Though the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, their economic conditions were dire, as inequalities kept them from many jobs and educational opportunities. Southern states, bitter upon losing their bid for secession, attempted to deal with emancipated slaves by passing laws known as the "Black Codes." These laws, effectively perpetuating the racial segregation and degradation formerly applied to slaves, kept the ex-slaves from achieving economic opportunity and fair judicial process almost as thoroughly as before Emancipation. Congress, however, refused re-admittance to the Union to those states who would not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed civil liberties to all citizens. By 1877, the plans for Reconstruction were completed. Rather than integrate African Americans into society, however, the South erected a system of segregation that supposedly provided separate but equal opportunity for freed slaves and their descendants. "White supremacy" undercut any sense of fairness as the South began to rejoin the Union. Conditions had improved very little by Faulkner's day. Segregation still kept African Americans from entering the better schools and from securing jobs, and they were still in frequent danger of violence and humiliation.
The United States was a very different place at the conclusion of the...
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Point of View
While "The Bear" is a third-person narrative, it is told from the point of view of Ike McCaslin. Yet not all that Ike knows is told. For example, neither Ike nor the narrator ever actually confirms that Boon killed Sam. McCaslin makes this assumption, and Ike, the only witness, lets his statement remain uncontested. Even more complicated are the conjectures of Ike and McCaslin about Eunice's suicide. It is here that the narrator is demonstrated to be not omniscient (all-knowing), but a more limited, and experimental, version of the traditional third-person narrator.
Set in Faulkner's fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, "The Bear" covers different time periods during Ike McCaslin's youth. Although the first section begins while Ike is age sixteen, most of the section covers Ike's first hunting trips during the fall of 1877 and the summer of 1878. The second section details events of 1879 (Lion's capture) and then two years later (when he nearly bayed Old Ben). Old Ben's death the following year is the subject of the third section. Section four moves from the pre-war days of Carothers McCaslin and forward, through Ike's relinquishing of his estate, to his childless marriage and austere life. The narrative of this fourth section is molded into a fairly understandable order by the events of Eunice's life. A slave bought in 1807, Eunice gives birth to Tomey in 1810 and commits...
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"The Bear" is a masterpiece of storytelling. Faulkner uses stream-of-consciousness narration to take readers deep into the feelings and thoughts of characters at moments of profound insight, as when Isaac reads the plantation ledgers and discovers his grandfather's incest with his slave daughter and when Isaac feels the seething life beneath the surface of the dying wilderness. He uses the basic techniques of breathless realistic adventure narrative to recount the scenes of hunting deer and bear. Much of part four consists of highly complex dialogues, a written dialogue between Buck and Buddy carried on in the plantation ledgers, and the spoken dialogue between Isaac and Cass as they discuss Isaac's decision.
Lion and Old Ben are constructed as symbolic characters. Isaac learns to read them both as symbols, Lion for a kind of death force that is ultimately subordinated to the overwhelming life force that Old Ben represents. Sam Fathers, with some help from his name, also resonates with symbolic meaning as he becomes spokesperson for all those who have lived on and loved the wilderness before Isaac came along. Sam represents the fathers, carrying the blood of all three of the races that have lived in this region, and he acts as a father toward Isaac, passing on the old traditions and beliefs. Isaac learns to read the characters and the landscape of the wilderness as a kind of transcendental allegory, and in this way, he teaches the reader as well to see...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
"The Bear" is such a complex story that a good deal of the time a group will have to spend on the story is likely to go toward understanding what happens and why. This is especially the case when part four is included in the reading. Because the story is so complex, it is a respectable accomplishment for a discussion group to locate and solve the basic problems of interpretation: Who are the characters? What are their motives? What happens in part four? Go Down, Moses has been the sole text in graduate and undergraduate seminars, in which excellent students read the whole book several times and spent several weeks studying the "The Bear" without exhausting the text or their interest. Like much of Faulkner's greatest fiction, "The Bear" can be read several times profitably, even within the confines of a single course or series of book discussions.
Among the main issues that require a good deal of careful reading and discussion to grasp clearly are the meanings of the significant steps in Isaac's spiritual maturation; the view of nature the story develops; Isaac's arguments for repudiating his inheritance and the values that stand behind those arguments; whether Isaac's decision is heroic, quixotic, or some combination of these. Though each topic requires much careful preparation before readers are likely to grasp the relevant material, they are very interesting to discuss when the group is ready for them.
1. Faulkner presents Isaac's...
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"The Bear" deals profoundly with concerns of racism and environmentalism, finally connecting them thematically.
While still a child, Isaac comes to understand that Sam Fathers, the man he admires above all others as a representative of what it means to be a free and responsible person, is forever scarred by having been a slave and the child of slaves. Isaac's first impulse is to demand that he be set free. Because more than ten years have passed since the end of the Civil War, Sam is already legally free. Isaac begins to learn then that what is done cannot be undone. The tragedies of American slavery and the racism it helped to burn into the American soul cannot be erased with a wish or a word. In the whole of the novel, Go Down, Moses, it can be argued that Isaac learns that a lifetime of principled living as an example of the values he opposes to racist exploitation cannot by itself even begin to undo the injustices of the past or their present permutations and repetitions.
In "The Bear" Isaac learns the bitter lessons of the legacy of slavery when he comes to understand his relationship to Tomey's Turl, who helps with the hunts that Isaac participates in each autumn after he is ten. During the first six years that he hunts with other experienced men in the wilderness, Isaac learns mainly from Sam Fathers and the wilderness itself the values that he will oppose to that legacy when he repudiates his inheritance. These values have come...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing civil liberty, are ratified by all states.
1942: The Georgia Contract Labor Act is overturned by the Supreme Court, which declares that the act of "peonage" it sanctions is a violation of the anti-slavery amendment.
Today: All peoples are protected under the law from slavery, though immigrants and people of color are often the victim of civil liberty infringements.
1882: Standard Oil forms a trust to secure its monopoly of the industry and eliminate competition. Other industries soon follow, causing the loss of many jobs.
1941: Ford Motor Company signs its first contract with a labor union. A wage increase is awarded by General Motors in an effort to avoid strikes.
Today: Big business continues to battle against government intervention and labor unions in order to maximize profits and reduce any external regulations that interfere with those profits.
1883: Theodore Roosevelt begins buying up ranches in the Dakota Territory. In 1887, his interest in hunting and the outdoors leads him to form the Boone-Crockett Club, named after two legendary woodsmen.
1933: The first U.S. textbook on game management is published by Aldo Leopold, reflecting society's growing...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the Native American Chickasaw tribe to determine their original tribal grounds. What happened to the Chickasaws? Is there a tribal community still in the area today?
Find out what was on the site of your town or city before the present community was established. Was it a wilderness area? Were there any aboriginal tribes living there? Who first settled the area?
Research the wildlife of Mississippi to find out what species of bear Old Ben is. Compare the typical characteristics of bears in this area of the country with Old Ben's behavior. Is Faulkner's portrayal realistic?
Do some reading on the lives of slaves who were freed during the Civil War. What sorts of problems did they have to face in their new lives? What did being "free" mean for them?
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Scholars have noticed many literary precursors for "The Bear." Perhaps the most important is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), in which the pursuit of an animal, the whale Moby Dick, in a watery wilderness ends in a three-day hunt and in which the animal is invested with highly complex symbolic meanings that raise fundamental questions about the relation of humanity to nature and the rest of the universe. Also of considerable interest are the traditional hunting stories of the American wilderness, many of which have become parts of Western and Southwestern humor, for example, the stories of Davy Crockett. One of the most interesting of these is Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas" (1854), in which an Arkansas patriot tells of his adventures in pursuit of the "unhuntable" bear. Faulkner's story includes a good deal of humor, such as the episode when Isaac chaperones the camp cook who decides that he must try hunting even though he has no experience. Another very important precursor is Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), which offers a transcendental and environmentalist view of nature that probably was important to Faulkner's thinking, though in Faulkner's view the life force of nature seems much less self-conscious and purposive. Faulkner presents a transcendent nature that achieves self-consciousness probably only in human reflection.
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"The Bear" provides the richest reading experience within the context of the novel where Faulkner placed it, Go Down, Moses. In that novel "The Bear" is flanked on each side by stories that elaborate Isaac's life. "The Old People" tells about his first successful hunt in the wilderness, when he kills a deer and comes with Sam's help to understand the meaning of this act, how when rightly done it connects him forever with the spirit of the wilderness. "Delta Autumn," which follows "The Bear," shows Isaac in his old age, approaching 80, when he must deal painfully with another repetition of his family legacy. McCaslin Edmonds' grandson, Carothers, has fallen in love with a woman, and she has born him a son. Because she has Negro ancestry, Carothers has refused to marry her. When she and Isaac meet, he learns that she is also a descendant of Tomey's Turl. Once again white McCaslins have used and abandoned black McCaslins. Isaac's values remain unchanged, but he suffers great pain and says things he does not mean in his attempts to face this tragic renewal of injustice.
Many characters who appear briefly in "The Bear" get more extended treatment elsewhere in Go Down, Moses. The more important of these are Isaac's father and uncle, Buck and Buddy McCaslin, who appear in "Was," and Lucas and Molly Beauchamp, who appear in "The Fire and the Hearth" and "Go Down, Moses." Lucas and Molly are main characters in Faulkner's later novel, Intruder in...
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"The Bear" was made into a motion picture by Frank Stokes in 1972, although the adaptation does not include section four of the story. It can be found on videocassette, distributed by AIMS Media.
A 1980 motion picture of "The Bear" was filmed by Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. This version does not include section four of the story. Available on videocassette.
Barr Films published a similar video in 1981, again focusing on the work as a hunting story.
A reel-to-reel version was written and produced by Bernard Wilets in 1980 and distributed by BFA Educational Media.
There is a cassette tape of many of Faulkner's stories. The cassette is published as The Stories of William Faulkner Parts I and II, read by Wolfram Kandinsky and Michael Kramer, Books on Tape, 1994.
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What Do I Read Next?
Go Down, Moses is the 1942 novel by William Faulkner in which "The Bear" first appeared in its entirety. Each of the stories within the novel center around the McCaslin clan, starting with Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy and ending when "Uncle Ike" is an old man.
Jack London's 1910 novel White Fang tells the story of a boy coming of age in the wilderness of Alaska near the turn of the century. The enduring lessons of the wilderness are taught by a very special dog who is also part wolf.
Published in 1845, the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a good starting point for investigating slavery from the slaves' point of view. Douglass's account is relevant to the plight of all slaves in any time period.
Faulkner was an influential figure for Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison. Her 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, is the account of a youth named Milkman Dead, whose investigations into his family tree take him, among other places, on a hunting trip.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Aiken, Charles, "A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Geographical Review, Vol. 71, no. 4, October, 1981, pp. 446-459.
Brooks, Cleanth, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, Louisiana State University Press, 1963.
Grimwood, Michael, "Faulkner and the Vocational Liabilities of Black Characterization," in Faulkner and Race, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, 1987, pp. 255-271.
Lewis, R. W. B., "The Hero in the New World: William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XIII, no. 4, Autumn, 1951, pp. 641-660.
Rudich, Norman, "Faulkner and the Sin of Private Property," in The Minnesota Review, Vol. 17, 1981, pp. 55-57
Simpson, Lewis, An essay in Nine Essays in Modern Literature, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Louisiana University Press, 1965, p. 194.
Adams, Richard P., "Focus on William Faulkner's 'The Bear': Moses and the Wilderness," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, edited by David Madden, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 129-135.
This article finds Ike unable to set anyone free, in spite of his own belief that it is his responsibility to do so.
Bear, Man and God: Eight Approaches to William Faulkner's "The...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.
Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994.
Hoffman, Frederick, and Olga W. Vickery, eds. William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Labatt, Blair. Faulkner the Storyteller. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Summer, 1997).
Parini, Jay. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Peek, Charles A., and Robert W. Hamblin, eds. A Companion to Faulkner Studies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997....
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