How might one explain the relationship between man and nature in William Faulkner's short work The Bear?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The relationship between humanity and nature is an important theme in William Faulkner’s novella “The Bear.” This relationship is emphasized in various ways in the work, including the following:

  • The story describes young Ike McCaslin’s participation in various hunting trips. These trips allow him and/or force him to become familiar with such aspects of nature as the forest and the creatures who live within the forest, including the bear mentioned in the work’s title.
  • Ike comes into contact with older males who are familiar, in various ways, with nature and who help Ike gain such familiarity himself. They function as his mentors and teachers, helping him learn the ways of the forest and of hunting. One of these men, Sam Fathers, helps Ike learn how to survive in the forest. Fathers, as his name suggests, functions as a kind of surrogate parent to Ike.
  • Repeated failed efforts to capture and kill a bear named Old Ben help teach Ike the power and intelligence of natural creatures. Only thanks to the efforts of a huge dog named Lion is Old Ben finally subdued: Lion assaults the bear, allowing one the hunters (Sam Hogganbeck) to finally succeed in killing the fearsome creature.  Thus it is through the cooperation of Sam and the dog (symbolizing man and nature) that another aspect of nature is finally overcome.
  • In one especially important passage in the work, the narrator describes the relationship of various kinds of humans, over the centuries, with nature. The narrator reports that much of the talk of the hunters

was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document: -- of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey; bigger than Major de Spain and the scrap he pretended to, knowing better; older than old Thomas Sutpen of whom Major de Spain had had it and who knew better; older even than old Ikkemotubbe, the Chicksaw chief, of whom old Sutpen had had it and who knew better in his turn.

In other words, nature never really is “owned” by any human being, however much human beings may like to think or pretend otherwise. Nature outlasts any human, and no particular human can ever really possess it for very long. Yet the desire to think that nature can indeed be possessed by humanity is a common and enduring human folly, as this passage shows.