded from encounters with the wild,” (Garrard 64).

We see this in The Pioneers right from the start, where the first characters introduced are Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth, or Bess. A father/daughter relationship is the quintessential example of male dominance, especially as described here. “But still he had enough of real regard for his child, not to bring her into the comparative wilderness in which he dwelt, until the full period had expired, to which he had limited her juvenile labors,” (Cooper 5). He protected Bess from the wilderness until he deemed she was old enough to handle it, whereas a son would likely have been brought along for hunting from an early age. The first we hear of Bess’ feelings are on page 9, where Cooper describes her interest in the young hunter they have encountered: his foxskin cap, his leather stockings, his deerskin coat—all evidence of his dominance of the wilderness, and of his robust manly power. Bess essentially stays in the sleigh for this entire section of the book, until she stands and speaks on page 13, much to the surprise (it seems) of the men. The young hunter in particular is taken aback by her beautiful, delicate features as she throws off the hood that has been hiding her face, “regardless of the cold air,” (Cooper 13), as if it is a surprise she can handle the cold. In the story, Bess’ only roles are daughter and object of beauty, never an active role as a doer of anything worthwhile. As Garrard mentioned, there is little place for women in wilderness.

Furthermore, the wilderness itself is frequently characterized as male, as Cooper describes it in primarily masculine terms. A “rugged country,” “jutted with rocks” and filled with “fine bucks” seems to be a very manly place. The idea of conquering the wilderness by hunting is also made into a competition of masculinity, as Judge Temple mentions Dick Jones, who has embarrassingly “only brought in one woodchuck and a few gray squirrels,” (Cooper 9). Repeatedly, Cooper characterizes the wilderness as male, making it a place for men to explore and conquer, and maybe for women to see sometimes if their husband or father brings them along.


Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1958. 1-255. Print.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. 64. Print.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Cooper gives very lengthy descriptions of the wilderness in this story that allows the reader to clearly see the gender roles you described above. Men are explorers and conquerors of the wilderness, while women are protected from nature and observers of nature. Men are portrayed as very dominate in the story over women such as in the case of Judge telling Elizabeth how to ride her horse. The competitive and dominant ways of the men in story is sometimes balanced by their compassion, such as Leather-Stocking’s concern for the birds and the Judge explaining why he left his daughter and her mother. Compassion is often viewed as a female characteristic.

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