Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897
Faulkner's reputation has been largely based on his novels, rather than his short stories. Critics have found that Faulkner's novels are often more experimental and include a larger narrative sweep than his short stories. "The Bear," however, stands in contrast to this general rule. In the fourth section of the story, Faulkner employs a stream-of-consciousness narration to represent Isaac McCaslin's thought patterns. This fragmented narration is an example of the modernist approach Faulkner was using in his writing to portray modern existence in a new way. The story's unusual juxtaposition of episodes from very different points in time is another technique that Faulkner developed. These juxtapositions account for a large time period during which the saga of the McCaslin family unfolds. Finally, it is important to remember that the story is part of a larger work that Faulkner insisted should be read as an integrated novel. Thus, the attributes of Faulkner's fiction that steer admirers toward his novels rather than his short stories can all be found in "The Bear.''
Early readers claimed "The Bear" was a simple hunting story, partly because the versions of the story published in 1935 and 1942 did not include the fourth section on McCaslin Edmonds and his descendants. When read with the fourth section, the tale remains an excellent example of the hunting story genre. Cleanth Brooks points out in his book William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country that today's urban citizens may not understand the depth of the work. Brooks asserts that "The Bear'' portrays a hunter who "loves the game that he pursues, and that his code of sportsmanship embodies—however inadequately and however crudely—a regard for his prey which is probably much deeper than that of those citizens who have no first-hand concern for the animals of the wilderness." "The Bear" is much more than a hunting story in many ways, and criticism tends to focus not on the peculiar relationship of the hunter to his prey, but on Isaac's moral struggle to deal with his ancestors' sins of slavery and incest. In general, critics have found Isaac incapable of his task of making restitution for his family's violations of human conduct. His efforts to find Tomey's grandchildren are only partially successful, and his refusal to accept the McCaslin farm as his rightful inheritance appears to many critics like more of an attempt to evade responsibility than to embrace it. Early critics generally were sympathetic to Isaac, noting most often the Biblical symbolism of his decision to follow the career path of the Nazarene. More recent articles seem to react against this initial viewpoint to find Isaac a weak and ineffective protester against the long-lasting effects of slavery and racism. Various explanations for Isaac's unwillingness—or inability—to act have been made, including the notion that his lack of a stable father figure has created his psychological inability to attain fully the manhood for which Sam Fathers and Cass have trained him.
Many critics have focused on part four of "The Bear." One aspect that consistently receives critical attention is the stance toward writing and narration that Faulkner takes in this section. Much of section four concerns the information Isaac finds in the books kept by Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, and later, Cass Edmonds. In his essay in Faulkner and Race, Michael Grimwood discusses Faulkner's writing technique in section four of the story. Grimwood notes Isaac's aversion to book learning, including his cavalier attitude toward homework missed while hunting and his wary approach to the farm's ledgers. Ike's attitude is in contrast with Cass's upkeep of the ledgers and his insistence that Isaac keep up with his schoolwork. Books are found inadequate in comparison to the real-life learning that takes place in the woods. Even the Bible, Ike argues, is fallible, as it is the result of people's self-serving words. Thus Faulkner's story becomes a commentary on the shortcomings of the written word.
As with most of Faulkner's work, attempts to relate "The Bear'' to Faulkner's own life in Mississippi can be found. A compelling argument is made by Charles Aiken to relate the story to the author's life in his essay "A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner's 'The Bear.'" Aiken compares the maps of Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner provides to those areas where Faulkner himself learned to hunt. Faulkner's lifelong interest in hunting and his genuine concern for endangered wildlife areas have led critics to speculate on his attitude toward conservation of the land in the story. Aiken, for example, believes that Faulkner is arguing for acceptance of the inevitability of man's development of the land: "The theme in 'The Bear' [is] that landscape change cannot be halted or even arrested when a land-use is outmoded and the altering forces set in motion." Others, such as Norman Rudich, disagree. In his essay "Faulkner and the Sin of Private Property,'' Rudich argues that the chronicle of land ownership and the related crimes of inhumanity in "The Bear'' are a comment on the evils of private property. Faulkner's view of the land is a "mythopoeic, arcadian Biblical vision of a world which at creation belonged to none and belonged to all." Rudich continues: "private property had its origin in an original sin of expropriation of the primal wilderness, which sin and land were then transmitted from generation to generation as a cumulative curse, ripening gradually for retribution."