The Bear Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Themes, Structure and Character Development

William Faulkner is generally regarded as the most important writer to be produced by the American South. A native of Mississippi, Faulkner wrote about the land where he lived for most of his life. The great majority of Faulkner's work is set in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha (which, in turn, is based on the actual Lafayette County, home to the city of Oxford and the University of Mississippi). The influence of the past, the relationships between men, and the difficulties brought about by change are all recurrent themes in Faulkner's novels and stories. "The Bear" is a good example of a story that embodies all of these themes.

"The Bear" was originally published in 1935. In 1942, Faulkner revised it and included it in his book Go Down, Moses. Later, he insisted that "The Bear" could not be fully understood unless it was read with the other stories in Go Down, Moses as a segment of a novel. In its seven stories, Go Down, Moses recounts many of the events in the life of Isaac (Ike) McCaslin, a member of one of Yoknapatawpha's three most important families. (The other families, representatives of which appear in "The Bear," are the Compsons and the Sutpens).

The complex narrative of "The Bear'' makes it difficult to sort out the family relations of the characters in the story. This is, of course, part of Faulkner's objective: through the tangled narration, he illustrates the often tangled genealogies of Southern families, especially those involving illegitimate children who were the offspring of white men and slave women. Ike McCaslin, the main character, is the grandson of one of Yoknapatawpha's settlers and founders, Carothers McCaslin. Carothers' sons include Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, who, upon the death of their father in 1837, move into a log cabin on their plantation grounds and moved the plantation's slaves into the "big house." Late in his life, Uncle Buck marries Sophonsiba Beauchamp and they produce Dee in 1867. Carothers also has a daughter married to an Edmonds, who is either the father or the grandfather (Faulkner does not say) of McCaslin "Cass" Edmonds. Cass, seventeen years older than Ike, in effect becomes Ike's father after Uncle Buck's death. In "The Bear,'' we see Ike and Cass together through much of the story, and in the fourth section Cass teaches Ike many of the family's secrets and much of its history. The other characters in "The Bear" include General Compson and Major deSpain, two of Yoknapatawpha's leading citizens; Sam Fathers, a hunting guide of Chickasaw descent, and Boon, another part-Chickasaw member of the hunting party; and Ash, the black cook for the hunting party.

The story recounts the efforts of Major de Spain's annual hunting party to track down Old Ben, an old and wily bear who is "ravaging the countryside." We see the hunt through Ike's eyes, and the first section of the story shifts in time through Ike's first expedition with the hunting party, in 1877, to the 1883 trip in which Old Ben is finally killed. Although the slaying of Old Ben is the climax of the story's action, it is not the story's focus. Instead, in the first half of the story we are confronted by the story of a boy's growing into manhood through learning the ancient ways of the hunter. On his first trip, the boy is not allowed to shoot his gun. On his second hunt, Sam Fathers teaches Ike that he must become a part of the wilderness before he earns the right to kill anything. That year, Ike discards his gun and goes off into the wilderness in search of Ben. Unable to lure the bear out of hiding, Ike leaves behind the trappings of civilization--his watch and compass--and is rewarded with a glimpse of the old bear. Subsequent trips bring the party closer to killing the bear, and in 1881 Sam captures a wild dog, whom he names "Lion,'' in hopes that he will help them corner the bear. Finally, in 1883 Lion and the hunters corner the bear. Ben kills the dog, but at the same time Boon jumps up on the bear's back and fatally stabs it. As the party prepares to return to town, Sam dies, and Ike suspects that Boon has "helped'' in this.

The story of the hunt, although exciting, only takes up the first half (the first three sections) of "The Bear." After Sam dies, the narrative shifts. The sentences become extremely long, a characteristic Faulkner technique, and the narrator begins to discuss the early history of the county. This fourth section, stylistically the most difficult of the five, recounts Ike's...

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An Unromantic Reading

The usual reading of "The Bear" makes of Isaac McCaslin a kind of saint who, by repudiating his inheritance—the desecrated land upon which a whole people has been violated—performs an act of expiation and atonement which is a model for those acts that must follow before the curse upon the land is lifted Ike's repudiation of the land, at twenty-one, with which the tortuous inner section of "The Bear'' opens, and over which he and his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, debate in the commissary, is seen in terms of what the reader understands Ike to have learned and attained under the influence of Sam Fathers in the untainted Wilderness, the "freedom and humility and pride." The story is of one man's repudiation of the forces of greed and materialism that have all but extinguished God's hope for man of freedom and generosity.

The whole sequence of the commissary, the Beauchamp legacy, and the later life of Isaac McCaslin, is thus ordinarily taken as a sort of complementary sequel to what may be called the hunt-narrative; Part IV in the total structure and intention of the work is a filling-out, past and future, of the "story proper," as it is sometimes regarded: the hunt-narrative and especially the episode of the fyce, in which the later renunciation, at twenty-one, is prefigured.

There is much, however, in this difficult portion of the work that suggests a contrary view. Instead of a romantic Christian pastoral of redemption, in which the repudiation of the land and earlier the apparently selfless rescue of the fyce from under the erect bear are seen as almost sanctifying gestures of renunciation, a searing tragedy of human desire and human limitation evolves, chiefly through ironic means. From McCaslin's scornful skepticism as he listens to Ike's account of God's circuitous providence, and the "lip-lift" of contempt when he realizes that even Ike does not wholly believe in his "freedom," to the almost hysterical laughter with which Part IV concludes, the principal effects are ironic.

The central thematic irony, however, upon which these effects are grounded, is slowly constructed of larger elements. The repudiation in the commissary is prefigured in the hunt-narrative; something of a parallel does develop between the selfless non-possession of Ike's gesture at twenty-one and the repudiation of passion earlier—that effort to preserve the idyll of the Big Woods, in the reluctance of both Ike and Sam Fathers to slay Old Ben. But the point of the parallel is not merely to provide background and extension to the "story-proper"; it is drawn and pressed home by McCaslin Edmonds on Ike because in both gestures there is weakness and something even sinister which cannot become clear to McCaslin, or to the reader, until the dense and complex drama of the debate in the commissary is enacted.

The terrible irony of Part IV develops in the growing awareness in the reader, as well as in the characters, of the discrepancy between what we and Ike supposed him to have achieved, to have attained to, and what in fact his repudiations actually represent. The whole inner section of "The Bear" reflects back on the hunt-narrative and forward into the last sequence: Ike's return at eighteen to the woods, which are being destroyed by the lumber company; his vague, troubled guilt at the sight of the nearly demented, grieving Boon. Coming where it does in the story structure, Part IV has the effect of making the reader, as it makes Ike and McCaslin, remember and painfully reinterpret the earlier events as of some dream-idyll of human perfection, of perhaps a kind of angelic pre-existence, now dissipated in the wakeful glare of the human reality. Slowly and relentlessly, Faulkner's intention takes hold in Part IV, in the tragic incompleteness of man, as the gulf is drawn between action, life as lived, and the memory of action and events, in which our dreams of life, our poems, are created.

"The Bear'' is no Saint's Life; on the contrary, what it expresses is that there is no "freedom" in renunciation, no sanctity through repudiation—that actually there is no such thing as human sainthood as we have conceived it. If Isaac McCaslin is a saint at all, it is not in the traditional ascetic sense of a successful renunciation of the world and the flesh in atonement and expiation; it is rather a "sainthood'' of unsuccess, an unwitting, unwilled elevation produced in the tragic defeat of spirit and soul in the "uncontrollable mystery" of the world which men and "saints" must live in perforce. In much the same way that [Franz] Kafka's Bucketrider is unaccountably (to him) "upraised" into the "regions of the icy mountains and [is] lost forever," Isaac McCaslin ascends without comprehending wherein that only "sainthood" man is allowed resides: in the anguished complex heart. "The Bear" is a story of a renunciation that fails, as they all must. It is also the story of man's ineluctable fate of being only man. And on another level, it is a parable of man's pride, in his trying to be more than man, and of the evil this pride accomplishes in its condescending ascription of all that man does not want to see in himself to a certain few untouchables, the...

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Faulkner's Poetic Prose: Style and Meaning in "The Bear"

Faulkner's "The Bear," published in The Saturday Evening Post and in Go Down, Moses, has received its share of critical explication, and the pattern and meaning of the novel seems to have been thoroughly discussed. Certainly there is much that can be taken for granted: the bear is a symbol of nature, its death symbolizes the loss of the wilderness and all the wilderness represents, and the wilderness seems to represent a kind of Emersonian realm where man and nature are spiritually and emotionally at one, an Edenic world before the Fall where time does not exist and where, like Keats's Grecian urn, one is not subject to the exigencies of time. Ike McCaslin, in fact, has to divest himself of...

(The entire section is 1329 words.)