Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533
“The Bear” is Faulkner’s best-known and most highly regarded story; it takes its place among his wilderness narratives, such as Old Man (one of the two novellas that make up The Wild Palms), “Red Leaves” (1930), the best of Faulkner’s Indian stories, and the escape of the black architect in Absalom, Absalom! Its genesis is typical of Faulkner’s writing and publishing career: He used his material to the greatest degree. A short story titled “Lion” appeared in 1934; it was enlarged in 1941 and 1942 as “The Bear,” to be a section of the novel Go Down, Moses.
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A shortened form was published in a magazine in 1942; then, two days later, the novel appeared, with what is sometimes called “The Bear II” included. Because this contained section 4, which adds to the novel but detracts from the hunting story, the novel version without section 4 was anthologized in Big Woods in 1955; with section 4, it appeared in Three Famous Short Novels in 1961.
The work symbolizes the destruction of the wilderness. It is also concerned with the mythic initiation of a boy, young Isaac (Ike) McCaslin, into manhood. In the later versions, Quentin Compson as narrator is dropped in favor of omniscient narration, and “the boy” becomes Ike. The magazine and novel versions differ in that the bear is killed only in the latter.
Old Ben is a mythic two-toed bear who has eluded hunters for years; Lion is the huge dog, the appearance of whom foreshadows the end. Sam Fathers, Major De Spain, General Compson, McCaslin Edmunds, and Boon Hogganbeck are among those chasing but not killing Old Ben; the major’s hunting camp is on what was once Thomas Sutpen’s estate. McCaslin (Cass) is Ike’s older cousin; Sam, an Indian of noble blood, is Ike’s friend and wilderness mentor; Boon is a big man (partly of plebeian Indian blood) with the mind of a child.
The time of the opening and of the climactic killing of Ben is 1883, when Ike is sixteen. Through digressions, previous events are related: At ten, Ike had gone on his first hunt with the men; at eleven, he had seen Ben for the first time. At thirteen, he killed his first deer and underwent initiation when Sam marked his face with the blood. When Ike was fourteen, the special dog, Lion, was brought into camp; when he was fifteen, Lion attacked Ben, and Ben was wounded by a gun. Comic interludes have to do with Boon—his attitude toward Lion and his ineptitude with a gun.
Section 4, sometimes called “The Land,” consists of one 1,600-word sentence unfolding a dialogue between Ike (now twenty-one) and Cass regarding ownership of the land: Ike will waive his right to his inheritance. The brief final section is two years after the last hunt on this land; Ike at nineteen revisits the site (two years before section 4) to find Boon under a lone tree full of squirrels: Having broken his gun, Boon is clubbing at the squirrels and shouting at would-be intruders. The high, serious tone of the novella gives way to the comic, seeming to contrast the awe and majesty of the now-departed wilderness with the civilization that has taken its place.