John Lydenberg (essay date 1952)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4365
SOURCE: "Nature Myth in Faulkner's The Bear" in Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice, University of Nebraska Press, 1966, pp. 257-64.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in American Literature in 1952, Lydenberg explicates the symbolism of the nature myth informing the meaning and structure of "The Bear."]
William Faulkner's power derives in large part from his myth-making and myth-using ability. The mythical aspects of this work are twofold. One type of Faulkner myth has been widely recognized and discussed. Probably the best exposition of this appears in the introduction to the Viking Portable selections, in which Malcolm Cowley shows how Faulkner's vision of a mythical South informs and gives unity to the bulk of his best work. His characters grow out of the dense, lush fabric of Southern society. But they are not realistic exemplars of aspects of the South. The most notable of them are larger than life and carry with them an obvious, if not always clear, allegorical significance. Men like Sutpen or Hightower or Joe Christmas or Popeye—to suggest only a few of the many—are more-than-human actors in the saga of the mythical kingdom of Yoknapatawpha, the Mississippi county that symbolizes Faulkner's South.
But of course his stories are not merely about the South; they are about men, or Man. Here appears the other type of myth: the primitive nature myth. Perhaps one should not say "appears," for the myth lies imbedded in Faulkner's feeling about human actions and seldom appears as a readily visible outcropping, as does his conception of the mythical kingdom. Faulkner feels man acting in an eternity, in a timeless confusion of past and future, acting not as a rational Deweyan creature but as a natural, unthinking (but always moral) animal. These men do not "understand" themselves, and neither Faulkner nor the reader fully understands them in any naturalistic sense. Sometimes these creatures driven by instinct become simply grotesques; sometimes the inflated rhetoric gives the characters the specious portentousness of a gigantic gray balloon. But often the aura of something-more-ness casts a spell upon the reader, makes him sense where he does not exactly comprehend the eternal human significance of the ritual activities carried out by these supra-human beings. They are acting out magical tales that portray man's plight in a world he cannot understand or control. They are Man, the primordial and immortal, the creator and protagonist of myth.
This dual myth-making can best be demonstrated in the short story "The Bear." "The Bear" is by general agreement one of Faulkner's most exciting and rewarding stories. Malcolm Cowley and Robert Penn Warren have both shown its importance for an understanding of Faulkner's attitudes toward the land, the Negro, and the South. Warren referred to it as "profoundly symbolic," but refrained from examining its symbolism except as it relates to Faulkner's Southern mythology. No one—so far as I know—has sought to explain just what makes it so powerful and moving, what gives one the feeling that it is more than a superb hunting story and more than an allegory of man's relation to the land and to his fellow man. The source of this power can be discerned if we see that beneath its other layers of meaning, the story is essentially a nature myth.
"The Bear," in its final version, can be summarized briefly. When Ike McCaslin is ten, he is first taken with a group of men on their yearly hunting trip into the wilderness of Sutpen's hundred. He quickly learns to be a good hunter under the tutelage of the old half-Indian, half-Negro guide, Sam Fathers. The routine hunting has an added goal: the killing of Old Ben, a huge and sage, almost legendary bear, who always defies capture. Sam Fathers maintains that none of their dogs can bring Old Ben to bay, and that they must find one stronger and braver. Finally he gets what he needs, a wild dog named Lion. When Ike is sixteen, the last chase occurs. Hunters shoot in vain, hounds are killed as they try to hold Ben. And then Lion rushes in, followed by Boon, the quarter-Indian retainer, who charges like the dog, directly upon the bear, to make the kill with his knife. Lion dies from his wounds the next day. Sam Fathers drops from exhaustion and dies shortly thereafter. The story proper is then interrupted by Part IV, a section as long again as the rest. Part V is a short epilogue, telling of Ike's sole return to the scene of his apprenticeship, his visit to the graves of Lion and Sam Fathers, and his meeting with Boon.
On one level the story is a symbolic representation of man's relation to the land, and particularly the Southerner's conquest of his native land. In attempting to kill Old Ben, the men are contending with the wilderness itself. In one sense, as men, they have a perfect right to do this, as long as they act with dignity and propriety, maintaining their humility while they demonstrate the ability of human beings to master the brute forces of nature. The hunters from Jefferson are gentlemen and sportsmen, representing the ideals of the old order at its best, the honor, dignity, and courage of the South. In their rapport with nature and their contest with Old Ben, they regain the purity they have lost in their workaday world, and abjure the petty conventions with which they ordinarily mar their lives. But as Southerners they are part of "that whole edifice intricate and complex and founded upon injustice"; they are part of that South that has bought and sold land and has held men as slaves. Their original sins have alienated them irrevocably from nature. Thus their conquest of Old Ben becomes a rape. What might in other circumstances have been right, is now a violation of the wilderness and the Southern land.
Part IV makes explicit the social comment implied in the drama of Old Ben. It consists of a long and complicated account of the McCaslin family, white and mulatto, and a series of pronunciamentos by Ike upon the South, the land, truth, man's frailties and God's will. It is in effect Ike's spiritual autobiography given as explanation of his reasons for relinquishing and repudiating, for refusing to own land or participate actively in the life of the South. Ike discovers that he can do nothing to lift or lighten the curse the Southerners have brought on themselves, the monstrous offspring of their God-given free will. The price of purity, Ike finds, is non-involvement, and he chooses purity.
Thus Part IV carries us far beyond the confines of the story of the hunt. It creates a McCaslin myth that fits into the broad saga of Faulkner's mythical kingdom, and it includes in nondramatic form a good deal of direct social comment. The rest of "The Bear" cannot be regarded as simply a dramatic symbolization of Ike's conscientious repudiation. Its symbolism cannot fully be interpreted in terms of this social myth. One responds emotionally to the bear hunt as to a separate unit, an indivisible and self-sufficient whole. Part IV and Old Ben's story resemble the components of a binary star. They revolve about each other and even cast light upon each other. But each contains the source of its own light.
It is the mythical quality of the bear hunt proper that gives the story its haunting power. Beneath its other meanings and symbolisms lies the magical tale enacted by superhuman characters. Here religion and magic are combined in a ritual demonstration of the eternal struggle between Man and Nature. A statement of the legend recounting their partial reconciliation would run somewhat as follows:
Every fall members of the tribe make a pilgrimage to the domain of the Great Beast, the bear that is more than a bear, the preternatural animal that symbolizes for them their relation to Nature and thus to life. They maintain, of course, the forms of routine hunts. But beneath the conventional ritual lies the religious rite: the hunting of the tribal god, whom they dare not, and cannot, touch, but whom they are impelled to challenge. In this rite the established social relations dissolve; the artificial ranks of Jefferson give way to more natural relations as Sam Fathers is automatically given the lead. The bear and Sam are both taboo. Like a totem animal, Old Ben is at the same time sacred, and dangerous or forbidden (though in no sense unclean). Also he is truly animistic, possessing a soul of his own, initiating action, not inert like other creatures of nature. And Sam, the high priest, although alone admitted to the arcana and trusted with the tutelage of the young neophyte, is yet outside the pale, living by himself, irrevocably differentiated from the others by his Negro blood, and yet kept pure and attuned to nature by his royal Indian blood.
This particular legend of man and the Nature God relates the induction of Ike, the natural and pure boy, into the mysteries of manhood. Guided by Sam Fathers, Ike learns how to retain his purity and bring himself into harmony with the forces of Nature. He learns human woodlore and the human codes and techniques of the hunt. And he learns their limitations. Old Ben, always concerned with the doings of his mortals, comes to gaze upon Ike as he stands alone and unprepared in a clearing. Ike "knew that the bear was looking at him. He never saw it. He did not know whether it was facing him from the cane or behind him." His apprehension does not depend on human senses. Awareness of his coming relation to the bear grows not from rational processes, but from intuition: "he knew now that he would never fire at it."
Yet he must see, must meet, Old Ben. He will be vouchsafed the vision, but only when he divests himself of man-made signs of fear and vanity. "The gun, the boy thought. The gun. 'You will have to choose,' Sam said." So one day, before light, he starts out unarmed on his pilgrimage, alone and helpless, with courage and humility, guided by his newly acquired woodlore, and by compass and watch, traveling till past noon, past the time at which he should have turned back to regain camp in safety. He has not yet found the bear. Then he realizes that divesting himself of the gun, necessary as that is, will not suffice if he wishes to come into the presence. "He stood for a moment—a child, alien and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness. Then he relinquished completely to it. It was the watch and the compass. He was still tainted."
He takes off the two artifacts, hangs them from a bush, and continues farther into the woods. Now he is at last pure—and lost. Then the footprints, huge, misshapen, and unmistakable, appear, one by one, leading him back to the spot he could no longer have found unaided, to the watch and the compass in the sunlight of the glade.
Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear; it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him. Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun's full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink back into the dark depths of its pool and vanish without even any movements of its fins.
Ike has seen the vision. That is his goal, but it is not the goal for the tribe, nor for Sam Fathers who as priest must prepare the kill for them. They are under a compulsion to carry out their annual ritual at the time of "the year's death," to strive to conquer the Nature God whose very presence challenges them and raises doubts as to their power.
The priest has first to make the proper medicine; he has to find the right dog. Out of the wilds it comes, as if sent by higher powers, untamable, silent, like no other dog. Then Sam, magician as well as priest, shapes him into the force, the instrument, that alone can master Old Ben. Lion is almost literally bewitched—broken maybe, but not tamed or civilized or "humanized." He is removed from the order of nature, but not allowed to partake of the order of civilization or humanity.
Sam Fathers fashions the instrument; that is his duty as it has been his duty to train the neophyte, to induct him into the mysteries, and thus to prepare, in effect, his own successor. But it is not for the priest to perform the impious and necessary deed. Because he belongs to the order of nature as well as of man—as Ike does now—neither of them can do more than assist at the rites. Nor can Major de Spain or General Compson or other human hunters pair with Lion. That is for Boon, who has never hit any animal bigger than a squirrel with his shotgun, who is like Lion in his imperturbable nonhumanity. Boon is part Indian; "he had neither profession job nor trade"; he has "the mind of a child, the heart of a horse, and little hard shoe-button eyes without depth or meanness or generosity or viciousness or gentleness or anything else." So he takes Lion into his bed, makes Lion a part of him. Divorced from nature and from man—"the big, grave, sleepy-seeming dog which, as Sam Fathers said, cared about no man and no thing; and the violent, insensitive, hard-faced man with his touch of remote Indian blood and the mind almost of a child"—the two mavericks live their own lives, dedicated and fated.
The "yearly pageant-rite" continues for six years. Then out of the swamps come the rest of the tribe, knowing the climax is approaching, accepted by the Jefferson aristocrats as proper participants in the final rites. Ike, the young priest, is given the post of honor on the one-eyed mule which alone among the mules and horses will not shy at the smell of blood. Beside him stands the dog who "loved no man and no thing." Lion "looked at him. It moved its head and looked at him across the trivial uproar of the hounds, out of the yellow eyes as depthless as Boon's, as free as Boon's of meanness or generosity or gentleness or viciousness. They were just cold and sleepy. Then it blinked, and he knew it was not looking at him and never had been, without even bothering to turn its head away."
The final hunt is short, for Old Ben can be downed only when his time has come, not by the contrived machinations of men, but by the destined ordering of events and his own free will. The hounds run the bear; a swamper fires;1 Walter Ewell fires; Boon cannot fire.2 Then the bear turns and Lion drives in, is caught in the bear's two arms and falls with him. Ike draws back the hammers of his gun. And Boon, like Lion, drives in, jumps on Ben's back and thrusts his knife into the bear's throat. Again they fall. Then "the bear surged erect, raising with it the man and the dog too, and turned and still carrying the man and the dog it took two or three steps towards the woods on its hind feet as a man would have walked and crashed down. It didn't collapse, crumple. It fell all of a piece, as a tree falls, so that all three of them, man dog and bear, seemed to bounce once."
The tribe comes up, with wagon and mules, to carry back to camp the dead bear, Lion with his guts raked out, Boon bleeding, and Sam Fathers who dropped, unscathed but paralyzed, at the moment that Ben received his death wound. The doctor from the near-by sawmill pushes back Lion's entrails and sews him up. Sam lies quiet in his hut after talking in his old unknown tongue, and then pleading, "Let me out, master. Let me go home."
Next day the swampers and trappers gather again, sitting around Lion in the front yard, "talking quietly of hunting, of the game and the dogs which ran it, of hounds and bear and deer and men of yesterday vanished from the earth, while from time to time the great blue dog would open his eyes, not as if he were listening to them but as though to look at the woods for a moment before closing his eyes again, to remember the woods or to see that they were still there. He died at sundown." And in his hut Sam quietly goes after the bear whose death he was destined to prepare and upon whose life his own depended, leaving behind the de Spains and Compsons who will no longer hunt in this wilderness and the new priest who will keep himself pure to observe, always from the outside, the impious destruction of the remaining Nature by men who can no longer be taught the saving virtues of pride and humility. They have succeeded in doing what they felt they had to do, what they thought they wanted to do. But their act was essentially sacrilegious, however necessary and glorious it may have seemed. They have not gained the power and strength of their feared and reverenced god by conquering him. Indeed, as human beings will, they have mistaken their true relation to him. They tried to possess what they could not possess, and now they can no longer even share in it.
Boon remains, but he has violated the fundamental taboo. Permitted to do this by virtue of his nonhumanity, he is yet in part human. He has broken the law, killed with his own hand the bear, taken upon himself the mastery of that which was no man's to master. So when the chiefs withdraw, and the sawmills grind their way into the forests, Boon polices the new desecrations. When Ike returns to gaze once more upon the remnants of the wilderness, he finds Boon alone in the clearing where the squirrels can be trapped in the isolated tree. Boon, with the gun he could never aim successfully, frenziedly hammers the barrel against the breech of the dismembered weapon, shouting at the intruder, any intruder, "Get out of here! Don't touch them! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine!" Having killed the bear, he now possesses all the creatures of nature, and will snarl jealously at the innocent who walks peacefully through the woods. The result of his impiety is, literally, madness.
That, of course, is not exactly Faulkner's "Bear." But it is part of it, an essential part. If a reading of the story as myth results in suppressions and distortions, as it does, any other reading leaves us unsatisfied. Only thus can we answer certain crucial questions that otherwise baffle us. The most important ones relate to the four central characters: Why can Ike or Sam not kill the bear? Why can Boon? Why are Boon and Lion drawn precisely so? And why does Sam Fathers die along with Old Ben?
Ike has developed and retained the requisite purity. He has learned to face nature with pride and humility. He is not tainted like de Spain and Compson by having owned slaves. According to Faulkner's version of the huntsman's code, Ike should be the one who has the right to kill Old Ben, as General Compson feels when he assigns him the one mule that can approach the bear. Or it might be argued that Sam Fathers, with his unsurpassed knowledge, instinct, and dignity, rightly deserves the honor. If Old Ben is merely the greatest of bears, it would seem fitting for either Ike or Sam to demonstrate his impeccable relationship to nature by accomplishing the task. But Faulkner rules differently.
Lion and Boon do it. At first glance that may seem explicable if we consider Old Ben's death as symbolizing man's destruction of the wilderness. Then the deed cannot be performed by Ike or Sam, for it would be essentially vicious, done in violation of the rules by men ignorant or disrespectful of the rules. Thus one may think it could be assigned to Boon, "the plebeian," and that strange, wild dog. But actually neither of them is "bad," neither belongs to a mean order of hunters. Boon and Lion are creatures set apart, dehumanized, possessing neither virtues nor vices. In their actions and in his words describing them, Faulkner takes great pains to link them together and to remove from them all human traits.3
Thus the killing of the bear cannot be explained by a naturalistic interpretation of the symbolism. Old Ben is not merely an extraordinary bear representing the wilderness and impervious to all but the most skilfull or improper attacks. He is the totem animal, the god who can never be bested by men with their hounds and guns, but only by a nonhuman Boon with Lion, the instrument fashioned by the priest.
Sam Fathers' death can likewise be explained only by the nature myth. If the conquest of Old Ben is the triumphant culmination of the boy's induction into the hunting clan, Sam, his mentor, would presumably be allowed a share in the triumph. If the bear's death symbolizes the destruction of the wild, Sam's demise can be seen as paralleling that of the nature of which he is so completely a part. But then the whole affair would be immoral, and Sam could not manage and lead the case so willingly, nor would he die placid and satisfied. Only as part of a nature rite does his death become fully understandable. It is as if the priest and the god are possessed of the same soul. The priest fulfils his function; his magic makes the god vulnerable to the men. He has to do it; and according to human standards he wins a victory for his tribe. But it is a victory for which the only fit reward is the death he is content to accept. The actors act out their ordained roles. And in the end the deed brings neither jubilation nor mourning—only retribution, tragic in the high sense, right as the things which are inevitable are right.
A further paradox, a seeming contradiction, appears in the conjunction of the two words which are repeated so often that they clearly constitute a major theme. Pride and humility. Here conjoined are two apparently polar concepts: the quintessence of Christianity in the virtue of humility; and the greatest of sins, the sin of Satan. Though at first the words puzzle one, or else slip by as merely a pleasant conceit, they soon gather up into themselves the entire "meaning" of the story. This meaning can be read in purely naturalistic terms: Faulkner gives these two qualities as the huntsman's necessary virtues. But they take on additional connotations. Humility becomes the proper attitude to the nature gods, with whom man can merely bring himself into harmony as Sam teaches Ike to do. The pride arises out of the individual's realization of his manhood: his acquisition of the self-control which permits him to perform the rituals as he should. Actually it is humanly impossible to possess these two qualities fully at the same time. Sam alone truly has them, and as the priest he has partly escaped from his humanity. Ike apparently believes he has developed them, finally; and Faulkner seems to agree with him. But Ike cannot quite become Sam's successor, for in acquiring the necessary humility—and insight—he loses the ability to act with the full pride of a man, and can only be an onlooker, indeed in his later life, as told in Part IV and "Delta Autumn," a sort of Ishmael.
In conclusion, then, "The Bear" is first of all a magnificent story. The inclusion of Part IV gives us specific insights into Faulkner's attitudes toward his Southern society and adds another legend to the saga of his mythical kingdom. The tale of Old Ben by itself has a different sort of effect. Our response is not intellectual but emotional. The relatively simple story of the hunting of a wise old bear suggests the mysteries of life, which we feel subconsciously and cannot consider in the rationalistic terms we use to analyze the "how" of ordinary life. Thus it appears as a nature myth, embodying the ambivalences that lie at the heart of primitive taboos, rituals, and religions, and the awe we feel toward that which we are unable to comprehend or master. From strata buried deep under our rationalistic understanding, it dredges up our feeling that the simple and the primitive—the stolid dignity and the superstitions of Sam Fathers—are the true. It evokes our terrible and fatal attraction toward the imperturbable, the powerful, the great—as symbolized in the immortal Old Ben. And it expresses our knowledge that as men we have to conquer and overcome, and our knowledge that it is beyond our human power to do so—that it is necessary and sacrilegious.
1 In "The Old People," the story preceding "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses, Faulkner says that Walter Ewell never misses. Thus mention of his shooting and missing at this particular time takes on added significance.
2 Boon explained that he could not fire because Lion was too close. That was, of course, not the "real" reason; Boon could not kill Ben with a civilized gun (to say nothing of the fact that he couldn't hit anything with his gun anyway).
3 In "The Old People," Boon is referred to as "a mastiff."
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1269
"The Bear" William Faulkner
See also "A Rose for Emily" Criticism.
Widely anthologized and acclaimed as a masterpiece of modern American literature, William Faulkner's "The Bear" is considered among the best stories written in the twentieth century. "The Bear" appeared in its fullest form as a chapter in Go Down, Moses (1942), following revisions of earlier versions published as "Lion" in Harper's Magazine in December, 1935, and as "The Bear" in Saturday Evening Post in May, 1942. Go Down, Moses, which contains some of Faulkner's finest writing and is variously considered a novel or a short story collection, explores the dual themes of the gradual loss of the wilderness to frontier settlement and the racial tension arising from the exploitation of African Americans. The narrative spans five generations of the white and the black descendants of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a Scotsman who purchased the family plantation in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, from a Native American chief. Each chapter concerns the consequences of McCaslin's actions as they affect his descendants: primarily his abuse of the land, participation in slavery, and miscegenation, by which he sires a second, illegitimate family line that is unacknowledged and oppressed by his first family. Although the chapters do not follow a chronological pattern, share a common narrator, nor feature the same protagonists, each story coheres around the central themes of Go Down, Moses, and "The Bear" represents the emotional climax of the book. In it, McCaslin's grandson, Isaac ("Ike") McCaslin, confronts both his place in the natural world and the social responsibilities foisted on him by his Southern heritage. Interpretations of "The Bear" have frequently diverged depending on whether critics approach the work as an independent story or as a chapter of the novel, but most commentators concur that it is one of Faulkner's greatest literary achievements.
Plot and Major CharactersSet in the late nineteenth century after the Civil War, "The Bear" primarily recounts the adventure and exploits of an annual, late autumn hunting expedition in the wild lands of the Tallahatchie River region in mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Told from Ike's perspective in simple, straightforward language, the narrative is divided into five sections. The first three sections comprise an account of the pursuit of legendary Old Ben, a huge and elusive ancient bear with a mutilated paw. As the tale unfolds, the adolescent Ike learns to hunt under the guidance of expert tracker Sam Fathers, a noble huntsman who is the son of a Chickasaw Indian and an African slave. Sam also trains a fierce, woodland dog called Lion, and together they track Old Ben. When the dog eventually engages the bear in a death-struggle in the third section, however, another part-Indian member of the hunting party, Boon Hogganbeck, enters the fray and slays Old Ben with a knife-jab to its heart. Simultaneously, Sam suffers a seizure and later dies; fatally wounded, the dog dies as well.
At this point, the hunting narrative breaks off, and a seemingly different one begins. Omitted from the version of "The Bear" that appears in Big Woods (1955), Faulkner's last story collection published during his lifetime, the fourth section is a lengthy, convoluted dialogue between Ike and his cousin Carothers ("Cass") Edmonds in which Ike repudiates his inheritance of the McCaslin plantation upon discovering miscegenation and incest in his family's history. Written in a complicated, stream-of-consciousness style (for example, one long passage totaling more than eighteen-hundred words and spanning several pages incorporates quoted matter and several paragraphs yet contains no periods nor capitalization to indicate the start and end of sentences), the fourth section begins when Ike is twenty-one years old and outlines the social responsibilities and inherent guilt attached to his grandfather's legacy. The final part of "The Bear" resumes the hunting narrative. When Ike returns two years later to the place where Lion, Old Ben, and Sam died, he experiences an emotional reverie on the immortality of all life. Afterward, he presses deeper into the woods and encounters Boon, who hysterically orders Ike to leave him alone beneath a tree swarming with squirrels.
"The Bear' is at once so simple and so complex that it surrenders its meaning to the conscious mind only after repeated readings and much brooding," wrote Daniel Hoffman. Indeed, Faulkner's story offers a concentrated exploration of themes that recur throughout his writings, including questions about proprietary rights to the land, the cultural implications of miscegenation, incest, and maltreatment of African Americans, and the moral problems associated with pride, humility, and guilt. A principal theme of "The Bear" concerns Ike's attitude toward the land. On one level, Ike shares the Native American view that the land belongs to no one but instead exists for communal use—a lesson Sam teaches him. Ike also sincerely believes that the land itself has been cursed by slavery, especially when he learns that his grandfather impregnated one of his slaves and then sexually abused their daughter, driving the mother to suicide. For Ike, the only way to escape the curse—and the guilt that he sees as his heritage—is to relinquish the land bequeathed to him by his grandfather.
Ike's decision illuminates the development of his moral character, which, for some critics, integrates the themes of the fourth section with narrative elements of the hunting story; in other words, Ike's ritualistic initiation into the mythic world of nature by his participation in the hunt mirrors his coming-of-age into society via his discovery of the truth about his heritage. In addition, Ike's predilection for nature and his alarm at its progressive ruin by humans symbolically corresponds with the connection between Sam and Old Ben and the deaths of the animals, who embody the spirit of the wilderness. The thematic patterns of "The Bear" extend beyond the hunting narrative to implicate multiple tensions that have defined American life, including the conflicts between the wilderness and civilization, Native American ethics and European exploitation, freedom and slavery, pagan values and Christian duties, innocence and knowledge of sin.
Opinion about the meaning of Ike's renunciation of his inheritance has diverged widely. Many critics have considered Ike's stance heroic, even Christlike, and consequently attribute value to the patient suffering exemplified by Ike; they have argued that his decision represents a noble sacrifice and serves as a means of expiation for his ancestors' guilt. Other commentators, however, have pointed out that later in Go Down, Moses it is made known that the proprietary rights to the family plantation were not relinquished but merely transferred to Ike's cousin, Cass. Some contend that Ike's later acceptance of a monthly stipend from his cousin's plantation consequently negates his original intention. Therefore, Ike's repudiation and his subsequent behavior signify a weak moral character and an escape from his social responsibilities.
Another significant area of critical contention surrounds the unusual fourth section, which seems to interrupt an otherwise unified hunting tale. Some scholars have claimed that this part illuminates Ike's moral development—a central theme of "The Bear"—and contains important analogies to thematic concerns in the rest of the story. To other critics, however, the fourth section unnecessarily destroys narrative unity, especially if "The Bear" is judged as an independent story isolated from the context of Go Down, Moses. Despite the lack of consensus, commentators generally admire the complexity and emotionally moving style of this passage, conceding that its presence in "The Bear" largely accounts for the prominent place that the story assumes in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha cycle. "The Bear," then, is recognized not only as one of Faulkner's most impressive stories, but also as, in Hoffman's words, "the greatest American hunting story of the twentieth century."
W. R. Moses (essay date 1953)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5886
SOURCE: "Where History Crosses Myth: Another Reading of The Bear'," in Accent, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1953, pp. 21-33.
[Below, Moses describes the conflict between the mythic patterns and historical realities of "The Bear" in terms of the character development of Isaac McCaslin]
This reading is made in terms of the following simple propositions: Myth does not rationally "explain" anything and perhaps does not even justify anything, but it does dramatize the human situation, appealing to and flattering the various non-rational interests that principally make us men. People live by it, or may do so. History—the brute sequence of events—lacks dramatic structure; study of it may permit explanation or justification, but appeals principally if not entirely only to the predilections of rationality, and is likely to be irrelevant to the making of a useable pattern of individual life. Automatically people live in it, but little good it does them.
"The Bear" is an account of a person who as a child was able to participate in life under the conditions of myth, but early saw those conditions smashed; who then examined the historical reality around him and found it bad; who consequently refused to go with the historical drift of things and remained a myth-man all his life. From one point of view he refused to grow up: would not accept the worldly-honorable position in his community to which he was entitled, and with it his fair share of the painful social and economic problems of that community. He remained as a little child; but not from the necessity of personal weakness or limitation. Rather, he did so through exercise of the unchildish choice that would have to be exercised, one would think, by anybody deciding to become as a little child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The value of childishness, at least of the possible phase of childishness which involves desperate defiance of the main chance in order to serve God instead of Mammon, is heavily stressed in the later work, Intruder in the Dust. (Incidentally, that kind of childishness, if it is childishness—conscience-directed defiance of the probable, practical, and respectable in the service of what is believed right—did not come freshly into Faulkner's work with "The Bear." Clear back in As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family sealed their respect for higher principle by deliberately setting out on a rationally ridiculous journey that took them about as nearly literally as possible through hell and high water. But of course the Bundrens' outline of greatness was filled in with grotesque human flesh; Isaac McCaslin's flesh is better stuff, and so is Charles Mallison's.) Though I do not remember his anywhere saying so, I have an impression Faulkner hopes that a little child shall lead them.
There has been a good deal of justified comment about the intricacy of structure found in "The Bear." Lest awareness of the outline of the forest be lost in contemplation of the variety and splendor of the trees, it is worth remarking also the simplicity of structure found in "The Bear": three sections that present, in generally chronological order, the myth-life Isaac knew as a boy and the end of it; then a section, about as long as the first three put together, that presents his examination and condemnation of historical reality and his repudiation of practicality and worldly responsibility and worldly honor; and finally a shorter section that catches up and gives final treatment to both themes. No doubt one can point to an analogy with musical composition if he wants to.
One final preliminary remark: though "The Bear" is self-contained, other stories in the volume Go Down, Moses further develop and illuminate its theme. Two are especially closely related: "The Old People," dealing with an episode in Isaac's boyhood, the same period covered by the first sections of "The Bear"; and "Delta Autumn," which includes Isaac, still the unfaltering myth-man, fifty years after the time of his act of repudiation. I believe it is legitimate to use bits from these two, if they come handy, to substantiate the argument.
It is doubtful whether, without a Procrustean fitting process, the events of the first three sections of "The Bear" could be made exactly conformable to any recorded mythic pattern. So much the better, so long as the spirit and suggestiveness of myth are available. Anyhow, like the opposing forces of life and death, gods of the waxing and waning year, the little group of devoted hunters and the big-game animals of the wilderness, particularly Old Ben, engaged each November in their annual contest. On the merely practical level, almost anything went in those contests: hunting with dogs, the use of shot-guns and buckshot, still-hunting, ambushing bucks at their bedding places, shooting does (we learn reminiscently from "Delta Autumn"); nothing apparently was ignored except traps and poison, which wouldn't have been very exciting anyway. To Isaac and at least some of the other hunters, though, it seemed that the slapdash contests were pure and sanctioned expressions of the meaningful core of life. The participants were "ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter." There was more to it than merely living in the woods for two weeks and shooting animals, because their hearts said there was. It was not cruel, wasteful, inhumane because such adjectives were irrelevant to the process, beneath the dignity of men and animals alike, where the buck circling warily back to the stand was "perhaps conscious also of the eye of the ancient immortal Umpire" ("The Old People.") When a colt was killed one spring, supposedly by Old Ben, Major de Spain complained of the bear:
'I'm disappointed in him. He has broken the rules. I didn't think he would have done that. He has killed mine and McCaslin's dogs, but that was all right. We gambled the dogs against him; we gave each other warning. But now he has come into my house and destroyed my property, out of season too. He broke the rules.'
(But really it was Lion that broke the rules, or never admitted the existence of any rules to be broken. We shall come to that later.)
The pattern of myth includes, besides the opposing gods, the goddess for whom they fight, the mother-bridedestroyer who is greater than they. The goddess here is the wilderness. This passage from the last section of "The Bear," a kind of summary of the physical and spiritual life of Isaac, is worth quoting entire:
. . . summer, and fall, and snow, and wet and saprife spring in their ordered immortal sequence, the deathless and immemorial phases of the mother who had shaped him if any had toward the man he almost was, mother and father both to the old man born of a Negro slave and a Chickasaw chief who had been his spirit's father if any had, whom he had revered and harkened to and loved and lost and grieved: and he would marry someday and they too would own for their brief while that brief unsubstanced glory which inherently of itself cannot last and hence why glory: and they would, might, carry even the remembrance of it into the time when flesh no longer talks to flesh because memory at least does that: but still the woods would be his mistress and his wife.
Before Isaac the child consciously knew why, he felt that the splendid mythic pattern was coming to an end. The sequence of history, of course, had doomed his little pocket of the frontier as frontier, and also Isaac was coming closer and closer to being chronologically grown-up, and so having the contentions of rationality to deal with and settle. Accordingly, Old Ben sometimes seemed to him "not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time." When Sam Fathers said that someday someone would get "the" dog (that could hold Ben until the hunters arrived to shoot him), "'I know it,' the boy said. That's why it must be one of us. So it wont be until the last day. When even he dont want it to last any longer.'" Looking back from manhood, Isaac believed that Sam also hadn't wanted it to last any longer. The hunters got "the" dog, Lion,
And he was glad, he told himself. He was old. He had no children, no people, none of his blood anywhere above earth that he would ever meet again. And even if he were to, he could not have touched it, spoken to it, because for seventy years now he had had to be a negro. It was almost over now and he was glad.
Isaac spent no time, apparently, wishing the doom away. A sense of inevitability prevented that, or merely being so caught up in circumstances that there was no time for analysis and evaluation. Because Lion was the symbol of the implement of doom, Isaac should have hated and feared him,
Yet he did not. It seemed to him that there was a fatality in it. It seemed to him that something, he didn't know what, was beginning; had already begun. It was like the last act on a set stage. It was the beginning of the end of something, he didn't know what except that he would not grieve. He would be humble and proud that he had been found worthy to be a part of it too or even just to see it too.
The attitude of most of the community toward the wilderness was symptomatic and explanatory of its approaching destruction, but to Isaac the child that attitude lacked force or significance. Small backwoods farmers were hacking clearings from the edge of the virgin forest; to Isaac they were only "little puny humans" who "swarmed and hacked at" ["the old wild life"] "in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant." There was logging, too, in the days before Old Ben's death, but
It had been harmless then. They would hear the passing log-train sometimes from the camp; sometimes, because nobody bothered to listen for it or not. They would hear it going in, running light and fast, the light clatter of the trucks, the exhaust of the diminutive locomotive and its shrill peanut-parcher whistle flung for one petty moment and absorbed by the brooding and inattentive wilderness without even an echo. They would hear it going out, loaded, not quite so fast now yet giving its frantic and toylike illusion of crawling speed, not whistling now to conserve steam, flinging its bitten laboring miniature puffing into the immemorial woodsface with frantic and bootless vainglory, empty and noisy and puerile, carrying to no destination or purpose sticks which left nowhere any scar or stump as the child's toy loads and transports and unloads its dead sand and rushes back for more, tireless and unceasing and rapid yet never quite so fast as the Hand which plays with it moves the toy burden back to load the toy again.
But if what was or wanted to grow into the civilized community loathed the wilderness as an alien thing, there was an inexpressibly strong sympathy between the opponents in the myth-play, those who participated in the same game according to the same rules. More narrowly and accurately, there was such sympathy between the leading actors in the play: Isaac and Sam Fathers on one side and Old Ben on the other (but apparently not Lion, though only he, Sam, and Ben were "taintless and incorruptible," and he was as fatherless, childless, and solitary as they). In part the sympathy (not that this "explains" anything) was similar to the feeling attested to by many hunters at various times and places: that of loving the game one kills. In part it relates to the regular mythic pattern, in which the opposing gods may be brothers, or father and son, and the winner takes over from the loser in more than a material sense. It would be troublesome and I believe irrelevant to make the story fit the pattern exactly. Sam, who is parallel to Ben, and about as much product of the wilderness as the bear, engineers Ben's destruction by securing and training Lion, but reacts to the destruction not by taking over but by collapsing and dying when the destruction is complete. Lion outlived Ben only by a a few hours (though his spirit went marching on). Isaac on the other hand, though only a junior assistant in the actual struggle, became like Sam and Ben in solitariness and in the pride of a secret he could not share; he was the recipient of the kingship, though not of the conditions under which he could properly have exercised it.
Now all the white hunters were tainted, Isaac said when he was twenty-one and repudiating his material heritage,
by what Grandfather and his kind, his fathers, had brought into the new land which He had vouchsafed them out of pity and sufferance, on condition of pity and humiliation and sufferance and endurance, from that old world's corrupt and worthless twilight as though in the sailfuls of the old world's tainted wind which drove the ships.
Because they were so tainted (by the spoiled civilization of Europe), they wrecked their myth, or assisted in the wrecking, and left themselves stranded in the meaningless light of history. Or their behavior can be described in terms that appeal less directly to the Romantic ideal. Major de Spain, who owned the land in the Tallahatchie bottoms and sold the logging rights and never visited his hunting camp again, evidently held the common, often hopeless human view that change is change and progress is progress, and to oppose either is at worst fatal and at best artificial. (Grandparents of mine, I am told, who homesteaded in a pocket of the frontier far from Mississippi, said long afterward that their first years in the new land were the best of their lives. But they worked as hard as their neighbors, apparently, to change the conditions that made those years good.) The gross absurdity of man's, especially civilized man's, considering artificiality objectionable does not matter. When even Isaac had no impulse to own land for the sake of keeping it wilderness, de Spain could not be expected to keep the logging companies off his holdings forever.
Sam Fathers, as said, was taintless, and he had no reason to feel as the white men felt; but he was old, and death calls to everyone finally.
The account of the pursuit of Old Ben with Lion is a splendid hunting story, and a vivid account of the mythic death struggle. I suggest that it should be read also in a simple symbolic sense in which Lion stands for the mechanization, the applied science, which finally caught the wilderness fatally by the throat. Lion's mechanical attributes are not very heavily underscored, but of course they should not be. For one thing, he was metallic in color—"almost the color of a gun or pistol barrel." He was of super-canine size and strength, and without ordinary canine feelings or for that matter ordinary canine individuality; his eyes, when he collapsed from hunger in Sam's trap, "were not fierce and there was nothing of petty malevolence in them, but a cold and almost impersonal malignance like some natural force." Similarly, when the dog was first trapped and smashing against the door of the trap to get out, "It never made any sound and there was nothing frenzied in the act but only a cold and grim indomitable determination." Lion was an unnatural and unheard-of thing to turn up in the woods, just as mechanization was, and like that mechanization he possessed a complicated and hard-to-trace ancestry: "part mastiff, something of Airedale and something of a dozen other strains probably."
These quotations are not too compelling in themselves, and what Lion was—what he symbolized, rather; he was a big dog that got himself gutted while trying to kill a bear—is more strongly suggested by what happened after the campaign against Ben had been successful through his instrumentality. Within two years, the logging machines and their operations had become no joke. When Isaac, on his way to visit de Spain's camp for the last time, stopped at the formerly insignificant log-line junction, he
looked about in shocked and grieved amazement even though he had had forewarning and had believed himself prepared: a new planing-mill already half completed which would cover two or three acres and what looked like miles and miles of stacked steel rails red with the light bright rust of newness and of piled crossties sharp with creosote, and wire corrals and feeding-troughs for two hundred mules at least and the tents for the men who drove them; so that he arranged for the care and stabling of his mare as rapidly as he could and did not look any more, mounted into the log-train caboose with his gun and climbed into the cupola and looked no more save toward the wall of wilderness ahead within which he would be able to hide himself from it once more anyway.
The doom of the wilderness was written plain; it would be killed by the tireless destructiveness of the machines as surely as Ben was by the tireless destructiveness of Lion, the failure of any particular machine stopping the process no more than the incidental death of the dog saved the bear.
(Two supporting illustrations of the basic inimicality between machines and living things might be mentioned in passing. The first is arbitrary and symbolic: when still very young, at the hunting camp during one of the summer trips that alternated with the real hunting trips, Isaac went far into the woods alone to find and look at Old Ben. At Sam Fathers' edict, he had left his gun behind; Sam said that the bear would not let himself be seen by a person carrying a gun. Finally he had to realize that, even gunless, he was still tainted by mechanisms. He hung his watch and compass on a bush and pushed on without them; and then he saw the bear. The second is a minor episode of the hunting trip narrated in "Delta Autumn," when a couple of nervous horses had to be coaxed out of a truck and it fell to Isaac to do the coaxing:
It was himself, though no horseman, no farmer, not even a countryman save by his distant birth and boyhood, who coaxed and soothed the two horses, drawing them by his own single frail hand until, backing, filling, trembling a little, they surged, halted, then sprang scrambling down from the truck, possessing no affinity for them as creatures, beasts, but being merely insulated by his years and time from the corruption of steel and oiled moving parts which tainted the others.)
What it all amounted to was that, whether moved by old-world corruption or helpless sense of the historical drift or death-wish or what you will, in the last combat the hunters won too devastating a victory. To kill Ben was proper enough; but the wilderness was goddess and in terms of the myth immortal. Yet the machines employed against it were too strong, and when it was destroyed, or when it became apparent that it was vulnerable and faced extinction, the old drama collapsed into recognized make-believe, incapable any longer of making life significant. Naturally people still could and did go hunting, but any sense of participating in equal and sanctioned contest would have grown harder and harder to maintain. A discernible minority of hunters and fishermen today abide by the most meticulous (and highly artificial) rules, far exceeding anything the law requires; but I cannot help believing they do so out of a stubborn and elevated sense of what ought to be rather than out of any sense of congruence with the "reality" around them.
Besides Lion and the run-of-the-mill hounds, one other dog participated in the saga of Old Ben: Isaac's fyce, which, brought into the woods on one of the summer trips and showed the bear, launched such a fantastic attack that Isaac had to rescue him almost out of the bear's jaws. Except in the items of mixed ancestry and courage beyond discretion, the fyce was about as opposite as possible from Lion, and he has an opposite function in the story. He (and Isaac at the time of the fyce-Ben incident) are described thus in the fourth section:
a boy who wished to learn humility and pride in order to become skilful and worthy in the woods but found himself becoming so skilful so fast that he feared he would never become worthy because he had not learned humility and pride though he had tried, until one day an old man [Sam Fathers] who could not have defined either led him as though by the hand to where an old bear and a little mongrel dog showed him that, by possessing one thing other, he would possess them both; and a little dog, nameless and mongrel and many-fathered, grown yet weighing less than six pounds, who couldn't be dangerous because there was nothing anywhere much smaller, not fierce because that would have been called just noise, not humble because it was already too near the ground to genuflect, and not proud because it would not have been close enough for anyone to discern what was casting that shadow and which didn't even know it was not going to heaven since they had already decided it had no immortal soul, so that all it could be was brave even though they would probably call that too just noise.
Lion too was of indomitable courage but he represented too much power and led to too overwhelming a victory; the lesson of the fyce seems to be that it is necessary for a proper man (or dog) to be brave and faithful to principle without regard for consequence even when he has not power enough to save his behavior from seeming ridiculous; it is the bravery and fidelity themselves which erase the ridiculousness. Many of Faulkner's characters of all periods of his work, incidentally, are moved by this principle without benefit of a fyce to teach it to them.
The episode at the end of section five, which shows an hysterical Boon Hogganbeck pounding his dismantled gun under an isolated gum tree full of equally hysterical squirrels, is comparatively obscure. Boon was a moron, who had exercised a kind of merryman's function toward the other hunters. From the time of the acquisition of Lion, he devoted himself to the dog, taking more thought to Lion's welfare than to his own; ". . . he had the mind of a child, the heart of a horse, and little hard shoe-button eyes without depth or meanness or generosity or viciousness or gentleness or anything else . . ." The affinity between man and dog is suggested by one description of Lion's eyes in terms of Boon's: ". . . the yellow eyes as depthless as Boon's, as free as Boon's of meanness or generosity or gentleness or viciousness." After the fight in which Old Ben was killed, Boon took more immediate thought of Lion's injuries than of either Sam Fathers' collapse or his own wounds. The suggestion of the final episode, I believe, is something like this: the simple-minded follower, personally ineffective (Boon could hit nothing even with a shotgun), can be given direction and effectiveness only by devotion to an adequate principle or pattern outside himself (with Lion, Boon pursued Old Ben more furiously than any of the other hunters, and knifed the bear to death in the last fight). Let the pattern, the self-perpetuating dramatic situation, fail (the hunting myth failed with the death of Ben, and the principle Lion represented provided no substitute), throwing the simple-minded follower on his own resources, and he becomes pitiful or objectionable or both—a poor thing that gives no satisfaction. Boon, an acceptable and finally magnificent hanger-on of the party that hunted big game according to what they felt to be eternally sanctioned rules, was reduced when he had to travel under his own power to a squirrel hunter, and a marvellously inept one. It was he, the least intelligent of the party, who had given the most extreme allegiance to the very power that was to end by degrading him. Isaac was about eighteen when he witnessed the squirrel-tree episode; for a couple of years now he had been working on an adverse judgment of the historical reality of his world. Seeing Boon should have strengthened his condemnation of life not governed by, or not admitting, external moral sanctions.
It is not necessary for present purposes to write at any length about the material of the long fourth section of "The Bear," which presents Isaac's declination to go with his times and his reasons for it. It was basically in moral terms that he had understood and approved of the ruined myth-life, and it was in moral terms that he reacted to the results of Negro slavery in general and his own grandfather's part in it in particular. (He was the better prepared to do so, of course, by his devotion to Sam Fathers, part Chickasaw and part Negro.) What he said when, having gone to Arkansas to take a "legacy" to his young partly black cousin 'Fonsiba, he encountered the amazing fatuity of the partly black man who had married 'Fonsiba, illustrates his conclusions well enough:
Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples' turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet.
Isaac had little to say about the ordinary economic details and occupations of the historical world in which he found himself. An outburst from General Compson, though, delivered (toward the end of the third section) in the boy's behalf, is at least suggestive of how Isaac himself reacted to those details and occupation. After Ben's death, when the hunting party was preparing to go out, Isaac wanted to stay in the woods with Sam, whom he alone among the whites believed to be dying. McCaslin objected, on the practical grounds that Isaac had already missed enough school. Compson rebuked him:
You've got one foot straddled into a farm and the other foot straddled into a bank; you aint even got a good hand-hold where this boy was already an old man long before you damned Sartorises and Edmondses invented farms and banks to keep youselves from having to find out what this boy was born knowing and fearing too maybe but without being afraid, that could go ten miles on a compass because he wanted to look at a bear none of us had ever got near enough to put a bullet in and looked at the bear and came the ten miles back on the compass in the dark; maybe by God that's the why and the wherefore of farms and banks.
Whatever the why and wherefore of farms and banks, to Isaac they were intrinsically foolish and based on a meretricious predicate. The earth, he thought, should be used by all and "owned" by none. When a man realized he owned it in the sense that he could sell it, then he ceased ever to have owned it in the sense of understanding and participating in its life. Having come to understanding of this as spiritual heir to Sam Fathers ("Sam Fathers set me free"), Isaac could only repudiate "ownership" of the farm McCaslin had held in trust for him—refuse to accept the terms of the historical life around him, hold true to the terms of the myth-life that had passed. To give up the farm was no shock, incidentally, to his natural inclinations, did not mean taking a radically new course. Witness the terms of a request Boon made to him once when the two were sent to Memphis for whiskey: "'Lend me a dollar. Come on. You've got it. If you ever had one, you've still got it. I dont mean you are tight with your money because you aint. You just dont never seem to ever think of nothing you want.'" For a person whose character could be so analyzed when he was sixteen to turn in adulthood to earning a living as a carpenter need not be actively painful, even if it isn't actively pleasant either.
So far as anyone could tell, Isaac had a comparatively thin life of it from twenty-one on. He was not and did not try to be "understood," and apparently did not and did not try to exert any influence on his townsmen. When he appears last, an old man in "Delta Autumn," he is likeable and tolerable enough to his companions, but something of an odd old anachronism too. What had sustained him for fifty-odd years, a myth-king whom no one recognized, in a culture that he believed vain? Apart from the stimulus of periodic trips into the diminishing woods, apparently he lived on a belief in immortality—the immortality of his particular myth—supported, insofar as it was supported, by a version of the teleological argument. McCaslin states the argument most clearly, but other passages indicate that Isaac adopted McCaslin's belief or formed a similar one for himself. McCaslin's statement is made in "The Old People." Isaac is twelve. He has killed his first deer, and Sam Fathers has taken him to a certain place in the woods and showed him a great ghost-buck; the boy is overwrought about it. The cousins sleep in the same bed that night and
. . . suddenly he was telling McCaslin about it while McCaslin listened, quietly until he had finished. 'You dont believe it,' the boy said, 'I know you dont—'
'Why not?' McCaslin said. 'Think of all that has happened here, on this earth. All the blood hot and strong for living, pleasuring, that has soaked back into it. For grieving and suffering too, of course, but still getting something out of it for all that, getting a lot out of it, because after all you dont have to continue to bear what you believe is suffering; you can always choose to stop that, put an end to that. And even suffering and grieving is better than nothing; there is only one thing worse than not being alive, and that's shame. But you cant be alive forever, and you always wear out life long before you have exhausted the possibilities of living. And all that must be somewhere; all that could not have been invented and created just to be thrown away. And the earth is shallow; there is not a great deal of it before you come to the rock. And the earth dont want to just keep things, hoard them; it wants to use them again. Look at the seeds, the acorns, at what happens even to carrion when you try to bury it: it refuses too, seethes and struggles too until it reaches light and air again, hunting the sun still. And they—' the boy saw his hand in silhouette for a moment against the window beyond which, accustomed to the darkness now, he could see sky where the scoured and icy stars glistened '—they dont want it, need it. Besides, what would it want, itself, knocking around out there, when it never had enough time about the earth as it was, when there is plenty of room about the earth, plenty of places still unchanged from what they were when the blood used and pleasured in them while it was still blood?'
'But we want them,' the boy said. 'We want them too. There is plenty of room for us and them too.'
'That's right,' McCaslin said. 'Suppose they dont have substance, cant cast a shadow—'
'But I saw it!' the boy cried. 'I saw him!'
'Steady,' McCaslin said. For an instant his hand touched the boy's flank beneath the covers. 'Steady. I know you did. So did I. Sam took me in there once after I killed my first deer.'
And that, apparently, was enough. I find it hard to think of Isaac as one reborn, for rebirth implies taking up a new line of action different from one's old line. Isaac, on the other hand, held to his old line, refusing to assume the worldly responsibilities he had never had and never wanted. Having grown up with myth, and seen life take its meaning from myth, he succeeded if only by default to mythic kingship, in a world where his authority was not recognized, and his wilderness goddess-bride was fast pining into ghostliness. Nevertheless he did not abdicate, but waited—either in stoic satisfaction of his own categorical imperative or in some actual security of resuming his proper operations after bodily death. We are told little about the latter two-thirds of his life, but "Delta Autumn" shows him actually comfortable enough in his seventies:
Because it was his land, although he had never owned a foot of it. He had never wanted to, not even after he saw plain its ultimate doom, watching it retreat year by year before the onslaught of axe and saw and loglines and then dynamite and tractor plows, because it belonged to no man. It belonged to all; they had only to use it well, humbly and with pride. Then suddenly he knew why he had never wanted to own any of it, arrest at least that much of what people called progress, measure his longevity at least against that much of its ultimate fate. It was because there was just exactly enough of it. He seemed to see the two of them—himself and the wilderness—as coevals, his own span as a hunter, a woodsman, not contemporary with his first breath but transmitted to him, assumed by him gladly, humbly, with joy and pride, from that old Major de Spain and that old Sam Fathers who had taught him to hunt, the two spans running out together, not toward oblivion, nothingness, but into a dimension free of both time and space where once more the untreed land warped and wrung to mathematical squares of rank cotton for the frantic old-world people to turn into shells to shoot at one another, would find ample room for both—the names, the faces of the old men he had known and loved and for a little while outlived, moving again among the shades of tall unaxed trees and sightless brakes where the wild strong immortal game ran forever before the tireless belling immortal hounds, falling and rising phoenix-like to the soundless guns.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
Ackerman, R. D. "The Immolation of Isaac McCaslin." Texas Studies in Literature and Language XVI, No. 3 (Fall 1974): 557-65.
Addresses the significance of Faulkner's decision not to treat the intervening years of Isaac McCaslin's life between his youth in "The Bear" and old age in "Delta Autumn."
Aiken, Charles S. "A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner's 'The Bear'." Geographical Review 71, No. 4 (October 1981): 446-59.
Examines Faulkner's overt and symbolic use of geography in "The Bear," focusing on historical sources for the setting to explicate the story's theme of changing landscape.
Baumgarten, Murray. "The Language of Faulkner's The Bear." Western Humanities Review XV, No. 2 (Spring 1961): 180-82.
Analyzes the manner and significance of Faulkner's distinction between two different connotations of the words "fright" and "fear."
Bedard, Brian. "The Real Meaning of William Faulkner's 'The Bear'." South Dakota Review 34, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 3-5.
Offers a wry interpretation of the significance of the bear in Faulkner's story, which Bedard considers "an obituary for the last Republican in America."
Bell, Jr., H. H. "Sam Fathers and Ike McCaslin and the World In Which Ike Matures." Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature 1 (1973): 1-12.
Discusses the relationship between Sam Fathers and Isaac McCaslin to account for the latter's repudiation of his inheritance.
Bradford, Melvin E. A. "Brotherhood in 'The Bear': An Exemplum for Critics." Modern Age 10, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 278-81.
Focuses on Isaac McCaslin's misuse of the word "brotherhood."
Carpenter, Thomas P. "A Gun for Faulkner's Old Ben." American Notes & Queries V, No. 9 (May 1967): 133-34.
Attributes the inability of the hunters to kill Old Ben year after year to the inadequacy of their firearms.
Collins, Carvel. "A Note on the Conclusion of 'The Bear'." Faulkner Studies II, No. 4 (Winter 1954): 58-60.
Applies the Jungian concept of "mandala" to the last scene of the story.
Foster, Ruel E. "A Further Note on the Conclusion of 'The Bear'." Faulkner Studies III, No. 1 (Spring 1954): 4-5.
Notes the resolution of two principal motifs in the final pages of the story: the psychic maturation of Isaac McCaslin and the demise of the wilderness.
Harrison, Robert. "Faulkner's 'The Bear': Some Notes on Form." Georgia Review XX, No. 3 (Fall 1966): 318-27.
Outlines the mythic and cultural patterns that inform "The Bear" with respect to formal aesthetics and themes.
Hess, Judith W. "Traditional Themes in Faulkner's 'The Bear'." Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin XL, No. 2 (June 1974): 57-64.
Traces Faulkner's use and development of folkloric themes concerning the Southern hunting tradition.
Howell, Elmo. "William Faulkner and the Chickasaw Funeral." American Literature 36, No. 4 (January 1965): 523-25.
Detects historical inaccuracies in Faulkner's description of Native American burial customs.
Hutchinson, E. R. "A Footnote to the Gum Tree Scene." College English 24, No. 7 (April 1963): 564-65.
Offers further evidence to support H. H. Bell's interpretation of the last scene in "The Bear."
Jensen, Eric G. "The Play Element in Faulkner's 'The Bear'." Texas Studies in Literature and Language VI, No. 2 (Summer 1964): 170-87.
Considers the thematic function of the "play principle" in "The Bear," emphasizing the relation between rites of passage and the search for identity.
Kern, Alexander C. "Myth and Symbol in Criticism of Faulkner's 'The Bear'." In Myth and Symbol: Critical Approaches and Applications, edited by Bernice Slote, pp. 152-61. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.
Interprets structural elements of "The Bear," concentrating on Chickasaw customs, Christian symbolism, and American mythology.
Knight, Karl F. "'Spintrius' in Faulkner's 'The Bear'." Studies in Short Fiction 12, No. 1 (Summer 1975): 31-2.
Explores the humorous overtones and sexual implications of the slave Percival Brownlee, renamed "Spintrius," in relation to the story's racial theme.
Nelson, Raymond S. "Apotheosis of the Bear." Research Studies 41, No. 3 (September 1973): 201-04.
Inquires into the purpose and inferences of Faulkner's use of the word "apotheosis" in "The Bear."
Pounds, Wayne. "Symbolic Landscapes in 'The Bear'." Gypsy Scholar 4, No. 1 (Winter 1977): 40-52.
Compares and contrasts plantation landscapes with wilderness landscapes with respect to the symbolic implications of frozen motion and suspended time.
Sachs, Viola. "The Bear." In The Myth of America: Essays in the Structures of Literary Imagination, pp. 125-42. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
Demonstrates the narrative unity of "The Bear" achieved through opposition of symbolic structures that define the "sacred" wilderness and the "profane" town.
Sequeria, Isaac. "The Bear: The Initiation of Ike McCaslin." Osmania: Journal of English Studies 9, No. 1 (1972): 1-10.
Defines three types of mythic, religious, and anthropological initiation rites manifested in the characterization of Isaac McCaslin.
Stephens, Rosemary. "Ike's Gun and Too Many Novembers." Mississippi Quarterly 23, Special Faulkner Issue (Summer 1970): 279-87.
Analyzes chronological discrepancies and errors in "The Bear," attacking Faulkner's inconsistency and inaccuracy but acknowledging his literary accomplishment.
Stone, Emily Whitehurst. "How a Writer Finds His Material." Harper's 231, No. 1386 (November 1965): 157-61.
Tells how an adventure of the critic's husband with William Faulkner in their boyhood inspired "The Bear."
Stonesifer, Richard J. "Faulkner's 'The Bear': A Note on Structure." College English 23, No. 3 (December 1961): 219-23.
Highlights Faulkner's artistic aims in terms of a recurrent seven-part structure in the version of "The Bear" that appears in Big Woods.
Utley, Francis Lee, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Bear, Man, and God: Eight Approaches to WilliamFaulkner's 'The Bear.' New York: Random House, 1964.
Contains several critical analyses, related works by Faulkner, and his sources. Also reprints "The Bear" and earlier versions of the story.
Zender, Karl F. "Reading in 'The Bear'." Faulkner Studies 1 (1980): 91-9.
Purports that the scene from "The Bear" in which Ike McCaslin reads the commissary ledgers contains wide ranges of meaning.
Additional coverage of Faulkner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941% Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 18, 28, 52, 68; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 11, 44, 102; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook,Vols. 86, 97; Discovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian*, Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major 20th-century Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism.
William Van O'Connor (essay date 1953)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4041
SOURCE: "The Wilderness Theme in Faulkner's The Bear'," in William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960, pp. 322-30.
[In the essay below, which originally appeared in the periodical Accent in 1953, O'Connor analyzes the wilderness theme of "The Bear" in relation to the theme of racial injustice, and notes differences between the original and revised versions of the story.]
Inevitably, as Faulkner has grown older, the problems of his region have become more and more profoundly intertwined with his own commitments and ideals. To a reporter who interviewed her about Faulkner at the time of the Nobel Award, Mrs. Calvin Brown, who had known Faulkner since he was a boy, said, "I think Billy is heartbroken about what he sees, heartbroken about the deterioration of ideals." She felt he has also suffered, as all intelligent Southerners do, over their "confusion and mixed-up emotions . . . about the race question." The book most frequently quoted by critics examining Faulkner's attitudes about modern society and, inevitably, about the race question is Go Down, Moses.
This book marks a profound shift in his work. In place of the sense of doom, of tragic inevitabilities, or of an Old Testament harshness, one finds a sense of hopefulness, a promise of salvation. There are in Go Down, Moses two loosely related strands of subject matter—the life of the ascetic Isaac McCaslin, the hunter, and the life of Lucas Beauchamp, the son of the mulatto slave who in turn had been the son of Carothers McCaslin, Isaac's grandfather.1
The antecedents of Isaac are explained in "Was," the humorous story in which we learn that Uncle Bud and Uncle Buck, Isaac's father, refused to profit from slavery. Isaac himself figures dominantly in "The Old People," "The Bear," and "Delta Autumn."2 Two chapters are devoted to Lucas Beauchamp and his family, "The Fire and the Hearth" and "Go Down, Moses." Both of these sections, however, relate more directly and intimately to the action in Intruder in the Dust, a later novel, than to the chapters devoted to Isaac. The theme implicit in the sections devoted to Lucas Beauchamp is white injustice to the Negro, and the theme implicit in those devoted to Isaac is the nobility of character to be learned from life in the wilderness. In "The Bear" Faulkner attempts to bring the two subject matters and therefore the two themes together, with the wilderness theme dominating.
Immediately preceding "The Bear" is "The Old People," which develops the wilderness theme and introduces us to the significant figure of Sam Fathers, the son of a Negro slave and Ikkemotube or Doom, a Chickasaw chief. He and his mother had been sold to Carothers McCaslin, Ike's grandfather.3 After the death of Joe Baker, also a Chickasaw, Sam Fathers asks permission to live by himself at the Big Bottom, the hunting grounds on the Tallahatchie River, a way of recapturing the spirit of the wilderness which flows in his blood. He is joined there during the hunting expeditions by General Compson, Major de Spain, Boon Hogganbeck (who also has Indian blood, but not from a chief), and others. When Isaac kills his first deer, Sam marks his face with the blood, teaching him to respect and love what he kills. "I slew you; my bearing must not shame your quitting life." (As an old man in "Delta Autumn," Ike recalls the story and elaborates its meaning.) On the same day Ike is shown with Sam, waiting to shoot at a deer they know will return to bed for the night. But at another stand above them they hear a shot, followed by a hunter's horn, and they know Walter Ewell has killed the deer. But Sam tells Ike to wait, and this is what they see:
Then it saw them. And still it did not begin to run. It just stopped for an instant, taller than any man, looking at them; then its muscles suppled, gathered. It did not even alter its course, not fleeing, not even running, just moving with that winged and effortless ease with which deer move, passing within twenty feet of them, its head high and the eye not proud and not haughty but just full and wild and unafraid, and Sam standing beside the boy now, his right arm raised at full length, palmoutward, speaking in that tongue which the boy had learned from listening to him and Joe Baker in the blacksmith shop, while up the ridge Walter Ewell's horn was still blowing them in to a dead buck.
"0leh, Chief," Sam said. "Grandfather."
When Isaac tells his cousin McCaslin Edmonds the story the latter confirms it, and we infer that the shade of the deer is to be interpreted as the spirit of the wilderness, related not merely to Sam but to all men if they could but rediscover it, and the symbol of an abundant earth eager to produce. "The Old People," then, is a preliminary probing of the subject of the wilderness and man's relationship to it.
The first version of "The Bear,"4 much simpler than the revised version, is the story of the young Ike's initiation as a hunter and his growing awareness of what is to be learned from the wilderness, symbolized by the bear, Old Ben. His two mentors are Sam Fathers and his own father (in the revised version it is his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, sixteen years his senior and the joint heir with Ike of the McCaslin farm). Old Ben is an epitome, an apotheosis of the old wild life known to the Chickasaws before man hacked away at the forest and before they sold a part of it to Jason Lycurgus Compson or any one else. Nature should be free and abundant. No one has the right to own or sell it. Sam tells Ike that Old Ben won't allow himself to be seen until, without a gun and without giving in to his fear, Ike learns to relinquish himself to the wilderness. This the boy does learn, even to giving up his watch and compass.
Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear; it was just there, immobile, solid, fixed in the hot dappling of the green and windless noon, not as big as he had dreamed it, but as big as he had expected it, bigger, dimensionless, against the dappled obscurity, looking at him where he sat quietly on the log and looked back at it.
Then it moved. It made no sound. It did not hurry. It crossed the glade, walking for an instant into the full glare of the sun; when it reached the other side it stopped again, and looked back at him across one shoulder while his quiet breathing inhaled and exhaled three times.
Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods, the undergrowth. It faded, sank back into the wilderness as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink and vanish into the dark depths of its pool without even any movement of its fins.
Several years later, Ike sees the bear again. On one occasion he has with him a little mongrel, "of the sort called by Negroes a fyce," which tries to attack Old Ben. Ike drops his gun and chases the fyce, picking it up immediately in front of the bear, which without attacking disappears. Then the boy realizes that he has not wanted to shoot the bear. Talking about it with his father he comes to realize that the bear represents a "wild immortal spirit," related to the endurance, humility and courage of the hunter in his contest with the wilderness. Old Ben had a fierce pride in his liberty—
Who at times even seemed deliberately to put that freedom and liberty in jeopardy in order to savor them, to remind his old strong bones and flesh to keep supple and quick to defend and preserve them.
In Sam Fathers, Ike had seen in addition to the wild invincible spirit of the bear inherited from his Chickasaw blood the pride and humility of the Negro, the rewards of endurance and suffering. And from the little fyce he has also learned courage. Ike's father (who, incindentally, is not identified as the elderly Uncle Buck of "Was" or of the revised version of "The Bear") sums up the meaning of the boy's meetings with Old Ben: "Courage, and honor, and pride," his father said, "and pity, and love of justice and of liberty. They all touch the heart and what the heart holds becomes the truth." This in general is the meaning of the story—Old Ben is the wilderness, the mystery of man's nature and origins beneath the forms of civilization; and man's proper relationship with the wilderness teaches him liberty, courage, pride and humility.
The bear, as Frazer and others have pointed out,5 has been treated reverently by primitive hunters. In seeing him walk upright, leave footprints much like a man's, sit up against a tree, and employ a wide range of facial expressions and yet belong to a non-human wilderness, these hunters must have thought the bear a kind of bridge between man as a rational and conscious creature and man as a physical creature dependent on and involved in that same mysterious nature. Obviously the bear almost begs to be treated as a symbol in stories dealing with man's relationship with nature, especially those stories that present the physical world and the creatures in it as sacramental, as manifestations of a holy spirit suffusing all things and asking that man conduct himself in piety and with reverence. The latter view permeates Faulkner's "The Bear."
Such a view is defensible. It recurs throughout literature, having perhaps its most notable expression in English in the poetry of Blake and Coleridge. But it does invite one to sentimentalize nature and it has no very good answer for those who ask how respectful one should be of a bear or any other creature that wantonly would crush one's head or rip off one's limbs. It invites, that is, the puzzled or angry recognition in Moby Dick that the beautiful white polar bears should be killers. Some such reservations as these, which must lurk in the mind of even the sympathetic reader, do not destroy Faulkner's story, but they modify one's enjoyment of it. One gives it sympathy but only partial credence.
In general there are two major changes in the revised "The Bear." It incorporates an earlier story, "Lion"6—not completely successful in its own terms—which tells how Boon Hogganbeck kills the bear when it tries to kill Lion, the courageous dog, and it presents Isaac McCaslin not only in childhood but in his mature years as a noble hunter and as a Christ-like figure who repudiates the land because it has been cursed by slavery.
In the revised version of "The Bear" Old Ben is falsely suspected of wantonly destroying domestic animals, thus making it justifiable that the hunters track him down to kill him. In terms of the wilderness theme, two possible reasons for the bear's action suggest themselves: one, the wilderness even in its primeval form is evil as well as good, but there is no justification or preparation for this in the story; second, the wilderness simply seems to be taking revenge on man. This latter interpretation is clearly suggested by the unsympathetic descriptions of the lumbering interests cutting into the forest. (In "Delta Autumn" there is this: "No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don't cry for retribution! he thought: The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge.")
In the first version of "The Bear" the spirit of the wilderness, of course, dominates the action. Although in a lesser degree, the story has, as already implied, a kind of Midsummer Night's Dream atmosphere: there are difficulties and stupidities, but they are under the aegis of Titania and Oberon and at the end no irreconcilable conflicts will remain. Occasionally we hear the voice of hard reality like that of Theseus or of stupidity like that of Bottom, but ultimately their words belong to the realm of moonlight. Because the hunt is not solely a painless ritual under the aegis of the wilderness spirit, Faulkner has considerable difficulty in incorporating or assimilating the action of "Lion" into the action of "The Bear." Often the hunt demands violence and cruelty. And the hunt, to the extent that animals are not killed out of a need for food, is a violation of the sacramental view of the world implicit in the wilderness theme.
In "Lion" the bear had no symbolic significance. He was simply a creature to be hunted, and there was nothing sacred about him. The theme grew out of the dog as hunter, not the bear as wilderness. "Lion was like the chiefs of Aztec and Polynesian tribes who were looked upon as being not men but both more and less than men. Because we were not men either while we were in camp: we were hunters and Lion the best hunter of all."7 In other words, Lion is the ruthless, non-human spirit of the kill. At the beginning of section two of the revised "The Bear" there is this isolated sentence about thirteen-year-old Ike's attitude toward Lion: "So he should have hated and feared Lion." The isolated sentence seems to be a plant, suggesting but without explaining to the reader how the apotheosis of Lion is not contradicting the apotheosis of Old Ben. But as a matter of fact, it does contradict it. If Ike is the voice of the wisdom to be learned from the wilderness, then indeed he should have been opposed to the spirit represented by Lion.
But, first, a look at the main action of "Lion." At the center of the story are Lion and Boon Hogganbeck, who is presented pretty much as mindless or childlike and inefficient, possibly to suggest the degeneracy of the old wild spirit of the Indians. Boon is filled with admiration for the untamable Lion. In the killing of the bear Lion is mortally wounded. Boon then kills the bear with a knife, and although wounded himself carries Lion to a doctor who sews him up but cannot save him. The next year Major de Spain declines to hunt in the Big Bottom and the boy perceives the reason: Major de Spain can not bring himself to revisit the ground where Lion, the spirit of bravery and courage, has been destroyed. With the death of Lion the spirit of the hunt, the challenge and the chase, has left the woods. But the conclusion of "Lion," a brilliantly done scene in itself (which is repeated in the revised "The Bear"), does not seem to be the inevitable resolution of the previous actions: despite Major de Spain's decision, the boy visits the woods at the regular hunting season and sees Boon sitting under a tree, hammering violently at a section of his old worn-out gun. Above Boon in the tree the squirrels are racing madly, frantic from the sounds Boon is making in beating of the stock of his gun. Boon's "walnut face" is "wild and urgent and streaming with sweat," and as the boy goes up to him Boon screams at him in "a hoarse, strangled voice: 'Get out of here! Don't touch them! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine!'" Presumably we are to infer that not merely the spirit of nobility but also the spirit of comradeship and mutual help among the hunters has disappeared with the death of Lion, and that Boon's insistence is civilization's almost hysterical insistence on "mine!" But if so, Lion himself, who is ruthless courage, not generosity, is hardly a good symbol of these virtues. Old Ben, on the other hand, in his role as majestic overseer of the wilderness, is a more appropriate symbol, and Boon's crazy violence in the revised "The Bear," in which Old Ben himself is destroyed, seems better motivated.
In section IV of the revised version, Faulkner makes an even stronger effort than he had through the symbolic figure of Sam Fathers to unite the two major themes of Go Down, Moses, the proper relationship to nature which is to be learned from the wilderness and the injustice to the Negro. The section is about as long as the remaining sections taken together. For the most part it is new material but it incorporates from the first version the meaning of Old Ben as symbol, here giving the remarks made by Ike's father to Ike's cousin, McCaslin Edmonds.
But the section is not exclusively devoted to the boy Ike's learning the significance of the wilderness theme; it is primarily about Ike at twenty-one refusing to inherit property stained by the guilt of slavery, and it is about Ike's subsequent life. There are long conversations between the cousins, at the end of which we know of Grandfather McCaslin's mulatto heirs and their sometimes terrible sufferings, of the country after the Civil War, of McCaslin Edmonds' attempts to help the mulatto heirs, of Ike's marriage to a woman who is unhappy because of his refusal to inherit his share of the family property, and of his living as a carpenter, in what some critics seem to consider an imitation of Christ.
In spite of this new material, the reader has only scattered glimpses of the adult Isaac McCaslin, and is never wholly certain what he is to make of him. More than likely he will see Isaac, at least in part, as far too passive a protester of injustice. Ike never seems a particularly good representative of the virtues to be learned from the wilderness because he is ineffectual or inactive in contexts where the virtues he has learned in the wilderness, particularly the respect for liberty, might motivate him to some positive action. For example, he allows McCaslin Edmonds to put a monthly payment in his bank account, the profit from the land he repudiates, and he allows his cousin to meet the family's and therefore Isaac's own obligations to Carothers McCaslin's mulatto heirs. Isaac would absolve himself not merely from the guilt but from the obligations contingent upon the guilt.
In "Delta Autumn," the final section or story in Go Down, Moses, we see Ike, now in his seventies, immediately confronted by an instance of racial injustice. The evil of old Carothers McCaslin is repeated: Roth Edmonds, the grandson of McCaslin Edmonds, has a child by a mulatto granddaughter of James Buchanan, whose parents had been owned by Uncle Buck and Uncle Bud. Earlier in "Delta Autumn" Ike has been explaining that the right attitude towards nature, for instance, not killing does and not exploiting the land, leads to having the right attitude toward man. But that this does not relate to the present world becomes clear when Ike is more than a little horrified to discover that the Negress would like to marry the father of her child. "Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!" As a gesture or token of his good will and of his hopes for the future Ike gives her for the illegitimate child the hunting horn inherited from General Compson. But Ike's silent exclamation that it will take one thousand or two thousand years before such a marriage could take place makes it quite clear that the theme of the wisdom to be derived from the wilderness, even in its great prophet Ike, is merely juxtaposed against the theme of the injustice to the Negro. It merely acknowledges, it does not materially modify the injustice.
The inconsistencies in Ike as a character are merely a manifestation of the more general inconsistency that inheres in Faulkner's attempt to treat the subject of slavery and injustice to the Negro in relation to the wilderness theme. Civilization is not an idyllic wilderness nor even an idyllic pastoralism; and slavery and injustice are in the context of civilization. The wilderness, however much civilization can learn from it, has to give way for fields and towns, and the problems of civilization, involving not merely complex struggles for status or power or acceptance but also the abuse or destruction of many things that are beautiful in their natural or original state, are much more subtle than they are in the mythic wilderness of which Ike dreams.
Faulkner's treatment of the theme of the wilderness in the first version of "The Bear" is moving, almost hallucinatory in its power to convince us of the existence of a world of no sin, no evil, no injustice. It does convince us, at the least, of the need for us to contemplate such an ideal world. But Faulkner is not willing, apparently, to allow the implications of the wilderness theme, its power to purify, to work as a leaven inside the subject or theme of injustice to the Negro. The treatment of the spirit of the wilderness has no real relevance beyond acknowledging a former and continuing wrong. It relates to a world not merely prior to slavery but prior to civilization. It is a kind of neurotic dream—an escape from, rather than an attempt to solve, the present injustice.
1 "Pantaloon in Black," which is an ironic story of white misunderstanding of the terrible excess of human feeling in a young Negro, a tremendously moving story, falls outside the two strands of subject matter. As an indication of the re-use that Faulkner makes of his materials it may be noted that this story is recapitulated briefly in Requiem for a Nun.
2 Isaac had appeared as an incidental character in an early story, "A Bear Hunt" (not included in Go Down, Moses), a comic story which has no thematic relationship to "The Bear."
3 Sam Fathers makes an earlier appearance in "A Justice," in These Thirteen, in which his paternity is attributed not to Ikkemotube but to a man named Crawford, or Crayfishford. Incidentally, the Sam Fathers of "The Old People" is a stronger, more independent character, more aware of his Indian antecedents than of his slave heritage, than the Sam Fathers of "The Bear."
4 This was published in The Saturday Evening Post, 214 (May 9, 1942), 30-31, the same year the revised version was published as a part of Go Down, Moses, but obviously it had been written earlier.
5 It seems likely that Faulkner got the hint for his story from T. B. Thorpe's "The Big Bar of Arkansas," The Spirit of the Times(1841). The following are passages which suggest the similarities between the two stories: (!) "Only one pup came near him, and he was brushed out so totally with the bar's left paw, that he entirely disappeared. . . ." (2) "Yes, the old varmit was within a hundred yards of me, and the way he walked over that fence—stranger, he loomed up like a black mist, he seemed so large, and he walked right towards me. I raised myself, took deliberate aim, and fired. Instantly the varmint wheeled, gave a yell, and walked through the fence like a falling tree would through a cobweb." (3) [The bar, like Old Ben, took to taking hogs whenever it wanted to. This causes the hunter to want to destroy the bar. But he has trouble shooting him, as though the bar's life were charmed. Finally he kills him, too easily, as it seems to the hunter.] "There is something curious about it, I could never understand,—and I never was satisfied at his giving in so easy at last. Perhaps he had heard of my preparations to hunt him the next day, so he jist come in, like Capt. Scott's coon, to save his wind to grunt with in dying; but that ain't likely. My private opinion is, that that bar was an unhuntable bar, and died when his time come"
6Harpers, 172 (December, 1935), pp. 67-77.
7 In "Lion," unlike "The Bear," the story is told from the point of view of a boy who is not Ike McCaslin. Ike himself is the boy's mentor, giving him the sort of advice Sam (who does not appear) gives Ike in both versions of "The Bear."
Blaise Hettich (essay date 1955)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3033
SOURCE: "A Bedroom Scene in Faulkner," in Renascence, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Winter, 1955, pp. 121-26.
[In the following essay, Hettich explains the meaning of the bedroom incident of "The Bear" in relation to the bear-hunt plot.]
By the time "The Bear" appeared in Go Down, Moses, it had been considerably expanded and developed from Faulkner's earlier magazine stories. The complexity of the enlarged tale and the difficulty in reading part IV were recognized by Malcolm Cowley in his note introducing "The Bear" in the Viking Portable edition, but on the same page Cowley calls it "in many ways the best" of Faulkner's stories. This may seem a bold claim for a combination of two worked-over hunting tales, a partially punctuated hodge-podge of family lore and philosophy, and an epilogue containing three comical incidents and some wilderness ritual. The obvious questions are: Do the additions to the bear-hunt plot function as integral parts of the story, and what do they contribute to its meaning?
In the following study these questions are asked about one passage in particular, an addition which does not seem to be necessary for or even related to the main plots of the bear hunt and of the McCaslin inheritance. This passage has hardly been mentioned in critical comments on "The Bear." The powerful language and tense rhythms of the passage give it a tone of brilliancy and seriousness. Faulkner's unpunctuated rushing rhetoric with its interminable parentheses seems an attempt to get the reader to contemplate each facet of the story while keeping in sight every other detail. Does this passage belong to the story as a whole? Or is it a piece of cheap sensationalism thrown in for spice?
Before he was sixteen Ike McCaslin had learned from the half-Indian, half-Negro Sam Fathers not only a marvelous skill in hunting but also a deep reverence for nature, had learned "pride and humility," his place among created beings. In the wilderness, "in the yearly pageant-rite of the old bear's furious immortality," the boy had recognized Old Ben as a symbol of unspoiled nature receding before the ruthless devastation of man. That is why Sam Fathers, high priest of the wilderness, stopped living when the bear was finally killed. Isaac McCaslin had seen the mechanical ferocity of the dog, Lion, disciplined to hold the bear at bay for Boon Hogganbeck's knife. At eighteen he had seen the logging machinery moved in to cut down the forest. He had met the serpent in the wilderness and was not bitten because he stood still.
When he was twenty-one, Isaac McCaslin had relinquished his share in the great plantation inherited from his grandfather, Carothers McCaslin. He had seen the whole tragedy of the South as a punishment for the rape of the land, for injustice to the Negroes, for the desecration of God's creation. Telling this to the curled upper lip of his cousin-brother-father, McCaslin Edmonds, he had relinquished his patrimony. He had paid back the thirty dollars which he had borrowed to buy his first set of carpenter tools. Then he got married.
He married the only child of a farmer, "a small girl yet curiously bigger than she seemed at first, solider perhaps, with dark eyes and a passionate heart-shaped face." Faulkner identifies her with the land, the earth: "They were married and it was the new country, his heritage too as it was the heritage of all, out of the earth, beyond the earth yet of the earth because his too was of the earth's long chronicle, his too because each must share with another in order to come into it." Ike McCaslin's marriage is a revelation of God's design for sharing and enjoying the earth. His rented room becomes "wall-less and topless and florless in glory." He comes home from work, "Entering no rented cubicle since it would still partake of glory even after they would have grown old and lost it."
He sits on the edge of the bed next to his wife, "her voice a passionate and expiring whisper of immeasurable promise: 'I love you. You know I love you. When are we going to move?'" Ike thinks she is talking about the bungalow which he has been building to be their new home. As he begins to speak, she claps her hand over his mouth, hard, saying, "The farm. Our farm. Your farm." Even before they were married she had inquired about the land and ascertained that it belonged to Ike. Now she slackens the pressure on his mouth only for an instant, will allow only one answer, and when Ike begins to explain his position, she holds his mouth shut, whispers again "of love and of incredible promise," then asks "When?" Since this method does not avail, she tries another. Ike does not hear the cold calculation in his wife's voice; he only hears a strange calmness. In the tense passage that follows, it is only through Ike's consciousness that Faulkner records the wife's motives for undressing: "lying still on the bed outside the covers, her face turned away on the pillow, listening to nothing, thinking of nothing, not of him anyway he thought." Her surrender is not an act of love but a trick to get the land.
The narration concentrates upon the contest of wills, the wife's tantalizing resistance and cajolery trying to overcome Ike's great resolve. Faulkner brings to the attention of the reader only her hand and arm:
Her hand moving as though with volition and vision of its own, catching his wrist . . . and he neither saw nor felt it shift, palm flat against his chest now and holding him away . . . the hand shifting from his chest once more to his wrist, grasping it, the arm still lax and only the light increasing pressure of the fingers as though arm and hand were a piece of wire cable with one looped end, only the hand lightening as he pulled against it.
This metallic, mechanical simile places the wife in the same frame of reference as the dog, Lion, which held Old Ben at bay, and of the logging machinery which destroyed the forest. She does not argue verbally. She whispers "Promise:" and "The farm."
Ike keeps saying, "No . . . No, I tell you. I won't. I can't. Never . . . Not ever. Remember:" while he marvels at her knowledge of how to convince him. Faulkner sums up the amazement of Isaac McCaslin at his wife's ruthless employment of sexual powers for a purpose apart from the expression of their mutual love: "She already knows more than I with all the man-listening in camps where there was nothing to read ever heard of. They are born already bored with what a boy approaches only at fourteen and fifteen with blundering and aghast trembling." While he says Yes he thinks: "She is lost. She was born lost. We were all born lost then he stopped thinking and even saying Yes." In this one moment Faulkner allows Isaac McCaslin to compromise with the high ideals, the integrity, the firm resolve that made him in this story so admirable a hero. Nowhere else does Faulkner record that Ike swerved from his purpose. Even the reverent man, the man most in tune with nature and the plan of creation, succumbs at some time to the allurements of this earth, earth represented by the woman who turns away from Ike with a mocking laugh. So the scene ends, so also the story.
As a dramatic action the bedroom scene parallels the tragedy of Old Ben. Ike did not want to kill the bear, but he had to take part in the hunt because the hunt had become a ritual, a formal representation of man's relation to nature, a cult regulated by traditions which glorified the bear and brought out the best qualities in the human participants. But the ceremony had an inevitable conclusion, the slaying of Old Ben. Ike did not want to abuse the land nor any creature. Relinquishing his inheritance did not entirely free him from the universal human predicament. His wife's trick has a seemingly inevitable conclusion, and Ike cannot escape his own weakness. Even the reverent man is bound to violate nature at some time, and the earth laughs at him.
The meaning of the bedroom incident is clarified in relation to the rest of the story not only when it is considered as an action but also when it is viewed as a tableau with two persons on the scene, Ike standing in opposition to his wife, as in the plantation store Ike stood opposed to his cousin. All of part IV: the long discussions about ownership, about God's creation, about truth, about the Civil War, about the Negroes, about Ike's vocation, with the excerpts from the plantation records, the stories of how Buck and Buddy McCaslin freed their slaves, how Ike went to Arkansas to take the legacy to Sophonsiba, and how Ike inherited a tin coffeepot from Hubert Beauchamp, all are contained in a scene in which Ike stands in opposition to McCaslin Edmonds. The first time the little room in the Jefferson boarding house is mentioned, the night after Ike's twenty-first birthday, "McCaslin tossed the folded banknotes onto the bed," the bed on which Ike's wife would lie. Ike was refusing to accept the money to keep as part of his inheritance, he would take it only as a loan. The scene between Ike and his wife parallels earlier scenes in which he takes his stand "against the tamed land . . . not against the wilderness but against the land, not in pursuit and lust but in relinquishment."
Part V of "The Bear" is especially rich in images and associations that bind together the bear hunt, the McCaslin inheritance, and the bedroom scene—not merely in reviewing the names of the hunters nor in another magnificent description of the forest nor in Ike's visit to the grave of Sam Fathers—but through symbolic action. Major de Spain will not go back to the hunting camp, does not want to see the lumber company move in. Ike glances at the logging machinery but leaves the sawmill as quickly as possible, staring at the wall of trees while he rides the little logging train with its peanut-parcher whistle that had seemed harmless once but now shrieks as a portent of destruction. The story of the frightened bear cub trapped in a tree by the train repeats in a comic vein the tragedy of Old Ben.
As Ike McCaslin and Major de Spain stand for reverence toward nature, Boon Hogganbeck represents the violation of nature and a disregard for its ritual. The impious plan to lease the camp and hunting privileges is recorded as "an invention doubtless of the somewhat childish old General [Compson] but actually worthy of Boon Hogganbeck himself." A year after he has killed Old Ben, Hogganbeck becomes town-marshal for the lumber company, allying himself with the forces of destruction. This adds significance to the final scene in which Boon sits under the Gum Tree, unable to shoot the squirrels he has trapped there, but refusing to allow anyone else a share of them. The frustration of attempting ownership, an important theme in the story and represented by this final piece of grim humor, is also one of the ideas conveyed by the bedroom scene.
In the consciousness of Ike McCaslin, the cajolery of his wife to get "the farm" is not simply one human being betraying her stewardship of God's gifts. It is the earth proving itself accursed, shattering Ike's ideal. Faulkner could not have chosen a more effective frame of reference in which to crystallize the difficulty of Ike's position than that sacred act of procreation which is the reverent man's glory but the act wherein man's weakness has been traditionally represented. Of all the phases of human experience from which Faulkner might have dramatized Isaac McCaslin's predicament, what could have provided a vehicle fraught with more poetic power, more seriousness, more tension than the marriage act? A man's attitude toward sex may be considered a touchstone for all his attitudes toward creation and morality. From an artistic standpoint, therefore, the bedroom incident appears to be well suited to convey Faulkner's meaning, even though the full complexity of that meaning is barely suggested in this study.
A further proof of Faulkner's success may be demonstrated in a consideration of the moral problems involved in the passage. Faulkner writes of greed, lust, and injustice as wrongs perpetrated in violation of real natural laws. Although the right and wrong use of the land is the problem which provides the central theme, sex morality is also bound up with the story. The most memorable example is the relation between Carothers McCaslin and his Negro daughter. This incest is discovered by Ike in his sixteenth year, the year he sees Old Ben killed. Through the consciousness of Ike McCaslin Faulkner treats Carothers McCaslin's incest as a sin, a deliberate violation of nature which demands vindication. Ike's journey to deliver the legacy to the descendents of this incestuous union constitutes a kind of expiation for the sin. Just as Ike resolves not to take possession of the accursed inheritance but to work as a craftsman, he also resolves to make his marriage a glorious sign of the ideal relation which should exist between a reverent man and God's creation.
To preserve the integrity of his art, Faulkner must observe in all parts of his story those fundamental moral truths upon which he bases the development of the plot and the theme of the whole composition. Admitting that there is a right and a wrong in regard to the use of sex, an author must not treat sexual matters as morally indifferent, or he would contradict himself. Now Faulkner narrates the sexual union of Ike McCaslin and his wife with a clear indication as to what is right and what is wrong in the situation. Ike's sexual experiences with his wife since their marriage and until the scene described in "The Bear" have been glorious expressions of love. Ike has respected his wife's refusal to let him see her naked. In the incident told by Faulkner, there is no doubt about the couple's right to the marriage act and to any action (e.g., undressing) which is properly conducive toward it. What Faulkner brands as wrong is the wife's irreverent use of her sexual powers in order to trick her husband into promising that he will accept the farm. She even violates her marriage contract for a moment; by that contract they had given one another the right to sexual union whenever the other would reasonably ask for it; now she refuses him that right while she makes demands that are extrinsic to that right.
Faulkner makes his readers aware of the evil in this situation. First the wife tries to get Ike to tell when they will move to the farm and prevents him from arguing by holding her hand over his mouth. Faulkner describes this in ugly terms: "the hot fierce palm clapped over his mouth, crushing his lips into his teeth, the fierce curve of fingers digging into his cheek." Her face is "strained and terrible." Her first words to Ike are almost ridiculous as the whisperings of love are nullified by the self-willed demands. Faulkner adds to the meanness of her scheme by inserting the detail that she would not sacrifice her instincts of modesty for her husband's love and admiration, but when she thinks it will help her get a farm she lies on the bed naked before him. The selfishness of her invitation now penetrates Ike's mind. He knows she is not thinking of him with true and generous love. By concentrating on her hand, calling it "a piece of wire cable," and making her disgustingly efficient in her resistance and cajolery Faulkner highlights the moral defect in the act rather than its physical attractions. Ike's condemnation of his wife's trick is printed in italics. He associates her method with the vile talk of men in hunting camps, and, in the declaration "She is lost," expresses an unmistakable moral judgment. Faulkner is faithful to the standards to which he committed himself in other parts of the story, and his artistic achievement rests on that faithfulness.
A further consideration of the demands such a scene makes upon its author may be pointed out in terms of the author's responsibility to his readers. If Faulkner is going to be convincing and consistent in asserting that there is a right and a wrong way of using created goods, particularly sexual pleasure, he must avoid leading his reader into an abuse of sex. Faulkner emphasizes man's obligation to use his sexual powers as a glorious expression of married love, not for unlicensed pleasure, nor as a means to get a farm—therefore not as a means of selling a book nor for the thrill stimulated by vivid narrations of sexual experience.
Examining the passage objectively, one will find comparatively little stress on the sex act and its accompanying emotions. Ike's mental processes are vividly recorded, but his physical actions and reactions are revealed in highly figurative and abstract language. The dinner bell and the landlady's knock provide a welcome distraction. The difficulty of comprehending Faulkner's rhetoric may also be counted as a means of occupying the reader's mind to prevent him from being too much involved in the description of the sex act. Taken at face value, the passage does not seem to deviate from its function as a part of the story and a symbol of the story's central theme. Although it is difficult to state what effects the bedroom scene will have upon the sensibilities of various readers, a mature healthy mind should find the intellectual and artistic experience far more attractive than any suggestion that the passage be used for an immoral purpose.
The bedroom scene, therefore, is not only a key to the meaning of "The Bear" but also illustrates Faulkner's ability to construct from the most delicate area of human experience a dramatic action that functions as an integral part of the story.
Lynn Altenbernd (essay date 1960)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4896
SOURCE: "A Suspended Moment: The Irony of History in William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXXV, No. 7, November, 1960, pp. 572-82.
[In the essay below, Altenbernd discusses the thematic significance and the historical implications of section IV of "The Bear" in relation to the hunting story.]
Explications of William Faulkner's "The Bear," by now fairly numerous, have made clear that the novelette is a kind of parable of the American experience, and that, while it is in no sense intended as literal history, it does mythically reconstruct history and comment upon it. Yet the precise nature of Faulkner's comment on history has not been established, nor has the rationale of the novelette's structure been demonstrated as fully as it should be. Section 4, the long digression in the form of a debate between Ike McCaslin and his second cousin and surrogate father, McCaslin Edmonds, has sometimes been viewed as irrelevant to the themes developed in the surrounding four sections of the story. This section is a recapitulation of Southern, American, and world history, which both broadens the implications of the hunting story and gives them concrete embodiment. Sections 1, 2, 3, and 5, which relate the pursuit and destruction of Old Ben, are an allegorical dramatization of a crisis (or in Faulkner's view, one should say, the crisis) of the American experiment. They present, in addition, a judgment upon American and world history that is reinforced by the varied reminiscences of Southern history in Section 4. The story asks, in effect, precisely the question that Ike faces in his debate with McCaslin Edmonds: What is my heritage?
The elegiac tone of the opening passages of the story prepares the reader for the realization that will grow gradually but relentlessly through the pages that follow, and that will find explicit statement at the conclusion of the second section: that the hunt for Old Ben, the fabled and fabulous bear, is "the beginning of the end of something, he didn't know what except that he would not grieve."1 The reader knows what, however, for in these early passages Faulkner repeatedly establishes Old Ben as the embodiment of the wilderness itself. This identification is made most clearly when one of the hounds has been casually raked by the bear's claws: "Because there had been nothing in front of the abject and painful yapping except the solitude, the wilderness, so that. . . it was still no living creature but only the wilderness which, leaning for a moment, had patted lightly once her temerity" (pp. 198-199). Thus the hunt for the bear, if successful, will be tantamount to the destruction of the wilderness. The legends of the bear's immortality correspond, then, to the supposition prevalent in America until a little over a half-century ago that the green American continent was inexhaustible. In their "yearly pageant-rite of the old bear's furious immortality" (p. 194), the "true hunters"—Walter Ewell and General Compson and Major de Spain—do not entertain any "actual hope of being able to" (p. 201) slay the bear, and indeed in their "yearly rendezvous with the bear" (p. 194) they do not even intend to kill him; likewise, in their "puny gnawing at the immemorial flank" (p. 195) of the wilderness, men do not intend to destroy it. But this assumption of the forest's immortality is a miscalculation, for by the third page of his story, Faulkner speaks of the wilderness as doomed, and surely the reader's knowledge of American history makes suspense irrelevant. The problem becomes not whether, but how and why and with what effect the South—and by extension the whole American continent—was, as Uncle Ike puts it in "Delta Autumn," "deswamped and denuded and derivered" (p. 364).2
How the wilderness is to be conquered becomes apparent as Ike McCaslin enters upon his novitiate, his submission to the discipline that the big woods imposes. Unnamed in the passages before he has earned a name as Old Ben has, the boy must learn humility and endurance, will and hardihood and skill to survive. These heroic qualities are precisely those that the rigors of frontier life imparted to the American so long as he was engaged in "the ancient and unremitting contest" (p. 192) with the wilderness, and, ironically, it is precisely the achievement of these qualities that enabled man to destroy the woods. And it is when Sam Fathers' woodsmanship has brought the boy into the forest where the bear has passed—when for the first time he sees the actual footprint—that Ike realizes that the bear is a mortal animal, and that what he can learn from his "alma mater," the bear, is the means of destroying it. This realization perhaps measures the quality of Ike's moral superiority to the other "true hunters," while his possession of superior woodsman's skill and his knowledge of its potency imposes on him a moral responsibility for restraint and renunciation of the ultimate prizes within his grasp.
In addition to the supposition of the bear's immortality, two further miscalculations about the wilderness are dramatized through the bear hunt. The second error is that the men suppose that Old Ben is guilty of wantonly destroying a colt belonging to Major de Spain. It is true that Ben has behind him a "long legend of corn-cribs broken down and rifled, of shoats and grown pigs and even calves carried bodily into the woods and devoured" (p. 193), and more, but he is not the killer of Major de Spain's colt, nor has he committed a criminal depredation that justifies his being tracked down and killed.3 That is to say, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out in this connection, nature does not itself take vengeance on man.4 The bear feeds, as he must, but retaliation is beyond the ken of his moral indifference. Yet men hack away at the wilderness, not only because they suppose that it is inexhaustible, but because they fear it simply as wilderness and because they suppose that it is antagonistic to them.
De Spain and his companions are brought to realize that Ben has not "broken the rules" (p. 214) when Sam Fathers captures the real marauder. The depredations are actually the work of the great dog that comes to be known as Lion, and Sam has known all along what tore the throat out of the doe the previous spring, and what fed on the colt. "Afterward the boy realized that they should have known then what killed the colt as well as Sam Fathers did," Faulkner says of this incident. "But that was neither the first nor the last time he had seen men rationalize from and even act upon their misconceptions" (p. 215).5
The colt is not killed, then, by the wilderness seeking retaliation. Nor is Lion, the real culprit, representative of the mechanized civilization that threatens to destroy the wilderness.6 Rather he is a tame creature gone wild, and he embodies the fierce attributes of the hunters without the humanity that serves as a check on their ferocity. He has the stoic virtues of the hunter: strength, mindless courage, endurance, absolute singleness of purpose. But his yellow eyes have also "a cold and almost impersonal malignance like some natural force" (p. 218). Here, once again, Faulkner is pointing out the ambivalent quality of man's character. What is most admirable in the men who have served their "apprenticeship . . . to manhood" (p. 195) in the woods—their fortitude, skill, and pride—can master a continent, and destroy it as well. These traits the white men have learned from the Indian: "It was Sam's hand that touched Lion first . . ." (p. 222); thus the Indian shares with the white man the culpability for the violation of the wilderness, just as Ikkemotubbe shares the guilt for the curse put upon the land by the sin of ownership. The damage inflicted on man, here represented by the killing of Major de Spain's colt, is not the vengeance of nature, but the consequence of the destructive forces man himself has trained and loosed.
The third miscalculation of the true hunters, who ought to be the responsible stewards of God's earth, is that they can control the assault upon the wilderness. This assumption is embodied in Ike's impassioned statement to Sam Fathers that "It must be one of us" (p. 212)—one of those who have mastered the disciplines of the forest and earned for themselves "the name and state of hunter" (p. 192). It must be one of the initiates "so it wont be until the last day. When even [Old Ben] dont want it to last any longer" (p. 212). Yet what actually happens is that the self-disciplined men of the woods, who know enough to cherish and conserve what they must also contend against, only open the way for the depredations of the careless people who have not earned their wilderness and have not sense enough to preserve it.
This thesis is dramatized in the hunting story through the role of Boon Hogganbeck. Just before the climactic hunt in Section 3, Faulkner suspends the steadily mounting action of the bear hunt to give us a close look at Boon, who will destroy the bear, and at the railroad, which epitomizes all the mechanical devices of rapacity that will destroy the forest. When the whiskey in the hunting camp runs out, Major de Spain sends Boon, his flunky, to Memphis for a new supply. This is surely a piece of bad judgment, for unlike the true hunters who drink this "condensation of the wild immortal spirit" "moderately, humbly even" (p. 192), Boon uses every imaginable childish device to evade the vigilance of the boy who has been sent along to keep an eye on him, and sops up as much whiskey as he dares. In the course of this episode, Faulkner also gives us Boon's history and characterizes him as a great irresponsible child, happy in the out-of-doors, faithful as a hound to his master, Major de Spain, and above all inept in the woodland skill he has been apprenticed to all his life: "he had the mind of a child, the heart of a horse, and little hard shoe-button eyes without depth or meanness or generosity or viciousness or gentleness or anything else, in the ugliest face the boy had ever seen" (p. 227). Boon's notorious ineptitude as a hunter has been demonstrated both in his ludicrous shooting scrape with a Negro on the streets of Jefferson and in his failure to hit Old Ben with any of five shots fired at close range. Thus Ike, on the eve of the final hunt, says to himself, "It would have to be Lion or somebody. It would not be Boon" (p. 235).
But of course it was Boon who killed the bear, not with the rifle, the proud weapon of the disciplined hunter, but with the knife. Charging in without regard for danger and in violation of all the sportsman's rules of the hunt, Boon jabs away at the bear and brings him down finally and ingloriously through brute courage and strength alone. So it was not "one of us" who destroyed the wilderness.7
If we see the cutting of the timber as another and more literal way of dramatizing the destruction of the wilderness, exactly the same relationship holds. Major de Spain can be so anguished over the felling of the big woods that he will never return after the death of Old Ben; yet it was he who sold the timber-rights to a Memphis firm, just as it was he who maintained and sheltered Boon. In both cases the nominally responsible aristocrats have been in collusion with, have nurtured and benefited from, the destructive agencies that have brought an end to Eden.
Faulkner, then, makes two observations on the American experience. Men—Indians as the forgers of the weapon, white men as their conquerors and heirs, Negroes as the tools of their white masters—are jointly guilty of despoiling the green continent that has made men of them all; an ironic necessity in human affairs requires that the fullest realization of the dream shall destroy the source of the dream. This is an acute observation on our history. The hero in the new world has frequently been pictured with an ax in his hand; at his feet lies the last of the trees on which he exercised his magnificent biceps. The mournful irony of Cooper's Natty Bumppo is echoed here: the man of the woods opens the way for the destruction of the forest he loves.8
If the first three sections of the story dramatize the how and to some extent the why of America's denudation, Section 4 deals with its effects. The section begins, "then he was twenty-one." That is, Ike is coming into his heritage, so that it is appropriate for him to review that heritage, or to ask of American history, in effect, "to what end have we cut down the trees?"9
Within Section 4 events are largely arranged in a straightforward chronological order.10 The scene opens in the commissary of the old McCaslin plantation, the "solarplexus" of the inheritance which Ike is relinquishing. Ike's effort to explain his relinquishment leads him to review the origins of his family's "title" to the property. This in turn requires an explanation of man's relationship to the land within the divine plan. Thus Ike starts with the Creation and moves in a rapid summary through human history to an exposition of the first of two monstrous errors that explain the failure of mankind to reestablish Eden in the New World. Carothers McCaslin, his contemporaries, and his descendants have supposed that man can establish exclusive, individual ownership of the land. This assumption is false, the title is non-existent, and there is no inheritance for Ike to repudiate. This fallacious attitude toward the land is parallel to the sin of destroying the forest.
At this point the debate between Ike, the man of ideals, and McCaslin Edmonds, the man of practical expediency, breaks off for a second flashback reviewing Ike's family history revealed through the device of the plantation ledgers, "that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South" (p. 293). This review too is in chronological order, and it is a continuation in greater detail of the recapitulation of world history. Through it is revealed the second monstrous error in the New World, the inhuman sin of treating people as objects: owning, buying, selling, and gambling for human beings; making Negro women the involuntary partners in adulterous and incestuous relations. This sin, too, is parallel to the violation of the wilderness, equally grave, and equally a part of Ike's inheritance.11 All this Ike has discovered alone in the same winter in which Old Ben is killed.
After the survey of the ledgers, Ike's recollections trace out the consequences of Carothers McCaslin's sin in the history of three of his nominally Negro descendants; then Ike and his cousin review Southern history through the Civil War and Reconstruction to 1888, the year of Ike's majority and of the debate that is the enclosing framework for all the reminiscences of Section 4.
At this point Ike recalls an incident of seven years earlier when McCaslin Edmonds had tried to explain why Ike had not shot the bear when he had a chance. "'But you didn't shoot when you had the gun,' McCaslin said. 'Why?'" (p. 296). And without waiting for an answer he reads Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," emphasizing the two lines, "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair." Clearly Ike has refrained from shooting for the reason he has given in his statement to Sam that "It must be one of us. So it wont be until the last day" (p. 212). He wishes to avoid the climax that will bring all of his apprenticeship to the wilderness to an end, and to have his life in the woods remain forever suspended just short of the moment of fulfillment and annihilation, like the frieze on the Grecian urn.12 In his old age, Ike retains (or reverts to) this dream of suspended anticipation as his reverie in "Delta Autumn" runs on his reasons for not wanting to own the land: "It was because there was just exactly enough of it. He seemed to see the two of them—himself and the wilderness—as coevals, . . . the two spans running out together, not toward oblivion, nothingness, but into a dimension free of both time and space . . . where the wild strong immortal game ran forever before the tireless belling immortal hounds, falling and rising phoenix-like to the soundless guns" (p. 354).
Thus Ike, like Keats, can end with truth: 'Truth is one. It doesn't change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love. . . . They all touch the heart, and what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth" (p. 297). The truth which Ike has acknowledged in his refusal to shoot the bear is that the earth—the land, its people, its encumbering properties—cannot be possessed. This is the truth that is one and unchanging, and this is the truth that liberates Ike. When McCaslin acknowledges that the Southern land is cursed and insists that Ike must inherit as the "direct and sole and white" heir of Carothers McCaslin, Ike can reply, "Sam Fathers set me free" (p. 299).
Lest this conclusion lead the reader to a bland optimism about the possibility of regenerating mankind wholesale, and of expunging the curse of ownership and slavery, Faulkner has McCaslin point out the tremendous cost of Ike's single redemption: "'And it took Him a bear and an old man and four years just for you. And it took you fourteen years to reach that point and about that many, maybe more, for Old Ben, and more than seventy for Sam Fathers. And you are just one. How long then? How long?'" Ike must acknowledge, "It will be long. . . . But it will be all right because [the Negroes] will endure'" (p. 299).13
If the high point of Section 4 is Ike's desire to suspend the movement of history just short of fulfillment, then the significance of certain neglected aspects of Section 5 becomes evident. Ike returns to the camp once more, to experience "shocked and grieved amazement even though he had had forewarning" (p. 318) of the devastation wrought by the sawmill. Of the railroad, Ike muses, "It had been harmless once" and "But it was different now" (pp. 319; 320). And Ike knew now that he would return to the old camp no more.
Between these two observations occurs Ike's recollection of a story from twenty years earlier about a bear cub (he who was to become Old Ben?) treed by the then-novel locomotive. The whole episode is lightly playful as it describes the antics of the cub and the solicitude of the hunters for the youngster. Yet the whole incident is charged as well with sinister prophecy.
Another reminiscence concerns Uncle Ash's ludicrous attempt to hunt a deer. The incident has occurred years earlier, but the telling of it has been delayed until this point, for now that the great hunting is over, it is appropriate that the parody demonstrate the low estate to which the old ritual has fallen.
Then occurs the brief episode in which Ike, presumably hunting toward the gum tree to meet Boon, drifts almost unconsciously toward the narrowly constricted plot where the graves of Sam Fathers and Lion are preserved against the inroads of the timber cutters. In this scene the imagery of life and growth is notable: "that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist" (p. 327). It is spring, and the teeming life of the little plot suggests the birthplace of the earth. In this Eden Ike encounters a six-foot rattle-snake which Faulkner clearly identifies as "the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary . . ., evocative of all knowledge and an old weariness and of pariah-hood and of death" (p. 329). This is the evil principle incarnate. It is the Snake of the Garden, persisting yet as a reminder of the radical evil implicit in the beginning of things. Ike imitates Sam's action when the boy and his half-Indian mentor had encountered a great buck in the forest six years earlier. He raises one hand and speaking in the old tongue of Sam Fathers and Jobaker, he addresses the snake: "'Chief," "'Grandfather'" (p. 330). Whereas Sam saluted the living spirit of the wilderness, Ike acknowledges as one of his progenitors the ineradicable evil that haunts the world.14 This acknowledgment occurred before the discussions related in Section 4, but its narration comes after that of the conversation in which McCaslin Edmonds offers the Grecian urn as an explanation of Ike's failure to shoot the bear. It thus represents an advance in Ike's understanding of "truth" and standing in the next-to-climactic position in the novelette, it helps explain the irony of history which prevents the suspension of time just short of the achievement of heart's desire. Men cannot exercise the self-disciplined restraint that would assure immortality to the woods and to man's hope, because of the aboriginal evil in the world's design.
The climactic scene shows us Boon Hogganbeck hammering the breech of his gun with its barrel, presumably ruining both in his frenzy, and still as far as ever from the mastery of himself through the hunter's discipline. Nor has he learned Ike's lesson of renunciation, for of God's scampering squirrels he shouts, "'Don't touch a one of them! They're mine!'" (p. 331). As Norman Foerster points out, this scene is an answer to McCaslin Edmonds' question, "'How long, then? How long?'"15
Faulkner's view of history is a paradoxical one. The emphasis throughout the resumé of world history is on the doomed, fated character of man's experience. The realization of man's hopes uses up the circumstances that made those hopes prosper. Yet man cannot evade moral responsibility for a past he never made without renouncing benefit along with guilt. Nor can man halt history in a sustained ecstasy of anticipation. If one man can be redeemed, there is hope for the reconstitution of society in "the communal anonymity of brotherhood." But the Snake infests the Garden still, and if there's a great day coming, it will be long, long on the way.
1 William Faulkner, "The Bear," Go Down, Moses (New York: Modern Library, 1955), p. 226. Further references in the text to both "The Bear" and "Delta Autumn" are to this volume.
2 Ernest Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa, says much the same thing: "A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water . . . [America] had been a good country and we had made a bloody mess of it." (New York: Scribner's, 1935), pp. 284-285. One is reminded also of the bifurcated debate in Cooper's The Pioneers over conservation of woods and wildlife. Richard Jones supposes that the resources of the land are inexhaustible, and he takes the lead in cutting sugar-maple for firewood, in slaughtering flights of pigeons, and in seining fish out of Lake Otsego. Judge Temple argues, rather ineffectually, for stewardship and wise use. Natty Bumppo, on the other hand, argues against Judge Temple's "clearings and betterments," and cherishes the vain hope that the woods might be left in their virgin state.
3 William Van O'Connor, The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner(Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1954), p. 130 advances the thesis that the bear breaks the rules, showing that nature is both good and evil, and that it will avenge itself.
4 "William Faulkner" in William Faulkner: Two Decades of Criticism, ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery (East Lansing: Mich. State College Press, 1951), p. 91.
5 Faulkner's obscurity at this point is appropriate to the mystery of the colt's death, but he has given a number of clues that mark steps in the gradual solution of the puzzle. General Compson's exclamation, "'Good God, what a wolf!'" is not merely a tribute to the ravenousness of the killer, but a response to the size and shape of the tracks mingled with the mare's. Later, de Spain refers to "'a single wolf big enough to kill a colt with the dam right there beside it'" (p. 215), and when the hounds will not run the beast "not one of them realized that the hound was not baying like a dog striking game but was merely bellowing like a country dog whose yard has been invaded" (p. 216). The hound bellows thus because he is on the trail, not of Old Ben, nor even of a wolf, but of another dog. The final proof comes when Sam baits his corn-crib trap with the carcass of the colt and captures what Boon Hogganbeck later calls "'that horse-eating varmint" (p. 219).
6 W. R. Moses, "Where History Crosses Myth: Another Reading of 'The Bear'," Accent, XIII (Winter, 1953), 26-27.
7 John Lydenberg, "Nature Myth in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," AL, XXIV (March, 1952), 62-72, argues that Boon, dehumanized and divorced from nature as well, serves as implement for Sam, the priest, who like Ike is part of the order of nature and hence cannot kill the totem animal. Kenneth LaBudde, "Cultural Primitivism in William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," American Quarterly, II (Winter, 1950), 324, holds that "Boon's killing of Old Ben by stabbing the bear with his knife is . . . appropriate" because "the hunters revere the powers of Old Ben and they see themselves playing a heroic game with the bear."
8 The phrase "the hero in the New World" is R. W. B. Lewis' title: "The Hero in the New World: William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," Kenyon Review. XIII (Autumn, 1951), 641-60. See especially the last paragraph of The Pioneers: "This was the last that they ever saw of the Leatherstocking, whose rapid movements preceded the pursuit which Judge Temple both ordered and conducted. He had gone far toward the setting sun,—the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of our nation across the continent."
9 Cf. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner's, 1957), p. 182: "I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams." Here Gatsby's "huge incoherent failure of a house" clearly stands for the imitative, vulgar, meretricious culture of those for whom the American Dream has been corrupted.
10 Lewis, op. cit, pp. 644-645: ". . . his unconventional arrangements of incidents [in any Faulkner story] sometimes suggests an antic shuffle through a fateful crazy house . . ." and "here also Faulkner has played weird tricks with chronology."
11 Warren, loc. cit., referring to "Delta Autumn," points out that "the right attitude toward nature is . . . associated with the right attitude toward man." In Light in August (New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. 4, Faulkner shows human erosion following on despoliation of the forest: The sawmill leaves behind "a stump-pocked scene of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untitled, gutting slowly into red and choked ravines beneath the long quiet rains of autumn and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes. Then the hamlet which at its best day had borne no name listed on Postoffice Department annals would not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs-at-large who pulled the buildings down and burned them in cookstoves and winter grates."
12 Of Faulkner's several allusions to the Keats "Ode," that most nearly resembling the image of motion in stasis suggested in "The Bear" is his likening of Lena Grove's virtually imperceptible, yet mile-consuming, march to "something moving forever and without progress across an urn" (Light in August, ed. cit., p. 6).
13 A number of commentators have been disturbed by Uncle Ike's outrage in "Delta Autumn" at the suggestion that Roth Edmonds marry a Negro girl whose child he has fathered. "Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!" Two possibilities suggest themselves here. First, it is likely that Faulkner does not see the problem of Negro-white relations in quite the same way that his Northern liberal admirers do. His utterances on desegration have suggested the desirability of very slow haste. Alternatively, it is possible that Faulkner does not intend to present Ike, especially the aged Uncle Ike of "Delta Autumn," as infallible. In "The Bear" Ike errs with the other true hunters in supposing that the assault on the wilderness can be controlled, and in "Delta Autumn," where he is presented as a rather querulous and sententious old man, his advice to Roth's mistress, "Marry: a man in your own race. That's the only salvation for you—for a while yet, maybe a long while yet," is topped by the girl's rejoinder, "Old man, have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?" (p. 363).
14 So far as I know, only Michel Butor, "Les Relations de parenté dans l'Ours de W. Faulkner," Lettres Nouvelles, IV (May, 1956), 734-745 has recognized this snake as the serpent of Eden, and as a forebear of Ike. Is it possible that the word "Grandfather" is a direct reference to Carothers McCaslin?
Melvin Backman (essay date 1961)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4875
SOURCE: "The Wilderness and the Negro in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in PMLA, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, December, 1961, pp. 595-600.
[Below, Backman examines the themes and structure of "The Bear" with reference to the other related stories of Go Down, Moses, illuminating Faulkner's representation of African-American culture.]
The heart of Go Down, Moses (1942) is "The Bear." The most widely acclaimed story of the seven in the volume, "The Bear" has received a variety of interpretations. One critic has emphasized its New Testament spirit, others its romantic and transcendental character, and still others its primitivism and myth.1 The variety of critical response testifies to the story's density of meaning. It is a rich, original story treating of a universal issue; nevertheless, it is distinctly American. Lionel Trilling has placed it in the romantic, transcendental tradition of Cooper, Thoreau, and Melville, while Malcolm Cowley has associated it with the work of Mark Twain. In its pastoral spirit "The Bear" does seem related to Huck Finn; and, in its development of the wilderness theme, to Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales2 Yet because of the story's tendency to split into two parts—one part concerned with the wilderness, the other with the Negro—the structure of the story has seemed faulty and its meaning ambiguous. If "The Bear" is examined within the context of the other related stories of the Go Down, Moses volume, its meaning may be clarified.
The first story, "Was," is a warmly humorous introduction to some of the old McCaslins, white and black, before the Civil War. The next two stories, "The Fire and the Hearth" and "Pantaloon in Black," turn their focus upon the Negro. But the following three stories—"The Old People," "The Bear," and "Delta Autumn"—shift to Isaac McCaslin and the wilderness. The last story, "Go Down, Moses," returns to the Negro. The movement of the Go Down, Moses volume is from surface to depth, from comedy to tragedy, and from the ante-bellum past to the present about the beginning of the Second World War. The subject of Go Down, Moses is apparently the Negro or the wilderness, although in "The Bear" they are strangely merged. This merging of the Negro and the wilderness suggests that "The Bear" is not only the heart but also the climax of Go Down, Moses, since this collection of stories about the black and white descendants of the McCaslin clan of the last century is telling, in a sense, of the making of the conscience of Isaac McCaslin. It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin this study of "The Bear" with a discussion of the Negro, particularly as he emerges in "The Fire and the Hearth," and later, after a close consideration of "The Bear" itself, to conclude with Faulkner's final commentary on the wilderness and the Negro in "Delta Autumn" and "Go Down, Moses."
"The Fire and the Hearth" is concerned with two themes: (1) the Negro-white relationship and (2) family love. Its hero is the Negro, Lucas Beauchamp. Lucas was a proud Negro who had fought for his rights as a man. There was the time he went to fetch his wife from the white man's house where she had gone six months ago to deliver and nurse the white child, Roth Edmonds. Lucas confronted Zack Edmonds, his white kinsman and landlord: "'I'm a nigger. . . . But I'm a man too. I'm more than just a man. The same thing made my pappy that made your grandmaw. I'm going to take her back'" (p. 47).3 She came back. But six months of jealous brooding had driven a hot iron into Lucas' pride. The next night he went to the white man's house to kill his kinsman. They had once lived as brothers: "they had fished and hunted together, they had learned to swim in the same water, they had eaten at the same table in the white boy's kitchen and in the cabin of the negro's mother; they had slept under the same blanket before a fire in the woods" (p. 55). But that was long ago. Now Lucas was protesting against the white man's prerogative over the black man's wife. That he was wrong in his suspicions is beside the point. He had to protest in order to assert the manhood that Southern heritage denied the Negro.
The fire in the hearth which Lucas had lit on his wedding day in 1895 "was to burn on the hearth until neither he nor Molly were left to feed it" (p. 47). This fire is symbolic of love. It is not the kind of love that Faulkner treated in The Wild Palms or The Hamlet; it is more akin to the warm affection that bound the MacCallum family together in Sartoris. In Sartoris that love was associated with life; its absence, as illustrated in Bayard's self-destructive course, with death. In "The Fire and the Hearth" love is threatened and invaded by the inherited curse which separates black from white.
The "old curse" (p. 111) descended too upon the next generation—on Roth, the son of Zack, and Henry, the son of Lucas. For seven years the boys had played together, eaten together, and slept together—the white boy even preferring the Negro cabin with its ever-burning fire—until one night the white boy had insisted that Henry sleep separately in the pallet below the bed. That night the white boy lay "in a rigid fury of the grief he could not explain, the shame he would not admit" (p. 112). They never slept again in the same room nor ate at the same table. The price for white supremacy was shame and loss of love.
Both as a boy and man, Roth Edmonds is characterized by the deprivation of love. The only mother he had ever known was the little Negress, Molly. It was she
who had raised him, fed him from her own breast as she was actually doing her own child, who had surrounded him always with care for his physical body and for his spirit too, teaching him his manners, behavior—to be gentle with his inferiors, honorable with his equals, generous to the weak and considerate of the aged, courteous, truthful and brave to all—who had given him, the motherless, without stint or expectation of reward that constant and abiding devotion and love which existed nowhere else in this world for him. (p. 117)
He had lived his early life in the Negro cabin where "a little fire always burned, centering the life in it, to his own" (p. 110). Living as brother to Henry, he had wanted "only to love . . . and to be let alone" (p. 111). But that was his lost childhood which he had to forsake for the prerogatives of his Southern heritage. Southern heritage denied the black brother Roth's love and denied the white boy his brother's and mother's love. Faulkner's concern over this deprivation of love is not new, for "the tragic complexity of . . . motherless childhood" (pp. 130-131) echoes through Faulkner's novels. Many of his isolated and defeated protagonists—Quentin Compson, Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, Gail Hightower, and Charles Bon—are marked by a motherless childhood. Behind the malaise and violence in Faulkner's works is the lost affection of childhood. But in Go Down, Moses the love that has been destroyed is the brotherhood between black and white.
The nostalgia for a lost love and innocence is central to "The Bear" too, although it has been enriched and transfigured in this story of the wilderness, since Faulkner has made use of a theme—a point of view, in fact—deeply embedded in American literature. In the conscious and unconscious memory of the American writer, the woods and river have loomed large because of their associations with a primitive and natural existence, free from the restraints and corruption of civilization. For Cooper the wilderness retained a primeval beauty and calm, though the simple, heroic Indians and Natty Bumppo had to yield to the destructive and possessive settlers. Based in part on the American frontier experience, the nostalgia for a primitive past seems to derive chiefly, however, from the author's own needs. This nostalgia often turns back to one's childhood—as if searching consciously for a lost innocence and freedom, and unconsciously for a lost peace. It is clearly evident in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. In Tom Sawyer the golden age of life is the carefree, joyous summertime of boyhood. In Huck Finn a boy and a slave, rafting down the friendly Mississippi, establish a brief idyll of peace and natural fellowship; but from the land come the representatives of civilization, armed with greed and deceit and violence, to shatter the idyll. The same opposition between nature and civilization, the same desire to retreat to an earlier, more natural way of life is apparent in "The Bear."
For the orphan Isaac McCaslin his true home would become the wilderness; his true father an old Indian who, quitting the plantation, returned to the wilderness whence he had derived. There as a self-appointed guardian of the woods Sam Fathers was to live out his remaining years. But already—it was 1877—the woods were "that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness" (p. 193). In the face of its inevitable destruction, the old Indian trained the boy for initiation into the wilderness as though he were its priest and the boy the novitiate. But if Sam Fathers was the priest of the wilderness, Old Ben was its chief. To pass the ordeal of initiation the boy would have to win acceptance from the chief. To accomplish this the boy had to shed the instruments and symbols of civilization: the gun, watch, and compass. He had to conquer his fear, discipline his will, and, finally, like a humble suppliant before his god, surrender himself completely to the wilderness. The boy's communion was confirmed by the silent, mystical appearance of Old Ben.
Not long after the boy's initiation Sam Fathers found the dog who was brave enough, worthy enough to hunt the old bear. The dog possessed the hunter's fierce implacability—"the will and desire to pursue and kill. . . to endure beyond all imaginable limits of flesh in order to overtake and slay" (p. 237)—that had been "ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness" (pp. 191-192). This was the dog—they had named him Lion—who would be pitted against the bear in the last great hunt. These two kings of beasts seemed the sole surviving representatives of the ancient hunt and life of the wilderness. In the hunt that brooked no quarter, death was inevitable. The boy knew it, yet he did not hate Lion. "It seemed to him that there was a fatality in it. It seemed to him that something, he didn't know what, was beginning; had already begun. It was like the last act on a set stage. It was the beginning of the end of something" (p. 226). Despite these apprehensions he did not fully realize that the death of Old Ben signified the impending death of the wilderness. But Sam knew it. When Old Ben went down, "as a tree falls" (p. 241), "the old man, the wild man not even one generation from the woods, childless, kinless, peopleless" (p. 246) prepared to die too.
Joining Lion in its attack upon the bear was the halfbreed Indian, Boon Hogganbeck, who followed the dog as if Lion were his totem and represented his almost forsaken Indian heritage. Boon's killing of Old Ben entitles him to glory, but it has involved him too in the white man's guilt in the destruction of the woods. Boon served Major de Spain and McCaslin Edmonds. It was men like these who were destroying the wilderness—the Major by selling the woods to the lumber interests, McCaslin by clearing its borders in order to build farms and fill his bank's coffers. Great hunter for the moment, Boon was also an unwitting instrument of the wilderness' destruction. Of this the boy was dimly aware; hence he stood apart from the action of the hunt, as if his will to act were paralyzed by his conflicting identification with both the hunted and the hunter. The ambivalence of the boy is embedded in the story itself, so that though "The Bear" celebrates the glory of the hunt, it mourns elegiacally the passing of the wilderness.
Implicit in the story is the dream of the wilderness as idyllic retreat, as an escape from the outside world to a reassuring but solitary peace. Like the river in Huck Finn, the woods in "The Bear" represents a retreat for a boy and a man, and like the river's idyll it was doomed to extinction by civilization. For Isaac McCaslin the woods came, more and more, to signify escape from woman, from the world and struggle. The figures to whom he surrendered, Old Ben and Sam Fathers, were solitary old bachelors identified with the wilderness. It was the wilderness that he embraced, the land that he repudiated. He had to repudiate, he explained to his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, because the land that did not belong to his father or grandfather or even Ikkemotubbe could not be bequeathed to him.
Because He told in the Book how He created the earth, made it and looked at it and said it was all right, and then He made man. He made the earth first and peopled it with dumb creatures, and then He created man to be His overseer on the earth and to hold suzerainty over the earth and the animals on it in His name, not to hold for himself and his descendants inviolable title forever, generation after generation, to the oblongs and squares of the earth, but to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood, (p. 257)
For Isaac the golden age was the wilderness time when men lived as brothers before they had become tainted by the greed for possession. This primitivistic communism is not a new idea in Faulkner's works. In "Lo" (1935) an Indian reminded the President that "God's forest and the deer which He put in it belong to all"; in Thomas Sutpen's mountain home "the land belonged to anybody and everybody"; in "Retreat" (1938) Buck and Buddy McCaslin believed that "land did not belong to people but that people belonged to land." But it remained for Isaac McCaslin to develop this idea into a philosophy for life.4 This philosophy ran absolutely counter to that of his ancestor, old Carothers. Carothers "took the land, got the land no matter how, held it to bequeath, no matter how, out of the old grant, the first patent, when it was a wilderness of wild beasts and wilder men, and cleared it, translated it into something to bequeath to his children, worthy of bequeathment for his descendants' ease and security and pride and to perpetuate his name and accomplishments" (p. 256). All that old Carothers represented Isaac was repudiating.
However, that he repudiated out of his belief in God's communistic scheme seems a rationalization of a more deeply rooted motive. He was driven to repudiation by the guilt inherited from the McCaslin sin against the Negro, a sin that had long since tainted the land. He first became aware of this sin when he was a boy of sixteen. In the "rank chill midnight room" (p. 271) of the McCaslin commissary he pored over the entries on the yellowed pages of the old ledgers. He was learning about his black kin: Eunice, who drowned herself in the creek on Christmas Day, 1832; Tomey, her daughter, who died in childbirth six months later; and the son Terrei, who was born in Tomey's death. Tomey's Terrei had been marked down in old Carothers' will for a thousand dollar legacy. Yes, Isaac thought, his grandfather had found it cheaper to give a thousand dollars than to say "My son to a nigger" (p. 269). And Isaac thought of the young girl, Tomey: had there been any love between the old man and her, or had it been "just an afternoon's or a night's spittoon" (p. 270)? Suddenly he realized the truth: his grandfather had taken not only his slave but also "his own daughter" (p. 270). He knew now why Eunice had drowned herself. He saw that the McCaslin chronicle "was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South" (p. 293), the "whole edifice . . . founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity and carried on even yet with at times downright savagery" (p. 298). The Southern planters "were all Grandfather" (p. 283). They had denied the heart's rights to their black kin; they had sold themselves to rapacity. Where were the "humility and pity and sufferance and pride of one to another" (p. 258) upon which God had founded and granted the new world to man? These virtues were part of the dream to which Isaac clung desperately in the face of his knowledge of the South's miscegenation and incest.
In Faulkner's novels incest tragically complicates the lives of his heroes and forces them to decisions that determine the course of their own and their descendants' lives. Quentin Compson yielded to the incestuous attraction of his sister Caddy; the result was his death by suicide. Charles Bon decided to marry his white sister; the result was his death by murder. Bayard Sartoris ("An Odor of Verbena") resisted his stepmother's offer of herself; the result was life and increased moral strength. Old Carothers took his slavedaughter Tomey; the result was the sin that oppressed his descendants' conscience. Incest and miscegenation are deeply rooted in the Southern past; they have evolved from the white planter's freedom with his woman slaves and have produced his double family—black and white. The white planter and his offspring were enmeshed in tragic conflicts and contradictions. On one hand, the South, with its emphasis upon family and honor, promoted strong familial bonds and obligations; on the other hand, the South refused to accord family status and love to a white man's black offspring. The black man's life was tragically scarred; the white man's conscience was grievously burdened.
To make a life of their own the black grandchildren of old Carothers abandoned the plantation in the 1880's. Tennie's Jim vanished forever somewhere in Tennessee in December 1885; seven months later Fonsiba went off with an educated Negro; only Lucas stayed on the plantation. To fulfill his grandfather's will and to ease his own conscience, Isaac went in search of Fonsiba. He found her living with her scholar-husband in Midnight, Arkansas. They were living with their delusion of freedom in a cold and empty cabin on an unfenced piece of jungle land. For Isaac these Negroes who had abandoned the plantation to embrace freedom and education were dwelling in darkness and delusion, as well as misery and poverty. It was twenty-two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and still they were not free.
Neither was Isaac free, even after his repudiation of the cursed land in 1889. He had to repudiate, he told his cousin McCaslin, "because I have got myself to have to live with for the rest of my life and all I want is peace to do it in" (p. 288). But there was no peace. At the same time that Isaac was seeking to atone for the inherited sin, he was paralyzingly aware of the futility of his repudiation. Underlying his noble words is a sense of desperation and grieving helplessness. He cried out to Fonsiba's husband:
Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples' turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see? (p. 278)
To the question of how long the land would be cursed, Isaac replied to McCaslin: "It will be long. . . . But it will be all right because they [the Negroes] will endure" (p. 299). Isaac has offered the Negro the consolation that the Negro will endure, and the blind faith that the wrong will be righted if one does nothing long enough.
Yet this defeatism is not the true measure of Isaac McCaslin; it is but the partial response of an embattled and struggling spirit. Isaac, like the story itself, is torn in two by opposing forces. One force moves him to atone for the sin against the Negro; the other pushes him toward escape from the Southern dilemma. To atone for the sin, he repudiated the land; but this proved to be only a lonely gesture of the conscience that did not touch the hard face of the world. To escape the dilemma he sought refuge in the wilderness, where "he would be able to hide himself (p. 318). Like its protagonist, "The Bear" both retreats from and confronts life. When it retreats from the Southern situation, it tells beautifully and mystically of the hunt and the wilderness, as though chanting an elegy for the passing of a golden age. When the story confronts the Southern dilemma, it loses focus and disintegrates. This is most apparent in the fourth section of the story, which rambles from Isaac's discursive introversions to the ledger entries to various uncorrelated episodes and finally to the intrusive opinions of the author about the relative merits of the South and the North. Both the protagonist and the author seem to be battling with themselves—not in the manner of the author of Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury with its fine controlled tension, but in the manner of one who is being fragmentized by unbearable guilt. It is not just the South's obsessional guilt about the Negro, but it is the guilt implicit in a public admission of sin—a treasonable act for a Southerner.
By shifting the story's focus from the Negro to the wilderness, Faulkner is shifting the burden of guilt from the South to mankind. It is mankind that, driven by rapacity, has destroyed God's wilderness and enslaved His black creatures. Although the exploitation of nature is not morally the same as the enslavement of one's fellow man, Faulkner has chosen to merge these two crimes, as if to blur their moral distinctions. By fashioning a primitivistic mystique, with Christian overtones, based on God's will and the concept of the virgin wilderness as the golden age, Faulkner has endeavored to bulwark Isaac's conscience against the inroads of guilt. But this mystique is shot through with contradictions and weakness. On one hand, Faulkner has identified the wilderness with peace, brotherhood, pity, and humility; on the other hand, he has identified it with the primitive hunt that epitomizes "the will and desire to pursue and kill" (p. 237). Although the wilderness serves Isaac, as the seminary served Gail Hightower, as the temple of God, it serves also as a refuge from the world.
But there is no refuge from "the old wrong and shame" (p. 351). This is made apparent in the last two stories of the volume, "Delta Autumn" and "Go Down, Moses." Half a century has passed; the year is 1940 now. Time was running out for both Isaac and the wilderness. The diminishing wilderness had retreated toward the Delta; it had been replaced by the plumb-ruled highways, the tremendous gins, and the "ruthless mile-wide parallelograms" (p. 342) "of rank cotton for the frantic old-world people to turn into shells to shoot at one another" (p. 354). Although Uncle Ike saw the advancing destruction of the woods, he seemed sustained by a benign peace, a peace bought by his repudiation of the land. Uncle Ike's gentle, Christlike peace5 is set against signs of vague unrest and ill omen: the remote European war; the faint light and dying warmth of the tent under the constant murmuring of the rain; the sullen brooding and harsh remarks of his kinsman and present owner of the McCaslin land, Roth Edmonds; and Will Legate's taunts about Roth's hunting of does.
The next morning Uncle Ike saw the doe. The doe was a young woman who had come in search of Roth. She was the mulatto granddaughter of Tennie's Jim, Old Carothers' Negro grandson. Unwittingly Roth Edmonds had committed miscegenation compounded by incest, his ancestor's sin. To this woman, his own black kin, Uncle Ike cried "in that thin not loud and grieving voice: 'Get out of here! I can do nothing for you! Cant nobody do nothing for you!'" (p. 361) His child's peace had been shattered. With quiet candor the mulatto woman reminded the shaking old man of a truth older than peace: "'Have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you don't remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?'" (p. 363) He was left with the wafting light and "grieving rain" (p. 365) and his shivering body and panting breath.
No Southerner can purchase immunity. Even for an Uncle Ike there is no peace in our time. The "old wrong and shame" has not been erased, but crops up anew in different guises. Now it is the South's honor and code that deny a woman's love; now it is the North's law that executes a Negro murderer for an aborted rebellion against the white society which has rejected him—the subject of the story "Go Down, Moses." The old Negress, Aunt Mollie, is ultimately right in her lament that Roth Edmonds sold her Benjamin to Pharaoh. The execution of Butch Beauchamp began long ago with the enslavement of the Negro by the Carothers McCaslins. Now, in the twentieth century, there is still no Moses, Faulkner says, to lead the Negro out of bondage.
Go Down, Moses voices the concern of conscience over the Negro's plight in a white man's world, yet it voices too the grief of conscience over its own helplessness. The South that denies the Negro his manhood denies the white man his right to love. The power of love cannot break through the world's hard shell. Isaac McCaslin's lonely act of atonement leaves no perceptible mark upon the Southern system. As the wilderness of the old Mississippi gives way to the fields of "rank cotton for the frantic oldworld people to turn into shells to shoot at one another," it becomes apparent that the evil of the old world persists in the new. There is no peace. There is only the anguish of an old man to testify to the presence of the human conscience.
1 See R. W. B. Lewis, "The Hero in the New World: William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," Kenyon Review, XIII (Autumn 1951), 641-660; Lionel Trilling, "The McCaslins of Mississippi," The Nation, CLIV (30 May 1942), 632-633; Irving D. Blum, "The Parallel Philosophy of Emerson's 'Nature' and Faulkner's 'The Bear'," Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 13 (4th Quart., 1958), 22-25; Malcolm Cowley, "Go Down to Faulkner's Land," The New Republic, CVI (29 June 1942), 900; Harry Modean Campbell and Ruel E. Foster, William Faulkner: A Critical Appraisal (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1951), pp. 146-158; Kenneth LaBudde, "Cultural Primitivism in William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," American Quarterly, II (Winter 1950), 322-328; William Van O'Connor, "The Wilderness Theme in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," Accent, XIII (Winter 1953), 12-20; W. R. Moses, "Where History Crosses Myth: Another Reading of 'The Bear'," Accent, XIII (Winter 1953), 21-33; and Otis B. Wheeler, "Faulkner's Wilderness," American Literature, XXXI (May 1959), 127-136; Herbert A. Perluck, "'The Heart's Driving Complexity': An Unromantic Reading of Faulkner's 'The Bear'," Accent, XX (Winter 1960), 23-46.
2 Ursula Brumm has commented on the relationship between Cooper and Faulkner, particularly in regard to the wilderness theme and the affinity between Sam Fathers and Natty Bumpo. See Ursula Brumm, "Wilderness and Civilization: A Note on William Faulkner," Partisan Review, XXII (Summer 1955), 340-350.
3Go Down, Moses (New York: Modern Library, 1955); page references are to this edition.
4 Despite the relationship of this philosophy to the Indian and frontier point of view, the philosophy may stem from Rousseau's "Discourse on Inequality." Rousseau wrote: "The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, 'This is mine,' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!" Compare Faulkner's remark in Absalom, Absolom! (Modern Library, p. 221): "Where he [the boy Thomas Sutpen] lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody and so the man who would go to the trouble and work to fence off a piece of it and say 'This is mine' was crazy."
5 Throughout the story, "Delta Autumn," Uncle Ike is frequently (eight times) described as peaceful and untroubled. Three times he is described with his hands crossed over his breast, three times compared to a gentle child.
H. H. Bell, Jr. (essay date 1962)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2781
SOURCE: "A Footnote to Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 3, December, 1962, pp. 179-83.
[In the following essay, Bell clarifies several genealogical, chronological, and interpretive enigmas of Faulkner's story.]
Faulkner's story "The Bear," in its various forms and under its various titles, has been alternately patted and mauled by critics since it first appeared in Harper's magazine for December 1935, under the title of "Lion." It has been widely studied in college classrooms and has proved puzzling to students and instructors alike. Because its details are so tangled, it is easy to make honest mistakes when speaking or writing about the story, and several such mistakes have already been published. For instance, one source states that Ike shot his first buck at the age of nine. Here it must be remembered that Ike didn't make his first trip into the wilderness until he was ten. Another source, a widely used college anthology, points out that Lucas Beauchamp is the son of Tennie's Jim, but readers should be reminded that they are in actuality brothers. The foregoing assertions emphasize the need for a clarification of the facts of the story, and it is the intent of this article to come to grips with some of the major problems of genealogy, chronology, and interpretation found in it.
Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin (1772-1837) died leaving three children—the twin brothers Theophilus (Uncle Buck) and Amodeus (Uncle Buddy), and an unnamed daughter. Theophilus married Sophonsiba Beauchamp (Sibbey) and by her he had a son, Isaac McCaslin (Ike), two years before he died. Amodeus never married; in fact, he was never attracted to ladies, and he died poetically in the same year that his twin brother passed to his reward. The unnamed daughter married an Edmonds whose first name is never given; and it is from this union, on the distaff side of the family, that Carothers McCaslin Edmonds (Cass) is eventually descended, appearing in the third generation. Theophilus's wife Sophonsiba had a brother, the unusual Hubert Fitz-Hubert Beauchamp of Warwick, who may further be identified as the uncle who left Ike a legacy of nothing wrapped in trash! These are all of the people who figure in the white side of the family of old Carothers McCaslin in the story.
At the same time that old Carothers McCaslin was busy creating the white side of his family, he was not exactly inactive on the black side. By the slave girl Eunice, whom he had bought in New Orleans in 1807 for $650, old Carothers had a daughter named Tomasina (Tomy) in 1810. It seems likely that when Carothers discovered he had rendered Eunice pregnant he had another slave, Thucydus, marry her in a partial attempt at least to cover his infidelity. In any event, it is known that Thucydus conveniently married Eunice in 1809.
When Tomasina was twenty-two years old, she found favor in old Carothers' eyes, and he had a son by her named Tomy's Terrei in 1833. Eunice, shortly before Christmas, 1832, discovered that her daughter Tomasina was three months pregnant by Carothers—the man who had also been her lover—and she drowned herself on Christmas Day, 1832. In 1859, when he was twenty-six years old, Tomy's Terrei married Tennie Beauchamp, a twenty-one year old slave girl, who had just come to live at the McCaslin place, having been won by Amodeus McCaslin in a poker game with Hubert Fitz-Hubert Beauchamp. This marriage got off to a tragic start. Their first child, forgivingly named Amodeus McCaslin Beauchamp, was born in the year of their marriage, and he died in the same year. Their second child, named Carolina McCaslin Beauchamp (Callina), was born in 1862 and died in the same year. Their third child, born in 1863, did not even live long enough to receive a name; in fact, no mention is even made of its sex. It starved to death, presumably in the same year it was born.
After suffering three tragedies in four years their luck in the rearing of children abrupty changed, and their next three children all survived. James Thucydus Beauchamp (Tennie's Jim), born in 1864, grew to maturity, left the McCaslin acres and vanished somewhere in Tennessee in the early part of January 1886. Sophonsiba Beauchamp (Fonsiba), born in 1869, likewise left the McCaslin acres when at the age of seventeen she married the nameless Negro scholar (he of the lensless eyeglasses) and departed to live in Midnight, Arkansas. Lucas Quintus Carothers McCaslin Beauchamp, born in 1874, also grew to maturity, and though he did not leave the McCaslin acres, he repudiated his inheritance in his own peculiar way. Perhaps it should be noted in passing that the three surviving children of Tomy's Terrei and Tennie Beauchamp—the three black grandchildren of old Carothers McCaslin—all repudiate and relinquish in their own way "their" inheritance even as Ike McCaslin—the white grandson of old Carothers McCaslin—repudiates and relinquishes in his way "his" inheritance.
These are all of the people who figure prominently in the black side of the family of old Carothers McCaslin in the story. . . .
The determination of correct family relationships in "The Bear" poses a few difficulties for the scholar, but these difficulties are as nothing when compared to the problems one faces in attempting to establish an accurate chronology of events in the story. Here, one will find Faulkner himself of very little help! For example, note the problem posed when one tries to establish the birth date of the hero, Isaac McCaslin. For this Faulkner gives us the choice of at least three different years—1866, 1867, and 1868. Writing of the birth of the unnamed child born to Tomy's Terrei and Tennie Beauchamp which occurred in 1863, Faulkner says "and no cause given [for the child's death] though the boy could guess it because McCaslin was thirteen then." This would mean that McCaslin was born in 1850, and since we are told elsewhere in the story that Cass is sixteen years older than Ike, projection of this latter figure from the year 1850 would give us 1866 for Ike's birth year. Writing one page later, Faulkner gives us 1867 for Ike's birth year quite clearly with these words: "or 1867 either, when he [Ike] himself saw light." Writing one page later still and speaking of the birth of Sophonsiba Beauchamp which occurred in 1869, Faulkner says that "the boy [Ike] himself was a year old." This would clearly yield 1868 for Ike's birth year. Despite these variants, a careful reading of the story and a proper assessment of all the facts available would indicate that Faulkner intends the reader to settle upon 1867 as Ike's birth year.
For Lucas Beauchamp the reader has a choice of two different birth years—1874 and 1875. According to the ledger entry referring to his birth, Lucas was born on March 17, 1874. However, writing of the birth of Lucas's sister Sophonsiba which occurred in 1869, Faulkner says that "Lucas was born six years later." This would simply mean that Lucas was born in 1875. In this instance, it seems wiser for the reader to settle upon the ledger entry—March 17, 1874.
Likewise, for Cass, the reader is given a choice of two different birth years—1850 and 1851. Writing of the birth of the nameless child born to Tomy's Terrei and Tennie Beauchamp in 1863, Faulkner says "because McCaslin was thirteen then and he remembered how there was not always enough to eat in more places than Vicksburg." This statement places Cass's birth in 1850. However, supposing Ike to have been born in 1867; and assuming, as we are led to assume, that Cass was sixteen years older than Ike, we must arrive at 1851 for Cass's birth year. Here it appears that Faulkner intends 1851 to be the true year of Cass's birth.
In addition to the above variants in birth years, there are in the story several other instances of confusion in dates. First, there is the problem of establishing the exact time that Ike becomes the proud owner of his own gun. Ike was ten years old in November of 1877, and Faulkner says that in June of the next summer (i.e., June of 1878) he had his own gun. However, writing on the same page, Faulkner states that Ike "had his own gun now, a new breech-loader, a Christmas gift. . . [with] the silver inlaid trigger-guard with his and McCaslin's engraved names and the date in 1878." It seems unlikely that Ike could "have" his gun six months before he got it. Here, it seems best for the reader to accept the date engraved on the trigger-guard.
Writing of Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the Emancipation Proclamation, Faulkner has this to say: "And again he [Ike] did not need to look because he had seen this himself and, twenty-three years after the surrender and twenty-four after the Proclamation. . . ." This places the Surrender and the Proclamation one year apart; however, the actual dates respectively were April 9, 1865, and January 1, 1863—slightly more than twenty-seven months apart. The reader must obviously go with history here.
Then there is the difficulty of establishing the date of the first trip of the logging train into the wilderness. Ike, thinking in June of 1885 about the first trip says "Boon and Ash, twenty years younger then." This would place the first trip in the year 1865. However, five lines later Ike says "McCaslin, twelve then [when the logging train made its first trip]. . . ." Since Cass was born in 1851, this would place the first trip in the year 1863. Here, any reconciliation of the divergent dates is impossible.
Let us pass from the problems of genealogy and chronology to those of interpretation. Many different meanings have been read into the final episode of the story—that of Boon Hogganbeck sitting beneath a gum tree pounding his gun to pieces. Some have said that this is the funniest thing they have ever read; others have said that it represents Boon as the symbol of civilization with all its possessive instincts yelling at Ike to leave the squirrels alone because they are his; still others have said that Boon here is merely fixing his gun. In addition to these varying views, the following is offered as a possible and plausible interpretation of the incident.
The reasons for Boon's behavior in this instance are, to this author at least, implicit within the foregoing sections of the story. Boon is forty-two years old when this incident occurs, but he is mentally retarded, for Faulkner has said that "Boon had been ten all his life." Therefore, all of his reactions are those of a child rather than those of an adult. Secondly, the childlike Boon is a born lover of the woods, and of animals, and of the hunt. He is uncomfortable and ill at ease whenever he is away from his natural environment for it has become a part of him; it has become his way of life—the only way of life he knows. In support of this view is offered the episode of Boon's going to Memphis with Ike for whiskey. It is significant that on this trip Boon gets drunk in the city and stays drunk until he is back in the wilderness. Boon, the child of nature, cannot face the complexities of civilization—cannot even face civilized society without the buffer of drink.
Note that it was said above that Boon is a lover of the hunt. He is not a hunter in the sense that he can kill as the civilized hunter kills—with a gun and without provocation. Boon has never been known to hit anything with the civilized weapon of the gun, except a Negro woman, and he wasn't even shooting at her. In other words, civilized weapons in the hands of the primitive child of nature are useless. He doesn't understand them, and he can't use them effectively. This is why Boon kills Old Ben with a knife—a primitive weapon.
Putting all of the foregoing together, we have the reasons for his behavior at the moment. Boon, on this last trip to the wilderness realizes for the first time in his childlike way the full impact that the lumber company operations will have upon him, upon the woods he loves, upon the game he loves to hunt, and upon the only way of life known to him. In a way, the gum tree filled with the squirrels represents the woods, the game, and the hunt rolled into a ball—the last tree of all the countless trees, the last game of all the dead past's wonderful game, the last hunt for Boon of all the wonderful hunts of the past, the last of everything, the last of all, the last, last, last. In all probability, before Ike appeared on the scene, Boon had fired at the tree filled with squirrels and had missed, as he had always missed in the past; and in all probability he is too simple to realize why he has missed, too simple to know and comprehend what is wrong. In this frenzy of infantile frustration he rips the gun—the civilized weapon—apart and destroys it, beating one part of it against another. Doubtless the question as to what he will do now that his way of life is disappearing has crossed his mind, for it is unlikely indeed that he is a happy man as the town marshal of Hoke's, and even that job won't be there for him when the lumber company has finished its operations.
The last episode of the story has been treated first because it helps to explain Boon's actions in another scene which often puzzles the reader—that in which Old Ben is killed. The questioning reader is likely to wonder why Boon, the lover of the wilderness, the animals, and the hunt kills the bear.
Let it be agreed at the outset that Boon cannot kill as the civilized hunter kills—with a gun and without provocation. However, Boon, the primitive child of nature, can kill with a primitive weapon and when he has adequate provocation. In this instance, Boon sees Lion, the dog he has cared for—fed as a child feeds his pet, slept in the same bed with as a child sleeps in the same bed with his pet, loved as a child loves his pet—being killed by the bear. This is adequate provocation, but in all honesty it must not be insinuated that the question of provocation ever crossed the simple mind of Boon.
The incident is hardly that uncomplicated though. Faulkner rarely is! It should be noted that Lion is a true primitive and untainted even as Old Ben is. Lion is a wild beast—he had been captured out of the wilds, where he had lived as any other wild beast lives—taking care of himself, killing his own food, and finding his own shelter. He had been trained but never tamed by Sam Fathers. Sam insists, in fact, that he must never be tamed. In other words, he must never be rendered a civilized dog. For Sam knows that it would be most inappropriate and downright wrong to have Old Ben, the "God" of primitivism, run to ground by a civilized "lap dog." It would be something like having a French poodle with a sequin collar bring a wild buck to bay! Therefore, Lion, despite his association with civilization since his capture, never becomes civilized. So Boon, when he kills Old Ben, is presented with an enigma—he has to kill a part of primitivism (even though it is the best part) in order to save a part of primitivism (the part that he is closest to and loves the most). But again it must be added that it is very unlikely that these questions crossed the retarded mind of Boon at the moment. He merely acts out of his primitive and childlike instinct.
Boon, therefore, unknowingly participates in the destruction of the wilderness by killing Old Ben, the "God" of the wilderness. By having Boon kill Old Ben, the author manages to keep Ike unsullied to take part in the burial of Sam Fathers—the high priest of the "cult" of Old Ben and the wilderness—and to become the caretaker and guardian of the ideals represented by Sam, and Old Ben, and the wilderness—the ideals of humility, endurance, and patience. This, of course, explains why Ike in Part IV of the story, when he is twenty-one years old, repudiates his inheritance in an attempt to rid himself of the shame, the wrong, and the evil that goes with it.
Despite its involved genealogy, its slippery chronology, and its troublesome interpretation, "The Bear" still stands as a story which gets better with each successive reading; and there are not many stories about which that may honestly be said.
Richard E. Fisher (essay date 1963)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5078
SOURCE: "The Wilderness, the Commissary, and the Bedroom: Faulkner's Ike McCaslin as Hero in a Vacuum," in English Studies, Vol. 44, 1963, pp. 19-28.
[In the following essay, Fisher correlates Isaac McCaslin's qualifications and limitations as a hero to the lessons Isaac learns from his family's history, his hunting experience, and his failed marriage.]
An evaluation of Ike McCaslin as a hero sheds light on a number of problems in Go Down, Moses, such as miscegenation, the conjunction of the slavery and wilderness themes, and the symbolism of Old Ben, Lion, and the wilderness. Ike's qualifications and limitations as a hero can best be seen as the corollary of his education, which is essentially the product of three factors.
In this book (my text is the Modern Library edition) Faulkner weaves the McCaslin saga into the larger fabric of his legend. Since a major concern of that tapestry is slavery, it is not surprising to find that the history of slavery, and his own family's part in that history, constitute an important aspect of Ike's education. The ability to turn this particular knowledge into a guide for the conduct of his life derives from his earlier and hence equally important training and conduct as a hunter, specifically from being one of the privileged witnesses of the death of Old Ben. The actions resulting from these two parts of his education partake of heroism, and although Ike never attains full heroic stature, he is more than the main character of the McCaslin saga. He betrays this much of his accomplishment because he fails to understand the third great event in his education, the shattering disillusionment of his marriage. This failure marks the end of his development and, as well shall see, the fatal limitation of his heroism. In the terms of the story, his repudiation of the farm is valid, the repudiation of his vocation is not. Ike's response to his first two lessons increases his stature. His misinterpretation of the third diminishes it, and he spends the rest of his life as a hero in a vacuum.
While conceived and published separately, the stories as arranged in Go Down, Moses have a demonstrable artistic unity. Viewing the collection from the point of view of circles within circles, we find the large view of slavery encompassing everything else; this outer circle is both quantitative, covering six generations from the late Eighteenth Century into the Twentieth Century, and qualitative, ranging from occasional comic highlights through varying shades of the consistently tragic background. Within this largest circle are the three stories devoted to the McCaslin saga, 'The Old People', 'The Bear', and 'Delta Autumn'. Of these, 'The Bear' is central both physically and by explaining and being explained by what precedes and follows it. Finally, Part IV of 'The Bear' contains the key to this cosmology, and is also its focal point. As the intensity and specificity increase, Ike appears more and more as the isolated hero.
Before examining more closely the meaning and consequences of Ike's education, it is necessary to indicate what the term 'hero in a vacuum' is meant to suggest. The difference in degree between a tragic figure and a tragic hero keeps Ike from the latter category. He is a tragic figure in that, two-thirds of the way to an indisputably heroic stature, where his perceptions and actions would effect others, his development is interrupted by a failure of vision. This failure of vision also means that Ike, who can identify self-assertion as the original sin that condemned his race (and it is to be noted that there is nothing fortunate in this fall), cannot see self-assertion in himself even though he repudiates it in others, including his own ancestors. We can consider this failure a personal tragedy, but Ike never becomes a tragic hero. Nor is he a romantic hero. His withdrawal is rather from history than from the community. The reason that he may be called an isolated hero, a hero in a vacuum, is that he does not satisfactorily pass on to others the lessons that have made his own limited heroism possible. The ultimate explanation of this failure is, again, the earlier failure which impeded his growth and dimmed his vision. His teaching is unsatisfactory because his understanding is incomplete. Because it is Ike's education, rather than innate gifts or acquired quests, that determines his character and dictates his action, he is perhaps closest in kind to W. H. Auden's concept of the ethical hero. Ike becomes the hero in a vacuum at the point where he fails to fulfill Auden's criteria.
Auden, in The Enchafèd Flood (London, 1951), p. 83, says that the hero is the exceptional individual, recognized, whether in life or in books, by the degree of interest he arouses in the spectator or the reader; the exceptional individual is the one who possesses authority over the average, and the authority can be of three kinds, aesthetic, ethical or religious. Ethical authority 'arises from an accidental inequality in the relation of individuals to the universal truth', and the ethical hero is 'the one who at any given moment happens to know more than the others' (p. 84). This is not a question of innate gifts, as with the aesthetic hero, but 'a remedial accident of time and opportunity, i.e., the hero is not one who can do what the others cannot, but one who does know now what the others do not but can be taught by him, which is precisely what he must do if he is to be recognized by them as a hero' (p. 85). Finally, and of particular significance in a study of Ike, who has a long life in which to teach, Time for the ethical hero 'is not the ultimately overwhelming enemy, but the temporary element through which men move towards immortality' (p. 86). In 'Delta Autumn', p. 354, old Ike 'seemed to see the two of them—himself and the wilderness—as coevals . . . the two spans running out together, not toward oblivion, nothingness, but into a dimension free of both time and space. . . .'
All three of Ike's lessons concern self-assertion. Chronologically, as we will see more closely in a moment, he learns in the wilderness that self-assertion marks the difference between dominion over and exploitation of the things of this earth, in the commissary that claiming another human being as one's property is perhaps the worst form of self-assertion, and in the bedroom that self-assertion can ruin the sexual aspect of married love. His wife's cupidity is allowed to infect his own charity; his generalizing about love is the result of his failure of vision. In turning now to the details of his generally successful education in the wilderness, I should like to begin by pointing out the one oversight that Ike committed and that none of his teachers corrected. The point Ike overlooks is mixed blood, and if he had seen the point he could have armed himself against his last great despair in 'Delta Autumn'. This despair, experienced as outrage and culminating in revulsion, is, once again, primarily the result of his failure of vision in the bedroom episode, but Ike would emerge as a larger figure had he not overlooked the earlier point, the significance of mixed blood.
Ike's most important teacher in the wilderness episode is Sam Fathers, although he also learns from his other hunting companions, from Lion, and even from Boon Hogganbeck. Old Ben is more object lesson than teacher. He is not only, like Ike, coeval with the wilderness, he is the wilderness incarnate. He plays always by the rules, killing only as much as he uses. Only he and the other bears and the deer are pure-blood, and he is not so much distinguished from these other animals by his size and his age as he is representative of all pure blood, of all wildness before blood is mixed, of the wilderness itself. Like the wilderness itself, which is of another time, when a virgin land made sense, and like Ike himself, Old Ben must give way before civilization because he cannot compromise with it; the two concepts are mutually exclusive and civilization, for better and for worse, is in the ascendency. It is surprising to see a distinguished critic like William Van O'Connor, in his remarks on 'The Bear' in The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (Minneapolis, 1954), p. 130, and a distinguished hunter like Major de Spain in the story, share the false assumption that Old Ben breaks the rules; O'Connor makes this an argument or justification for killing the bear. Actually, as Sam Fathers knows and as we are told flatly in Part II of 'The Bear' (pp. 214-215) it was the wild dog, Lion, who not so much broke the rules as ignored, or dismissed, or never acknowledged the rules. Lion might be said to represent the id of the wilderness as Old Ben represents ego. (In making the death of Old Ben possible, Lion himself dies.) To put it another way, Old Ben and the wilderness do nothing, and exist before civilization, although they contain a lesson for man in their passing; Ike, as an ethical hero, is also mostly passive, and his major accomplishment is learning, both by the help of others and by his own initiative; Sam Fathers, who is Ike's teacher and who helps him qualify himself for witnessing Old Ben's death, has, as all men have, mixed blood, although one of his strains is chiefs blood; Lion and Boon Hogganbeck, who are the agents of Old Ben's death, also have mixed blood, and Lion's is the better inheritance. Although Boon, like Sam, has Chickasaw blood, 'Boon's was a plebeian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible' (p. 191). Taintlessness and incorruptibility seem to depend not so much on the predominance of blood strains as on outlook: Sam is more chief than slave; Lion, the mongrel, though he kills a colt and leaves most of it uneaten (which would constitute breaking rules if he were rational like a man or a pure-blood like Old Ben) is nevertheless capable of great courage and singleness of purpose in his duel with Old Ben, and we must note that he and not the 'blood' hounds is able to bay the bear; Boon, who is called a mastiff ('The Old People', p. 170), demonstrates the charity which can be learned in the wilderness in his heroic attack on the bear, but also is seen ultimately to have learned nothing. His action is instinctual rather than rational. As self-assertion is the characteristic of abusing nature, owning slaves, and cupidity, caritas transcends self; Boon forgets himself, as Ike forgot himself to save his fyce, because the dog he loves is in danger. But at the end of 'The Bear', we see Boon perpetuating the old sin of self-assertion as he sits under the tree destroying his worthless gun and shouting at Ike about the squirrels, "'Get out of here! Don't touch them! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine'" (p. 331)! This self-assertion is of a kind with that discovered in the commissary and the bedroom; it is the original sin which underlies all the shortcomings described in the book, including Ike's last one. Understanding the nature of the original sin is crucial, because not only does it justify the conjunction of the slavery and wilderness themes, it makes them inseparable.
If, in his wilderness experience, Ike fails to assimilate the knowledge that it is mixed blood, in man and animal, which overpowers the pure blood of Old Ben and the virgin land of which he is the symbol, there are other lessons he learns well. He learns that the wilderness is a condition rather than a force. It is edenic because what can be learned there—but not taught by it—is good. Like Eden, it exists in time and space, and its existence, which depends on man, is similarly doomed. (As Jason Compson III tells his son Quentin in the second section of The Sound and the Fury, 'Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature.') Civilization, the community of human interests and therefore both good and bad, will use the wilderness in good and bad, or right and wrong, ways. And a sensitive man, with good teachers and with a respectful curiosity, can learn the right way of using the wilderness, the things of this earth. In learning this, he acquires the criteria for a good life, and the potential for heroic action.
Sam Fathers, who teaches Ike how to use a gun, when to shoot and when not to, and what, is the most important single person in Ike's life, with the possible exception of his wife, because he has most to do with the boy's instruction. Sam is even more important than Ike's older cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, who is called 'more his brother than his cousin and more his father than either' (p. 164). Sam's surname is a key to his significance. Not only is he the child of two fathers; he has no children of his own, but he obviously becomes a second father to the orphaned Ike. On the occasion of Ike's first trip into the woods with Sam as his mentor, 'it seemed to him that at the age of ten he was witnessing his own birth' (p. 195). In the involved debate with his cousin in Part IV of 'The Bear', Ike says that he is not bound to claim the property listed in the will of his father and Uncle Buddy because "'Sam Fathers set me free'" (p. 300). When Ike killed his first buck, during his third trek into the wilderness at the age of twelve, Sam 'stooped and dipped his hands in the hot smoking blood and wiped them back and forth across the boy's face' (p. 164), baptizing him in manhood and opening the way for his vision of evil, marking him forever. Sixty years later, Ike is able to phrase what he could not on the occasion of his baptism: 7 slew you; my bearing must not shame your quitting life. My conduct forever onward must become your death' (p. 351). The narrator says that on that occasion, 'in less than a second he had ceased forever to be the child he was yesterday' (p. 181). Coached by Sam Fathers, he has played under the eye of the 'ancient immortal Umpire' who decides whether a death is good or bad, a kill worthy or unworthy, but not who will play or who will win. What Ike has come to comprehend is 'loving the life he spills' (p. 181), much in the manner of Hemingway's old fisherman. He kills what he can use, instead of slaughtering for sport. He knows and observes the distinction between use and abuse, which is more than can be said, for example, for the lumber speculators who indiscriminately rip the trees out of the forest and put nothing back. He has gone out on his own, too, and learned more woodsmanship than his companions. Able to find his way in the wilderness with watch and compass, and brave enough to relinquish even these tools of civilization, he wins a private confrontation with Old Ben, when the other hunters have not even been able to get within range. Finally, he can understand the necessity for the eventual deaths of Old Ben and his wilderness abode, and he will ask only that these deaths be good ones. Thus when, at the age of thirteen, he hears Sam say that somebody, someday, will get Old Ben, he answers, "'I know it . . . that's why it must be one of us. So it won't be until the last day. When even he don't want it to last any longer'" (p. 212). In a study of the imagery of stasis in Faulkner's prose (PMLA, LXXI, 1956, p. 301), Karl Zink expresses Faulkner's view of man as the creature of change, 'his doom as the necessity to submit. This is the source of poignant regret for the loss of much that is good and beautiful. But cessation of change is death.' Ike has learned well: 'Had not Sam Fathers already consecrated and absolved him from weakness and regret too?—not from love and pity for all which lived and ran and then ceased to live in a second in the very midst of splendor and speed, but from weakness and regret' (p. 182). Unfortunate as it may be for Ike's development that he does not meditate the significance of the mixed blood, we can understand why he, like Sam, is one of the privileged witnesses of the climax: Boon Hogganbeck, forgetting himself and armed only with love and his knife, attacking and killing Old Ben, the taintless and incorruptible symbol of the wilderness, when the bear is in the process of killing Lion, a mongrel but also taintless and incorruptible, and the only dog able to bring him to bay.
While Sam Fathers has revealed to Ike, and helped him transcend, the original sin of self-assertion which has abused the wilderness, his own paternity adds significance to Ike's second great lesson. Sam's father had been a Chickasaw chief who begot Sam on a quadroon purchased in New Orleans and then pronounced a marriage between the quadroon and another slave, finally selling all three to Carothers McCaslin, Ike's grandfather and the founder of the family in America. When Ike pores over the records kept by his father and uncle in the old commissary store, with his eyes opened for the vision of evil and immediately after witnessing the death of Old Ben, he discovers that Carothers McCaslin did worse than own slaves. He got one of his slaves with child, and twenty-three years later got another child on the daughter of that union. At this point, it seems, the miscegenation is only on a par with the rape, adultery and incest that provoked a worse crime, in Ike's eyes. The unkindest cut of all was not just Carother's refusal to acknowledge his children (the fateful error perpetrated also by Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!), but also the scorn with which he 'paid' for this prerogative by leaving a sum of money to the surviving bastard; and, as Ike points out, since this bequest was to come from his estate after his death, it cost him nothing at all. In other words, as Faulkner says here and elsewhere in his work, every white child is born crucified on a black cross, and the reason is that previous whites held Negroes in slavery. Huckleberry Finn is suggested as the most significant prototype of 'The Bear' by R. W. B. Lewis in The Hero in the New World: William Faulkner's "The Bear",' Interpretations of American Literature, ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr., and Paul Brodtkorb, Jr. (New York, 1959). Lewis says 'both are narratives of boys growing up in the 19th Century southwest; but the essence of the analogy lies, of course, in their common sense of the kinship between black and white, in their common reversal of the conventional morality that legitimizes social injustice' (p. 342). This kind of conventional morality is one aspect of the same community or civilization that, in good or bad ways, spells the end of the wilderness, deflowers the virgin land. In William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World (Lexington, 1959), p. 206, Hyatt Waggoner, showing how the land came to be 'cursed and tainted', cites the 'compounded results of this original sin of self-assertion'. Claiming another human being as one's property is perhaps the worst form of self-assertion.
Ike's conduct following his first lesson is marked by his consistently using life in the right way, and avoiding self-assertion almost as consistently. Thus, following this second lesson, he refuses his patrimony not only because he will live by his ideal that land belongs to all men and cannot be claimed by any one man, (p. 354) but also because this particular farm was tainted by the other aspect of self-assertion, slavery. In the wilderness we see his purification rite carried out by Sam, and in Part IV of 'The Bear' Ike discovers in the family ledgers the evil that made the purification necessary. As Waggoner states the paradox, (p. 206) 'the ancient evil is the reason why there had to be a purification rite, but the rite itself was a precondition to the discovery of the evil. Isaac is now ready to discover that the land cannot be owned, that man's proper role is defined in the concept of what the church calls "stewardship".' Lewis (p. 340) speaks of the near-simultaneity of the death of Old Ben and the discovery of mixed blood in the McCaslin clan as the first essential link between Part IV and the first three parts of the story, and cautions that Part IV is not to be taken merely as the further adventures of Isaac McCaslin: 'We appreciate the harmony of the parts when we begin to describe the two different moments in ancient formulae: the birth into virtue and the vision of evil. For only a person adequately baptized is capable of having the vision at all; and only the grace bestowed at the baptism enables the initiate to withstand the evil when it is encountered. The action in Section IV is made possible by the experience preceding it; the ritual in the wilderness contains the decision in the commissary'.
However, Ike is not, as I have said, perfectly consistent. We come now to the third and, regrettably, the last part of his education. It is regrettable because it is not inevitable, and because we do not want to see Ike McCaslin as we do see him in 'Delta Autumn', an old man crying in a voice not only of amazement and pity but also of outrage, 'You're a nigger' (p. 361)! Miscegenation aside for the moment, we have been given reason to expect better things from Ike than this outburst and what follows it. This conduct does not become him, and we suspect that he is indeed betraying all he has learned, all his life has stood for. Technically, he is, although the betrayal was foreseeable at an earlier date. In the terms of the story, his proper education and mode of life amount to recognizing and repudiating self-assertion. But when he comprehends the extent of his wife's cupidity he is blinded by the bitterness of his disappointment. As he generalizes from this wife to all women, and from this relationship to all human love, his development stops. When that happens, he becomes capable of self-assertion.
Ike repudiated his legacy when he turned twenty-one, and then he moved to town, rented a room, took up carpentering, and, eventually, married. In a passage showing the differences between Ike and Jesus, the omniscient narrator says that Ike's ends, 'although simple enough in their apparent motivation, were and would always be incomprehensible to him, and his life, invincible enough in its needs, if he could have helped himself, not being the Nazarene, he would not have chosen it' (p. 310). When a young man, embarked on the journey of his life, assesses his situation and discovers that he cannot see where he is going, and decides that he would not even be taking this route if he could help it, he may not be certainly barred from heroism but he is working under considerable handicaps. He needs, if not a revelation, at least a perception. Ike, however, gains only a third vision of evil, and this time his sight fails him.
His wife wants the farm he has repudiated; her first words to him on the occasion of their first meeting include an investigation of its legitimate line of descent. (p. 311) She marries him knowing that her wishes in this matter run counter to his. The sordidness which blasts the brief initial glory of their marriage is surveyed fully in 'The Bear', Section IV, (pp. 311-315) and it figures again, importantly, in 'Delta Autumn' (pp. 351-352). There is a prelapsarian naturalness in Ike's desire to see his wife naked; he mentions it to her only once, thereafter generously accepting the secrecy inherent in her sense of shame. On the one occasion when she overcomes this shame, she does it not to please her husband but to excite and coerce him. She succeeds, and gets from him the promise that he will abandon his principles and return to the farm. When he recovers from the exigencies of the moment, Ike reaffirms his ideals, but must break this extorted promise to do so. During the episode in the bedroom, Ike surmises that women 'are bora already bored with what a boy approaches only at fourteen and fifteen with blundering and aghast trembling' (p. 314). And he concludes that his wife 'was born lost, we are all born lost' (p. 314). His wife's shame, cupidity and self-assertion are the third step in Ike's education. A character on his way to full heroic stature, especially one with Ike's previous lessons, should be able to take this step in stride. Ike, blinded by the pain perhaps, stumbles, and makes his human, understandable but too-ordinary generalizations. The experience shatters his faith and seals the incomprehensibility of his life's ends.
When he is an old man in a delta autumn, he recalls that, at the age of twenty-one, he realized that the action in his life was going to be largely reaction. If he could not cure the wrong and eradicate the shame of self-assertion, he could repudiate them for his son, until 'in a rented cubicle in a back-street stock-traders' boarding-house, the first and last time he ever saw her naked body, himself and his wife juxtaposed in their turn against that same land, that same wrong and shame from whose regret and grief he would at least save and free his son and, saving and freeing his son, lost him' (351). As a result of the bedroom episode, Ike decides that the only way to save and free his son is by not bringing him into the world. This is the decision of a truly isolated hero. It is also a form of self-assertion, because Ike presumes to arbitrate against the possible existence of another human being. It reveals, further, his lack of self-confidence: he does not believe that under his own guidance his son could avoid the pitfalls in this world in which, as Ike sees it, 'we are all born lost'. Faith, hope, and even his earlier glimpses of chanty, all vanish in the nightmare of his blasted vision.
Ike McCaslin is, then, a tragic figure, but not a tragic hero. He is not a romantic hero because he withdraws from and repudiates history, past and future, but not the present society or community. And although everything he achieves or fails to achieve is predicated by his education and knowledge, he does not qualify as Auden's ethical hero. With his greater convictions shaken, his vision and development blocked, he does at least pursue game, following the retreating wilderness. And as a hunter renowned for his skill, he returns to the woods in company with the sons and nephews of his earlier companions. But even in this enterprise, in which he is the logical mentor of younger men, he fails. The record of his teaching is found in 'Delta Autumn'. Now, hunters shoot does, and use shotguns instead of rifles; they even forget to take their knives with them. And worst of all, we find Roth Edmonds repeating his great-great-grandfather's ultimate villainy; like Carothers, Roth pays conscience money, seeking to buy off the woman who bears his son. As a telling irony, he uses old Ike as the go-between, and Ike, the hero in a vacuum, obliges.
This is serious enough as it stands. But the final indictment consists in Ike's revulsion when he discovers that the woman is a Negro. (Because she is Carother's great-great-granddaughter, she is also a distant cousin of Roth's, their son thus bringing the saga full circle with a vengeance.) This is his ultimate self-assertion, not because the author or the narrator do or do not champion miscegenation, but because Ike must plead guilty to the implications of the woman's parting question: "Old man", she said, "have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you don't remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love'" (p. 363)? She is correct because, following the bedroom episode, love and all its ramifications, including the ultimate charity that would encompass miscenegation—or rather, transcend the concept—have been meaningless for Ike. He lies grieving after she departs. The delta has been raped, 'deswamped and denuded and derivered', and in thinking about this and the other apparent fact that on the tainted site of this rape, 'Chinese and African and Aryan and Jew, all breed and spawn together until no man has time to say which one is which or cares' (p. 364), Ike comes to a startling conclusion: 'No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don't cry for retribution! The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge.' He is correct that the men who have abused the wilderness have spoiled it for their descendants, and that the wilderness in this sense will be revenged because those descendants will not be able to learn what could be learned there. But his error is a concomitant of his limitation as a hero, his isolation. He conceives the revenge as being rather the miscegenation, which results, in his eyes, from the original sin of self-assertion, and which will mean the loss of identity, of race. But the sense of the possession and inviolability of race is an extension of self-assertion. He has not so much forgotten love as misconstrued it, failed to translate and universalize this aspect of what the wilderness taught him. Seeing the point of Sam Father's and Lion's and Boon's mixed blood could have helped him correct the faulty vision resulting from his relations with his wife.
Instead, like the pure-blood and outmoded Old Ben, Ike is a coeval of the wilderness, their spans 'running out together, not toward oblivion, nothingness, but into a dimension free of both time and space' (p. 354) . . . Failing to comprehend fully what he learns, Ike is doomed to a sadly limited heroism; vocation lost, his limited vision producing a limited goodness, he approaches the end of his journey having taught and affected nobody.
Leonard Gilley (essay date 1965)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2200
SOURCE: "The Wilderness Theme in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 4, July, 1965, pp. 379-85.
[Below, Gilley contradicts prevalent interpretations of "The Bear" that view the wilderness as romantic, showing instead that Isaac McCaslin "flouted the right use of the Wilderness."]
Critical analyses of William Faulkner's "The Bear" are more abundant than mosquitoes around a trout stream in June. Yet most of the analyses that I have examined concur in explicating the Tallahatchie hunting ground as an idyllic Eden; and although some analyses criticize the central figure of the tale, Isaac McCaslin, because he abnegates his responsibilities in regard to the plantation and to his marriage, none of the analyses I have read suggests that perhaps Isaac is violent in his relationship to the Wilderness—That he is a prime destroyer, just as is Old Ben, who leaves carnage everywhere as his trademark. And again, few of the analyses that I have seen touch the notion that the Wilderness itself, as presented by Faulkner, might be a place of darkness and doom, danger and death.
Too quickly, it seems to me, many critics are ready to brand Faulkner a misty-eyed romantic in love with a past that never existed. When examined in detail, "The Bear" will not support a romantic-Wilderness reading. Thus, I believe, it is profitable to open our eyes and look at "The Bear" from a new angle.
To begin: ". . . the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:"—this is the Wilderness complete, resplendent and dangerous with a mighty, destructive bear and beautiful, venomous snakes, that William Faulkner creates and destroys in "The Bear."
Faulkner presents this story of the Wilderness through the eyes of Isaac McCaslin, recalling later his initiation by Sam Fathers. Sam and Isaac consider themselves in rapport with the Wilderness; both are doomed and childless; they, like Old Ben, the mythic bear, will die without progeny. All three of them will die as the Wilderness dies;—but sadly, tragically, ironically, Sam and Isaac participate in the destruction of Old Ben, their comrade.
I will try to show convincingly and factually that Isaac all his life flouted the right use of the Wilderness—the right use which employs the woods but does not destroy: Mister Ernest in the short story "Race at Morning" pursues the buck, but does not shoot it; and the twelve year old boy-narrator of that story says it was a "fine race." Isaac, too, learned this right use; for in his boyhood he, when seven years old, understood that his cousin McCaslin Edmonds and the other hunters did not want to kill Old Ben: "To him [Isaac], they were going not to hunt bear and deer but to keep yearly rendezvous with the bear which they did not even intend to kill." And yet this concept seems lost on Isaac himself; for he is intent on the kill from the day the first warm buck-blood wets his forehead when he is eleven years old: That moment of Isaac's second initiation is the moment of his corruption.
Isaac's first initiation, partially incorrupt, began toward the end of November, 1878, when Isaac had been ten years old only three weeks; this first initiation was completed the following June. The two-toed paw mark of Old Ben set the experience into motion: when Isaac first sees this paw mark he says, "It will be tomorrow." He means the death of Old Ben will be consummated tomorrow. But Sam Fathers replies, "You mean we will try tomorrow."
Seven months later, in June, Isaac seeks out and meets the mighty old bear. This culmination of Isaac's first initiation occurs only after he has discarded his compass and watch and even the stick he has been using for protection against rattlesnakes. For that single moment when Isaac confronts Old Ben, Isaac is almost untainted. Ironically, his compass and the watch glint in the background. Isaac's freedom from his heritage is brief and partial. By the time he is twelve years old, Isaac has become ruthless: "He knew game trails that even Sam Fathers had never seen; in the third fall he found a buck's bedding-place by himself and unbeknown to his cousin he borrowed Walter Ewell's rifle and lay in wait for the buck at dawn and killed it when it walked back to the bed as Sam had told him how the old Chickasaw fathers did." Many years later, Isaac, an old man in "Delta Autumn," "still killed almost as much of the game he saw as he ever killed; he no longer even knew how many deer had fallen before his gun."
Returning to "The Bear"—when Isaac is thirteen (unlucky number) the dog Lion appears. This dog is "the color of a gun or pistol barrel" and his yellow eyes are full of "a cold and almost impersonal malignance like some natural force." The close relationship of this dog to or with man is focused in the love affair between Lion and Boon who had "a blue stubble on his face like the filings from a new gun-barrel." And Lion, on the morning of the day that Boon drives his knife into Old Ben's heart, stands "motionless at Major de Spain's stirrup"—an image of man and dog "coming to resemble one another somehow as two people competent for love or for business who have been in love or in business together for a long time sometimes do."
But Lion is destroyed, and Sam Fathers—the instrument, by way of his capturing and training Lion, of Old Ben's destruction—falls on his face "in the trampled mud." When the doctor arrives he explains that Sam has lost the will to endure; and later Boon, out of mercy, probably kills the dying Sam.
Thus, the death of Old Ben is in no sense a triumph; rather, this killing, as Isaac knew beforehand, "was like the last act on a set stage." But Isaac, at fifteen years of age, values wrongly the coming death of Old Ben: "It was the beginning of the end of something, he didn't know what except that he would not grieve. He would be humble and proud that he had been found worthy to be a part of it too or even just to see it too."
Old Ben had been Isaac's friend and the means of his transcendence. Now at a time when he should stand up to save Old Ben, Isaac abnegates his moral responsibility. Later, Isaac will renounce his responsibility regarding his inheritance and still later, in "Delta Autumn," he will renounce his responsibility to and compassion for his own blood-kin when he says, "Go back North. Marry: a man in your own race. That's the only salvation for you—for a while yet, maybe a long while yet. We will have to wait. Marry a black man." It is significant, I think, that Isaac delivers this advice to his blood-kin in the Wilderness, the uncorrupted, cold, impersonal, snake-dangerous land where Isaac supposedly first learned the truths of the human heart.
A slight distinction should be made: this Wilderness of Isaac's final self-damnation is not the same earth geographically as the Tallahatchie hunting ground where he began his Wilderness-initiation when he was ten years old; for the Wilderness is in retreat before the rapacious swarm of mankind—including Isaac. The "Delta Autumn" Wilderness, just as the Tallahatchie Wilderness, dissolves "away beneath the rain as the sea itself would dissolve"; and the day that Old Ben was killed was "rain-heavy"—Faulkner suggests through Isaac that the earth is, in fact, slowly sliding down into the ocean and back to primeval beginnings—and that man is hurrying the process.
That Wilderness where his boyhood initiation was effected remains powerful in its hold on young Isaac, and in the summer of his seventeenth year he returns one more time to that Tallahatchie hunting ground before the lumber company strips the land. On the young mare that "he had bred and raised and broken himself Isaac rides in six hours to Hoke's. He arrives at daybreak, cannot stand the sight of the rape of the earth symbolized and actualized in the planning-mill and the steel rails and crossties and wire corrals for the mules; so, ironically, he quickly climbs aboard the log-train and flees into the Wilderness.
The log-train, a symbol as well as a fact organic to the story, resembles "a small dingy harmless snake." But that train is far from harmless; from its inception twenty years before in 1865, the train has been a vehicle of destruction. Foreshadowing the end of Old Ben, the train on its first trip nearly frightened to death a young bear. Later, from the caboose window Walter Ewell shot a six-point buck.
The point is that this log-train, symbol of destruction, is kin to the snakes and to Old Ben himself who is described at the beginning of the tale as a mighty force that leaves in its wake "a corridor of wreckage and destruction beginning back before the boy [Isaac] was born, through which sped, not fast but rather with the ruthless and irresistible deliberation of a locomotive, the shaggy tremendous shape."
Thus, life—Darwinian—is destructive: man and animal are brothers in sharing life-force, but they clash just because of their God-given natures. This raw destructive power vibrates in the Wilderness. Ash, the old Negro, says to Isaac, "And watch your feet. They're crawling."
Isaac enters the woods and he remembers the first buck he killed and the feel of its hot blood painted on his forehead. He remembers Ash's reaction to the kill. And he comes to the weather-obliterated graves of Sam Fathers and Lion. Isaac soars into the romantic notion that "there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him his pay back even."
Then—death in fact, writhing cold and merciless at Isaac's feet: a rattlesnake more than six feet in length. Isaac freezes like a piece of sculpture. The outcast, hated snake, knee-high and less than a knee's length from Isaac, glides with proud elevated head into the shadows; and Isaac salutes the snake: "'Chief,' he said: 'Grandfather.'" Life—kinfolk all.
Then the final scene opens with another sound—sound more doom-rich than the buzzing of a rattlesnake's anger;—the sound Isaac hears seems "as though someone were hammering a gun-barrel against a piece of railroad iron." It is Boon Hogganbeck trying to free his jammed gun in order that he may kill a tree-full of squirrels before they can escape or before another hunter can kill them. Again the conditions of life, even less clean than the long flow of twisting, rippling cold, legless serpent-flesh that rippled and shifted in the gloom forever firmly attached to the erect head and upright segment of the proud old snake.
It is that upright, erect head of the snake that represents nobility of spirit and the possibility of self-transcendence—the outside chance that man and creature can, by their own effort, lift themselves above their God-given essence. This is the goal that man should aim for, this is the best he can do in a harsh universe.
Fisher, Richard E., "The Wilderness, the Commissary, and the Bedroom: Faulkner's Ike McCaslin as Hero in a Vacuum," English Studies, XLIV (February, 1963), 19-28. Fisher suggests that Ike responded properly in his approach to killing in an Eden-like Wilderness and again when he refused his patrimony, but that he failed miserably in his relationships with women.
Gwynn, Frederick L. and Joseph L. Blotner, editors, Faulkner in the University (Charlottesville, Virginia: The University of Virginia Press, 1959). A lively explication of the Faulkner canon by Faulkner himself—thirty-six question-and-answer sessions.
Hoffman, Frederick J. and Olga W. Vickery, editors, William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960). An excellent collection of essays dealing with Faulkner the man and his writings.
Longley, John Lewis, Jr., The Tragic Mask, Chapter 7—"The Comic Hero: McCaslin" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963). A strong, comprehensive—but to me unconvincing—reading of the Wilderness as romantic Eden and Isaac as moral hero.
O'Connor, William Van, The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner, Chapter 11—"The Wilderness Theme" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954). A concise discussion that suggests but does not explore several interesting approaches to the story.
Utley, Francis Lee, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Arthur F. Kinney, editors, Bear, Man, & God (New York: Random House, 1964). This compact volume includes "The Bear" itself, earlier versions of the same story, related Faulkner work, sources, numerous critical analyses. The articles by Utley, Walter F. Taylor, Jr., and Irving Howe are especially valuable.
Wertenbaker, Thomas J., Jr., "Faulkner's Point of View and Chronicle of Ike McCaslin," College English, XXIV (December, 1962), 169-178. Good McCaslin chronology and genealogy.
Richard Lehan (essay date 1965)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3359
SOURCE: "Faulkner's Poetic Prose: Style and Meaning in The Bear," in College English, Vol. 27, No. 3, December, 1965, pp. 243-47.
[In the following essay, Lehan examines the descriptive language of "The Bear," explaining how Faulkner's verbal associations link characters and expand the story's theme.]
Faulkner's "The Bear," published in The Saturday Evening Post and in Go Down, Moses,1 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.2 Ike McCaslin, in fact, has to divest himself of watch and compass before he can see the bear, because these man-made instruments impose a mechanical and unnatural order upon nature; and Ike sees the bear at the same spot where he left the watch and compass, as if time and space begin with the bear because he encompassed both.
The critics have so focused on the larger and more engrossing matters of the story—the ritual aspect of the hunt, the symbolic meaning of the bear's death, the moral connection between the "sins" of Carothers McCaslin and the loss of the wilderness—that matters of technique, the "telling" of the story, have received little attention and, as a result, much of the meaning of the novel has gone unnoticed or is still subject to argument. Meaning in "The Bear" stems, at least in part, from Faulkner's use of descriptive detail, from verbal associations, which interrelate characters and extend the theme of the novel imagistically, as if "The Bear" were a poem.
Critics, for example, have failed to notice that Faulkner makes a verbal connection between Lion, the dog, and Boon Hogganbeck. When we first see Lion, trapped in the emptied corn-crib which has been baited with the colt's carcass, he is smashing with tremendous power against the deadfall door. His force is that of nature itself, a cold and malignant element of nature, diametrically removed from what the bear represents. When Lion is slowly and painfully tamed, it seems as if nature has been turned back upon itself. If the bear is a pristine and uncorrupted part of nature, Lion stands for the forces of nature which have been harnessed by man. A vicious, wild dog, he is finally tamed by man and, like a machine subject to its maker, he is turned against the wilderness.
It is for this reason that Lion is described as if he were a man-made object; the men peering between the logs into the cage see an animal almost the color of a "gun or pistol barrel."3 The dog "stood, and they could see it now—part mastiff, something of Airedale and something of a dozen other strains probably, better than thirty inches at the shoulders and weighing as they guessed almost ninety pounds, with cold yellow eyes and a tremendous chest and over all that strange color like a blued gun-barrel" (p. 218).4
It is these descriptive details that link Lion and Boon in the novel. Unlike Ike or Sam Fathers, Boon is not really a woodsman, a member of the initiate, not a high priest in the annual ritual hunt. Like Lion, Boon is once removed from both the pristine wilderness and civilization. He is completely out of place in Memphis, where he gets drunk and suffers from a severe cold, and yet he lacks the capacity to relate spiritually with the wilderness. He is in a kind of no-man's land, and it is significant that at the end of the novel, when the wilderness has been destroyed by the lumber company, Boon becomes a deputy sheriff. Like Lion, in other words, he eventually becomes the tool of men, a corruptible part of nature, "tamed" by society, and turned against nature. Lion and Boon thus come to represent nature turned back upon itself in an act of destruction. It is thematically appropriate that Boon and Lion have a kind of "love affair." Ike watches when Boon touches Lion "as if Lion were a woman—or perhaps Boon was the woman. That was more like it—the big, brave sleepy-seeming dog which, as Sam Fathers said, cared about no man and no thing; and the violent, insensitive, hard-faced man with his touch of remote Indian blood and the mind almost of a child" (p. 220). And it is further appropriate that Faulkner describes Boon in exactly the same way that he describes Lion. Where Lion's coat has "that strange color like a blued gun-barrel," Boon has a "blue stubble on his face like the filings from a new gunbarrel" (p. 231, cf. also pp. 227 and again 231).5 This is not mere rhetoric, mere accidental detail. In his imagination, Faulkner reconciled Boon and Lion; the two serve the same thematic purpose in the novel, and Faulkner bridged this connection and extended meaning in "The Bear" through such descriptive detail—detail that the reader must first interrelate, just as one has to go through the imagery of a Donne poem before he can come to its final meaning.
When Boon and Lion kill the bear, the forces of nature corrupted by a mechanized civilization have been turned against an elemental and pristine nature. Sam Fathers, who like the bear is also uncorrupted, dies when the bear dies, and it is once again significant that Boon is the agent of his death, that Boon kills him at Sam's own request (cf. p. 253).
The death of both the bear and of Sam Fathers represents the passing of an old order. Their death occurs simultaneously with the loss of the wilderness as it is ruthlessly raped by the timber company. The novel, in fact, opens on this theme, Faulkner describing "that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness" (p. 193). The death of the bear parallels, to be more exact, what happened to the South after the Civil War when the older agrarian order was disrupted, when an industrialized North tried to make it over in its own image. Boon and Lion destroy the bear, just as the timber company, the spirit of industry, destroys the wilderness—and again Faulkner makes this point through descriptive detail. In the passage describing the death of the bear, perhaps one of the most moving passages in contemporary fiction, he describes Boon and Lion, both astride the bear, Boon with his knife probing for the bear's heart, the knife rising and falling once:
It fell just once. For an instant they almost resembled a piece of statuary [cf. Keats's Grecian urn]: the clinging dog, the bear, the man astride its back, working and probing the buried blade. Then they went down, pulled over backward, by Boon's weight, Boon underneath. It was the bear's back which reappeared first but at once Boon was astride it again. He had never released the knife and again the boy saw the almost infinitesimal movement of his arm and shoulder as he probed and sought; then the bear surged erect, raising with it the man and the dog too, and turned and still carrying the man and the dog it took two or three steps toward the woods on its hind feet as a man would have walked and crashed down. It didn't collapse, crumple. It fell all of a piece, as a tree falls, so that all three of them, man dog and bear, seemed to bounce once. (p. 241, italics mine)
The death of the bear and the loss of the wilderness are thus thematically spliced through descriptive detail. The bear did not fall, it "crashed down," as a "tree falls," and the death of the bear and the loss of the forest become one.
If the death of the bear and the loss of the wilderness parallel each other, there is, at least in Faulkner's imagination, a cause for both—and that cause is the "sin" of Carothers McCaslin, Ike's grandfather, who felt his slaves were as much his property as the lumber company feels the wilderness is its property. Faulkner's world, and this is true in Absalom, Absalom! as well as "The Bear," is initially one of harmony—a kind of Eden before the Fall. Man himself destroys this harmony, throws the world out of joint, and at the very center of a Faulkner novel is a moral error which causes the disorder—here Carother's sin of miscegenation and incest.
Carother's "story" is told in the ledger, itself a symbol of the moral debt to which Ike feels he owes the past. In "The Bear," again like Absalom, Absalom!, the sins of the fathers are passed down to the sons, and Ike takes it upon himself to expiate the misdeeds of Carothers. Time becomes obligation, a prison, and it is most appropriate that in the center of Yoknapatawpha County is the court house on top of which, in the center, is the clock, and the bottom of which, again in the center, is the jail. Time becomes a prison; there is always the ghost of the past in Faulkner's fiction. The death of the bear and the rapaciousness of the lumber company find their counterpart in the past, find it in the "original sin" of Carothers McCaslin. McCaslin violated nature by accepting slavery and by entering into a miscegenous and then incestuous relationship with his slaves, acts which parallel the rape of the forest and the loss of the old order. Carothers's act, in other words, becomes a kind of "poetic" or emotional cause for the death of the bear, the rape of the forest, the loss of the Old South. It also explains why Ike McCaslin repudiates his inheritance, repudiates the land; his grandfather's land, which Carothers "had bought with white man's money from the wild men whose grandfathers without guns hunted it, and tamed and ordered or believed he had tamed and ordered it for the reason that the human beings he held in bondage and in the power of life and death had removed the forest from it and in their sweat scratched the surface of it to a depth of perhaps fourteen inches in order to grow something out of it which had not been there before and which could be translated back into the money he who believed he had bought it had had to pay to get it and hold it and a reasonable profit too . . ." (p. 254).
And so, Ike repudiates his land, or rather he does not repudiate it, because, as he puts it, "'I can't repudiate it. It was never mine to repudiate. It was never Father's and Uncle Buddy's to bequeath me to repudiate because it was never grandfather's to bequeath them to bequeath me to repudiate because it was never old Ikkemotubbe's to sell to Grandfather for bequeathment and repudiation. Because it was never Ikkemotubbe's . . . because on the instant when Ikkemotubbe discovered, realized, that he could sell it for money, on that instant it ceased ever to have been his forever . . ." (pp. 256-257).
Ike allows his second cousin to inherit the land, leaves his wife, who thinks that she can use her nakedness—the power of sex—to force him into accepting the land, and Ike becomes a carpenter, a Christ in the modern world. As Christ takes it upon himself to redeem the sins of Adam and Eve, Ike takes it upon himself to redeem the sins of Carothers McCaslin—and the novel moves into another dimension of meaning. In Section Four, Ike is twenty-one. In Section Five, which is chronologically out of sequence, we move back to the time that Ike was eighteen. He has returned to the scene of the bear hunt, and he finds that the wilderness is greatly destroyed. As he looks out across the land, he sees a train disappearing into the remaining forest. Faulkner describes the train as a "snake vanishing into weeds, drawing him with it too until soon it ran once more at its maximum clattering speed between the twin walls of unaxed wilderness as of old" (pp. 318-319), and again the descriptive detail is appropriate. The train becomes a modern parallel to the serpent, the Devil himself, in the Garden of Eden. In fact, soon after he sees the train, Ike comes upon a rattlesnake (p. 329), and the descriptive detail is further reinforced and the story moves from historical allusion to myth.
"The Bear," that is, has really three stories in one; it is first of all a story of a young boy coming of age and participating in the ritual of the hunt. If we stop here, as Faulkner did when he published the first three sections of the novel in The Saturday Evening Post, we have a moving and exciting hunting story. The novel, however, does not stop here, and we can move to a second story about the destruction of the wilderness, the loss of the old order, the death of the Old South itself. It is easier to stop at this point, but to do so would be to leave the novel still incomplete. Once more the story spirals out, like ripples in a pond, and the third story is about the loss of Eden, the story of Carothers McCaslin, whose "original sin" is connected with, even the cause of, the death of the bear and the end of the old order. "The Bear" thus functions on three levels of reality—the level of the individual (the hunt), the level of history (the loss of the Old South), and the level of myth (the loss of Eden).
In "A Rose for Emily," Emily lives out her days "married" to, and sleeping with, a dead man, a man who came to the South to do reconstruction work. Here we have an image—to be sure, an unpleasant one—of what happened when the industrialized North was "married" to the agrarian South. In Sanctuary, the rape of Temple Drake by Popeye, whom Faulkner describes in terms of machine and mechanical imagery, is another "metaphor" for what happened to the South after the Civil War. And yet, as we see in "The Bear," the South cannot go unblamed. The Carothers McCaslins destroyed the initial harmony, brought an end to the wilderness, and it is their burden which has been imposed on the living; they have put a curse on the land. As Christ accepted the burden of Adam and Eve, Ike accepts the burden of Carothers McCaslin. The death of the bear, the loss of the old order, the end of Eden—all are metaphorically and emotionally related in Faulkner's imagination to the sin of Carothers McCaslin. The bear "crashed down" the night Carothers McCaslin put his property rights before human rights. Carothers destroyed the realm outside of time where Ike first saw the bear. He brought an end to Eden and, as in the Old Testament, the sins of the father are passed down to the sons. All this is said in "The Bear," at the same time that it is not said. To explicate "The Bear" is really to explicate a poem, for the final meaning is a metaphorical one, a meaning that stems from complex verbal association and double meaning, meaning that at best is crudely expressed once it is paraphrased.
1 "The Bear" really appeared in two separate forms before it was revised and included in Go Down, Moses. The first story, called "Lion," appeared in Harpers (December 1935), 67-77, described Boon Hogganbeck killing the bear to save Lion, and revealed Isaac McCaslin repudiating the land because it is cursed. The second version, entitled "The Bear," appeared in The Saturday Evening Post (May 9, 1942), and described the ritual of the hunt. Faulkner probably got the idea of his story from T. B. Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas," The Spirit of the Time (1841).
2 Interpretations of "The Bear" have been so varied that summary of the criticism is difficult. Studies of the novel, however, can be somewhat arbitrarily classified under five headings. (1) Those essays which attempt to explain the novel's plot and chronology. Cf. Richard J. Stonesifer, "Faulkner's 'The Bear': A Note on Structure," College English, 23 (1961), 219-223; and Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Jr., "Faulkner's Point of View and the Chronicle of Ike McCaslin" and H. H. Bell, Jr., "A Footnote to Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" College English, 24 (1962), 169-178 and 179-183. (2) Studies which interpret man's relationship to the wilderness or its end. Cf. Otis B. Wheeler, "Faulkner's Wilderness," American Literature, 31 (1959), 127-136; and Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963), pp. 257-271. Two critics believe Faulkner juxtaposes the innocence and the destruction of the wilderness against injustice to the Negro. Cf. William Van O'Connor, The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (1954), pp. 127-134; and Melvin Backman, "The Wilderness and the Negro, in Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" PMLA, 76 (1961), 595-600. (3) Studies which discuss the novel as myth. For an anthropological interpretation (Old Ben is a "totem animal") see John Lyndenberg, "Nature Myth in Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" American Literature, 24 (1952), 62-72. For an interpretation that sees myth (a realm of order beyond time) in conflict with history ("the brute sequence of events") see W. R. Moses, "Where History Crosses Myth: Another Reading of 'The Bear,'" Accent, 13 (1953), 21-33. For the belief that the novel presents a conflict between forces destructive (the rapacity of Carothers, native to America) and creative (Ike's "transvaluation of values" through atonement) see R. W. B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint (1959), pp. 139-209. This idea is more or less repeated by John Longley, Jr., The Tragic Mask: A Study of Faulkner's Heroes (1963), pp. 80-101. (4) Studies which see the bear's death as inevitable and Ike's repudiation of the land as a betrayal of life and responsibility. Cf. Herbert A. Perluck, "The Heart's Driving Complexity: An Unromantic Reading of Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" Accent, 20 (1960), 23-46; Frederick J. Hoffman, William Faulkner (1961), pp. 96-98; Olga Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner (1964), pp. 130-133; and Lawrance Thompson, William Faulkner: An Introduction and Interpretation (1963), pp. 81-98. (5) Studies which stress the literal meaning and realistic elements in the novel. Cf. Hyatt H. Waggoner, William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World (1959), pp. 206-210; and Irving Howe, William Faulkner, A Critical Study (1962), pp. 253-259. To my knowledge, no one has ever demonstrated how the realistic, historical, and mystical elements in the novel function with triadic simultaneity.
3 William Faulkner, "The Bear," Go Down, Moses (New York: Random House, 1955 edition), p. 216. All further quotations are from this edition, page reference indicated in parentheses after the quote.
4 Lynn Altenbernd believes Lion is not "representative of the mechanized civilization that threatens to destroy the wilderness. Rather, he is a tame creature gone wild, and he embodies the fierce attributes of the hunter without the humanity that saves as a check on their ferocity." Cf. Modern Language Notes (1961), p. 575. William Van O'Connor says somewhat the same thing when he refers to Lion as "the ruthless, non-human spirit of the kill." Cf. The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner, p. 131. But most of the critics believe Lion is connected with the anti-nature or the machine forces. John Longley, for example, believes that Ike knows that "the Wilderness is doomed to go down before the onset of men and the mechanization of the world." Cf. The Tragic Mask, p. 81. The most astute critic on this point, I believe, is W. R. Moses who has said, "Lion stands for the mechanization, the applied science, which finally caught the wilderness fatally by the throat. Lion's mechanical attributes are not heavily underscored, but of course they should not be." Moses sees the significance of Lion being described as "the color of a gun." Cf. Accent (1953), p. 29.
5 R. W. Moses mentions "the affinity between man and dog," but he misses how the connection is made through machine imagery. Cf. Accent (1953), p. 29.
M. E. Bradford (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3617
SOURCE: "The Gum Tree Scene: Observations on the Structure of 'The Bear'," in The Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 141-50.
[In the essay below, Bradford analyzes the dramatic significance and thematic implications of the concluding section of "The Bear."]
The scene that concludes William Faulkner's novella, "The Bear," provides both a summary of and a judgment upon the action preceding it. The theme of "The Bear" is the importance, to individuals and to societies, of their capacity to sustain that balance of "pride and humility" which Faulkner often calls "endurance." The episode in which the protagonist, Isaac McCaslin, comes upon a manic Boon Hogganbeck beneath a great tree full of frightened squirrels dramatizes the consequences for man of the failure to practice the endurance which the total story (as well as the larger unit, Go Down, Moses, of which it is a part) "recommends." It is the capstone of and the key to a large design. "The Bear" develops toward this particular resolution by regular and organically related stages, each of which follows from what has immediately preceded it and makes more inevitable the shape which that resolution will assume. Distracted by the pleasure they take in the character of Isaac McCaslin or the merit of his de post facto theorizing, some critics have found a stumbling block in the conclusion of the great hunting story. Though eager to extract from the tale some simplistic and sanguine counsel for troubled times, they sense in its ending something other than a promise of easy hope. And they should. For, like the interior monologue of Ike (sixty-plus years after) which closes its sequel, "Delta Autumn," the last two pages of "The Bear" (pp. 330-31) imply an ominous future for any who would approach Nature as Boon does when Ike finds him seated beneath that tree; and, again like that monologue, these pages indicate that no other future can be expected, given the impious spirit which Faulkner believes has possessed our age.
In order to reconstruct the framework which makes fully intelligible this grotesque tableau of the maddened woodsman, his broken gun, and the lone tree full of game in whose shadow he raves, we must look back to section four of the novella, to the exchange in the plantation commissary between young McCaslin and his cousin cum father, McCaslin Edmonds, in which Ike tells his kinsman what he has learned about man's proper relationship to Nature from his training and experience in the forest—from Sam, Old Ben, the other elder woodsmen, and the wilderness itself. Ike finds in the hunt, in the true hunter's reverent approach to the game he pursues and sometimes kills—and especially in the mutual testing, measuring, and self-renewal which the big bear and the men who keep annual rendezvous with him share—a parable, a miniature of the preordained and providentially intended role of man as steward of a creation and a particular place in creation with which he must "cope," though he cannot dominate or utterly control it. He tells Cass (articulating in his statement the assumptions underlying the pattern of history teleologically interpreted, in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha Cycle), "He [God] created man to be His overseer on the earth . . . not to hold for himself. . ." (Go Down, Moses, p. 257). For the hunters the game in the forest, and especially Old Ben, are counters for that "brooding" and numinous presence in Nature, the Arbiter and "Umpire" (Go Down, Moses, p. 181) whom, like the mystery of the land itself, man must have the courage to face and the humility to acknowledge if he is to achieve genuine self-knowledge. He must "endure" his position in relation to this ill-defined but transcendent presence if he is to "cope" with his contingent status in a universe arbitrarily arranged to suit something other than his convenience, endure and prevail over his condition. The alternatives are passivity (fatalism) and aggression (Promethean self-assertion), either humility or pride alone. Ike takes the former of these disastrous courses; he ignores the necessary connection of stewardship or the holding of place, property, and position in "fee simple"—for God—and power over what is held. But from Boon's words and actions in the Gum Tree Scene, we can infer that he, like the leaders of his culture, has chosen the latter.
But if Ike's long dialogue with Cass explains much about the significance of the final pages of "The Bear," an examination of the fictional order or total sequence of episodes of which these pages are a climacteric tells even more. Sections one, two, and three of the novella are, so far as structure is concerned, a unit. They form together the double story of the last years of Old Ben and the concomitant emergence of Isaac McCaslin, the last of his line, as a man and hunter. The one undercuts the other. The enveloping action of historical change and cultural decline or disorientation represented by the passing of the wilderness and its presiding spirit sets in sharp relief and gives poignance to Ike's inheritance of the mantle of Sam Fathers—of his priestly place as spokesman of the old order. The spirit of reverence, the courage to accept and endure the human condition according to the terms of the God-given covenant, is lost by most of his elders just as Ike begins to understand and share in that spirit. And even he is unable or unwilling to transfer it from the shelter of the hunting camp to the arena of the great world outside the big bottom. Section four gives us not only a philosophical explanation of the elusive elegiac implications of the death of a single bear but also an insight into why Ike will hereafter in the McCaslin saga serve only as gloss on and chorus to the further progression of the Zeitgeist toward an apocalypse which he deplores. Ike, like Sam, might have served as at least a stay against such confusion. As "The McCaslin," the patriarch, he would have been of great use to all the inhabitants of his world who had need of a man of his humanity; he might even have forestalled the return of his family's history (in "Delta Autumn") to the very infamy which made him want to stand aside. But once we have witnessed his refusal to "endure" history and his resignation from it in search of an impotent "freedom" and purity, we are prepared to see the shadows deepen (pp. 299-300)—to see the public and general triumph of the forces whose advent had made it time for Ben to die. In section five the darkness falls; the enveloping action finally encapsulates and negates the lonely hunter and the hopeful narrative of his "education"—though even here perhaps to clarify in unmistakable terms the full burden of the Gum Tree episode, Faulkner reaffirms the freedom of the protagonist from the self-assertive implications of the non-enduring spirit.
The structure of section five itself reflects the design of the entire novella. It moves from a reconsideration and recapitulation of Isaac McCaslin's "progress" toward perfect fellowship with a given and inscrutable natural order to a qualification of the hopeful suggestions of this communion and from thence to a total denial of them. And in this ordering of its contents and the straightforward juxtaposition in that order of materials or themes already developed earlier in the novella, it offers in dramatic terms the plainest possible indication of the entire fable's burden. Section five begins with the announcement: "He [Ike] went back to the camp one more time . . ." (p. 315). After adverting briefly to a conversation of young McCaslm with Major de Spain, in which the former makes arrangements for his trip, and after assuring us that the death of Ben did mean the end of an era, that the trip will be valedictory, the narrative moves swiftly to depict the journey itself. Boon, who will join Ike at the camp (as arranged by De Spain), is now serving the lumbering company as marshal of Hoke, the railhead of the company's short line where Ike will leave his horse. His new employment, like the earlier assurances that the doom hanging over the forest sanctuary of the old balanced code will not be revoked, further prepares us for the section's (and the story's) conclusion. But Boon does not meet Ike at Hoke, or even at the place where the wagon road to the old camp meets the tracks. Instead Ash, the camp cook and Negro handyman, picks him up. As he leaves the train, Ike is troubled with the new meaning the "diminutive locomotive" and its incursion into the wilderness has taken on for him. He reflects on earlier trips he has made on it and observes, "It had been harmless then" (p. 320). Now it puts him in mind of "the lingering effluvium of . . . death" or a "snake" (pp. 321, 318). When Ike gets into the wagon, Ash tells him that Boon is in the woods and expects to meet him at the gum tree. With this announcement the last thread is spun out and we are ready for the denouement. The young huntsman moves up into the woods toward the grave of Sam Fathers and falls into a recollective reverie. The stage is set.
As he muses, the memory of Faulkner's protagonist takes him back to the day when he slew his first deer, and especially to Ash's reaction to his success. Like the hound in section three of the novella, the little bitch who had to go in on Old Ben just once to prove herself a dog (p. 199), Ash is provoked by the action of another to reach out after the token of his right to a place among his own kind which a part in the hunt would give to him. There is nothing particularly "racial" about his dilemma. His place in the camp is and has been what his role there has earned for him. Sam Fathers, who outside of the woods has little more social status than Ash, is the peer or even (at least in an unofficial way) patriarchal chieftain of the white hunters in the camp. And Ash is normally too down-to-earth to be interested in pitting his energies, much less his life, against wild creatures for which he has no need. But, as the shells he saved over the years make evident, he has felt the impulse to participate in the ritual at least once. After Ash sulks and refuses to cook, he is indulged; but the results of his hunt are abortive. No deer are taken; and on the way back to camp he loses his ancient, unmatched cartridges firing at a little bear he finds in his path. Ike recalls the old Negro, whose self-respect has been threatened by the manly accomplishments of a boy, searching in the cane near the spot where he misfired. His impotence as a huntsman, coupled with his attachment to the useless old shells (which in possession he converts into a pathetic prop for his pride—a means of asserting that he could hunt if he so wished, act if he so willed) make of Ash as young Ike remembers him a burlesque and foil to what the boy will shortly behold. With Ash and his impotent weapon, his fat little bear, and his fumbling rage, we edge still closer to the apogean moment.
Ike's reverie moves from past to present: from thoughts of the old Negro's pathos to pious tributes to the inscrutable order of Nature, as he realizes he has reached, not the gum tree, but the knoll where Sam and the great dog, Lion, lie at rest. The memory of Ash on the hunt (pp. 323-26) and the Gum Tree scene, in one sense, frame the moment at the grave (pp. 326-30). This is not to say that the series of three parts is not a progression. Ash's comic gesture of pride and Ike's recommitment to that species of endurance which enables him to celebrate in the cycle of seasons his own finitude—a humility which, he again makes clear, is not in his nature balanced with pride in responsibilities—begin the rapid narrowing of focus upon and specific dramatization of the disintegration of a moral order. This narrowing and concretizing concludes only when we come to the scene beneath the tree. It is most natural that Ike should think of the discipline he acquired there as he moves again through the woods, that he should think of Ash's relation to that discipline as he leaves him to enter the woods, and that he should give us his most lyric and impressive expression of the "understanding" of the human condition with which that discipline has endowed him as he reaches the "temple" of his faith, the burial ground. And nothing could make plainer that the final episode of section and story marks the victory of a vision not at all like that of the protagonist than does the placement of this episode immediately after Ike's moving restatement of his position. But the dynamic of section five (like that of the entire novella and indeed of all of Go Down, Moses) is not simply linear. Lines of force run back and forth, zigzag, throughout the story as they move it forward. By setting between the parody of endurance and the tableau of violent non-endurance the boy's tribute to his spiritual birthplace and to the ordered immortal sequence, the "deathless and immemorial phases of the mother" (p. 326) which he has learned there to accept—and by including in the vista of woods, graves, and mutilated paw above which he accepts in that affirmation the new totem of the wilderness, the snake—Faulkner draws in and ties together the threads he has run out. He thereby makes the Gum Tree Scene a thematic as well as dramatic climax of the novella and not of just its fifth section. The juxtaposition of these details in this particular three-part pattern at the end of this particular five-section sequence should convince us that, for the time, non-endurance has won out, that something more than Ben died in and with Ben, that the numen which once wore the visage of the bear or the many-pointed stag now wears the aspect of the serpent who, as Allen Tate writes, "counts us all."
Isaac's salute to the huge rattlesnake which guards the graveyard knoll immediately precedes the Gum Tree Scene. His very words ("Chief . . . "Grandfather") are affirmations of allegiance both to Sam's legacy and to the authority Sam served. They complete his identification with the old Indian's spirit of coexistence with Nature which Sam had cultivated in him. The Indians of the old South had a "traditional reverence for rattlesnakes." Their "Umpire" or "Arbiter," like the one to which Faulkner and his characters often refer, took on various forms (depending upon the role to be played in an encounter with man)—an eagle in council, a great bear to young men in search of their manhood, a stag in the hunt for meat, corn to the farmer—and seems to be in character as a snake now when scourging or death is in the offing. As Sam had earlier accepted the necessity of Ben's death, Ike accepts the snake; and with it he accepts (and moves us to accept) the justice of a more concrete and yet elusive trope which follows. The lifted hand and the honorific words in the old tongue tell us plainly that the Fall has been re-enacted in this garden. Natural providence, God, or the Great Spirit (it is unwise to be too specific about the name) has now appropriately punitive implications which are hopeful only in so far as they bespeak an ultimate justice which is potentially redemptive by being punitive. Here and elsewhere Ike places his hopes for the future of his people with this justice. But this discussion takes us beyond "The Bear" to the stories which stand immediately after it in Go Down, Moses. Only the severity of the judgment of the Gum Tree Scene can therefore give occasion for comfort.
It is particularly appropriate that Faulkner used Boon in the dark conclusion of "The Bear." For Boon is an unselfconscious victim of the spread of the virus of non-endurance around him, a spread made possible in part by the dereliction of his society's natural leadership; and Boon had once been given a place of the highest honor as the instrumental cause of Old Ben's assumption, a place which could have belonged to him only as one who was totally free of the new presumption. Boon's performance under the gum tree indicates how far and how rapidly the toxin has spread.
As to the final scene itself, we have been reminded throughout section five that Ike will eventually meet Boon in the woods. But the spectacle of his fury and his snarl at his young friend, especially as it comes hard after the religious calm of the scene on the knoll, is nevertheless surprising. The total rhythm of the section gives to the ultimate moment all possible impact and purchase upon our imagination. But its intensity, however well prefaced, would be unendurable if prolonged. Ike's attention is called to Boon by the noise the giant woodsman is making while smashing the barrel of his shattered gun upon its stock. His hysteria is of frustration born. The gun was for him (in his new connection as the co-worker of the locomotive and the lumber mill) a means of establishing a dominion over Nature, represented in all her bounty by the squirrel-filled tree above him. The association of guns and other mechanical devices with the prideful attempt to dominate or "own" Nature was established much earlier in "The Bear" when Ike had his first face-to-face encounter with Ben (pp. 208-209). That Boon has, like his Indian forefathers, learned from his more "civilized" associates to desire full and single possession of Nature as a sanction for his pride we are assured by what he says to Ike as the boy approaches: "Don't touch them. . . . They're mine!" Though his impotence with a gun is proverbial throughout the novella, Boon had earlier shared with the regulars in the hunting camp a sense of the decorums which made possible their fellowship with one another and, together, with the great bear. But the "greeting" he here gives to a member of that company is proof that he is now of another fellowship; from the immediate context in which his words appear we can determine that he has become a part (and type) of the presumptuous and cowardly attempt to escape creaturehood, the attempt which leads the "new" men to abuse the land, to "gnaw at the flanks" of the wilderness in fear of what it suggests to them about their importance and place in an ultimately mysterious order (p. 193). What has happened to him at the end of "The Bear" is what an older Ike (perhaps thinking back to this moment) foresees in "Delta Autumn" will happen to all who would cancel their tenure upon the land in and with a spirit of self-aggrandizement, who would acquire an artificial sense of importance at the expense of what they were given in trust. Their success will be their scourge, a Sisyphean torment appropriately created by their wrongful use of the gifts of God and followed by a discovery that these gifts have (because of their crime) become at once theirs and not theirs. As Ike puts it, "The people who have destroyed it [the land] will accomplish its revenge" (p. 364). Ike believes it must be so because God has discovered of His creations that "apparently they can learn nothing save when underlined in blood" (p. 286). Human attempts having failed to halt the spread of the non-enduring spirit (which the first four sections of the story affirm), providence will have to restore the old order of pride and humility from without. With that note, looking forward to a more general punishment and backward to the end of an "enduring," prelapsarian time, "The Bear" concludes.
Some years ago Robert Penn Warren remarked that Faulkner's fiction presented American criticism with its greatest contemporary challenge. And although in the intervening years the response to his call has been voluminous, Warren's statement still holds true for today. Since the Nobel Prize Address (in which the contemporary world heard a note of reassurance which gladdened its heart—and then almost at once tried to translate that note into the idiom of its own obsessive political and technological eschatology), Faulker's critics have devoted themselves to the search for his "message." In the meantime many have failed to consider the simple but carefully weighted words with which he repeatedly reaffirmed his very old-fashioned patriarchal world-view, words like "pride," "humility," "cope," and "endure." In examining the puzzling design of some of his most important fictions, they have forgotten what Conrad Aiken recognized long ago: that it is Faulkner's characteristic practice to "withhold his meaning," to move from a guarded to a more open exposition of his themes, so as to endow them with the greatest possible authority. That Aiken's observation is correct can be proved out of The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Intruder in the Dust, The Unvanquished, Requiem for a Nun, and many of the short stories. The attempt has here been made to demonstrate that it applies equally well to the unfolding structure of "The Bear." Once the centrality of the endurance theme to the corpus of Faulkner's achievement is recognized, the structural similarity and integrity of most of his work and the dimensions of his commentary upon his times will be much more apparent.
Joyce W. Warren (essay date 1968)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4000
SOURCE: "The Role of Lion in Faulkner's The Bear': Key to a Better Understanding," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 252-60.
[Below, Warren discusses Lion's purpose in the narrative, describing the dog's similarities to Old Ben and the significance of their meeting in terms of the hunters' values.]
Since its appearance in 1942 as a part of the larger work, Go Down, Moses, "The Bear" has received more critical comment than any other of Faulkner's short stories. As yet, however, no one has clarified the position in the story of Lion, the "great blue dog" that ultimately brings about the death of the old bear. Most critics have paid little attention to Lion, and the confusion and disagreement among those who have considered the dog at all only point up the need for a careful analysis of his role in the story.
A major tendency among critics of "The Bear" has been to interpret Old Ben as a symbol of the wilderness and Lion, the destroyer of the bear, as a symbol of mechanistic civilization: the railroad, the logging company—these forces which are destroying the wilderness.1 However, the nature of the dog is actually closer to the wilderness than to civilization.2 Faulkner describes him as "like some natural force," and he is consistently portrayed as wild and untamed. Even his name suggests the jungle rather than the city. When he is dying, Boon insists that they move him outside: "He never did want to stay in the house until I made him." And as Lion lies in the sunlight facing the woods, Ike notes that "from time to time the great blue dog would open his eyes . . . as though to look at the woods for a moment before closing his eyes again, to remember the woods or to see that they were still there." The only evidence in the story supporting an association of the dog with the forces of civilization is the fact that he is said to be the color of a "blued gun-barrel," the implication being that he is metallic in color and thus can be associated with the steel of the railroads and other instruments of civilization. That he is described in this way would be important if it were supported by other references in the story, but standing alone as it does, it can have no more significance than the fact that the bear is described as "locomotive-like." If Faulkner had intended to make a connection between the color of the dog and the railroad that is encroaching upon the wilderness, surely he would have done so in his description of the new railroad in Section 5. Yet these rails are not even blue; they are "red with the light bright rust of newness."
Another explanation of Lion's role in "The Bear" is suggested by Otis B. Wheeler in his discussion of the wilderness in Faulkner's fiction. Interpreting Old Ben as a symbol of the wilderness and Boon Hogganbeck, the final slayer of the bear, as a symbol of the Anglo-Saxon rapacity that is destroying the wilderness, Wheeler associates Lion with Boon and dismisses him as "just a four-legged symbol of the same destructiveness."3 However, it seems obvious that Boon, whose Indian blood links him to other victims of the Anglo-Saxon, cannot possibly represent Anglo-Saxon rapacity. His agility with a knife, compared with his consistently inept handling of a gun (the white man's weapon), further aligns him with the Indian. And in town with Ike he is conspicuously out of place. To associate Lion with Anglo-Saxon rapacity seems to me just as groundless. As I have demonstrated above, Lion is himself closely related to the wilderness. Wheeler's point that he is a predacious animal loses any significance it might have if we remember that Old Ben also manifests this quality in the "long legend of . . . shoats and grown pigs and even calves carried bodily into the woods and devoured."
Other attempts to discover the significance of Lion in "The Bear" have been equally unsuccessful. Herbert A. Perluck, for example, interprets the conflict between the two animals as a conflict between the two essential aspects of man: man's dreams versus the reality of experience. Associating Old Ben with the truths of the heart to be learned from the wilderness (man's dreams), Perluck maintains that Lion represents the slayer and ravener in man (reality) that Ike repudiates when he rejects his inheritance. According to Perluck, Ike actually does "fear and hate" Lion, and also Boon, who is associated with Lion, because they represent the cruel realities of life that Ike refuses to recognize.4 However, there is nothing in the story to indicate that Ike repudiates either Lion or Boon. He is very fond of Boon. In Memphis he recalls how Boon had probably saved his life once, and gives him the dollar he asks for. And it is his compassion for the anguished Boon that causes him to oppose McCaslin when the latter is cruelly questioning Boon about Sam's death. His attitude toward Lion is also sympathetic. He helps Sam in the initial training of Lion, and shares the respect and admiration of the entire camp for the magnificent dog. He may stand in awe of Lion, but he does not hate him.
A few critics have been troubled by the apparent inconsistencies that result from such attempts to define Lion's role in "The Bear." William Van O'Connor identifies Old Ben as the embodied spirit of the wilderness and Lion as the ruthless "spirit of the kill," but he is puzzled by the fact that Ike is not opposed to the spirit represented by Lion and can only conclude that Faulkner has failed artistically.5 Similarly, Hyatt Waggoner, who associates Lion with the negative forces of civilization, notes that the dog is not a clear symbol, and agrees with O'Connor that the inconsistencies must be due to Faulkner's artistic failure.6
But it is not artistic failure that has caused so many apparent inconsistencies in "The Bear." In all of these interpretations, the error lies in the assumption that since Lion is the opponent of the bear on the narrative level, he must represent an opposing force. If a symbolic interpretation is to have any validity, however, it must be borne out by the literal facts of the story, and Faulkner's portrayal of the dog makes such an interpretation impossible. Lion is not the antithesis of Old Ben. In fact, the two are actually very similar. Faulkner emphasizes the same qualities and often even uses the same words in his description of the two animals. Whereas most critics have sought significance in the physical opposition of the dog and the bear, it is the similarity between them that is important. And it is through a recognition of the qualities that Lion and Old Ben have in common that one is able ultimately to understand their function in the story.
First of all, Faulkner has deliberately set Lion and Old Ben apart from the other animals. They are the only animals in the story to be given the individuality of a name, and Old Ben, whose individuality is heightened by his deformed paw, travels alone and seems to have no kinship with the other bears. Similarly, Lion does not eat or sleep with the other dogs, and will have nothing to do with them. Old Ben and Lion are further distinguished from the other animals by their huge size. Lion is bigger than any of the other dogs just as Ben is bigger than any of the other bears. Moreover, both are said to give the impression of being bigger than they actually are, and both are described as "indomitable." As Sam says, Old Ben is the "head bear." He's "the man." And Lion, who leads the other dogs in their pursuit of the old bear, is a true king of the beasts. Only Lion is worthy to oppose Old Ben.
Also similar is the aura of mystery with which Faulkner surrounds the two animals. Both Lion and Old Ben are of unknown ancestry. Lion seems to appear out of nowhere and Old Ben is said to be his own "ungendered progenitor." Contributing to this mystery is Faulkner's method of delayed introduction. All that is said about Old Ben before he appears endows him with an unreal, almost legendary quality. And the unexplained references to Lion leave the reader wondering who or what Lion is. The name Lion is first mentioned in the beginning of Section 1, but it is not until half-way through Section 2 that we see the "heavy body crashing with tremendous force against the door" of Sam's corncrib and realize that this is Lion. When the two animals finally do appear, we see them under circumstances that reinforce this sense of mystery. Old Ben's apparition-like appearance in the forest glade has the same eerie quality as Lion's ultimate appearance in the corncrib after the mysterious death of the colt and the hunters' puzzled attempt to discover what killed it.
Another reason for the mystery that surrounds Old Ben and Lion is the strange silence of the two animals. Old Ben is never heard to utter a sound, and, except when he is being pursued by the dogs, he seems to glide silently through the forest like a phantom. Lion's silence is even more uncanny. He never barks or whines like the other dogs, and his absolute silence suggests a sphinx-like quality. This image is supported by the fact that the lion typically forms the body of the sphinx, and the dog is often seen in the position of the sphinx, "lying on its belly, its head up."
The final similarity between Lion and Old Ben is the most important one: both animals are associated with the wilderness. Old Ben is an "apothesis of the old wild life," and Lion, as I noted earlier, is "like some natural force." Both possess the impersonal, savage power of nature: Old Ben is "not malevolent but just big," and Lion's eyes have "nothing of petty malevolence in them." Moreover, the other similarities between Lion and Old Ben contribute to this identification with the wilderness. In setting Lion and Old Ben apart from the other animals and in making them of unusual proportions, Faulkner implies that they are more than just a bear and a dog. They are literally larger than life. This fact, coupled with their mysterious origin, further associates them with the wilderness, which is "bigger and older than any recorded deed." Their silence and inscrutability also connect them with the big woods. In "Delta Autumn," Faulkner describes the woods as a "tremendous density of inscrutable impenetrability," and the aging Ike McCaslin listens to the silence of the wilderness: "tremendous, primeval, looming." Thus all of the qualities that the two animals have in common combine to create an image of two powerful forces of nature.
Once we have recognized the similarities between Lion and Old Ben and have understood that Lion, far from being a symbol of something opposed to the wilderness, is, like Old Ben, closely identified with it, we are in a position to analyze the significance of the meeting between the two animals. In their attempts to understand the meaning of "The Bear," most critics have concluded that Ike "learns" something from his experience in the wilderness. Although there seems to be some agreement that what Ike learns is responsible for his decision with respect to his inheritance, most critics are vague about just what he did learn, and, even more important, how he learned it. The main tendency is to associate the things of the wilderness with positive values, and to regard the wilderness, or the bear itself, as the source of Ike's later wisdom. If this were all that were necessary, however, the contest between Lion and Old Ben would need never to have taken place. For Ike is wise in the ways of the wilderness long before it occurs.
It is my contention that what Ike "learns" comes directly from his reaction to the contest between Lion and Old Ben. Under the tutelage of Sam Fathers, Ike has come to possess a deeper understanding of nature than any of the other hunters, and the events of the last bear hunt provide him with some insight into the eternal continuity of nature. Powerful, mysterious, impersonal, bigger than life—the bear and the dog seem to be part of nature itself. Thus for Ike the meeting between these two untamed creatures of the wilderness is a dramatic manifestation of the mighty power of nature. The clash between two such powerful forces of nature is evocative of awe and wonder, and it is from this feeling of awe at the grandeur of nature's forces that Ike gains an awareness of that great scheme of which he is a part.7
Ultimately, through the deaths of Sam Fathers, Old Ben, and Lion, the three "untainted" children of the wilderness, Ike is brought to the realization that the spirit of nature can never die. What Ike experiences in the last bear hunt might be compared to the "uplift of the heart" that Faulkner describes elsewhere as the purpose of the writer. In Go Down, Moses Faulkner uses these same words to describe Ike's feeling about hunting. In "Delta Autumn," for example, he speaks of the "keen heart-lifting anticipation of hunting," and in "The Bear," Ike feels the "old life of the heart" when he thinks of the bear hunt to take place the next day. In the Foreword to The Faulkner Reader Faulkner writes that by uplifting man's heart, the writer and his reader are able to "say No to death."8 Ike's hunting experience gives him the same ability. When he visits the graves of Lion and Sam Fathers at the end of the story, he is able to conclude that there is no death because everything is a part of nature and nature is eternal:
There was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acron again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too.
He notes the cyclical pattern of nature: "summer, and fall, and snow, and wet and saprife spring in their ordered immortal sequence." And as he stands at the grave site salvaged from the wilderness "where death did not even exist," he sees in the ancient, upright snake a confirmation of the eternal and salutes it in recognition as Sam had the old buck years before ("The Old People").
The awareness that Ike gains from the events of the last bear hunt is important because it provides the basis for his later decision to reject his inheritance. It is soon after the bear is killed that Ike compulsively enters the commissary to study the ledgers which contain the history of injustice to which he is heir. That Ike examines the old ledgers soon after the last bear hunt can be inferred from the fact that the scene takes place in the winter of his sixteenth year (it is "icy" cold). Since the last bear hunt takes place in November and December of his sixteenth year, he must have made his midnight visit to the commissary after he returned from camp. From the ledgers Ike learns of the specific tragedy that resulted from his ancestor's claim of ownership, not only of the land, but of a people.9 From his recent experience in the wilderness, Ike has come to a realization of the infinite majesty of nature which reveals to him the presumption of man to attempt to own any part of nature's great design. In summoning to his bed his own daughter by a Negro slave, Carothers McCaslin manifested the worst aspect of the sin of ownership: the failure to respect the dignity of a fellow human being. And Old Carothers compounded his guilt when he made provision in his will for the Negro son (and grandson) that he refused to recognize, because, as Ike notes, "that was cheaper than saying My son to a nigger." When Ike is twenty-one, he refuses to accept his inheritance because he believes that the land can belong to no man. He also hopes that by repudiating it, he can help to atone for the sins of his fathers. However, he believes that nothing can atone for the specific wrong of Carothers McCaslin. He only hopes that, in relinquishing his claim to the land, he will be able to free at least himself and his descendants from the shame and guilt that it incurs.
In attempting to explain his decision to McCaslin, Ike tells him that all God asks of man is "pity and humility and sufferance and endurance and the sweat of his face for bread." Ike's choice to live by the sweat of his face is not an arbitrary one. It obviously derives from God's command to Adam after Adam had eaten of the forbidden fruit: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Genesis iii:19). Ike chooses this way of life after discovering the "original sin" of Carothers McCaslin.
The bear hunt and the final confrontation between the two mighty forces of nature, Lion and Old Ben, then, lead directly to Ike's relinquishment of his inheritance. Only by seeing Lion as part of, not in contradiction to, the aweinspiring spectacle of nature can one understand the significance of the last bear hunt for Ike. Because he has glimpsed through the struggle of Lion and Old Ben the eternal majesty of nature, Ike chooses to live by his sweat alone. Using this very concept, Faulkner emphasizes the root relationship between the last bear hunt and Ike's decision in his transition between Section 3, in which the bear is killed, and Section 4, in which Ike arrives at his decision. Section 3 ends when Boon and Ike are watching over the dead body of Sam Fathers and they are interrupted by McCaslin Edmonds, who confronts Boon cruelly without considering the great anguish he feels:
Then the boy moved. He was between them, facing McCaslin; the water felt as if it had burst and sprung not from his eyes alone but from his whole face, like sweat.
"Leave him alone!" he cried. "Goddam it! Leave him alone!"
Section 4 begins:
then he was twenty-one. He could say it, himself and his cousin juxtaposed not against the wilderness but against the tamed land which was to have been his heritage. . . .
At the end of Section 3, Ike and his cousin McCaslin are "juxtaposed against the wilderness" with water upon Ike's face "like sweat." In Section 4 they are "juxtaposed not against the wilderness but against the tamed land." By beginning Section 4 with a small letter and by making a specific reference to the end of Section 3, Faulkner makes a deliberate connection between the decision in Section 4 and the events in Section 3. On one level, the ending of the bear hunt section is important simply as an expression of the compassion and insight that Ike has learned and McCaslin will never possess. But even more important is the way in which the image of Ike opposing McCaslin with water on his face "like sweat" foreshadows Ike's lifelong opposition to McCaslin and to the McCaslins, who, as the worn pathway on the commissary floor suggests, chose to make their living, not by "the sweat of their face," but by the sweat of others.
1 For example, Ray B. West, The Short Story in America (Chicago, 1952) p. 105, maintains that Lion represents southern industry because he is of a mongrel breed. (Note that Sam Fathers is also of a "mongrel breed.") W. R. Moses, "Where History Crosses Myth: Another Reading of 'The Bear,'" Accent, XIII (Winter 1953), 126, says that Lion represents "the mechanization, the applied science, which finally caught the wilderness fatally by the throat." Phyllis Jobe, "'The Bear,' A Critical Study," Nimrod, II (Winter 1958), 29, calls him "the perfect machine, the new civilization." And Hyatt H. Waggoner, William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World (Univ. of Kentucky, 1959), pp. 208-209, although he recognizes that Lion is not a clear symbol, associates him with modern civilization.
2 I do not mean to imply that no one has associated Lion with the wilderness. In their early analysis of "The Bear," for example, Campbell and Foster describe him as a "great wild hunting dog." See Harry Campbell and Ruel E. Foster, William Faulkner: A Critical Appraisal (Oklahoma, 1951), p. 147. Also making this association are Melvin Backman, "Wilderness and the Negro in Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" PMLA, LXXVI (December 1961), 597, and H. H. Bell, Jr., "A Footnote to Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" College English, XXIV (December 1962), 182.
3 Otis B. Wheeler, "Faulkner's Wilderness," American Literature, XXXI (May 1959), 127-133.
4 Herbert A. Perluck, "The Heart's Dying Complexity: An Unromantic Reading of 'The Bear,'" Accent, XX (Winter 1960), 39-43.
5 William Van O'Connor, The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (Minn., 1954), pp. 128-131.
6 Waggoner, pp. 207-208.
7 A recognition of Ike's feeling here helps to explain the passage at the end of Section 2 where Faulkner describes Ike's ambivalent feeling about the coming meeting of Lion and Old Ben:
So he should have hated and feared Lion. Yet he did not. It seemed to him that there was a fatality in it. It seemed to him that something, he didn't know what, was beginning; had already begun. It was like the last act on a set stage. It was the begining of the end of something, he didn't know what except that he would not grieve. He would be humble and proud that he had been found worthy to be a part of it too or even just to see it too.
Parts of this statement have been used to prove a wilderness-civilization significance in the death struggle of Lion and Old Ben. The fact that Ike feels it to be "like the last act on a set stage. . . . the beginning of the end of something" does tend to support this impression if we consider that the wilderness is to be destroyed within a few years after the death of the bear. However, the last part of the passage indicates that, although Old Ben's death may in some way foreshadow the end of the wilderness, it is not a clear symbol of it. For Ike does "grieve" when he sees the new railroad invading the wilderness, and he feels no humility or pride at seeing the work of the logging company. The humility and pride that Ike knows he will feel when he witnesses the final clash between the bear and the dog are the same emotions that Faulkner associates with hunting in general. At one point in the story Ike thinks about hunting: "the best, the best of all breathing, the humility and the pride." To Ike, the match between the indomitable old bear and the equally indomitable dog is an awe-inspiring experience. He is humble before this manifestation of the majesty of nature's forces, yet proud that he can be a part of the experience.
8The Faulkner Reader (New York, 1954), pp. x-xi.
In that way he [an author] can say No to death. He is saying No to death for himself by means of the hearts which he has hoped to uplift, or even by means of the base glands which he has disturbed to that extent where they can say No to death. . . .
So he who, from the isolation of cold impersonal print, can engender this excitement, himself partakes of the immortality which he has engendered.
9 For a discussion of the connection between ownership of the land and the wrong of slavery, see Waggoner, pp. 206-207, and Walter F. Taylor, Jr., "Let My People Go: The White Man's Heritage in Go Down, Moses," South Atlantic Quarterly, LVIII (Winter 1959),22-23.
Gloria R. Dussinger (essay date 1969)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3715
SOURCE: "Faulkner's Isaac McCaslin as Romantic Hero Manqué," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1969, pp. 377-85.
[In the following essay, Dussinger perceives the structure and style of "The Bear" to be modeled on the Romantic quest story, which narrates the integration of private and public aspects of the hero's self-identity.]
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841 defined the transcendentalist by pointing to his peculiar affliction—double consciousness: the transcendentalist is aware of living two lives, of the understanding and of the soul; his anguish grows out of the fact that the two "show very little relation to each other." By 1852 Emerson had penetrated his own dual nature to its depths and there divined its value. In "Fate" he proposes double consciousness as the "one key, one solution to the mysteries of human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge." A man, Emerson advises, "must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature. . . ."1
The insight that every man is born twins—his private and public natures identical in source, yet as separate in existence as biological twins—marks an advance and complication of Romanticism. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this advance is to show its effect on the basic Romantic fable—the quest. The Romantic quest begins when the hero becomes aware that traditional social values are not valid in themselves. He goes off into the woods or jungle or sea or any location devoid of civilization in search of a source of value. After discovering the wellspring of value, pure identity, the Romantic hero must undertake the second part of his cyclical journey—the return to society; for only when measured against society does the self gain permanence and meaning.
By contrasting an early quest (Teufelsdröckh's journey from the Everlasting No to the Everlasting Yea in Sartor Resartus) with a later version (Marlow's journey up and down the Congo in Heart of Darkness), one can observe a real development in Romanticism. The assumption that the Romantic hero could return and, using the divine authority surging through the self, redeem society, led authors like Carlyle into confusion and eventually into endorsement of temporary tyranny. In the years between Carlyle and Conrad, Western man came to know himself in his psychological polarity as a tension between nature and society, between essence and existence. Consequently, Conrad's version of the quest has a different ending. The hero, Marlow, must penetrate to the heart or remain a Pharisee like those in the Belgian office. But after he glimpses man's real nature, he must come out of the jungle. At the heart of darkness exists chaotic power without form, libido without ego; it destroys Kurtz. Once back in society, Marlow cannot measure by the absolute standards discovered in Africa. He proves his understanding that existence differs from essence by lying to Kurtz's betrothed.
William Faulkner in "The Bear" presents a modern version of the Romantic quest. Matched against the quest framework, the story makes explicit Faulkner's judgment upon Isaac McCaslin as Romantic hero manqué. Isaac goes into the wilderness and finds his essential self; the sense of union with the vast, breathing whole of nature so enthralls him that he refuses to return to society. He consciously denies the existential fact. That Faulkner intended such a reading of "The Bear" is apparent in his direct statements, narrative structure, and style.
First, Faulkner by direct statement tells us that Isaac McCaslin has the double consciousness which is both the curse and blessing of modern man. He proves that the two selves are inherent in the boy by making Isaac's unconscious the source of his characteristics. That is, Isaac does not acquire knowledge from outside himself; he simply becomes conscious of what was already present below the threshold of consciousness. From his spiritual father, Sam, Isaac inherited his essential or natural self. The inherent, natural self is manifested in the following quotations: "It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it";2 "It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet" (p. 193); "which he knew now he would never fire at it, now or ever" (p. 203); "to keep yourselves from having to find out what this boy was born knowing" (p. 250).
From his material father, a composite of Old Carothers McCaslin, Uncle Buck, and Cass Edmonds ("who sired . . . his thinking," p. 174), Isaac inherited his existential or social self. The inherent social self comes to the surface of consciousness when the sixteen-year-old boy enters the commissary to learn the lesson of the ledgers: "He knew what he was going to find before he found it" (p. 268). Isaac salutes the snake as grandfather "without premeditation" (p. 330), acknowledging instinctively his inheritance of Original Sin. Finally, Isaac admits to himself, though he keeps it from Cass, how much of "that evil and unregenerate old man" (p. 294) he was taking with him even in escape.
Faulkner is using the organic metaphor, developed by Goethe and Carlyle, that the individual contains in seed all he will become. The goal of each person, according to this Romantic doctrine, is to bring to fruition all his potential. Now, Isaac possesses a dual nature as the above quotations show, yet he presumes he can accept one half of it and reject the other. His motivation for rejection of his social self is clearly escape (pp. 283, 288, 293, 294); he wishes to avoid the suffering that his social inheritance entails. Deliberately ignoring the real conditions of existence, Isaac declares himself free from the "frail and iron thread strong as truth and impervious as evil and longer than life itself and reaching beyond record and patrimony both to join him with the lusts and passions, the hopes and dreams and griefs" (p. 299) of all men since Adam.3
A further indication of Faulkner's intent is the narrative structure. The author has buttressed "The Bear" with a prologue, "The Old People," and an epilogue, "Delta Autumn." The first concerns Isaac as a young boy, the last as an old man; the first concentrates on the wilderness theme, or essence, the last on the Negro-white theme, or existence. The central story, "The Bear," begins with the wilderness theme and moves on in Part IV to the theme of Negro-white relationships. Taking place on Isaac's twenty-first birthday, the largest section of Part IV thus represents Isaac's social birth. In the action of the latter part of "The Bear" and of "Delta Autumn" can be traced the infanticide of Isaac's social self by an overpowering natural self.
"The Old People" serves as prelude to the fully orchestrated wilderness symphony of "The Bear." Faulkner's inimitable evocation of what Wordsworth called the "Presences of Nature" allows the reader to feel the "profound, sentient, gigantic and brooding" (p. 175) woods as a palpable reality. The story introduces Sam Fathers, the wild man whose blood runs pure and straight from man's source in nature. Having tutored the boy Isaac in the ancient lore of the wilderness, Sam consecrates him in the blood of his first deer. Because of his reverential attitude toward nature, "loving the life he spills" (p. 181)—that awesome sense of the organic which Coleridge expressed in The Ancient Mariner—Isaac is vouchsafed a mystical vision. Sam takes him behind the arras-veil of phenomena to an experience of the noumenal world in the form of a majestic buck.
In "Delta Autumn" Faulkner presents a vision of a man who has developed only one side of his being. By choosing to live apart rather than accept the contamination of social intercourse, Isaac has surrendered his moral force. Roth Edmonds' scorn for the maxims which his kinsman should have lived but which he merely mouths flashes out in his question, "Where have you been all the time you were dead?" (p. 345). Faulkner tells us that when the old man talked, "The other two paid no attention to him" (p. 346). Another sign of Isaac's ineffectiveness is his outraged cry to the girl: "Get out of here! I can do nothing for you! Cant nobody do nothing for you!" (p. 361). Admittedly the solution of the racial problem exceeds the power of any individual, but each is urged by his compassion to try. Isaac prefers to lie back on his stained cot and think about God's retribution on evildoers.
"Delta Autumn" exposes the incompleteness of the Romantic journey begun in "The Old People." Isaac McCaslin returns, physically, to Jefferson, but his heart remains in the woods. Although he has a house in the town, "he spent the time within those walls waiting for November" (p. 352). The tent is his home, the wilderness is his land, and the hunting companions are his kin (p. 352). Meaning for Isaac is bound up with the wilderness, the place of his self-discovery. Fearful that his self may be buffeted by other selves and thus lose its acute individuality, Isaac strives to preserve it in its pristine setting. As a result, he becomes a cipher socially. Paradoxically, he cannot keep his selfhood even in the wilderness, for the self is not an entity but a complex series of relationships with other selves. The old Isaac McCaslin of "Delta Autumn" is a nothing, lacking all power for evil or for good.
Faulkner reinforces this interpretation of Isaac as failed Romantic hero through the structure of "The Bear." In Parts I, II, and III of the story, Isaac is presented sympathetically, so sympathetically that, were Part V to follow immediately after Part III, the reader would have to accept without question Isaac's value judgment on the passing of the wilderness. By inserting Part IV prior to the section narrating Isaac's return to the hunting camp, Faulkner gives a glimpse of the limitations of his protagonist, enabling the reader of Part V to separate Isaac's feelings from Faulkner's. The destruction of the woods carries a special horror for Isaac because all his meaning is centered there. For Faulkner this destruction manifests the world's dynamicism: "change is going to alter what was. That no matter how fine anything seems, it can't endure, because once it stops, abandons motion, it is dead."4 Isaac's reaction to the cutting of the timber illustrates his escapism; instead of doing something about it, he will simply return no more (p. 321). Instead of campaigning for conservation or selling his farm to purchase some wilderness land as a sanctuary, Isaac merely closes his eyes to the ugly logging operation and sees, in his mind's eye, the magnificent woods of his boyhood, as changeless and as unreal as the scene on the Grecian urn.
Faulkner makes his intent manifest once more by a stylistic change in Part IV, alerting the reader to analyze with care Isaac's monologue in the commissary.5 The speech, when stripped of its inflated rhetoric, turns out to be a rambling, self-contradictory, even ludicrous redaction of traditional Christian theodicy.6 That critics could have accepted it as Faulkner's message to a mechanistic, unnatural twentieth-century civilization suggests that they failed to translate it into standard diction. Moreover, they failed to read it in context as part of the characterization of Isaac McCaslin, an error equivalent to taking Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" as a philosophic generalization.
But the real significance of Isaac's monologue for the interpretation forwarded by this paper lies in his feeling constrained to justify his act of repudiation. The natural man does not reason logically, seeking motives for his actions. He acts instinctively, and his deed contains its own justification. If Isaac, like Nancy Mannigoe in Requiem for a Nun, would simply affirm, "I believe," no complaint could be made against him. But the fact that he tries to conceptualize his feelings testifies to the very real presence within him of the social man. Language and other abstractions are unnecessary in nature; they become valuable only in society, where they lend communicability and permanence to emotions which, in their immediate state, are private and transitory. The commissary speech is a further proof of Isaac's dual nature and of his conscious denial of the existential circumstance.
By characterizing Isaac McCaslin as modern man with his inescapable double consciousness and by narrating Isaac's aborted journey, Faulkner gives form to one of Romanticism's most crucial concerns: man's duality, his twin role as subject and object, as a part of nature and of society, as being and becoming. The artist's method of dramatizing his idea was daring indeed. He created a boy sensitive enough and brave enough to penetrate the veil of appearance; then he showed that ideal youth unable to meet the challenge of existence. The daring in Faulkner's approach involves the danger of being misunderstood, of Isaac's infatuating the reader to the point of blindness.7 Had Faulkner, on the other hand, portrayed Isaac's mystical experience any less genuinely, he would have opened the way for another interpretation: that Isaac failed to realize his social self because he failed to see his essential self clearly, that is, because he lacked real self-knowledge. But in the first three sections of "The Bear," reinforced by "The Old People," Faulkner has presented a flawless, incontrovertible account of a confrontation of the noumenon. No critic dare imply that Isaac McCaslin has not seen "into the life of things." Therefore, and this is Faulkner's triumph, "The Bear" proclaims powerfully that the apotheosis of half a man is not enough—no man is good unless he is whole.
Faulkner's moral vision, as shown in "The Bear," seems more Nietzschean than Christian. The idea of polarities—good and evil, light and dark, form and power, essence and existence, stasis and change—has been a constant anguish for Western man. Out of this conflict of poles, the Romantic philosopher Nietzsche evolved a theory of antinomies: opposites are not only unreconciled, they are not meant to be reconciled, for in the tension between them is life and joy. Joy wants the opposites, Nietzsche declares; "all joy wants eternal being for all things."8
In "The Bear" Faulkner manifests his belief in polarity by incorporating both good and evil in his symbols. Sam Fathers, Old Ben, and Lion, the three "incorruptibles," are alike in encompassing life and death. Sam's reaction to Lion is the same as his reaction to Ben—arched nostrils and a fierce milkiness in his eyes (p. 217)—signifying his equal valuation of both. Although Sam is akin to the spirit of the wilderness represented by Ben, he trains the bear's destroyer. Lion has "impersonal malignance like some natural force" (p. 218); yet his color resembles a blued gun-barrel, and the gun is antithetical to nature: Isaac had to leave his behind in order to see Old Ben. Old Ben himself, symbol of the wilderness, is three times compared to a locomotive (pp. 193, 211, 238); then in Part V the locomotive of the logging train comes to signify the destruction of the primeval woods. Each of the three—Sam, Ben, and Lion—contains his own antithesis, and thus they embody Faulkner's sense of the dynamic.
In Isaac McCaslin's separation of the dual elements of life—he considers Ben good and the train evil, though each is both and therefore neither—we witness his flaw. Isaac went into the wilderness and discovered his whatness; he went into the commissary and discovered his thatness. He found essence simple, pure, changeless, and peaceful; he found existence complex, tainted, changing, and turbulent. So Isaac pronounced nature good and society evil, failing to grasp that both are amoral, that both gain value only through the dynamic power of personality. Isaac's rejection of his existential self can be explained theologically by his fear of God's punishment of sin, ethically by his fear of the moral ambivalence of society, psychologically by his fear of the challenge of other selves to his identity, and aesthetically by his fear of the effect of time upon beauty. But by choosing only half of life, Isaac McCaslin forfeited life.
1Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), pp. 204, 351.
2 William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses (New York: The Modern Library, 1955), p. 193. Subsequent page references to this edition will be included in the text within parentheses.
3 Isaac's misuse of the word free discloses his misconception of it. To be free in a philosophic sense means to be self-acting, to be able to institute causal series rather than to be the pawn of inexorable forces. Early Romantic heroes such as Carlyle's Teufelsdröckh gained an exhilarating sense of freedom when they discovered the self; they became free moral agents instead of parts in the universal machine. But Isaac's freedom is never freedom to; it is always freedom from. Isaac insists that he is free from the entanglements that define the human condition.—The narrative about Fonsiba and her husband forms an ironic parallel to Isaac's story. In the Fonsiba section, Isaac himself serves as reality's voice, assuming the same relationship to the Negro dreamer that Cass takes to him in Part IV. Isaac shouts at the self-deluded Northern Negro who sits placidly in the midst of incredible desolation, "'Freedom from what? From work? Canaan?'" (p. 279). He fails to understand his own message: he who hopes for Eden, for the kingdom of God on earth, must work for it (though he may never earn it). One wonders how Isaac ever got past Fonsiba, cowering half-dead in the corner of the kitchen, without experiencing a shock of recognition at her words: "I'm free" (p. 280)!
4 Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (eds.), Faulkner in the University (Charlottesville, Va., 1959), p. 277.
5 Others have noted the shift in style: Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study (New York, 1951), p. 188, considers Part IV much inferior to the rest of the story. He finds this section "often inflated to Confederate rhetoric." Herbert A. Perluck, "'The Heart's Driving Complexity': An Unromantic Reading of Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" Accent, XX (1960), 35, equates style and meaning: "The turgid rhetoric of the section, enforced by McCaslin's scorn, reflects the struggle Ike is undergoing."
6 Since no one has published a translation of Isaac's world-view, I offer the following:
First God created the world and found it good, then He created the animals and finally man, to whom He gave stewardship over His creation. Somehow man got dispossessed of Eden (Isaac doesn't say how) and men fought through the bloody history of the Old World. God was not impotent, condoning, or blind; yet He ordered and watched the whole terrible mess. (These clauses are surely contradictory.)
Then God decided to give man a fresh start in the New World. But he saw that the New World was spoiled because the Indians weren't proper stewards; they were tainted by what white men brought from the Old World. So God decided to wipe out the sins of the Indians by using sinful white men who would enslave the Negroes, but whose descendants might begin freeing the Negroes. In an aside at this point, Isaac tells Cass that he doesn't accept everything in the Bible, only what his heart intuitively finds true. (His subjectivism is socially invalid.)
After the digression concerning Carothers's miscegenation and incest, Isaac resumes his argument on page 282. God saw that the South was really bad, but He didn't give up on man for three reasons: (1) "because He had already worried with them so long," (2) "because He had seen how in individual cases they were capable of anything," and (3) because He had to accept their evil or admit the existence of an equal. (The third reason makes God the source of evil, a conclusion Isaac bypasses.) The situation seemed nearly hopeless, because even His elected and chosen such as Grandfather didn't show much promise of producing a savior for the Negroes whom God had allowed them to enslave. Then God became really disgusted with the South He had so richly blessed. He looked to the North for a savior, but the Abolitionists were just talking. He might have destroyed the whole creation at that moment had it not been for John Brown, who acted upon his belief that Negroes should not be bound by whites.
So God turned once more to the South He intended to save, and, realizing that the people would "learn nothing save through suffering" (p. 286), He brought on the Civil War. He gave the South gallant and audacious generals because only such men could frighten the North into unity. He planted in Southern men a courage extreme enough to make them challenge so powerful an adversary. (According to Isaac, it took some contriving on God's part to get the Civil War under way; man, left to himself, would never have been able to manage it.) The painful aftermath of the war—with the Southerners, the Negroes, and the carpetbaggers beating, lynching, and robbing each other—was what God got, although Isaac isn't sure that's what He wanted (p. 289).
Having brought the history of man up to his own day, Isaac defends the Negroes in spite of the fact that they misused their freedom. He claims that they will endure and supplant the whites eventually because they are better and stronger. While the land and the McCaslin blood are cursed, Isaac alone is free because he has been chosen by God and granted a special insight into God's plan through fourteen years of training under Sam Fathers.
7 How authentic that danger was has been proved by the history of criticism of "The Bear." Until the late 1950's Isaac McCaslin was almost universally venerated as a contemporary saint. More recent studies register a disenchantment: Olga Vickery, "Initiation and Identity: Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust," in The Novels of William Faulkner (Baton Rouge, 1959), p. 133; William Van O'Connor, "The Wilderness Theme in Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" in William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism, ed. Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery (New York, 1960), p. 329; Melvin Backman, "The Wilderness and the Negro in Faulkner's 'The Bear,'" PMLA, LXXVI (1961), 597; Perluck, pp. 23-46; David H. Stewart, "The Purpose of Faulkner's Ike," in Bear, Man, and God: Seven Approaches to William Faulkner's The Bear, ed. Francis Lee Utley, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Arthur F. Kinney (New York, 1964), p. 332; John W. Hunt, "Morality with Passion: A Study of 'The Bear,'" in William Faulkner: Art in Theological Tension (Syracuse, 1965), pp. 137-68.
8 Quoted by Morse Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision (New York, 1962), p. 366.
Daniel Hoffman (essay date 1969)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4633
SOURCE: "William Faulkner: The Bear'," in Landmarks of American Writing, edited by Hennig Cohen, Basic Books, 1969, pp. 341-52.
[In the following essay, Hoffman explicates the principal themes of "The Bear. "]
William Faulkner's story, "The Bear," has come to occupy a place in his work similar to that held by "Billy Budd" in Herman Melville's and by The Old Man and the Sea in Ernest Hemingway's. All three tales are relatively brief, and were written after the major novels by these authors, works of which these stories seem to be epitomes. Faulkner's tale comes after most of the books in his Yoknapatawpha saga, following The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and The Hamlet (1940). "The Bear" in its present form appeared in 1942, as one of the seven interrelated stories in his book Go Down, Moses. These tales comprise the chronicle of one of the families in Yoknapatawpha County, that fictive domain in Mississippi which Faulkner created out of his own knowledge of his native region. The family in Go Down, Moses are the McCaslins, the descendants in both the white race and the black of an early settler of the place. This version of "The Bear" is the successor, however, to an earlier, shorter, and simpler story, written a few years earlier. Faulkner has said of his intricate novel The Sound and the Fury that he had to write the story of the same events four times, each from the viewpoint of a different character. In his revisions of "The Bear" we see a similar determination of the tale to haunt its author until the full complexity of the truth that is in it struggles toward expression.
The outline of the action in the tale is easily summarized. The bear of the title is a huge beast, whose pursuit on a remote tract of wilderness land owned by Major de Spain is the object of a hunting party each November. We follow this annual hunt through the adventures of its youngest member, Isaac McCaslin, who is only sixteen years old in 1883 when the story begins. The bear, nicknamed Old Ben, is a wily and formidable adversary, who easily outwits the most skillful hunters and their most tenacious dogs. Isaac, or Ike, as he is called, is schooled in hunting by Sam Fathers, a strange and noble huntsman who is the son of a Chickasaw Indian chief and a Negro slave. After several years Sam finds in the woods the dog who will be able to track down Old Ben, and he succeeds in training this fierce dog, called Lion, without breaking its wild spirit. At last, with the help of Lion, Old Ben is indeed cornered, but when the two beasts are locked in a death struggle, another part-Indian member of the hunting party, named Boon Hogganbeck, leaps into the fight and stabs Old Ben in the heart with his knife. This much of the action occupies the first three of the five chapters in the tale.
To continue the consecutive summary of the action we must pass over Part Four for the moment. In Part Five, Ike McCaslin returns to the hunting ground two years after Old Ben's death. Everything is changed now, for Major de Spain has sold his hunting lands to a lumber company, and civilization—the railroad, the loggers, the exploitative destruction of the wilderness—are already encroaching upon the virgin land. It is evident that Old Ben was more than merely a beast to be hunted, he was somehow the embodiment of the spirit of the wilderness. With the bear's death, the wilderness itself is doomed. This fact is prefigured in the passing of Sam Fathers, the last speaker of the aboriginal language and the last priest of its sacred totem. At the moment when Old Ben is slain Sam falls to the ground in a seizure from which he does not recover. Ike and Boon stay behind to care for Sam when the rest of the party return to town, and at his death they inter him as he had desired, in the fashion of his Indian ancestors.
In the fifth section of the tale Ike is aware, on his return, that the locomotive is now the dominant image of energy and motion in the woods. Why does Ike come back? He returns to make a pilgrimage to the hallowed places where the wilderness spirit had enfolded him, where Lion is buried, where Sam Fathers lies. At the graveside of the tutelary master of his boyhood Isaac has an epiphany of the immortality of all life. The tokens he had left on Sam's grave—the twist of tobacco, the bandanna, the peppermint candies—these things, Ike knows, are gone,
not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places with delicate fairy tracks, which, breathing and biding and immobile, watched him from beyond every twig and leaf until he moved, moving again, walking on . . . quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undifferentiated of every myriad part, leaf, twig, and particle. . . .
This vision of Isaac's makes him aware of the eternity of the processes of nature, the energy of life encompassing death and translating it, restoring the vigor of their spirit to all perished things. Such a consolatory view of nature as the mother of life, such a view of immortality beyond good and evil, is more like the pantheism of Walt Whitman than it is like the immortality proposed by Christianity. Although Isaac McCaslin is the truest Christian in Faulkner's tale, as will be seen in Part Four, he is at the same time the one true acolyte of Sam Fathers, the Chickasaw shaman. In the midst of this reverie on the immortality of all that is mortal, Ike is awakened by an intuitive fear; at his feet a rattlesnake is slithering across the forest floor, pausing to raise its head by his knee. Confronted by this creature, "the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary . . . evocative of all knowledge and an old weariness and of pariahhood and of death," Isaac, without premeditation, raises one hand, as Sam had done when the boy had shot his first buck, and, "speaking the old tongue which Sam had spoken that day without premeditation either: 'Chief,' he said, 'Grandfather.'"
This is surely one of the most touching, the most nearly unbearable moments in American fiction, so beautifully has Faulkner embodied the mystical realization of nature which runs through our literature from Thoreau and Emily Dickinson to Robert Frost. The serpent in "The Bear" is only residually the Christian emblem of man's temptation and the Fall. This snake appears to Isaac primarily as Sam would have seen it, indeed it comes as the temporary vessel embodying the spirit of Sam Fathers, his ancestor and his immortality. In both the mythology of the American Indian and the folklore of the Negro, the snake is a figure of kingly stature and mysterious supernatural power. Faulkner is being profoundly true to the mingled strains in Sam Fathers' blood in giving his spirit this mortal form.
There is only another page or two to the story. Ike pushes further into the woods until he comes upon Boon, frantically hammering his gun-barrel with one of its dismembered parts. Boon is screaming, "Get out of here! Don't touch them! They're mine!" as a maelstrom of squirrels leap from branch to branch in the tree above him. The mighty slayer of the bear is reduced to this hysterical claimant of ownership over squirrels. On this note of moral diminution and pathos ends the greatest American hunting story of the twentieth century.
I have omitted from my summary the entire fourth part of the tale, for this section breaks up the time sequence and introduces a totally different style to recount a different order of experience. Part Four begins when Ike McCaslin is twenty-one years old. If Parts One through Three were Ike's coming-of-age in the wilderness, Part Four is his coming of age into society. With the help of his older cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, Ike retraces the history of the family from the arrival of their grandfather Carothers McCaslin in Mississippi. This Scotsman had purchased the family plantation from an Indian chief, had begotten twin sons by his wife, and also was progenitor of an illegitimate line of descendants by his Negro slave-women. Ike and McCaslin Edmonds have a family of black cousins living on the place, and it is with the guilt and responsibilities of this inheritance that Ike has to come to terms.
The style of the hunting story is on the whole straightforward narrative, but Part Four is told through quite a different fictional method. This is stream-of-consciousness writing, the movement of the prose evoking and corresponding to the tortuous processes of self-examination and self-knowledge which Isaac McCaslin undergoes in his search for the meaning of his heritage. Some readers are confused by a single sentence five pages long, or a parentheses enclosing a thousand words; but these devices are not as difficult as they may at first seem. Indeed, once one is caught up in Issac's search, the dazzling ingenuity of Faulkner's style seems absolutely necessary to guarantee the truth of the experience. Part Four is enveloped by the hunting story, but in temporal terms it envelops them, since this chronicle within the tale goes back three generations to the founding of the McCaslin domain and extends beyond the end of the hunt to tell us of Ike's later life. The implications of this chronicle juxtapose to the wilderness ethic of the hunt the Christian ethic of society. But before attempting to trace this conflict, it is necessary to go over the narrative once again, this time with themes rather than the action of the plot primarily in mind.
"The Bear" is at once so simple and so complex that it surrenders its meanings to the conscious mind only after repeated readings and much brooding. Yet it communicates its significances instantaneously, although we may not at once be able to restate those meanings. As T. S. Eliot has said of poetry, it can be appreciated before it is consciously understood. One reason why this is true of "The Bear" is that the events of the plot correspond to several of those patterns of human behavior which are intrinsic to all our cultural experience; indeed these patterns seem to be a part of the biological inheritance of man. The Hunt in this tale is at once a Pursuit and a Quest. The Hunt of the Sacred Beast, a Divine Totem, is perhaps the most ancient action in the repertoire of human stories. In whatever form, whether in an epic poem like Gilgamesh, an allegory like the hunting of the unicorn, a saint's legend like that of St. George and the Dragon, a novel like Moby Dick, or a tall tale like Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas," the pursuit of the supernatural beast defines the world of nature and of man. The huntsman who succeeds in this pursuit is marked for life and immortality as a culture hero, a deliverer of his people. Faulkner's "The Bear" conforms to this general and universal pattern, but only up to a point. The differences as well as the affinities of Isaac McCaslin with the kind of hero we expect from such a preternatural hunting tale are very important to our comprehension of his role and of Faulkner's achievement.
The Hunt, however, is only one of the archetypal patterns in the story. This hunt is a Quest, a quest for a more spiritual way of life than the common lot of our ordinary days. Isaac is the designated hero of this quest, seeking, in the first three parts of the tale, to discover the ultimate truth according to the guidance of Sam Fathers, in an unmediated relationship with Old Ben, the spirit of the wilderness. In Part Four he must seek his truth in the world of men, his familial inheritance of guilt and attempted expiation. We must not forget that this hero is named for the Isaac in the Old Testament who was a sacrificial offering to the Lord.
If we consider the themes of Hunt and Quest together we find that they comprise still another fundamental human pattern: that of Initiation. In a very primitive sense this story is a coming-of-age ceremony for Ike McCaslin. The Hunt is the first stage of his initiation; his realization that the Hunt is in fact a Quest is what we may call the second stage. The third stage in Ike's initiation is played out in Chapter Four, where he is initiated into knowledge of evil. The final stage is his attempted expiation of the guilt of his fathers.
These patterns of the Hunt, the Quest, and the Initiation give "The Bear" much of its intuitive power. Whether such patterns are, as Carl Jung maintains, inherent archetypes of the human psyche, or whether they are the structures of myth to which our culture gives a reflexive response, they operate upon the reader to make the actions of the tale seem larger than the events and lives in which they take place. Further, these basic patterns are fused in the tale with other conflicts and tensions characteristic of American life. Indeed, the mythic and ritualistic actions are deeply imbedded in conflicts which define the great crises of American history—the tensions between wilderness and civilization, between the red man's ethic and the white man's exploitative way of life; the conflict between freedom and slavery; and between instinctual, pagan values and Christian obligations, between Unfallen freedom and knowledge of sin.
Parts One and Two, we recall, presented Ike's initiation into the mystery of the wilderness through his taking part in the "yearly pageant-rite" of the "bear's furious immortality." In Part Three we find that although the initiation into these values has already been performed, the hunt inexorably continues. At last, Ben is slain by Lion and by Boon, the part-savage with the mind of a child. Reflecting upon the symbolic correspondences among the participants in the final, fatal hunt, we recognize that Lion, the untamable dog, can approach Ben only because his wild spirit is akin to the bear's; and further, that Boon can approach Lion, can feed the beast from his hand and sleep with Lion in his bed, only because Lion recognizes in Boon a nature savage like his own. The euphony of Boon's name with Ben's—we think of a famous bearhunter of olden times, Daniel Boone—links the totem beast with his slayer. These similarities are on the animal, instinctual levels. The hunt as performed in this tale is of course a white man's codification of a "yearly pagent-rite" as old as human experience, an activity of which Sam Fathers was the rightful High Priest and Grand Master.
But Sam, like Isaac, has had opportunities to slay Old Ben, yet had always, in reverence and humility, declined to raise his gun against his sacred, tutelary spirit. Ike had even dropped his gun and rushed between the bear's hind legs to save his little dog, an act of charity which Old Ben acknowledged by not harming either when so completely in his power. It remains for the near-imbecile Boon, who lives a life of only animal perceptions and creature satisfactions, to fulfill with his brute strength and brute courage the behest of his white superiors. Only dimly are General Compson and Major de Spain aware that the end of the bear is the end of the old times, of the wilderness. They do not know why Sam Fathers falls to the ground as Ben and Lion are dying; only Isaac knows that Sam is dying too.
Thus the Hunt, for all its urgency, must pursue contradictory ends. The Hunt initiates its worthy participants into the grace that comes with true knowledge of the wilderness. Yet it pursues its proximate object to destruction. The latter end annihilates the former, and changes the world.
We move now from the red man-white man world of the hunting party into the tangled self-examination of the fourth section. Here is the white man-black man world of the plantation. But the plantation was founded in the wilderness, originally the home of the red man, and we discover that the aboriginal red man had already learned from his white neighbors to enslave his black ones. The Chickasaw chieftain Ikkemotubbe (he is in fact the one who fathered Sam upon his Negro woman, and sold the plantation to Isaac's grandfather, Carothers McCaslin) Faulkner might have presented as a Noble Savage, but he appears instead as the perpetrator of a double original sin: he enslaves his fellowman and he sells his birthright.
The rest of Isaac's and his cousin's contemplation of the old plantation ledgers which record the family history reveal the continuation of these two sins through the bloodline of Carothers McCaslin. He in his turn inherits the Indian's sins, as codicils to the property deed. Grandfather McCaslin bought more slaves and, in the most culpable denial of another person's liberty, he seduced his Negro servant Eunice. This sin he compounded twenty years later by seducing the daughter Eunice had borne him. With such guilt Carothers McCaslin, the recusant Scots-Presbyterian, could live, but the double shame of her own seduction by her master and his incest with their daughter is too terrible for Eunice to bear. On Christmas Day, 1832, she commits suicide by drowning herself in the river.
To Ikkemotubbe's sins of greed and lust, the first McCaslin adds the sin of pride. Pride is further expressed, comically, in the pretensions of Isaac's mother, who before her marriage to Buck McCaslin, who had to marry her, for she was the stake in a poker game he lost to her brother, was Miss Sophonsiba Beauchamp. The absurdities of Miss Sophonsiba and her brother Hubert, briefly recounted in Part Four of "The Bear," are more fully told in the opening story in Go Down, Moses. In that story, "Was," we get the full account of how Miss Sophonsiba had a barefoot Negro boy blow a trumpet at the gate of their house, which she insisted on calling "Warwick," as though setting up an earldom in the midst of the wilderness. This theme, which Faulkner may well have borrowed, comic touches and all, from Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, is stitched into the fabric of the McCaslin family's graver sins. For Hubert Beauchamp in his time commits these sins too. He is discovered to have had sexual affairs with a freed Negro girl on his place, and his greed is revealed when Isaac, aged twenty-one, opens the burlap bag in which Hubert had sealed a silver cup filled with gold pieces as a bequest at his nephew's birth. The uncle had borrowed back his own bequest to cover his losses at poker, and he had substituted for it a tin coffeepot filled with copper pennies and (now that he is dead) unredeemable promissory notes.
But if the McCaslin sins prove graver than those of Hubert or Ikkemotubbe, there are signs of a latent capacity in the family—in the blood, perhaps Faulkner would say, to attempt to make expiation. Old McCaslin was too proud to admit his offenses to his contemporaries; which is another way of saying he lacked moral courage. Yet he made a partial, posthumous gesture of responsibility, for in his will he left a thousand dollars to each of his three Negro grandchildren, to be given them on their coming of age. Not a very satisfactory expiation, this, since it cost him nothing and deprived his white grandchildren of money that would otherwise be theirs. Further, he left the humiliating delivery of the guilt-money to those who had nothing to do with the incurring of the debt. In Part Four, Isaac takes it upon himself to deliver these payments to his black cousins. With great tenacity and unselfishness he finds the girl Fonsiba, married to a freedman on a barren farm in Arkansas. Another cousin has disappeared, but the third, Lucas Beauchamp, whom readers of Intruder in the Dust will know as a proud and intransigent man, comes to demand the money himself on his twenty-first birthday.
In the second generation of McCaslins the expiatory gesture was much more personal than a money deed. Before his marriage to Miss Sophonsiba, Ike's father had lived with his twin brother on the old McCaslin place. The brothers, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, had manumitted their slaves and, taking upon themselves something like vows of partial poverty, they lived in a log cabin built with their own hands, turning the great house over to the blacks as a dormitory. This was taken as a foolish eccentricity by their neighbors in pre-Civil War Mississippi. It was the brothers who kept the scrawled ledgers over which Ike pores. They recorded the evidence of their father's debauchery, but it was for his grandson Isaac fully to understand the family guilt, and most fully to try to expiate it.
Isaac goes much further than his uncle and father in renouncing his inheritance from Carothers McCaslin. Not only does he make good his grandfather's bequests to his black cousins, but he gives up all his property—his lands, farm, house, everything. Like Christ, he takes up the craft of carpentering; and when his wife demands that he reclaim his abandoned property and beget children to whom this property would be passed on, Isaac renounces marriage. He becomes "Uncle to a country and father to none." The intuitive wisdom of Sam Fathers recognized in Ike a fitting candidate for spiritual revelation, and Ike passed all the Indian's tests to become a witness of truth from the Other World. But after the death of the bear, of Sam Fathers, and the end of the wilderness, Isaac must bring his gifts to his own inheritance. He is not only a shaman, he is a Christian with full knowledge of original sin—and a Calvinist conscience.
We have noticed that Ike's renunciations differ more in degree than in kind from the expiatory gestures of his forebears. We may observe, too, that such gestures of selflessness and generosity are a part of the ethical code of the very class responsible for the burden of history: the southern aristocracy, as Faulkner presents it. We see lesser instances of this spirit of noblesse oblige in the aristocracy in Major de Spain's invitation to the squatters, who have farmed and trespassed on his property, to take part in the hunt and share in the game. We see it again in McCaslin Edmonds' assumption of the debt to Isaac of the birthright cup of gold coins which his uncle Hubert Beauchamp had bequeathed and then denied him. This spirit of noblesse appears in the camaraderie of the hunting camp, where the strict hierarchy of classes in town is suspended for the fortnight in the woods. There General Compson and Major de Spain acknowledge that the pride of Uncle Ash, the old Negro cook, requires that he, too, be permitted to hunt with the white men after Isaac, a mere boy, had killed a buck. It is evident in their dealings with all their kith, kin, and servants, whether white, black, Indian, or mixed in blood, that these men, in Faulkner's view, are like the knights of the Round Table in their unfailing courtesy. The hunting party with its male camaraderie and earned distinction is associated in their minds with their service in the Confederate Army, another Quest, another romantic lost cause.
Such generosity, such nobility of spirit, is found among the leaders and is the reason they are respected by the plebeian members of their society. In Faulkner's work, when a man who has assumed the moral prerogatives of leadership proves not to possess the true leader's nobility of spirit, he has betrayed a sacred trust. It is such a betrayal which makes fitting the death of Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! at the hands of Wash, the poor white farmer whose daughter Sutpen had seduced in hopes of begetting a male heir and abandoned when the baby was born a girl. In "The Bear" there are no such ignoble leaders. But none of the aristocrats makes such renunciatory and expiatory gestures as does Isaac. If they are the princes of this world, their generosity flawed by their unacknowledged implication in our common fallen state, Isaac McCaslin is clearly the nearest among them to a higher principality.
What, however, does Isaac accomplish by his giving up of property, marriage, fatherhood, all the goods of this world? His imitation of Christ is surely incomplete, for he cannot—indeed, as we see in the sequel story in Go Down, Moses, he does not wish to—assume the burden of suffering for all of his kind. His renunciation is personal, his possible salvation is therefore also personal. He is neither Christ nor a saint; he bears his own sins and his family's, but not the world's, and nobody else imitates his example. Trained to be a priest of the wilderness by his Indian mentor, he acknowledges the power and the authority of the God whose creations man should receive in stewardship, not in covetousness. But Isaac is born into the death of one order, the wilderness, whose spiritual qualities cannot be transferred to, or enacted in, the world of history which follows after.
The wilderness is a primeval, Unfallen world, a timeless expanse, an experience of eternity. It is peopled with mythic creatures, the only kinds of action possible within it are ceremonies and rituals. The casual and accidental becomes subsumed in the larger meaning of the "annual pageantrite." When Ike makes his shamanistic journey of initiation into the heart of the wilderness to see the bear (not to slay him), he must divest himself not only of his gun but of his watch and compass. These renunciations have ceremonial significance. Ike has cut himself off from what is man-made—the metallic objects, the implements that impose our measurements upon time and our directions upon space. Without these artifacts of intellectual pride Ike can become Man as a part of nature. Only then is he worthy of the vision vouchsafed him by the bear. Then, having seen Old Ben, he finds that without his watch and compass he is lost. Isaac has lived out the Biblical injunction that "ye must lose yourself to find yourself." This renunciation, in the great woods, of manmade values in order to become worthy of revelation is clearly a foreshadowing of Isaac's later abnegations. But the world of history, of time, of exploitation and selfhood has no spiritual vision to vouchsafe to Isaac McCaslin, save the grim satisfaction that he, at least, does not partake of its sins. Like Santiago, the fisherman in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, who returned from his heroic quest with only the bare bones of the great fish, Isaac wins a victory, but it is Pyrrhic.
If "The Bear" reminds us of an epic in the scale and resonance of its action, the consequences of that action point toward tragedy. Isaac can be a spiritual hero but not, as was true of Gilgamesh, St. George, Perseus, or the Grail Knight, a culture hero. He does not lead his nation; he can but show his heedless fellow-men how difficult it is to live by the dictates of the soul.
Sanford Pinsker (essay date 1972)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6635
SOURCE: "The Unlearning of Ike McCaslin: An Ironic Reading of William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts, Vol. 12, Spring, 1972, pp. 35-51.
[In the essay below, Pinsker considers the ironic implications of Isaac McCaslin's repudiation of his inheritance, suggesting that the character's ambivalence toward Southern mores reflects Faulkner's own attitude.]
Critics have approached Ike McCaslin from many angles, but always with a certain amount of reverence. To Jungian critics he is the archetypal Hero, to Christian critics he is (naturally) Christ, and to hundreds of Freshmen, he is the protagonist in an American bildungsroman.1 None of these views, however, completely recognizes the possibility of either irony or aesthetic distance between Ike McCaslin and his creator.
Because Ike is the center of consciousness and moral filter for "The Bear," his sensibility is crucial to an understanding of the story. At the ages of seven, eight, and nine, he participates in the hunt vicariously, understanding it in purely "physical" terms:
To him they were not going to hunt bear and deer but to keep a yearly rendezvous with the bear which they did not even intend to kill. Two weeks later they would return, with no trophy, no skin. . . He did not tell himself that in three years or two years or one year more he would be present and that it might even be his gun.2
(p. 194. Italics are mine.)
In this manner Ike enters his "novitiate to the true wilderness" with every intention of killing the bear: in fact, at this point Ike cannot see the point of a "hunt" which ends with "no trophy, no skin."
It is significant, I think, that Ike begins his journey of learning at the age of ten—the same age at which a number of other characters end their development. Boon, for example, has a "mental age" of ten while Buck and Buddy write like a "perfectly normal ten-year old boy."
Ike, however, is inclined to all the romantic notions about the hunt that are part-and-parcel of his age. For him, the "style" of a hunter is the all-important factor:
Then for two weeks he ate the coarse, rapid food—the shapeless sour bread, the wild strange meat, venison and bear and turkey and coon which he had never tasted before—which men ate, cooked by men who were hunters first and cooks afterward; he slept in harsh sheetless blankets as hunters slept.
(p. 196. Italics are mine.)
Ike's romantic sensibility tends to give the portraits of the "men" a distinctly godlike character. They drink (not really "whisky," but) "some condensation of the wild immortal spirit" and join in a brotherhood of "man, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters . . ."
However, there is a real question about the purpose of this ritual hunt and the "hunters" who participate in it:
That is, Boon and the negroes (and the boy too now) fished and shot squirrels and ran the coons and cats, because the proven hunters, not only Major de Spain and old General Compson (who spent those two weeks sitting in a rocking-chair before a tremendous iron pot of Brunswick stew, stirring and tasting, with Uncle Ash to quarrel with about how he was making it and Tennie's Jim to pour whiskey into the tin dipper from which he drank it) but even McCaslin and Walter Ewell who were still young enough, scorned such other than shooting the wild gobblers with pistols for wagers or to test their marksmanship.
(pp. 294-295. Italics are mine.)
The "proven hunters," of course, do not hunt at all as there is apparently no need for them to re-prove their prowess. For General Compson and Major de Spain, the hunt is a kind of vacation, a movement from the complex to the simple in what William Empson has called a version of pastoral. Although the wilderness may fortify some abstract notion about "manliness," the "proven hunters" realize the reality centers exist in towns, not the forest.
Ike, on the other hand, continually reiterates the magic formula of "humility and patience" as a way of conquering both a particular bear and the general problems of life. For Ike, the "wilderness the old bear ran was his college" and "the old male bear itself . . . was his alma mater." Ike's value structure is built upon the same principle as the woodsmen's in the Frost poem, "Two Tramps in Mud Time":
They judged me by their appropriate tool
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.
Like Frost's "tramps," Ike arranges the hierarchy of his elders solely on the basis of their ability to cope with the wilderness. In this respect, Ike shares in the same kind of hard-boiled professionalism as the woodchoppers.
Although a number of critics have pointed out the various anthropological and/or mythical parallels in the hunt itself, no one seems to be terribly concerned about what Ike does during the "off-seasons." This is, I suspect, a more important consideration than it may appear at first glance. The strong focus on the wilderness episodes of Ike's early years suggests that Big Bottom is a microcosm for the larger world which Ike will (presumably) experience later. According to this view, the lessons that Ike learns in the woods will, indeed, carry over into more conventional everyday experiences.
That Ike learns is, to be sure, one of the donnés of the story. However, as the title of my paper suggests, there is a certain amount of unlearning too. In both cases, the character of Sam Fathers plays an important role. Although a number of critics were quick enough to notice that he was a "father" figure, the most telling comment about characters of this type is made by Byron Bunch in Light in August. As he says, "a man's name which is supposed to be just the sound for who he is, can somehow be an augur of what he will do."
Ike "entered his novitiate to the true wilderness with Sam beside him" and, in this setting, Sam's wisdom takes on almost monumental significance. However, the "wisdom" of a Sam Fathers is all of an instinctive or emotional sort and, therefore, a rather hard commodity to communicate. Nevertheless, under Sam's careful tutelage, Ike learns enough woodland lore to become an Eagle Scout par excellence. In fact, Ike is so good that "he knew game trails that even Sam Fathers had never seen."
However, Ike often appears to be wiser than he really is because of his unquestioning allegiance to the more insightful Sam Fathers. When Major de Spain mistakenly thinks that Old Ben has slain his colt, Sam Fathers (characteristically) says "nothing." Ike simply "watched him while the men knelt, measuring the tracks"; the understanding comes only in retrospection:
Later, a man, the boy realized what it had been, and that Sam had known all the time what had made the tracks and what had torn the throat out of the doe in spring and killed the fawn. It had been foreknowledge in Sam's face that morning . . . Afterward the boy realized that they (i.e., the other men) should have known then what had killed the colt as well as Sam Fathers did.
If "foreknowledge" is Sam's special virtue, alienation is the price he had to pay for it. As Ike notes, Sam "would not live in the camp; he had built himself a little hut . . ." where he stays the year round. Much has already been made of his curious half-Indian, half-Negro blood. Faulkner himself describes him as
an old man, son of a Negro slave and an Indian King, inheritor on the one hand of the long chronicle of a people who had learned humility through suffering and learned pride through the endurance which survived the suffering, and on the other side, the chronicle of a people even longer in the land than the first, yet who now existed there only in the solitary brotherhood of an old and childless Negro's alien blood and the wild and invincible spirit of an old bear.
Thus, the bear that Ike regarded as his "alma mater" now becomes the solitary "brother" of the solitary Sam Fathers. However, Sam is at the tail-end of a great tradition and although his mixed heritage gives him both pride and humility, he "could not have defined either." For Sam, the annual hunt for Old Ben gives him a raison d'être in an age when the kinship between man and animal has all but been destroyed. Furthermore, the disciplehood of Isaac McCaslin gives Sam a surrogate child in his old age. However, Sam's inability to adjust to the changing world around him (as evidenced by his retreat to the woods) not only limits his effectiveness, but sharply affects his value as Ike's natural tutor. There is no doubt about Sam's stature as the only genuine "wise man" in "The Bear." And yet, Sam's curriculum is a decidedly limited one; he is not equipped to teach Ike about such non-woodsy matters as marriage or social responsibility.
Sam achieves an even larger amount of reader sympathy when he is juxtaposed with his ineffective foil, Boon Hogganbeck. Like Sam, Boon has some Indian blood, although it is of a "plebeian strain." Boon is also a "natural" man who prefers the wilderness to civilization. However, one has the impression that Boon chose (?) the wilderness simply because he was incapable of anything else. Like the dog with whom he eventually identifies, Boon is "a natural force." In fact, Faulkner is always consciously comparing Boon to various animals throughout "The Bear." His jaws are "blue with stubble" (suggesting a comparison to the blue hunting-dog, Lion) and he had "horsemane hair."
If intuitive knowledge is the leit motif connected with Sam Fathers, perpetual failure would have to be linked with Boon Hogganbeck. Sam is the very personification of the skilled hunter while Boon "had never hit anything bigger than a squirrel . . ." In effect, Boon is a parody of the Sam Father's brand of woodmanship. Whenever and wherever Boon fires his characteristic five shots, he either misses completely or manages to hit the wrong target.
He [i.e., Boon] had never hit anything bigger than a squirrel that anybody ever knew, except the negro woman that day when he was shooting at the negro man. He was a big negro and not ten feet away but Boon shot five times with the pistol . . . and he broke a plate-glass window that cost McCaslin forty-five dollars and hit a negro woman who happened to be passing in the leg . . .
The comic element, however, is most pronounced when Ike and Boon go to Memphis for whiskey. To be sure, the "quest" itself (now for whiskey instead of a bear or a grail) is a burlesque of Ike's early initiation rites. Memphis adds a new perspective from which to view the life at Big Bottom. Although their attire of "hunting clothes, the muddy boots and stained khaki" was a status symbol in the woods, "in Memphis it was not all right."
It was as if the high buildings and hard pavements, the fine carriages and the horse cars and the men in starched collars and neckties made their boots and khaki look a little rougher and a little muddier and made Boon's beard look worse and more unshaven and his face look more and more like he should never have brought it out of the woods at all or at least out of reach of Major de Spain or McCaslin or someone who knew it and could have said, 'Don't be afraid. He won't hurt you.'
Alcohol seems to be the only way that Boon can cope with the social situation in Memphis. In fact, he is so out of place in this world of people that he suggests a later train "so they would spend the time at the zoo."
It is, of course, ironic that an ineffective hunter such as Boon should be the one who ultimately kills Old Ben. After all, Ike had spent a great deal of time attempting to conquer the bear by patience and humility. Boon, on the other hand, simply used brute strength without bothering about abstract notions at all.
To be sure, Boon acts in a futile attempt to save Lion's life. However, the "piece of statuary" representing the clinging dog, the bear, and the frantic Boon Hogganbeck is merely the culminating tableau of an inevitable relationship. As I have suggested earlier, "The Bear" often works in terms of parallel developments. The scene with Boon and Lion recalls Ike's crucial epiphany with Old Ben and the fyce. After Ike fails to shoot (ostensibly because he must save the fyce), Sam Fathers repeats his admonition that "we ain't got the dog yet." However, Lion is the right one and both Ike and Sam realize it. Boon, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by the sheer power of the beast and he worships it with all the intensity of a courtly lover.
. . . from that moment when Boon touched Lion's head and then knelt beside him, feeling the bones and the muscles, the power. It was as if Lion were a woman—or perhaps Boon was the woman.
Much has already been made of Old Ben's death and the effects it has on the various participants of the hunt. Boon's knife lets out all of Old Ben's symbolic air and punctures many of the romantic illusions that had sprung up about him. To be sure, there are a variety of ways that a story of this type might have ended. For example:
- Ike learns humility and patience in the woods, becomes a first-rate hunter, and finally kills the bear. melodrama
- Ike never had a chance to kill the bear because he was beaten before he began. All the forces of determinism were against him; he had bad genes (Darwin), improper toilet training (Freud), and grew up in a poor socio-economic environment (Marx). pathos
- Although Ike learns humility and patience, he does not kill the bear. After losing the physical prize, however, he gains insight and a spiritual victory, tragedy
Of course, Faulkner's story revolves around the general theme of repudiation, with Ike's refusal to shoot Old Ben as a parallel to his later denial of his heritage. Bringing home the bear slung over a pole is, therefore, seen as less important than the lessons and values of the hunt itself.
However, it is not clear that Ike has the kind of insights that will allow him to view the hunt in such "tragic" terms. With the exception of Sam Fathers, Ike seems to be the overwhelming winner in the battle of fathers vs. sons. Major de Spain, for example, is continually jumping to incorrect conclusions. Where he wrongheadedly assumes that Old Ben has killed his colt, Ike ponders the incident in the following terms:
But that was neither the first nor the last time he had seen men rationalize from and even act upon their misconceptions.
To be sure, the remark is a foreshadowing of the Uncle Ike (then one of the "fathers" himself) who appears in "Delta Autumn." As Ike moves from the role of "son" to that of "father," he seems to unlearn with an incredible amount of skill.
Even Cass (who assumes the role of "father" in the commissary scene of section IV) is no match for Ike's youthful superiority. As General Compson suggests:
. . . 'And you shut up, Cass,' he said, though McCaslin had not spoken. You've got one foot straddled into a farm and the other foot straddled into a bank; you ain't even got a good handhold where this boy was already an old man long before you damned Sartorises and Edmondses invented farms and banks to keep yourselves from having to find out what this boy was born knowing and fearing too maybe but without being afraid, that could go ten miles because he wanted to look at a bear none of us had ever got near enough to put a bullet in and looked at the bear and came ten miles back on the compass in the dark; maybe by God that's the why and wherefore of farms and banks.
The stature of Cass is, however, an ambivalent one; at various times he is Ike's cousin, his brother, or his father. At the very center of the Cass-Ike relationship is the matter of experience vs. education. General Compson, for example, has nothing but contempt for "what some hired pedagogue put between the covers of a book." Boon, on the other hand, feels that a formal education is absolutely essential for success:
Where in hell do you expect to get without education? Where could Cass be? Where in hell would I be if I hadn't never went to school?
But Boon's remarks are riddled with irony; Ike's "victory" must be viewed in terms of his competition:
. . . he had become as competent in the woods as many grown men with the same experience. By now he was a better woodsman than most grown men with more.
Although Ike can act, he cannot always understand what his actions mean. What he lacks, of course, is the intellectual equipment necessary to assimilate his various experiences into some meaningful whole. Like Sam Fathers, Ike functions best in a natural setting where "learning" is simply a matter of confronting concrete realities. Whatever else the bear might be, it is, first of all, a real bear which Ike can actually encounter. However, when Ike is forced to articulate the reasons why he refused to shoot the bear, the situation is more difficult. Sam Fathers (with his implicit faith in emotional understanding) does not force Ike to verbalize his reasons; silence is understanding enough.
Cass, on the other hand, adds the dimension of the intellect via analogy in an attempt to help Ike understand the meaning of his experience. When Ike finds it virtually impossible to answer Cass' inquiries,
McCaslin didn't wait, rising and crossing the room, across the pelt of the bear he had killed two years ago and the bigger one McCaslin had killed before he was born, to the bookcase beneath the mounted head of his first buck, and returned with the book and sat down again. . . .
Surrounded by the tangible symbols of victory (i.e., the heads and pelts of bucks and bears), Cass begins to read from Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Ike, however, does not understand the allusion or even see how the analogy could possibly apply to his specific problem. Of course, Ike has not yet had any formal training in the art of reading poetry and, therefore, he can be excused for not making an A this time. When Cass keeps repeating the lines, "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair," Ike thinks "he's talking about a girl." However, Cass has very consciously selected these lines because they suggest the joy of the eternal chase (whether for bear or woman) as opposed to mere consummation. The Keats poem is, in fact, a perfect correlative for Faulkner's story: Ike begins the ritual hunt in a very goal-oriented way. He hopes that (with enough humility and patience) he will some day be the one who finally kills Old Ben. However, as Ike actually moves through the rites leading to his initiation, he begins to realize that the struggle per se is more important than the victory. The crucial scene occurs when Ike decides not to shoot the bear:
. . . he had not learned humility and pride though he had tried, until one day an old man who could not have defined either led him as though by the hand to where an old bear and a little mongrel dog showed him that, by possessing one thing other, he would possess them both. . . .
Francis Lee Utley has suggested that the "one thing other" is "bravery."3 However, the foolishly "brave" fyce is, at best, only part of the reason Ike refuses to fire at Old Ben. As Ike himself suggests, "he could have shot long before"
McCaslin, on the other hand, feels that Ike has experienced the kind of Truth that Keats saw in the image of the frozen figures on the urn. At this point, Cass (who has been sounding more and more like Gavin Stevens and less and less like Ike's older cousin) attempts to translate the "something" of Keats' poem into the everything of universal verities. For McCaslin, the "one thing other" is a Romantic notion of Truth:
Truth is one. It doesn't change. It covers all things which touch the heart's honor, and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.
However, Ike (like Sam Fathers before him) is incapable of grasping such high-blown concepts. Experience, for Ike, is immediate and tangential; he cannot understand his relationship with Old Ben in terms other than those appropriate for a hunting story:
Somehow it had seemed simpler than that, simpler than somebody talking in a book about a young man and a girl he would never need to grieve over because he could never approach any nearer and would never have to get farther away. He had heard about an old bear and finally got big enough to hunt it and he hunted it four years and at last met it with a gun in his hands and he didn't shoot
Although Cass sees Ike's experience in all the ramifications of its possible meaning. Ike cannot. The choral refrain of "do you see now?" dominates the tableau and strongly suggests that Ike does not.
As I stated earlier, Ike's refusal to shoot Old Ben parallels his decision to repudiate his heritage. Just as Ike has achieved a certain level of "learning" in his pursuit of Old Ben, so too have the McCaslin ledgers taught him the "truth" about his tainted heritage. However, while the wisdom of the woods (as passed on by the priest, Sam Fathers) is absolutely essential in the world of Big Bottom, it fails to solve the more complex problems centered in the commissary.
Section IV represents the watershed for Ike McCaslin. He is no longer the "innocent" who learns from the various father figures surrounding him; in the commissary, he is the teacher. Although McCaslin had first spoken about the eternal verities after Ike failed to shoot Old Ben, in the commissary it is Ike who constantly dwells upon the "values of the heart":
. . . if Truth is one thing to me and another to you, how will we choose which is truth? You don't need to choose. The heart already knows . . . and there is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart.
However, as "right" as Ike may be in the assessment of his heritage, he is totally "wrong" about his view of the world. For an Ike, the world is seen in such a black-and-white way that one is either entirely "tainted" or entirely "free." To be sure, Ike shares much of the certainty that is characteristic of a hero just beginning to assert himself "on two feet." Like Oedipus, Ike seems to be a veritable storehouse of "right" answers. He has pierced the magic ledgers and discovered the terrible truths that they contain:
To him it was as though the ledgers in their scarred cracked leather bindings were being lifted down one by one in their fading sequence and spread open on the desk or perhaps upon some apocryphal Bench or even Altar or perhaps before the Throne Itself for a last perusal and contemplation and refreshment of the All-knowledgeable before the yellow pages and the brown thin ink in which was recorded the injustice and a little at least of its amelioration and restitution faded back forever into the anonymous communal original dust . . .
The McCaslin ledger (as a microcosm of the South) is continually juxtaposed with the Biblical chronicle of Mankind. While the McCaslin ledger (and, indeed, the very commissary in which the confrontation occurs) is both a chronicle and symbol of ownership, Ike adheres to the more fundamental notion of a "communal anonymity of brotherhood" without the stigma of "owning" either land or men.
However, as Ike and McCaslin review the tortured history of the South, Faulkner includes a crushing irony:
McCaslin had actually seen it, and the boy even at almost eighty would never be able to distinguish certainly between what he had seen and what had been told him.
To be sure, the discrepancy between history as actual occurrence and history as selective myth has been a major motif in Faulkner's novels since Sartoris (1929). In section IV of "The Bear," however, Faulkner makes one of his most comprehensive attempts to come to terms with the problems of the South.
Ike's solution is one of total repudiation. Although we have a certain sympathy with his evaluation of the abstract situation, his gesture of repudiation is a decidedly limited one. Essentially Ike wants to renounce all notions of his social responsibility as a McCaslin and simply withdraw from the world.
The difference between the withdrawal of Ike and the earlier isolation of Sam Fathers is really one of degree and not of kind; both prefer the simpler world of pastoral. However, Sam "had no children, no people, none of his blood anywhere above the earth" while Ike does. In addition, Ike has the misfortune of living on in a world where the wilderness is on a rapid decline. Sam Fathers, on the other hand, falls with Old Ben in a symbolic suggestion that the woods can no longer support characters of their ilk.
Ike finally decides to become a humble carpenter
because if the Nazarene had found carpentering good for the life and ends he had assumed and elected to serve, it would be all right too for Isaac McCaslin. . . .
However, Ike's role as humble carpenter is not nearly as original or Christ-like as a number of critics have thought. Both Buck and Buddy were "carpenters" before him and even Sam Fathers "did rough carpenter-work when he was not in the woods." John Muste maintains that Ike's decision is an ironic one because timber, the product of the logger and the sawmill, is the raw material of the carpenter's craft. Thus, the destruction of the wilderness is essential for Ike's act of repudiation.
Although Ike insists upon terming his decision a "repudiation," General Compson feels that he simply "quit." However, General Compson believes that Ike must have a "reason."
You sleep with me and before this winter is out, I'll know the reason. You'll tell me. Because I don't believe you just quit. It looks like you just quit but I have watched you in the woods too much and I don't believe you just quit even if it does look damn like it.
To be sure, General Compson's suggestion that Ike "just quit" recalls the doctor's identical remark about Sam Fathers. As an outsider of the intensity of the ritualistic hunt, the doctor feels that "a good night's sleep or maybe just a drink of whiskey" will fix everything up. Like the detached sheriff's deputy in "Pantaloon in Black," the doctor has no way of either sharing in the experience per se or judging it fairly.
Nevertheless, Ike does quit in a way that Sam did not. The lesson of Christ was one of involvement with (and suffering for) humanity. Ike, on the other hand, merely retreats into a dream-world of Christ-like mimicry. If everything which leads to Ike's renunciation can roughly fit into the category of "learning," all that follows is a kind of unlearning. As Herbert Perluck suggests:
what it [i.e., "The Bear"] expresses ultimately is that there is no 'freedom' in renunciation, no sanctity through repudiation—that actually there is no such thing as human sainthood as we conceive 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 un success, an unwitting, unwilling elevation produced in the tragic defeat of spirit and soul. . . .4
After Ike announces his rejection of the South in general and his heritage in particular, he finds it virtually impossible to implement. Although he attempts to emulate the Nazarene, there is even an ironic suggestion that he may, in fact, be a Judas for
he had forgotten the thirty dollars which McCaslin would put into the bank in his name each month, fetched it in to him and flung it onto the bed that first time but no more. . . .
Even the "heritage" itself makes an ironic commentary on Ike's attempt to repudiate it. To be sure, there is the land which Ike feels "was never his to repudiate" because "it was never father's and Uncle Buddy's to bequeath." And finally, the silver cup filled with gold coins (Uncle Hubert's "legacy" to Ike) has already been secretly reduced to "an unstained tin coffee-pot still brand new," a "handful of copper coins" and a "collection of minutely-folded scraps of paper." In short, Ike does not even have an authentic heritage which he can repudiate.
Section V foreshadows the plight of Ike in "Delta Autumn." As Ike returns to Big Bottom for the last time, he begins to realize that the seeds of the wilderness' inevitable destruction have already been sown. Furthermore, the old dichotomy between the woods and the town (which was a viable one for Sam Fathers) is all but completely obliterated. Thus, although Sam could choose to live in the forest, Ike cannot.
Not only did the ritual hunt stop with the death of Old Ben, but there was even an incredible plan to turn Big Bottom into a commercial venture:
. . . General Compson and Walter Ewell invented a plan to corporate themselves, the old group, into a club and lease the camp and the hunting privileges of the woods—an invention doubtless of the somewhat childish old General but actually worthy of Boon Hogganbeck himself.
The next spring, however, Major de Spain sells "the timber-rights to a Memphis lumber company" and the wilderness is well on its way to destruction. Even Major de Spain's physical appearance takes on a new dimension as Ike attempts to compare the Major de Spain of the forest with the Major de Spain of the town:
. . . the boy standing there looking down at the short plumpish grey-haired man in the sober fine broadcloth and an immaculate glazed shirt whom he was used to seeing in boots and muddy corduroy, unshaven, sitting the shaggy powerful long-hocked mare with the worn Winchester carbine across the saddle-bow. . . .
Unlike Boon, the Major is capable of life in the midst of civilization. However, Ike (who worked hard as Sam's disciple) cannot believe that learning has been for naught. Nevertheless, the world of Ike's early hunts is gone forever. The "four " which marked Sam's grave are now replaced by the lumber company's surveyor. A literal locomotive replaced an Old Ben who "sped, not fast but rather with the ruthless irresistible deliberation of a locomotive." Although there have always been various snakes around the edges of "The Bear," it is not until the very end of the story that Ike acknowledges their presence by "speaking the old tongue which Sam had spoken that day with premeditation either: 'Chief, . . . Grandfather.'"
In "Delta Autumn," Ike attempts to renew the old sensation of the ritual hunt. The world of the wilderness represents the last arena in which his learning can still be useful. However, the world of "Delta Autumn" is the fruition of the seeds planted in "The Bear." Although Ike tries to view the present hunt through essentially "romantic" lenses, the differences are all too obvious, even for Ike:
At first they had come in wagons: the guns, the bedding, the dogs, the food, the whiskey, the keen heart-lifting anticipation. . . . There had been bear then.
As a youth, Ike's romantic sensibility created godlike statues from what were very mortal hunters. By giving himself completely to the rituals of the hunt, Ike was able to invest it with meaning. As an old man, Ike simply adopts a selective memory which tends to add even more dimensions to a highly romanticized past. What Ike leaves out, of course, are the many problems which the hunt itself could not solve.
Ike cannot adjust to the changing present any better than he could to a tainted past. However, although Ike could withdraw from his responsibilities and the tangible symbols of his inheritance, there is no meaningful way in which he can renounce the present. The only gesture left is the futile comparison between the better "thens" and the more corrupt "nows":
Now they went in cars, driving faster and faster each year because the roads were better and they had farther and farther to drive, the territory in which game still existed drawing yearly inward as his life was drawing inward, until now, he was the last of those who had once made the journey in wagons. . . .
For Ike, the whiskey is no longer distilled from "those fine fierce instants of heart and brain," but becomes a "thin whiskey-and-water" solution—as insipid a drink as its drinker. The Ike who learned the lessons of the woods from Sam Fathers now finds himself cast into the role of "old wise man." However, Ike has virtually no wilderness in which to demonstrate his knowledge and no disciples who would like to learn.
Although the Major de Spains and the General Compsons probably did as much card playing and drinking as actual hunting, their descendants have found even more interesting methods of diversion. But Ike is so out of place in this modern world that he fails to understand the bawdy play that Legate has been making on Roth's doe hunting:
But he's got a doe in here. Of course a old man like Uncle Ike can't be interested in no doe, not one that walks on two legs—when she's standing up, that is. Pretty light-colored too.
To be sure, sexuality is yet another area of instruction which was not taught in the college "the old bear ran." Ike (like Sam Fathers and Old Ben before him) is childless. Sam Fathers, at least, had the consolation of knowing that his wisdom was being perpetuated in the person of Ike McCaslin. Nevertheless, the very fact that none of these wilderness figures produce children suggests an "end-of-the-road" quality about them.
While Sam Fathers commanded a certain respect because of his vast experience and knowledge of the woods, Ike is merely the butt of unkind jokes. While the men discuss the political situation surrounding World War II, Ike attempts to bring the only frame of reference he knows to bear on the issue at hand:
The only fighting anywhere that ever had anything of God's blessing on it has been when men fought to protect does and fawns. If it's going to come to fighting, that's a good thing to mention and remember too!
Roth, however, feels that "women and children are one thing there's never a scarcity of." His remark not only makes a telling statement about the way Uncle Ike views womanhood, but also ironically foreshadows the appearance of Roth's mistress and his illegitimate child.
The ironies which were merely suggested in "The Bear" often become painfully obvious in "Delta Autumn." The commissary scene of Section IV pitted Ike against Cass in an attempt to justify his repudiation of the land. However, in "Delta Autumn," Ike's "wisdom" is reduced to mere platitudes which Roth can easily counter:
'There are good men everywhere, at all times. Most men are. Some are just unlucky, because most men are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be. And I've known some that even circumstances couldn't stop.'
. . . . .
'So you've lived almost eighty years,' Edmonds said. 'And that's what you finally learned about the other animals you lived among. I suppose the question to ask you is, where have you been all the time you were dead?'
To be sure, Ike has lived among "animals" a good deal more than he has humans. In fact, his decision to retreat into a Christlike life not only (presumably) denies the world of the flesh and the devil, but also the world of men. Ike has the simplistic notion that, by somehow refusing the tainted McCaslin land, he will be instrumental in removing its "curse".
The appearance of Roth's mistress, however, makes it clear that the old curse (originally instituted by Carothers McCaslin) is still very operative. As Ike sleeps, "his hands crossed on his breast and quiet as a child," his thoughts return to his earliest hunts with Sam Fathers. Juxtaposed with Ike's nostalgic reminiscences, however, are the harsh realities of Roth and his mulatto mistress. Roth's attempt to escape both guilt and responsibility through cash payments forces Ike to recognize his own pathetic inadequacy to deal with the complicated problems of human love.
Arthur Kinney has suggested that the irony of "Delta Autumn" works as Ike's naivete is played against the mulatto girl's instinctive wisdom:
Ike's naivete is sharply (even ironically) contrasted with the mulatto girl's knowing. For given the chance to see, Ike cannot; he fumbles for his glasses, but they are out of reach. The girl, with the mixed blood running through her veins, is like Fonsiba's husband, who wears lensless glasses, but who, nevertheless, can see. She knows the money is a token payment; she knows the horn is useless.5
However, the "horn" (though "useless" to the girl perhaps) is the last tangible symbol of the old life that Ike has. Ike's problem (and, indeed, the irony of the story) is that Ike can "see" all too well. At this point, however, there is nothing left for him to repudiate nor is he young enough to attempt any new solution.
"Delta Autumn," sheds an ironic light on both the wisdom and stance of the earlier Ike McCaslin. The problem Ike attempted to solve by the relatively simple (and ultimately ineffective) notion of withdrawal has become tremendously complicated one. And, too, Faulkner always seems more willing to complicate issues than solve them. In this sense, Ike's gesture may well have been the best thing any Faulkner character could do under the circumstances. But this is simply to suggest that ambivalence may be even closer to Faulkner's heart than myth or symbol, archetypes or traditional initiation motifs.
1 Among the more impressive mythopoeic approaches to "The Bear" are John Lydenberg's "Nature Myth in Faulkner's The Bear," in American Literature, XXIV (March, 1952), 62-72.; R. W. B. Lewis' "The Hero in the New World: William Faulkner's The Bear" in Kenyon Review, XIII (Autumn, 1951), 641-660.; Carvel Collins "A Note on the Conclusion of 'The Bear'" in Faulkner's Studies, II:4 (Winter, 1954), 58-60; and Olga Vickery's "God's Moral Order and the Problem of Ike's Redemption" in The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation (Baton Rouge, 1959), pp. 130-134.
2 All citations to "The Bear" and "Delta Autumn" are to the Modern Library edition of Go Down, Moses (New York, 1940).
3 Francis Utley, "Pride and Humility: The Cultural Roots of Ike McCaslin" from Bear, Man and God: Seven Approaches to William Faulkner's The Bear (New York, 1964), p. 243.
4 Herbert Perluck, "The Heart's Driving Complexity: An Unromantic Reading of Faulkner's The Bear," Accent, XX: 1 (Winter, 1960), p. 24.
5 Arthur Kinney, "'Delta Autumn': Postlude to The Bear" from Bear, Man and God: Seven Approaches to William Faulkner's The Bear, p. 391.
Gorman Beauchamp (essay date 1972)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2433
SOURCE: "The Rite of Initiation in Faulkner's The Bear," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1972, pp. 319-25.
[In the following essay, Beauchamp details the archetypal pattern of Isaac McCaslin's rite of passage to manhood in "The Bear."]
"Everywhere one meets with mysteries of initiation," writes Mircea Eliade, "and everywhere, even in the most archaic societies, they include the symbolism of a death and a new birth."1 Among primitive peoples, the initiation of the young boy into the secrets and beliefs of the tribe is an event of major importance, perhaps the most important event of his life, for the initiation has both social and religious meaning of great significance and is thus one of the most pervasive archetypes the world over. The pattern of initiation is invariable: the boy (1) is taken from his mother by a new spirit father, who will act as his guide and mediator; (2) loses his old life as the child of woman by a return to the labyrinth-womb of the ceremony; (3) sees a vision of the tribal god; and (4) then is reborn into the world of men. Each of these steps I will consider in some detail, for they constitute the pattern of Ike McCaslin's experience in the wilderness. Thus when I speak of initiation in "The Bear," I refer not to a boy's general awakening to the knowledge of evil—a theme which runs through so much of American literature from "Young Goodman Brown" to The Catcher in the Rye—but rather to a strict pattern of action, a ritual, which is found at the center of primitive religion. Initiation of course does involve the initiate's becoming aware of the existence of evil in the world, as Huck Finn or Henry Fleming or Nick Adams becomes aware of it; but their experience is, in no formal sense of the word, an initiation. Ike's experience is. With Sam Fathers as his guide, he follows step by step the primitive ritual of death to his old life and rebirth into what Irving Howe calls "the manly, heroic possibilities of life."2
When the action of "The Bear" begins, Ike's mother—the vain and silly Miss Sophonsiba whom Faulkner depicted in "Was"—is already dead, as is his father, Uncle Buck McCaslin. But Ike, even as a child, is surrounded by the patrimony of his grandfather, the rapacious Carothers McCaslin, and of his mother who had insisted that his father inhabit the plantation house that Carothers had built. It is from this world that the boy must be separated and reborn as a wilderness child of wilderness parents.
Pierre Gordon tells us that the idea that "transcendental fatherhood was more essential than physical fatherhood originally derived from the initiations."3 For an essential feature of the rites was a guide or guru to lead the initiate through the ritual and serve as the intermediary between the boy and the spirit world.4 The religious myths and the literature of the world are filled with manifestations of this mystical father-guide. "As we trace him back to more primitive levels we find him represented as the tribal medicine man identified with the animal as totem . . ., as Master of Initiation."5 This figure is familiar to those with a knowledge of Jungian psychology as "the wise old man," the primitive tribal sorcerer or medicine man who is endowed with some unusual or magical power. He is one of the most predominant of Jung's archetypal figures and in the initiation serves as the father-guide.6
Bruno Bettelheim, who believes that the process of initiation is an attempt on the part of primitive man to share in the act of giving birth, a higher and more valuable life than the physical one the mother has given the boy, points out that "all writers on the subject have stressed that initiation is an act of rebirth, that in the ritual the adult man brings into being a new adult, the initiated boy. It has been fully recognized that one of the purposes of the ceremony is to give the boy . . . the impression that the boy was reborne [sic] by the father, and therefore owes his life to the father."7 This new father need not be the physiological parent and often is not, for the life of the spirit not of the flesh is the gift of the initiator.
That Sam Fathers plays such a role in "The Bear" is so obvious that I hardly need point it out. The name alone is as significant as any in medieval allegory: "the name 'father' was given—and still is—to priests and initiators."8 The old Indian, then, is for Ike the father of the wilderness, the guide, the teacher, the priest: he "entered his novitiate to the true wilderness with Sam beside him."9 The phrase, "as Sam had taught him," runs like a refrain through the book, for it is Sam who unfolds to him the ways of the wilderness and gives him the secret that will lead to his vision of the bear.
"Everywhere the mystery begins with the separation of the neophyte from his family, and a 'retreat' into the forest. In this there is already a symbolization of death."10 This first step of initiation in "The Bear" is accomplished when Ike, at the age of ten, is taken from the plantation world of Carothers and Sophonsiba into the wilderness by Sam Fathers. His old life, the profane life, is finished; by his journey into the water-womb of the wilderness with Sam, he is both dying and being purified for his new birth. "It seemed to him that at the age of ten he was witnessing his own birth" (p. 195).
In the wilderness, Ike twice feels himself in the presence of the bear, Old Ben, but he does not see him. The second time,
He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off, and knew that the bear was looking at him. He never saw it. He did not know whether it was facing him from the cane or behind him. He did not move, holding the useless gun which he knew now he would never fire at it. . . .
Then it was gone. As abruptly as it had stopped, the woodpecker's dry hammering set up again. . . . "I didn't see him," he said, "I didn't, Sam."
"I know it," Sam said. "He done the looking. You didn't hear him neither, did you?"
"No," the boy said. . . . (p. 203)
Old Ben, then, has seen Ike, and if the boy can prove himself worthy, the bear will let him come to him to receive his epiphany. So Ike goes into the woods each day to learn the ways of the hunter, the lore and craft of the primitive man of nature, and the virtues of humility and patience. But because he carries with him his gun, the bear eludes him.
"You ain't looked right yet," Sam said.
He stopped. For a moment he didn't answer. Then he said peacefully, in a peaceful rushing burst, as when a boy's miniature dam in a little brook gives way: "All right. Yes. But how?" . . .
"It's the gun," Sam said. . . . The gun, the boy thought. The gun. "You will have to choose," Sam said. (p. 206)
To come into the presence of the bear Ike must relinquish his gun, the symbol of his physical power to kill; he must be willing to rely on his spiritual resources alone. The gun is symbolic of the hunter's will over nature, a will which, in Ike, must be abnegated in an act of obedience to the spirit god of the wilderness.
In this respect, I want to suggest another similarity to the primitive initiation ritual, the rites of circumcision. Freud suggests that the father, fearful that the son on becoming an adult might take his women, forces the son to accept the sexual domination of the father by undergoing ritual castration, i.e., circumcision: ". . . whosoever accepted this symbol showed by so doing that he was ready to submit to the father's will, although it was at the cost of a painful sacrifice."11 The son, then, must lose his will in that of the father. Old Ben will not allow Ike to complete his initiation into manhood until the boy relinquishes the symbol of his own will and power (as well as the most obvious of modern phallic symbols)—the gun.
He had left the gun; by his own will and relinquishment he had accepted not a gambit, not a choice, but a condition in which not only the bear's heretofore inviolable anonymity but all the ancient rules and balances of hunter and hunted had been abrogated. He would not even be afraid, not even in the moment when the fear would take him completely: blood, skin, bowels, bones, memory from the long time before it even became his memory. . . . (p. 207)
So Ike relinquishes his gun in order to complete his obedience to the bear and gain his vision. But even this sacrifice is not enough: he still carries two objects of civilization, of the modern anti-primitive world.
He had already relinquished, of his will, because of his need, in humility and peace and without regret, yet apparently that had not been enough, the leaving of the gun was not enough. He stood for a moment—a child, alien and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness. Then he relinquished completely to it. It was the watch and the compass. He was still tainted. He removed the linked chain of the one and the looped thong of the other from his overalls and hung them on a bush and leaned the stick beside them and entered it. (p. 208)
The gun and compass were presents from his cousin McCaslin, trustee of the family estate, and the watch "had been his father's."12 In rejecting these last accoutrements of civilization and family, Ike frees himself of their taint. He is unencumbered, ready to enter the primitive existence wholly and without reservation.
One other aspect of Ike's rejection should be noted: in leaving the compass and the watch behind he is symbolically freeing himself from the restrictions of space and time. The similarity of this freedom to that felt by the mystics of both East and West at the moment of their enlightenment, when they become one with some spiritual force, gives us a feeling of the depth of Ike's experience. Not only is his old life in civilization being transcended but rational consciousness itself is dissolved. At this point Ike is almost ready for his vision, but he must retreat even farther into the unconscious until personality is lost entirely: he must lose himself in the labyrinth.
One of the essential steps in initiation is the descent into the labyrinth, a symbolic return to the womb, from which the initiate can be reborn. Joseph Campbell writes that "a constellation of images denoting the plunge and dissolution of consciousness in the darkness of non-being must have been employed intentionally, from an early date, to represent the analogy of threshold rites to the mystery of entry of the child into the womb for birth."13 The labyrinth symbolism has taken many forms—a maze, a system of corridors in a temple, or, most commonly in primitive societies, a dance—yet it "always has the same psychological effect. It temporarily disturbs rational conscious orientation to the point that . . . the initiate is 'confused' and symbolically 'loses his way.' Yet in this descent into chaos the inner mind is opened to the awareness of a new cosmic dimension of a transcendent nature."14
Losing one's way in the labyrinth is synonymous to the plunge into the abyss of primal water, the return to the prenatal condition, involving the initiate's loss of consciousness.15 After leaving behind his watch and compass and entering the woods, Ike "realised he was lost" (p. 208). He walked in circle after circle seeking his way; he "made this next circle in the opposite direction and much larger, so that the pattern of the two of them would bisect his track somewhere, but crossing no trace nor mark anywhere of his feet or any feet. . ." (p. 208). Totally immersed in the wilderness, at last completely separated from his old life, Ike is now ready for his vision: his initiation is completed. "Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there . . ." (p. 209).
This vision is the last stage of initiation: "a visionary animal . . . replaces the master of initiation. This has been described as a tutelary or guardian spirit to be . . . obeyed from thence forward; in return, the youth will be given super-normal powers, whether in running or in gambling or in hunting or in becoming just simply a man."16 Sam Fathers, then, has been superseded by the bear god, the androgynous spirit who becomes both father and mother to the initiate. "This second mother, Jung says, is often an animal and even an animal normally thought of as a male, like Hiawatha's mother, who first appears as the Great Bear of the Mountains."17 The moment the bear appears is the moment of Ike's rebirth, of his wilderness epiphany. He is now one of the hunters, a man.
1Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, trans. Philip Mairet (London: Harvill Press, 1960), p. 197.
2William Faulkner: A Critical Study (New York: Random House, 1952), p. 256.
3Sex and Religion, trans. Renée and Hilda Spodheim (New York: Social Science Publishers, 1949), pp. 123-24.
4 Joseph L. Henderson and Maud Oakes. The Wisdom of the Serpent: The Myths of Death, Rebirth, and Resurrection (New York: George Braziller, 1963), p. 47.
5 Ibid., pp. 47-48.
6Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. VII of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953), pp. 94-95.
7Symbolic Wounds (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1954)), p. 109.
8 Gordon, Sex and Religion, p. 126.
9 William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses (New York: Random House, 1942), p. 195. References to this edition are included in the text.
10 Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, p. 197.
11Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherne Jones (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd. and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1932), p. 192. Cf. Sigmund Freud, An Autobiographical Study, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1936), p. 124.
12 The rejection of these heirlooms anticipates the final rejection of the whole McCaslin heritage, the land he "owned." Cf. Stanley Sultan, "Call Me Ishmael: The Hagiography of Isaac McCaslin," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 3 (Spring 1961), 55.
13The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, I (New York: Viking Press, 1959), 65-66.
14 Henderson and Oakes, Wisdom of the Serpent, p. 46.
15 Ibid., p. 50.
17 Quoted in R. W. B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959), p. 308.
T. H. Adamowski (essay date 1973)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7185
SOURCE: "Isaac McCaslin and the Wilderness of the Imagination," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 92-112.
[In the following essay, Adamowski finds that in "The Bear," "The Old People," and "Delta Autumn" Isaac McCaslin demonstrates a resistance to social assimilation. The critic attributes Isaac's nature to his formative experiences in the wilderness.]
Critics sometimes argue that Faulkner's Isaac McCaslin is a disappointment, not as a literary creation but as a moral agent. Their claim is that in Go Down, Moses Ike fails to bring to bear in his adult life certain values he learns in the wilderness from Sam Fathers. In particular they believe that Ike fails to bridge the gap between town and wilderness. What I should like to do here is to examine some of these claims and to look again at the Ike of the wilderness, for it seems to me that in the wilderness episodes of Go Down, Moses we do not find an example of a way of life that we can readily accept, a way of life that could be applied to life in the "settlements." It may be that in Ike McCaslin we find a variant of what Quentin Anderson has recently spoken of, in discussing Emerson, Whitman, and James, as the "imperial self."1 For Isaac McCaslin the social world is never so appealing as the world he learns of as a child, from Sam Fathers, and it is with this world that I will primarily be concerned.
The difference between the pastoral quality of "The Old People" and the wilderness passages of "The Bear," on the one hand, and the fourth section of the latter as well as the socially resonant "Delta Autumn" on the other, has led many readers to see a fundamental discontinuity in the Ike of both realms. Michael Millgate, for example, notes that "Ike's experience as a hunter has played a vital part in his education, in the process of his becoming the man capable of renouncing his inheritance." He finds in Ike's experience of the wilderness the source of what is attractive in him, his "essential goodness" and the "quality of his idealism." Millgate does not believe, however, that Ike has found the means whereby his idealism can be attached to society in "an affirmative" way, believing instead that "Ike's life is a failure primarily because he allows himself to rest in negation, in repudiation, and rejects all opportunities for affirmation."2 Millgate argues that "the tenuousness of the connection between the hunting episodes and the rest of the novel may be in some measure a direct and deliberate reflection of Faulkner's conception of Ike and of Ike's idealism."
Irving Howe has also noticed the moral implications of the dichotomy wilderness-society:
The whole development of Isaac McCaslin consists in his effort to reconcile wilderness and society, or failing that, to decide which will allow and which frustrate the growth of moral responsibility.3
Howe is aware that there is a pastoral quality to the wilderness episodes. He does not think that we should try to translate the mythic realm in which Ike finds so much pleasure into crudely political terms, but Howe is uneasy about what he calls Ike's "heroic passivity," a "judgment upon the world of history":
Though the twentieth century reader may have little trouble in expressing verbal admiration for this image [of the efficacy of passive suffering], he cannot really credit or accept it fully, which is one reason that Faulkner, despite his modernist techniques, is a writer seriously estranged from his time.4
Howe, like Millgate, is concerned with the moral distance between wilderness and society in the character of Ike. Both seem to see in the wilderness at least a potential source of affirmative values. This leaves unanswered the question of the psychological continuity in Ike's character that may be the occasion for his later moral failure.
The source of this feeling of moral discontinuity in Ike is, as I suggest above, to be found in the break between the pastoral and the social material of the episodes in Go Down, Moses that pertain to Ike. It is misleading, however, to stress this distinction, and it is worthwhile to reconsider the wilderness experience of Ike in itself, to see if indeed there is an Ike-of-the-forest who has at his disposal certain affirmative social values that might have the potential to reconcile him to the world of the town, without, needless to say, implying that he should accept such social givens as racism. I suggest that Millgate is too harsh on Ike when he claims that in "Delta Autumn" Ike is unable to "pass on to younger men . . . the practical training he received from Sam Fathers."5
Such a claim fails to recognize that Ike's failure to transmit to others this training may be proof that such training was not "practical" morally. If one assumes that the Ike of the town does not do all that the moral man should, that he does not both "repudiate" and "affirm," then the training he receives in the forest, insofar as it is both practical and moral, may have to be judged limited and inapplicable to the complexities of society. The practicality and morality of the forest training are of one piece.
It is the forest training that provides the continuity of Ike's character. It makes him an isolato in both forest and town. He is never really presented to us so as to suggest a similarity between his experience of the forest and that of his fellow hunters. When Olga Vickery claims that "what is an annual vacation for Major de Spain and his friends becomes Isaac's life," she is closer to the truth of Ike's wilderness experience (and, perhaps, a bit unfair to de Spain).6 She indicates that something is going on out there in the forest that separates Ike from his companions. Unfortunately, her argument that "Sam Fathers has provided [Ike] with the wilderness and the code of the hunter as an alternative to the plantation world," and that it is this that leads to Ike's withdrawal is only partially correct. She contradicts herself by claiming that because of the code Ike becomes one with the other hunters, those whom she refers to later as being on vacation in the woods, and who, by definition, therefore, do not live by the same "code" as Isaac. She then goes on to repeat the argument for discontinuity by claiming that "the qualities Ike learned under the tutelage of Sam Fathers, the fyce, and Old Ben should have been asserted within the context of civilization. . . ."7
What Faulkner has done is to present us, in Isaac, with a man who has accomplished his negation and withdrawal well before he learns of the sordid history of his family. The later moral negation that cuts him off from others is not at odds with the wilderness Ike. In the wilderness we first meet him as a man who is defined as always being out of phase with other men. We find him there cut off from others, alone in the midst of the hunt, never quite part of the annual gathering in the Big Bottom. It should come as no surprise when, in the fourth part of "The Bear," Ike suddenly mentions that Sam Fathers and his teaching have influenced his decision to renounce his heritage. Ike and Sam are both men who are at a distance from others.
I do not wish to raise here the question of how Ike might have reconciled his "experience in the woods and his experience in the world of society,"8 but only to consider how even in the woods Faulkner reveals his separateness. This is not to deny the enormous complexity of his later moral and historical justifications for his behavior but only to indicate that the hunting episodes are more than a source of a training that he fails to apply elsewhere. They are the matrix out of which issue Ike's subsequent decisions, their psychological foundation. If interpretations of "The Bear" may suffer by omitting to take into account the complexity of Go Down, Moses as a whole, it is no less misleading to de-emphasize the hunting episodes by implying that they are the source of an "idealism" in Ike that cannot be reconciled to social realities due to some failure on his part.9
Had we only been given the hunting episodes, it would still be clear that the bonds between Ike and his fellow men are very tenuous. He cannot be at one with Sam Fathers because of what Sam is in himself, and he cannot be at one with the other hunters because of what Sam was to him. To talk of Ike's idealism invariably leads to a begging of questions. It is necessary to understand what the wilderness and Sam do to Ike. His experience of them makes the kind of reciprocity essential for social morality (the only kind, finally) difficult to achieve. The singularity of Sam Fathers, the laying-on of hands whereby Ike himself becomes singular, and the origin of Ike's mystical desire to achieve a kind of oneness with the solitude of the wilderness make the society of men unnecessary.
Faulkner insists on the separate quality of Sam Fathers, and he makes it a function both of Sam's blood (son of a quadroon mother and an Indian father), of his attitude towards his blood, and of his relationship to the wilderness. He is a man whose father was a chief, but he grew up a slave. Cass Edmonds describes Sam's singularity:
"He was a wild man. When he was born, all his blood on both sides, except the little white part, knew things that had been tamed out of our blood so long ago that we have not only forgotten them, we have to live together in herds to protect ourselves from our own sources." (167)*
Ike and his cousin recall Sam's relationship with his white masters and bosses. It is unique among old Carother's exslaves: no one ever gives him orders, and he farms no "alloted acres of his own, as the other ex-slaves of old Carothers McCaslin" do.
Further evidence of his separate status is his relationship with Jobaker, a full-blooded Chickasaw. The latter is a "market hunter and fisherman and he consorted with nobody, black or white; no negro would even cross his path and no man dared approach his hut except Sam" (172). When Jobaker dies, it is Sam who conceals the body, burns the old Indian's hut, and, by shooting at them, prevents the curious from approaching the fire. His one "friend" now gone, Sam asks to go to the Big Bottom to live. When it comes time for Sam to die, Faulkner adds to his mystique by having his illness and death coincide with the death of the bear (the doctor's comments about the danger to old men of swimming in autumn streams are, of course, beside the point), and by suggesting that his "retainer" Boon, has killed him.
Sam's charismatic nature must be kept in mind when one considers Ike and the old man's relationship to the boy. At first glance they may appear to be friends, but this is not an accurate account of their relationship. The one solitary defines the other as solitary, and the relationship is less one of reciprocity than it is of master-pupil. We know only that Sam has chosen Ike in order to pass on to him a knowledge of the wilderness. Indeed, the dynamics of their relationship allow Sam, at times, almost to read the boy's mind with the same insight he brings to the language of the forest. By no means are they friends:
He taught the boy the woods, to hunt, when to shoot, when to kill and when not to kill, and better, what to do with it afterward. Then he would talk to the boy. . . . (170)
There is always a slight gap between them, for Ike "would never question him; Sam did not react to questions" (171), but when he speaks to Ike of the "old days and the People" of those times, he makes them as real to the boy as the immediate present; and
gradually to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy's present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted. And more: as if some of them had not happened yet but would occur tomorrow, until at last it would seem to the boy that he himself had not come into existence yet. . . . (171)
The young Ike is led by the force of these tales to experience the world imaginatively, not yet in terms of the ethical structures of moral idealism but through the structures of the image. Sam's words take Ike away from the here and now, putting him in the presence of the then and the elsewhere. He does not turn away from the world for the first time in his dissatisfaction with it at twenty-one. The first repudiation comes when the shadow of the old people falls upon him as a child, and dislocates his existence.
There may be some value in introducing, at this point, certain aspects of Jean-Paul Sartre's description of the image and of the imaginary attitude towards life.10 What Ike receives from Sam is an image of the wilderness—not Sam's image for Sam's tales serve to create an image in the mind of the boy. In Sartre's account, the image suffers from a "sort of essential poverty"; it lacks the fullness of perceptions of the real world, their capacity to sustain continued extractions of information:
In a word, the object of the perception overflows consciousness constantly; the object of the image is never more than the consciousness one has; it is limited by that consciousness: nothing can be learned from an image that is not already known.11
What is "already known" by Ike about the wilderness is the memory Sam Fathers has of it. It is this memory that becomes Ike's imaginary wilderness. This is a novel in which the wilderness we observe contains elements which "overflow" Ike's image. At times he is himself aware of these alien elements. It is this haunting presence of a wilderness that contains lumber companies and railroads, and in which the ancient inhabitants (bear, panthers, Sam) are becoming extinct, that serves to sustain Ike in his imaginary attitude.
Sartre argues that the imagination allows us to escape the real world, a world overflowing with perceptual givens that we may find distressing. It is a world in which what we desire to observe is lacking:
For an image is not purely and simply the world negated, it is always the world negated from a certain point of view, namely the one that permits the positing of the absence or non-existence of the object presented "as an image."12 [Sartre's emphasis]
Ike accepts the point of view of Sam, a man whose memory of another wilderness makes him an alien to the "reality" of the new world he must live in. Ike does not, however, share Sam's memory, but only the words which are offered to him by this awesome figure. His reality is not Sam's; their point of coincidence is the discourse which takes shape in the boy as an image of another world—one of which he has no memory. Sartre claims that the "act of imagination is a magical one":
It is an incantation destined to produce the object of one's thought, the thing one desires, in a manner that one can take possession of it. In that act there is always something of the imperious and the infantile, a refusal to take distance of difficulties into account.13
Ike, the boy with no father, takes the tales of Sam Fathers as the text for his incantatory chant. He wishes to be like Sam (the psychoanalyst's notion of "identification") and does not take into account the racial and temporal distance between them. Nor does he allow himself, as we shall see, to be ruled by the difficulties of keeping alive his imaginary wilderness in the face of the facts that threaten to erode it.
One may argue that the meaning of Ike's wilderness is the real world around him, one in which he is not Sam, later, one in which the forest is threatened by others, like that "new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph." The destroyers of the forest "know not" Sam Fathers. Ike's later ambiguous perceptions of the wilderness—at one point a recognition of its death-throes, at another, a flight into the imaginary—result from the always more difficult task of maintaining the imaginary attitude. The flight into the imaginary is a journey to the world Faulkner refers to above as a region of the "as if." Ike is in a real world, but somehow denied ("not come into existence yet"), so as better to "see" the Old People. He becomes shadowy to himself at the feet of Sam Fathers, and this is the genesis of his separation from the world of man: "to act upon these unreal objects I must divide myself, make myself unreal."14
The Ike of "The Old People," a child, is not yet acquainted with the legal relics of chancery books and the moral nightmares of commissary records. The information he will later acquire from these, the facts that lead him into repudiation, are fitted into a structure of separation from others first assumed by Ike in childhood. The later (and justifiable) moral repugnance is a social seal that marks as final the separation from his fellow men that first occurs in response to an old man's memories, those stories that slip a wedge between Ike and the present, making him feel that
although it had been his grandfather's and then his father's and uncle's and was now his cousin's and someday would be his own land which he and Sam hunted over, their hold upon it actually was as trivial and without reality as the now faded and archaic script in the chancery book in Jefferson which allocated it to them and that it was he, the boy, who was the guest here and Sam Father's voice the mouthpiece of the host. (171)
This is not meant to indicate that Ike is actually thinking of the logic of the legal. The metaphor of the chancery book indicates the boy's experience of living on a land whose host is beyond the kinship bonds that the books certify. Ike is unaware of, and uninterested in, legal distinctions here. The narrator's image foreshadows the fourth part of "The Bear" while indicating how completely Ike has been assumed into the imaginative sphere where Sam is at home with his ancestors, the hosts. This is a premoral, pre-logical, and pre-historical Isaac McCaslin, a child moving in the real and unreal world of imaginative recreation. The above passage indicates how completely he has given up the contingent for what he believes is the necessary. In this negation of the ordinary present for the extraordinary present offered by Sam's tales, Ike finds a more compelling and temporally comprehensive reality. It is appropriate that "The Old People" be a romance and that Ike see Sam address the totemic buck as "Grandfather."
But we recall Sam's aloofness to questions, for he is le maître. Further evidence of the gulf between him and Ike comes with Jobaker's death and Sam's request to be allowed to live in the hunting camp. At first Ike believes Sam will return, that he "would come back home with them and he [Ike] too would have outgrown the child's pursuit of rabbits and 'possums. Then he too would make one before the winter fire, talking of the old hunts and the hunts to come as hunters talked" (175). "But Sam wouldn't come out," and Ike can now see him only in the wilderness itself. The old man of the forest fascinates the child, and as they leave camp to return home, Ike
Would watch him for a while against that tall and secret wall [of the forest], growing smaller and smaller against it, never looking back. Then he would enter it, returning to what the boy believed, and thought that his cousin McCaslin believed, was his loneliness and solitude. (177)
This recalls the backward glance of Conrad's Marlow at that other lonely man, Lord Jim, as the latter stands against the jungle wall and watches his benefactor return to civilization. It is also the reverse, for here Sam is the benefactor; and he has no yearning to go to the world of men, while the boy wishes only for the world of the forest. The yearning towards Sam on Ike's part is the first sign of his adult's fate: to be déclassé, not at one with the hunters, nor with his family. Finally, not at one with the man who occasions these estrangements.
What is left for Ike is not a person but a place, the wilderness, Sam's home, a place that is really a state of mind. Through Sam's agency it becomes sacred to Ike to the extent that Sam introduces him to it. Ike's relationship with the others is markedly different from his relationship to the forest and its high priest. When they return home, with no sign of regret from Sam (just as he showed no pleasure to see them come), "because he did not come back with them" (175), Faulkner says that it was
only the boy who returned, returning solitary and alone to the settled familiar land, to follow for eleven months the childish business of rabbits and such while he waited to go back. . . . (175)
He is alone in their company because psychically he is in a state of identification with Sam, the man he would like to be, who is elsewhere. The others come from a pleasant two weeks; Ike returns, as it were, from "the green world," from his first encounter with the wilderness. This other place imbues him with "an unforgettable sense of the big woods" where he found
not a quality dangerous or particularly inimical, but profound, sentient, gigantic and brooding, amid which he had been permitted to go to and fro at will, unscathed, why he knew not, but dwarfed and, until he had drawn honorably blood worthy of being drawn, alien. (175-176)
The killing of his first deer, with Sam at his side, ends the opposition of his particular self and the big woods. With this kill, they begin to merge.
In "The Old People" it is Ike alone among all the white hunters who is defined as having such a lofty sense of the wilderness. As they ride from camp, he feels that "for all practical purposes he and Sam Fathers were still alone together as they had been that morning" (178). Then he had killed the buck that now "still and forever leaped" in his consciousness. Then "Sam had marked him as forever one with the wilderness which had accepted him since Sam said that he had done all right" (178). Sam tells the others that Ike "had done all right," but it is only Ike whom we see having an experience in which time's normal boundaries collapse, and the buck always and forever leaps. The Old People still walk and will walk, in his imagination, forever.
By conceiving Ike in this way, molded by Sam, set apart from his mentor and from the hunters, and left alone with the wilderness, Faulkner makes Ike's later renunciation psychologically and morally plausible. There is no sudden turn to negation on Ike's part. He doesn't fail to apply his training in the wilderness to the town. "Training" is a bad choice, for Ike's later renunciation indicates the inherent choice of solitude in his original experience of the wilderness. He chooses Sam's wilderness, and immediately exists as the negative of the men of the town. This allows us to understand better the somewhat bewildering Ike of "Delta Autumn," but first it is necessary to look more closely at the youth's attitude to the wilderness.
When the hunting party see the great buck on their journey out of the forest, near the end of "The Old People," they stop to pursue it. Again Ike and Sam are alone in "soaring and sombre solitude in the dim light" (181). That Sam has done more than merely to justify Ike's place in the hunt by "blooding" him is clear from Ike's feelings as they wait at their stand. He believes that "Sam Fathers had marked him indeed, not as a mere hunter, but with something Sam had had in his turn of his vanished and forgotten people" (182). It is clear that this "something" is more than a sense of humility and pride before the death of an animal, for this is presumably an experience that should belong to the "mere hunter" also. Rather, it seems to be a share in the being-at-one with the wilderness that is implicit in Sam's address of the buck as "Grandfather." This is a oneness Ike can share with no tribe, with no band of brothers. He runs with Sam's ancestors only in the pathways of his imagination, that is, at a slight distance from them—just as he is distanced from their "son," the last of the Old People, Sam Fathers.
But when Sam and Ike return to the others, after their encounter with the animal, it is apparent that two aliens are in their midst. One they know of, Sam. One they do not, Ike. The men do not know what to make of the discrepancy between the tracks they have found and the "little spike buck" killed by Walter Ewell. "'I would swear there was another buck there that I never even saw'" Ewell says. There are, in other words, lacunae in the group's awareness of things, lacunae introduced by Sam and Ike.
Later, when Ike learns from Cass that "Sam took me in there once after I killed my first deer," it may seem that Ike's relationship with Sam is not so special after all. This is not the case, however, for "The Old People," "The Bear," and "Delta Autumn" make abundantly clear the much greater commitment to the wilderness of Ike—another way of saying that Sam's hold on the latter is greater than on Cass. Nowhere do we find Cass presented as experiencing the forest as Ike has done. This is not to say that Sam prefers the one boy to the other; his preferences are not at issue in these episodes. It is only that we are introduced to how Ike has come to internalize the wilderness as it appears to him in the discourse of Sam Fathers. Ike's way of living Sam's tales effectively separates him from Cass and everyone else.
Ike wishes to be at one with the forest as Sam is. The very ideal of learning the love of the wilderness is a means towards achieving this merger (or dilation of the boy's self). But the ideal of a coincidence in the manner of Sam's is hopeless, for Sam's kinship is a function of his blood. Ike can approximate it only through gestures (for example, the blooding in "The Old People" and the relinquishing of civilized objects in "The Bear"), through acts performed for their own sake.
In the wilderness sections of "The Bear" and in "Delta Autumn," Faulkner continues to present Ike as someone who is out of phase with the other hunters. He continues to experience the forest in a way that is appropriate to that special relationship of "father-son" he has known with Sam. In the fourth part of "The Bear" Ike refers to the "communal anonymity of brotherhood" (257) to indicate his ideal vision of the relationship of men to the land. In the wilderness of his childhood, however, Ike is not part of a communal brotherhood of anonymity—at least not with living brothers. He has carved out a special identity for himself. Uncle Ike is really a son or a nephew. The foster son of Sam Fathers and nephew of the anonymous and departed brothers of Sam's tales and his own imagination. The wilderness sections of "The Bear" continue to prepare for the final ethical separation of Ike by their focus on his psychic separation.
In discussing "The Old People" I argued that Ike was not really part of the de Spain expedition. He was only in the same space, but not the same time. This is elaborated upon in "The Bear" when the narrator tells us that "McCaslin and the others thought he was hunting squirrels" when Ike was out seeking Old Ben. "Until the third evening he believed that Sam Fathers thought so too." But Ike learns that Sam can read him with the ease with which he reads the forest's signs, and his teacher tells him he must leave his gun in camp if he wishes to see the bear. Ike's ultimate separation from the others comes when he repudiates gun and compass, and a fissure opens between him and the others as great as that between them and the town. The gulf between hunters and town each autumn allows them to become "men, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters . . ." (191). But Ike's particular gulf isolates him in the wilderness. He does not seek out the animal as would a hunter. That equation the narrator draws between "hunters" and "men" is itself called into question by Ike's solitary quest. The camp contains social men, and Ike must negate their values if he wishes to see the bear. When he gives up his gun, "all the ancient rules and balances of hunter and hunted had been abrogated" (207). Ike is not the poor, bare forked animal of King Lear, but he is most certainly on the other side of society at this point: not just "bad" town society, but also "the ancient" society of the hunter.
While riding into the wilderness, Ike had felt himself entering "his novitiate to the true wilderness with Sam beside him" (195). When he finds the bear by losing his social self, he may be said to have taken his final vows in the order of solitude, with Sam now behind him, back in the camp. By definition one takes such vows alone, and their sign is the relinquishing of compass and watch. While he has them, Ike is "a child, alien and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness" (208). By abandoning the objects that make men at home in the forest, one form of estrangement ends and another is begun. Then he becomes lost by finding himself part of the forest's gloom. Back in the camp we find some of that social structure, that centripetal whirl, which has tamed white blood of what Cass says can still be found in Sam's. The desire to find the bear, however, sets Ike into a centrifugal movement from the camp. He may return "armed" with compass and watch, but he has taken a kind of holy orders and an indelible mark is left on his soul.
In part five, when Ike returns to the forest after the death of Sam, of Lion, and of Old Ben, Faulkner reveals unmistakably the youth's desire for fusion with the unhuman world of the big woods. When the train that has brought him pulls away, Ike feels that "It had not been. He could no longer hear it. The wilderness soared, musing, inattentive, myriad, eternal, green; older than any mill-shed, longer than any spurline" (322). The mill-shed and spur-line are those ominous facts from which Ike must turn away in order to see the pristine world of his imagination. That world gains its attractiveness from those nagging, bypassed realities. It is quite a leap from the fact of the train's departure to its never-having-been, but this is the cost of Ike's preference for the timelessness of his forest.
When he enters the forest he abolishes by an act of radical negation the time in which he must share a space with sheds or trains that get him to the woods "on time":
Then he was in the woods, not alone but solitary; the solitude closed about him, green with summer. They did not change, and, timeless, would not, anymore than would the green of summer and the fire and rain of fall and the iron cold and sometimes even snow. (323)
He does not attend to the facts of change that mark the wilderness. He repudiates them, not like Mr. Podsnap, but just as effectively.
He is not alone, for others are not of concern to him when he is in the timeless mode. He is most at home in "the wilderness' concordant generality" (328), a condition with which he is able to blend himself. In the fourth section, when he discovers that he can no longer be part of his time because of what he has learned of his family's past, choosing then to live by the timeless laws that transcend rights of property, Ike is being quite consistent. His move into the ethical domain is not a great step away from the psychic domain where he has lived most happily since meeting Sam Fathers. His later choice may be morally naive and unrealistic in regard to what men should learn from history, but it is difficult to see any valid transposition of his wilderness experience to the world of social and historical reality.
Ike feels that "the woods would be his mistress and his wife" (326), and the image is apt. Ike is really married to the forest that makes no demands. It is less a source of idealism than a state of mind. The idealism comes not from the woods but from the attempt to transfer the state of awareness he has in the forest to the awareness he has of himself in the state. There is no concordant generality in the state into which he can lose himself. He finds only a series of shocking, contingent particulars. This may account for the tortuous quality Cleanth Brooks finds in Ike's debate with his cousin:
Yet clearly the experience with Sam Fathers in the wilderness relates to Isaac's renunciation of his heritage. For Isaac wants to be free; he feels that Sam Fathers has shown him the way to freedom; and though he never quite formulates this for himself, his divesting himself of his patrimony is an attempt to gain this cherished freedom.15
There is much in Ike's argument that one can and should agree with, but one must recognize with Brooks that the precise relationship of his wilderness experience to his choice to give up his land is difficult to establish. If his experience of the woods is as I have described it, it is easier to see why this thread of his argument is weak and has disappointed so many people (but not Brooks). His "cherished freedom" can not be maintained in any society.
To return for a moment to Sartre's claims about the imagination, it may be that Ike's difficulties in Part IV, as well as the difficulties of his critics, derive from a confusion of the "moral with the esthetic." Ike (and his critics) have suffused the real world of a southern forest that is being eroded with the beauty of an imaginary wilderness. "The values of the Good," Sartre claims, "presume being-in-the-world, they concern action in the real and are subject from the outset to the basic absurdity of existence."16 Ike has difficulties with the logic of his cousin because the latter is taking his stance on the ground of the "basic absurdity of existence." This is hardly to imply that Cass is correct, but only to explain why they appear to be on different wave-lengths. Ike has adopted an "attitude of esthetic contemplation towards real events [and objects]." It is possible, according to Sartre, to do this, but only if the person doing it "recoils" in relation to the object he contemplates. The latter then "slips into nothingness so that . . . it is no longer perceived." He goes on to compare it to paramnesia, that is to say that the "real object functions as analogue of itself in the past." Paramnesia is, of course, appropriate to Ike's condition, for he is imagining a real memory, that is, Sam's memory of the wilderness.
His moral outrage is perfectly fine, of course, but if he does fail to deal with history adequately it is because of the intrinsic quality of his wilderness experience. If one ought to recognize Ike's "essential goodness" and the "quality of his idealism" as Millgate suggests, while maintaining reservations about his actions in his maturity, one should also admire his sensitive awareness of the atemporality of the wilderness and his empathy with its departed inhabitants while maintaining reservations about its applicability to anything outside the forest.
The train never was once it has left. This ambiguity is basic to Faulkner's account of Ike's alienation from the world of man. At one moment he sees that the train on which he travels prefigures the end of the wilderness he loves. Once he steps down from the car, he steps out of the world in which that train runs more insistently than panther and deer, into a world in which time and railroads are not. In "Delta Autumn" he must travel many miles to find wilderness. Once arrived, in the tent at night, he "sees" and "hears" a wilderness that is identical to the wilderness of 1871:
. . . that silence which was never silence but was myriad. He could almost see it, tremendous, primeval, looming, musing downward upon this puny evanescent clutter of human sojourn which after a single brief week would vanish and in another week would be completely healed, traceless in the unmarked solitude. (353)
These are the reveries of a man for whom Sam Fathers still lives in the timeless reality of memory (350), who recognizes, however, (within three lines), the wilderness' "ultimate doom . . . before the onslaught of axe and saw and loglines and then dynamite and tractor plows" (354). But his optimistic sense of the rejuvenating power of the forest indicates that the dynamite and tractors are the mill-sheds and spur-lines of 1940.
It is always back to the silence of the "unmarked solitude" for Ike, for he has achieved, through Sam, a relationship with the forest in which he is teased out of thought. For him it is the Keatsian mode in which his wilderness has its being, with himself as one of the figures on a Mississippi urn:
the faces of the old men he had known and loved and for a little while outlined, [moved] again among the shades of tall unaxed trees and sightless brakes where the wild strong immortal game ran forever before the tireless belling immortal hounds, falling and rising phoenix-like to the soundless guns. (354)
And now the other men in the delta autumn camp disappear before the images of his imagination, for the wilderness is an invitation to reverie in which he can see "him self and the wilderness as—coevals" (354). Thus what he learned from Sam Fathers cannot be passed on to younger men. What he learned requires a willing novice, not men out hunting deer.
Faulkner indicates that even in the old Ike there is the old distance between himself and others. This world is not the world that can be parcelled out and sold but is the antiworld introduced to him by "de Spain and that old Sam Fathers who had taught him to hunt . . ." (354). Only it was not de Spain who introduced him to a "dimension free of both time and space" (354), not the man who had a clear sense of time and space, and who, when the time came, sold the land to a lumber company.
One should not be shocked or even surprised by Ike's unwillingness to recognize the urgent claims of the grand-daughter of Tennie's Jim. His belief that miscegenation is a thousand years from social acceptance is itself a sign of his timelessness. It is cruel, but true to character for him to turn away. One cannot exist in the temporal and the atemporal.
After Old Ben's death de Spain can sell the land, for the bear has not meant to him what it has meant to Sam, Boon, and Ike. For Ike the end of the pageant rite on earth only means that it is raised to a higher, transcendental level, and the empirical vanishes before the imaginary. The Old People live beyond the voice of Sam. But in the veins of Sam and Boon flows the blood of those wild men, and their relationship to the forest of Old Ben is defined by their share in his wildness. Ike, however, must attain his kinship with the wild by negations of what he is at birth: white and civilized. The tales of Sam are the first means offered to the boy to enable him to de-realize the present of which he is a part for the sake of realizing a past in which he had no part.
Thus it is fitting that at the end of "The Bear" we see Ike rebuffed by Boon Hogganbeck. For if Ike has achieved a separation from his own people, it has not brought him that congruence with the forest that is the right of those with the blood of the Old People. He neither sinks the knife into the bear, Boon's job, nor shares in the coincident deaths of Ben, Sam, and Lion. He is always alone, and his rite of autumn is a private one.
* I am using the Modern Library edition of Go Down, Moses.
1 Quentin Anderson, The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (New York: Knopf, 1971).
2 Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 208-209.
3 Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study. Vintage Books (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 92.
4Ibid., p. 96.
5 Millgate, p. 211.
6 Olga Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation. Rev. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1964), p. 132.
7Ibid., p. 133.
8 Edmond L. Volpe, A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner. Noonday Press (New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1964), p. 248.
9 Faulkner himself seems to believe that Ike has failed to achieve anything more than a repudiation of certain social evils. See his comments at the University of Virginia, in Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, eds., Faulkner in the University (New York: Random House, 1959), pp. 245-246. The point is still, of course, whether this repudiation represents a fall from an earlier state of achievement, or whether the negative mode is a typical feature of Ike's character.
10 Jean-Paul Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination (New York: Citadel Press, 1965).
11Ibid., p. 12.
12Ibid., p. 268.
13Ibid., p. 177.
14Ibid., p. 178.
15 Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknaptawpha Country (New Haven: Yale, 1963), p. 264. Cf. p. 262.
16 Sartre, P. 281.
Malcolm Cowley (lecture date 1978)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5999
SOURCE: "Magic in Faulkner," in Faulkner, Modernism, and Film: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, ¡978, University Press of Mississippi, 1979, pp. 3-19.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at a conference held at the University of Mississippi in 1978, Cowley detects evidence of magical or supernatural elements in "The Bear. "]
In April, 1953, when Faulkner was trying to finish his ambitious novel A Fable, he wrote a significant letter to his friend Joan Williams.
Working at the big book [he said]. . . . I know now—believe now—that this may be the last major, ambitious work; there will be short things, of course. The stuff is still good, but I know now that I am getting toward the end, the bottom of the barrel. The stuff is still good, but I know now that there is not very much more of it, a little trash comes up constantly now, which must be sifted out. And now, at last, I have some perspective on all I have done. I mean, the work apart from me, the work which I did apart from what I am. . . . And now I realize for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I dont know where it came from. I dont know why God or gods or whoever it was, selected me to be the vessel. Believe me, this is not humility, false modesty: it is simply amazement. I wonder if you have ever had that thought about the work and the country man whom you know as Bill Faulkner—what little connection there seems to be between them.
Faulkner's work, so different from the daily character of Bill Faulkner the countryman, has been the subject of a vast and still growing body of scholarship. It has been described, analyzed, explicated, diagramed, concorded, indexed, praised, condemned, or exalted in an uncounted number of monographs, dissertations, and scholarly papers, most of which can be consulted in the Mississippi Room of the university library. But there is one question, at least, to which this army of critics and scholars has failed to give adequate answers—for of course there is more than one answer. Why has Faulkner's work the power to call forth this overwhelming response—not from all readers, of course, but from a devoted body of readers and scholars? What is the source and nature of Faulkner's magic?
Tonight I should like to offer one answer to that question. It is not, I repeat, the only answer, but still it helps to explain one source of Faulkner's power. His work appeals to something deep in his readers because he is a great mythopoeist, or mythmaker. He became a great mythmaker because, more than any other American author since Melville, he was able to use the rich resources of his unconscious, while combining them with his sharp conscious observations and retentive memory of everything he experienced.
A myth, according to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief or natural phenomenon." That is a serviceable definition, but it omits many elements of myths in a broader sense. Mythical characters seem larger than ordinary people. They may be gods, heroes, ancestors, villains, monsters; they may be holy fools, wise old men or women, princesses, loyal retainers, or outcasts, but they always move against the background of a human community, or of the sometimes inhuman wilderness. The story often involves superhuman or magical elements, but in any case it follows a ritual pattern, with the successive events taking place, not by the usual laws of cause and effect, but because they are preordained.
Myths all over the world have an astonishing similarity, possibly—or so it is conjectured by many anthropologists—because they correspond to patterns preexisting in the human unconscious. They are almost always full of objects and incidents that have a symbolic value of the sort that psychologists find in dreams. Trees, forests, rivers, mountains, and strongholds keep recurring in them, as do wise animals, dragons, invincible weapons, magic potions, witches, fetishes, talismans, initiations, deadly perils, descents into the underworld, flights, pursuits, atonements, and sacrifices. Often they exert a powerful effect on their hearers, who feel that they are participants in a sacred drama with an ending ordained since the beginning of time.
The magical or mythopoeic side of Faulkner's work has been passed over in silence by many of his critics. I cite for example Cleanth Brooks, who is perhaps the best of them; surely his two books on Faulkner are the most comprehensive and levelheaded. Nevertheless, in his long chapter on Absalom, Absalom!, he does not concede that the novel has a mythical or legendary power. Instead he makes the point that the hero-villain, Colonel Sutpen, is not a representative southern planter and that he embodies the Protestant ethic in a fashion more likely to be found in the North. That is a valid observation, but it leads the critic to what I feel is a false conclusion. Sutpen is an alien in the Deep South, therefore—Brooks says in effect—the downfall of his house cannot be interpreted as a tragic fable of southern history. Brooks's implied "therefore" depends on a much too literal notion of myths and symbols, especially of those suggested to an author by his largely unconscious mind. Why should Brooks demand that symbols must correspond at all points with events in the foreground of a story? If Sutpen had been a representative southern planter, like General Compson or Colonel Sartoris in the same novel, he would not have been "the demon," as Miss Rosa Coldfield called him, and would never have formed his grand design. There would have been no novel and no myth. Oedipus, for example, was not a representative Theban. In Absalom, Absalom!, we cannot doubt that Quentin Compson, as he reconstructs the story of Sutpen's family (not merely of the colonel himself), comes to regard it more and more as having an emblematic meaning and as being essentially southern. So does his Canadian roommate, Shreve McCannon, and so does the average perceptive reader.
When I was reading Absalom, Absalom! for a second time, I puzzled over that question of emblematic meanings and I wrote to Faulkner for elucidation. "How much of the symbolism," I said, "is intentional, deliberate?" To make the question more explicit, I quoted a paragraph from an essay then under way. Here is part of the paragraph.
The reader cannot help wondering why this somber and, at moments, plainly incredible story has so seized upon Quentin's mind that he trembles with excitement when telling it and feels that it reveals the essence of the Deep South. . . . Then slowly it dawns on you that most of the characters and incidents have a double meaning; that besides their place in the story, they also serve as symbols or metaphors with a wider application. Sutpen's great design, the land he stole from the Indians, the French architect who built his house with the help of wild Negroes from the jungle, the woman of mixed blood whom he married and disowned, the unacknowledged son who ruined him, the poor white whom he wronged and who killed him in anger, the final destruction of the mansion like the downfall of a social order: all these might belong to a tragic fable of Southern history. With a little cleverness, the whole novel might be explained as a connected and logical allegory, but this, I believe, would be going far beyond the author's intention. First of all he was writing a story, and one that affected him deeply, but he was also brooding over a social situation. More or less unconsciously, the incidents in the story came to represent the forces and elements in the social situation, since the mind naturally works in terms of symbols and parallels. In Faulkner's case, this form of parallelism is not confined to Absalom, Absalom! It can be found in the whole fictional framework that he has been elaborating in novel after novel, until his work has become a myth or legend of the South.
At this point I should like to say, after thirty years or more, that I too was going beyond the author's intention. The truth is that Faulkner's work embodies a number of myths or legends, usually a different one in each of the novels published during his extraordinarily fertile period from 1929 to 1942. Each of the myths has something to do with the South, but is based on a different facet of southern society. But let us see how Faulkner answered my question, in part of a long and revealing letter:
Your divination (vide paragraph) is correct [he said]. I didn't intend it, but afterward I dimly saw myself what you put into words. I think though you went a step further than J (unconsciously, I repeat) intended. I think Quentin, not Faulkner, is the correct yardstick here. I was writing the story, but he not I was brooding over a situation. . . . But more he grieved the fact (because he hated and feared the portentous symptom) that a man like Sutpen, who to Quentin was trash, originless, could not only have dreamed so high but have had the force and strength to have failed so grandly. . . .
You are correct; I was first of all (I still think) telling what I thought was a good story, and I believed Quentin could do it better than I in this case. But I accept gratefully all your implications, even though I didn't carry them consciously and simultaneously in the writing of it. But I don't believe it would have been necessary to carry them or even to have known their analogous derivation, to have had them in the story. Art is simpler than people think because there is so little to write about. All the moving things are eternal in man's history and have been written before, and if a man writes hard enough, sincerely enough, humbly enough, and with the unalterable determination never never never to be quite satisfied with it, he will repeat them, because art like poverty takes care of its own, shares its bread.
Reading over those last lines, I could not help thinking of Emerson's adjuration to the ideal poet:
Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say "It is in me and shall out." Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity. Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in turn arise and walk before him as exponent of his meaning. Comes he to that power, his genius is no longer exhaustible. All the creatures by pairs and by tribes pour into his mind as into a Noah's ark, to come forth again to people a new world.
In our own century, Faulkner has been the great exponent of that dream power. He dipped into his unconscious memories as into a barrel, confident that he would find there all the moving stories since the beginning of time, for he shared Emerson's confidence that all human societies, as well as human souls, are cast in the same mold. The barrel seemed inexhaustible, to follow Emerson's phrase, but Faulkner was dipping into it deeper and deeper. First came his childhood dreams or memories, then those of his family and those of the Mississippi settlers, then the Gospel story, which appears several times; then he entered a pre-Christian layer—not only that but preliterate and prelogicai as well, with touches of animism and primitive magic—then finally, as he wrote to Joan Williams, he felt that he was coming toward the end, the bottom of the barrel—"The stuff is still good," he said, "but I know now that there is not very much more of it, a little trash comes up constantly now, which must be sifted out." That was when he was writing A Fable, in which he depended less on those subconscious feelings that had served him so well in the novels of the 1930s. A Fable was willed as a parable, whereas the true gifts of dream and the unconscious must be accepted humbly and sincerely, as Faulkner accepted them in his earlier great books. In these he created a whole series of myths, but the power and magic of his achievement is most apparent in his 1942 book, Go Down, Moses, and especially in that great legend of the wilderness, "The Bear."
Let me apologize in advance for devoting so much of my attention to "The Bear." It has been analyzed time and again and its symbolic or mythical elements have been observed by many critics; I will mention in particular John Lydenberg and Carvel Collins. It is in fact the clearest example of Faulkner's mythmaking power, though it helps us to find the same quality in other books—in Absalom, Absalom!, as noted; in The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and others as well.
Let me retell the story simply as a nature myth. The story (or chapter of Go Down, Moses) is in five parts as we know, but we have Faulkner's authorization to omit the long fourth part, which is concerned with another myth, that of the black and white descendants of old Carothers McCaslin. The nature myth is recounted in Parts I, II, III, and V, and here I shall emphasize its magical or supernatural elements, such as extrasensory perception, psychophysical parallelism, reading the minds of animals (as do the old women in fables who can understand the talk of birds), invulnerability to weapons, the belief that objects are inhabited by spirits and that the whole natural world is animate; and, as a special element, a concern with events that happen, not by laws of cause and effect, but in concordance with a ritual pattern preexisting in dreams. I shall have to do a good deal of reading, both to make my points clear and because Faulkner's prose in "The Bear" is truly a delight for me to read aloud, and I hope for you to hear.
Here, then, is the story retold as a myth of the wilderness and a myth of initiation. Isaac McCaslin was first brought into the wilderness at the age of ten.
He had already inherited then, without ever having seen it, the big old bear with one trap-ruined foot that in an area almost a hundred miles square had earned for himself a name, a definite designation like a living man:—the long legend of corncribs broken down and rifled, of shoats and grown pigs and even calves carried bodily into the woods and devoured, and traps and deadfalls overthrown and dogs mangled and slain, and shotgun and even rifle shots delivered at point-blank range yet with no more effect than so many peas blown through a tube by a child—a corridor of wreckage and destruction beginning back before the boy was born, through which sped, not fast but rather with the ruthless and irresistible deliberation of a locomotive, the shaggy tremendous shape. It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it. It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print, shaggy, tremendous, red-eyed, not malevolent but just big, too big for the dogs which tried to bay it, for the horses which tried to ride it down, for the men and the bullets they fired into it; too big for the very country which was its constricting scope.
Here is the monster of legend: the dragon, the minotaur, the medusa of innumerable legends, some of them going back to the Middle Ages and others to preclassical times in Greece. In this case, however, we note that the "shaggy, tremendous, red-eyed" creature is "not malevolent, but just big." We read on:
It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old, wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant.
The bear, we note, is the "epitome and apotheosis" of the wilderness; to use a simpler word, Old Ben is the god of the wilderness. As for the hunters who pursue Old Ben, they are depicted almost as a band of priests, each performing his sacerdotal part in a mystery. Ike McCaslin at the age of ten is about to become one of the priestly band, not a full member, but a novice, an initiate. As such he will participate in what Faulkner calls "the yearly pageant-rite of the old bear's furious immortality."
Each novice, if he is fortunate, has a guide and mentor, a wise old man. For the boy in this story, the mentor is Sam Fathers. We read:
He entered his novitiate to the true wilderness with Sam beside him as he had begun his apprenticeship in miniature to manhood after the rabbits and such with Sam beside him, the two of them wrapped in the damp, warm, Negro-rank quilt, while the wilderness closed behind his entrance as it had opened momentarily to accept him, opening before his advancement as it closed behind his progress, no fixed path the wagon followed but a channel nonexistent ten yards ahead of it and ceasing to exist ten yards after it had passed. . . .
It seemed to him that at the age of ten he was witnessing his own birth. It was not even strange to him. He had experienced it all before, and not merely in dreams.
I shall not stress the sexual overtones of this passage. When the boy enters the wilderness, it is almost as if he were entering the womb. Initiation—so we read in the works of various anthropologists—is a rite of death and rebirth. Did Faulkner read those anthropologists? Possibly he may have done so, for he was a wide reader, but it seems more likely that he discovered some of the same values and the same images by exploring his own subconscious. That was part of his mythopoeic genius.
Old Sam Fathers is the son of a Chickasaw chief by a Negro slave woman. With the blood of the wilderness running strong in him, he feels a mysterious affinity for the bear, and we find him, at points in the story, even reading the bear's mind. Should we call that extrasensory perception? Or should we think of all the fairy stories in which someone is able to understand the language of animals? In many respects, as I have suggested, "The Bear" is like a fairy story.
It is a characteristic of fairy stories that their plots move forward by what we might call a graded series of actions or events, with each event being a little more intense than the one that preceded it. Faulkner also made frequent use of the graded series and nowhere more effectively than in "The Bear." The story contains three or four of the series, but the one that is easiest to recognize is the series of events that leads up to the decisive moment when the boy first catches sight of the bear.
First event in the series: The hounds see the bear, and their baying changes from a ringing chorus to "a moiling yapping an octave too high and with something . . . in it which he could not yet recognize." Later Ike and Sam find the dogs huddled under the kitchen and smell an effluvium of something more than dog.
Second event: With his mystic knowledge of where the bear can be found, Sam leads young Ike deep into the woods and shows him "the rotted log scored and gutted with clawmarks and, in the wet earth beside it, the print of the enormous warped two-toed foot. Now he knew what he had heard in the hounds' voices in the woods that morning and what he had smelled when he peered under the kitchen where they huddled"; it was the sound and the smell of fear.
Third event: On the following morning Ike is on a new stand with his loaded gun. "He heard no dogs at all. He never did certainly hear them. He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off, and knew that the bear was looking at him. He never saw it. He did not know whether it was facing him from the cane or behind him. He did not move, holding the useless gun which he knew now he would never fire at it, now or ever, tasting in his saliva that taint of brass which he had smelled in the huddled dogs when he peered under the kitchen. . . . So I will have to see him, he thought, without dread or even hope. I will have to look at him"
Each of these three experiences is more intense for Ike than the one that preceded it. They are building toward a fourth event or experience that will be still more intense, that will serve as a first climax of Ike's novitiate as a priest of the wilderness. At this point Ike resembles an Indian boy in search of a vision that will shape his future life. I quote from an account by two anthropologists reprinted in Bear, Man, and God; they are describing the initiation rites of the Omaha tribe:
Four days and nights the youth was to fast and pray provided he was physically able to bear so long a strain. No matter how hungry he became, he was forbidden to use the bow and arrows put into his hands by his father when he left his home for this solitary test of endurance. When he fell into a sleep or a trance, if he saw or heard anything that thing was to become a special medium through which the youth could receive supernatural aid. . . . He passed through his experience alone, and alone he returned to his father's lodge.
Young Ike McCaslin's special vision will be of the bear. The graded series that leads up to it had started with the hounds' catching sight of Old Ben. It had continued with Ike's seeing the bear's footprint and then, as a third event, with the bear's looking at Ike. Now the boy, alone in the wilderness, must see the bear for himself, but this fourth event requires a lapse of time and a special preparation. It is midsummer of the following year. Ike and his older companions have returned to the camp in the wilderness. Each morning after breakfast Ike leaves the camp with his shotgun, a watch, and a compass, ostensibly to hunt squirrels; actually he is in search of Old Ben. For three successive days he ranges farther and farther into the wilderness, always alone, but always he comes back to camp without his vision. As he returns on the third evening, he meets Sam Fathers, who says, "You ain't looked right. . . . It's the gun."
He takes Sam's advice. On the fourth morning he leaves camp before dawn, without breakfast (fasting like an Indian boy), and leaves the gun behind. Ranging still farther into the wilderness, he searches for nine hours without finding a sign of Old Ben. Then he decides that leaving the gun behind isn't enough. He is still tainted; he still has the watch and the compass. He hangs them both on a bush, and leans against the bush the stick he has carried as a protection against snakes. Empty-handed, he continues his search.
Slowly he realizes that, without watch or compass, he is completely lost. He does what Sam had told him to do if lost; that is, he makes a circular cast to cross his backtrack. He doesn't find the track, so he follows a second instruction of Sam's by making a wider cast in the opposite direction. Once again failure; he finds no trace of his feet, or of any feet. Close to panic now, he follows a third instruction by sitting down on a log to think things over. Then comes one of the finest passages in a superb story, a passage that must be quoted in full:
. . . seeing as he sat down on the log the crooked print, the warped indentation in the wet ground which while he looked at it continued to fill with water until it was level full and the water began to overflow and the sides of the print began to dissolve away. Even as he looked up he saw the next one, and, moving, the one beyond it; moving, not hurrying, running, but merely keeping pace with them as they appeared before him as though they were being shaped out of thin air just one constant pace short of where he would lose them forever and be lost forever himself, tireless, eager, without doubt or dread, panting a little above the strong rapid little hammer of his heart, emerging suddenly into a little glade, and the wilderness coalesced. It rushed, soundless, and solidified—the tree, the bush, the compass and the watch glinting where a ray of sunlight touched them. Then he saw the bear.
That is the vision for which he has searched and fasted, losing himself in the wilderness. The vision has been vouchsafed because he has followed the instructions of Sam Fathers, the priest of the wilderness, and has even gone beyond those instructions by abandoning watch and compass as well as gun. He has performed the magic ritual and it has produced its magical result, without the least taint of science or logic, but in accordance with patterns that seem to lie deep in the unconscious and that Faulkner has embodied in this story. We read on:
[The bear] did not emerge, appear; it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him. Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun's full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink back into the dark depths of its pool and vanish without even any movement of its fins.
The bear at this moment is more than a flesh-and-blood creature; it is a vision touched with elements of the supernatural. It does not emerge, but is simply there. It does not walk away, but sinks back into the wilderness without motion. The whole passage is full of magic in the proper sense of the word, that is, of effects produced, not by natural causes, but by spells and rituals. At the same time it seems profoundly right to the reader because, I suspect, it appeals to feelings and patterns existing in his mind below the level of conscious thinking.
Young Ike McCaslin's vision of the bear is not the only episode in the story that illustrates these prelogical patterns of feeling, in the manner of a medieval legend or a fairy tale. Another is the death of Old Ben, an event toward which everything else has been building. At last the hunters have found a huge dog, another mythical creature, that can bay and hold him. With the new dog, Lion, leading the pack, they set out after Old Ben on the last hunting day of three successive autumns. Here we note another graded series. On the first autumn, seven strangers appear in camp to watch the proceedings. Old Ben escapes by swimming down the river. On the second autumn, more than a dozen strangers appear. Old Ben escapes once more, but this time with buckshot and a slug in his hide from General Compson's double-barreled shotgun. The third autumn will be the climax. Some forty strangers appear to watch the hunt, "so that when they went into the woods this morning Major de Spain led a party almost as strong, excepting that some of them were not armed, as some he had led in the last darkening days of '64 and '65." In the frantic chase that follows, most of the hunters are left behind. Old Ben swims across the river, pursued by Lion and most of the other dogs, but now by only three hunters, who have also crossed the river. (Incidentally, Carvel Collins was the first to point out the mythical significance of their crossing water.)
The moment has come for Old Ben to die, and his death is accomplished in a ritual fashion, against all the laws of scientific probability. Among the three hunters who are eligible to kill him, having crossed the river, old Sam Fathers is a priest of the wilderness and cannot kill his own god (not to mention that Sam is unarmed). Young Ike has decided that he will never, in any circumstances, shoot at the bear. The third eligible hunter is Boon Hogganbeck, who has never been known to hit anything he aimed at; his gun is useless. But Boon also has a more primitive weapon, a knife. As reported by anthropologists, there was a widespread feeling among woodland Indians that bears, being a special sort of animal connected with very old tribal ceremonies and traditions, should be killed only with primitive weapons such as a knife or an axe. Had Faulkner read about that feeling or did he, once again, recapture it instinctively?
The story reaches its climax. The hounds swirl around the bear as it stands on its hind legs with its back against a tree. Lion dives in and sinks his teeth in the bear's throat. The bear holds Lion in both arms, "almost loverlike," and then begins raking the dog's belly with his foreclaws. To save his dog, Boon Hogganbeck throws away the useless gun, flings himself astride the bear's back, and plunges his knife into the bear's throat. ". . . then the bear surged erect, raising with it the man and the dog too, and turned and still carrying the man and the dog it took two or three steps toward the woods on its hind feet as a man would have walked and crashed down. It didn't collapse, crumple. It fell all of a piece, as a tree falls, so that all three of them, man dog and bear, seemed to bounce once."
The death of the bear leads magically to a series of catastrophic events. Old Sam Fathers collapses; after the loss of his wilderness god he has no more reason for living. Lion dies of his wounds. Major de Spain sells the wilderness to a logging company, saving out only the acre of land where Sam and Lion are buried (with one of the bear's paws in an axle-grease tin near the top of Lion's grave). Major de Spain will never go back to the hunting camp, and there will be no more November hunting parties.
But the boy goes back two years later, as an act of piety. That is the episode beautifully presented in the fifth and last section of "The Bear," once again with overtones of primitive ritual and magic. Ike digs up the axle-grease tin, inspects the dried remains of the bear's mutilated paw, then puts the tin back again. He does not even look for Sam Fathers's grave, knowing that he had stepped over it, perhaps on it. "But that is all right," he thinks to himself. "He probably knew I was in the woods this morning long before I got here." Instead he goes to the other axlegrease tin, the one he had nailed to a nearby tree; on the morning of Sam's burial he had filled it with food and tobacco. It was empty now—
. . . as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket—the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places with delicate fairy tracks, which, breathing and biding and immobile, watched him from beyond every twig and leaf until he moved . . . quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression, and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him his paw back even, certainly they would give him his paw back: then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled.
What should we call the beliefs implicit in that passage: animism? pantheism? panpsychism? a sacrifice to the spirits of the dead? the myth of eternal recurrence translated into spiritual terms? All those primeval notions are suggested, and Ike himself has become part of them. He has replaced Sam Fathers as a priest of the wilderness, which, though destroyed by lumbermen, will live on in his mind.
As Ike walks down from the graves on the knoll he has one more experience that evokes a feeling of the supernatural. He almost steps on a huge rattlesnake, "the head raised higher than his knee and less than his knee's length away . . . the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary and he could smell it now: the thin sick smell of rotting cucumbers and something else which had no name, evocative of all knowledge and an old weariness and of pariah-hood and of death." Ike stands there transfixed, one foot still raised from the ground, until at last, without striking him, the snake glides away. Then he puts the other foot down and, "standing with one hand raised as Sam had stood that afternoon six years ago . . . speaking the old tongue which Sam had spoken that day without premeditation either: 'Chief,' he said: 'Grandfather.'"
The reader does not stop to question how Ike had come to remember those two words of Chickasaw that Sam had spoken six years before, or how he came to know that one of them meant "Chief and the other "Grandfather," those two words of high respect to be spoken with one hand raised. We are ready to believe that Ike himself, at this point, has acquired magical powers. "The Bear" is more than a story; it is a myth that appeals, like other great myths, to feelings buried deep in the minds of its readers.
Marian Scholtmeijer (essay date 1993)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3390
SOURCE: "Mythic Inflation and Historical Deflation in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Animal Victims in Modern Fiction: From Sanctity to Sacrifice, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 217-57.
[In the following excerpt, Scholtmeijer contends that a "nostalgia for the demise of the hunting ethos" conflicts with the mythic "sanctities of the hunt" in Old Ben's death scene.]
In 'The Bear,' William Faulkner equivocates upon the recognition that myth seeks to prove its authenticity in the victimization of living bodies. Faulkner loves myth and mourns the collapse of myth into history. He does, however, treat the physical death of the totemic bear which draws hunters to the woods year after year as one stage in the disintegration of mythic consciousness. But, in marked contrast to Timothy Findley, he seeks virtue in virility: combined with the death of the bear, and the sale and destruction of the bear's woods, is the disappearance of the 'real man.' Faulkner sees, rightly, that historical progress has undermined the myth of masculine psychopomp, such that modern men can only go ignobly into the woods to hunt. Yet he seems also to want to predicate the now-lost myth of the hunt upon the failure to kill the totemic animal. Certainly, the annual hunt, as Faulkner depicts it, stands as an admonishment to life in Memphis, where 'men in starched collars and neckties' and 'ladies rosy in furs' stroll hard pavements and dine in restaurants. These city people 'had never heard' of the great dog Lion or the legendary bear Old Ben, 'and didn't want to' (p. 234). Nostalgia for the demise of the hunting ethos informs 'The Bear.' But nostalgia for the living bear conflicts with the remembered sanctities of the hunt. Ironically, as Mary Allen astutely observes, all the stories in Go Down, Moses, including 'The Bear,' 'substantiate the hunt as an immoral activity' (p. 153). While Memphis life is inferior to the life of the hunt, the hunt demonstrates its own unworthiness in taking the life of the revered animal.
Faulkner's story, as it is currently published, has a long passage of McCaslin family history inserted into it. In an interview in the late 1950s, Faulkner said that this passage, section IV, 'doesn't belong in ['The Bear'] as a short story.' He encourages the reader to 'skip that when you come to it' (in Utley et al, eds, Bear, Man, and God, p. 116). Section IV, however, has several beneficial effects upon the text, not the least among them being that it provides, in Irving Howe's words, 'an abrasive disruption of the idyllic nostalgia previously accumulated' (p. 257). In section IV, after Ike McCaslin has related the tale of his meeting with Old Ben and his failure to shoot the bear when he could, his cousin quotes Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' at him: 'She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!' (p. 297). These lines from Keats are quoted also in the original, 1935 version of 'The Bear.' In that version, the boy's father speaks the lines to explain to the boy why he (the boy) did not shoot Old Ben. The boy's encounter with Old Ben is the climactic moment in the 1935 version of the story: Old Ben does not die in this version. By a process of successive distancing, then, the lines from Keats come to ring hollow in the extended version of 'The Bear.' They are delivered by a man whose relation to Ike is more distant than that of the father to the boy in the original. They are isolated from the primary text by the shift in mood and range characterizing the historical passage. More important, the lines are uttered against the reader's knowledge that Old Ben has been killed. The memory of the long-dead bear, which the assertion in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' should enshrine, in fact makes feeble compensation for the living animal. It can also be granted, with some reluctance, that the masculine myth of the hunt is sufficiently convincing to eclipse Keats's delicate, poetic sentiment. The hunters have the totemic Old Ben; future generations have only the anecdotal bear. As Irving Howe indicates, the whole of section IV leads up to the disenchantment driven home by the last section of the story, in which Ike returns to the scene of the hunt and finds that 'hunting' in the abstract has been desecrated.
The conclusion of 'The Bear' comes as a surprise, in view of the mythic ponderousness Faulkner has infused into the hunt in the first three sections of the story. Everything about the hunting trips appears at first to speak of an immutably superior way of existence. The hunters compose a community of men, bonded together so perfectly as to negate the racial differences that Faulkner himself cannot overlook. At least, that is, a transcendence of racial prejudice is one of Faulkner's opening flourishes in praise of the hunt: part of the 'best of all talking' to which Ike is exposed on these trips to the woods concerns 'men, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive' (p. 191). Even the whiskey these men drink has to be robed in mythic significance:
[I]t would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan's base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them. (p. 192)
Clearly, for Faulkner, these are not just a bunch of men off on a toot in the woods. They participate annually in a mystic ceremony, a ritual affirming the potent spirit of the wilderness and the 'humility and pride'—a keynote—of the hunter in the face of that spirit.
The totality of that spirit is summed up in Old Ben. All the other animals are fair game. Shooting a buck and being daubed with the buck's blood is a mystic rite for the boy. This initiation is described in Faulkner's 'The Old People'; in this story, as Ike anticipates shooting the buck, he thinks that soon 'he would draw the blood, the big blood which would make him a man, a hunter.' Other animals, evidently, have 'little blood': rabbits are the target of boys in 'apprenticeship' to manhood (p. 195). In the course of time, killing animals has virtually disappeared as a rationale for the hunt. Major de Spain and old General Compson, who preside over the yearly excursion, have already demonstrated their prowess as hunters and men, and seem to spend the whole time back at camp, sharing the 'best of all talk' and the mystic whiskey, and not shooting animals. Only inferior men, and the boy, go off to kill the lesser beasts:
Boon and the negroes (and the boy now too) fished and shot squirrels and ran the coons and cats, because the proven hunters . . . scorned such other than shooting the wild gobblers with pistols for wagers or to test their marksmanship. (pp. 204-5)
'Gobblers' (note the uneasy childishness in the designation: these are not 'turkeys'), evidently, are nothing better than moving objects for the lazy whim of the proven hunter. Neither 'big blood' nor little blood runs through turkey veins; if it did, the proven hunter would be sinking to the level of boys and people of colour in shooting the birds. The power that continues to draw these men into the woods, then, is concentrated in Old Ben. The men return to the woods, 'not to hunt deer and bear but to keep yearly rendezvous with the bear which they did not even intend to kill' (p. 194)—or at least that is the impression the boy has. Later, he realizes that the men 'had no actual intention of slaying' the bear, 'not because it could not be slain but because they had no actual hope of being able to' (p. 201). Already, mythical import is beginning to succumb to disillusionment. The hunters, who will not deign to shoot lesser animals, are in fact brave, or shortsighted, enough to kill Old Ben if it could be done, and thus to bring an end to the mighty, spiritual quest of which only Old Ben could be the object. Testifying to the immorality of the intent to slay Old Ben is the fact that the inferior man, Boon Hogganbeck, kills the bear, and not the distant white hunters. Only a mortal man, it appears, can prove the bear likewise mortal and defile its totemic meaning.
'The Bear' is, in fact, a Bildungsroman. In the eyes of the innocent boy, Old Ben is
not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant;—the old bear, solitary, indomitable and alone; widowered, childless and absolved of mortality—old. (pp. 193-4)
When Old Ben wounds a female dog with its claws, 'it was still no living creature but only the wilderness which, leaning for a moment, had patted lightly once her temerity' (p. 199). When the boy grows into the realization that this bear is mortal and can be destroyed, he undergoes physical sensations denoting both fear and lust: he experiences 'a flavor like brass in the sudden run of saliva in his mouth, [and] a hard sharp constriction either in his brain or his stomach' (p. 200). He realizes, simultaneously, 'his own fragility and impotence': he too is mortal; the hunt does not distinguish him above the animals he kills.
The mortal bear is still far enough removed from the state of the natural animal to be invoked by mystic rites. By some uncanny telepathy, the bear knows when the boy has jettisoned the trappings of civilization. First, the boy leaves his gun behind to walk unarmed into the bear's territory. This weaponlessness is 'a condition in which not only the bear's heretofore inviolable anonymity but all the ancient rules and balances of hunter and hunted had been abrogated' (p. 207). When, after nine hours, the boy has not yet encountered Old Ben, he realizes that the watch and compass he carries are signs of impurity which repel the bear. Once he rids himself of these remaining instruments, he at last sees the bear. Even so, the bear is not an animal but a metaphysical emanation defying natural law:
It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him. Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun's full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion. (p. 209)
Despite having been called up by magic, and despite its physical nebulousness, the bear behaves as a real bear would most likely behave on encountering a human in the woods. Old Ben's nonviolent retreat in this instance marks one distinction between 'The Bear' and conventional hunting stories. Old Ben is not the ferocious beast of hunting lore, which threatens humans with its wicked claws and fangs and tests the hunter's virility. While it would be wrong to say that the boy's state of spiritual awe and passivity has drawn the bear to him, it would not be wrong to suspect reluctance on Faulkner's part to approve of victimization of at least this one animal. The mysticism that surrounds Old Ben, the fact that the bear safeguards the last vestiges of the genuine wilderness, seems in this passage to join forces with an unacknowledged empathy for the simple animal who wants to go its own way undisturbed.
This brief instant of communion with the natural animal quickly disappears under narrative preparation for the Battle of the Titans, which will see Old Ben pitted against Lion, the wild dog whose eyes express 'a cold and almost impersonal malignance like some natural force' (p. 218). Obviously, something has to be done, narratively speaking, to shift the onus of Old Ben's death away from human beings, if only partially: humans, however humble and proud, are after all too puny to bring down the myth Faulkner has built up around the bear. Besides that, this year's hunt has to be quintessentially different from the hunts of other years: Old Ben cannot die by mischance alone. Thus Faulkner introduces Lion, an animal who equals Old Ben in strength and mystery. It is a foregone conclusion that Lion will also fall victim to this battle and die. Humankind has to be deprived utterly of mythic beasts; it would be a violation of progressive disillusionment if Lion were left in human hands, to keep alive the spirit of the untarne and inhuman.
Boon Hogganbeck is a kind of scapegoat to Faulkner's need to eliminate the bear and show myth in collapse. The other men are too pure to commit the awful deed; if the myth of male bonding in the wilderness is to remain pristine, none of the proven hunters can assume the guilt of invalidating the hunt and consigning the wilderness to human authority for good. Boon Hogganbeck is a peculiar hybrid. He is something of a hero in having saved Ike's life by throwing him out of the path of a runaway horse and wagon (p. 233). He attends so faithfully to Lion that their relationship is almost marital; the man and the dog sleep together, and when Boon caresses Lion, it is unclear which of the two, Lion or Boon, is the woman in this relationship (p. 220). Boon kills the bear in the approved mythic manner: with a knife, not a gun. Yet Boon is of mixed blood, part Indian, part white, and has the mentality of a child. He has 'the ugliest face the boy had ever seen. It looked like somebody had found a walnut a little larger than a football and with a machinist's hammer had shaped features into it and then painted it, mostly red' (p. 227). Faulkner has clearly worked hard to compose this face; natural and machine imagery clash to create a picture that is hardly human. At one point, Boon's face is described as a 'huge gargoyle's face' (p. 225). In sum, Boon is both a likely and an unlikely challenger for the bear. He has the desperate heroism of the oppressed; he is a born victim, stigmatized by his mixed racial origins and his physical ugliness. He possesses both the psychological and the literary qualities that make him suitable for sacrifice to narrative pressure to nullify myth. Boon has to bear final guilt, too, for reducing the hunt to a pettiness.
Two years after the events which bring about the death of Old Ben, Ike returns to the woods. The annual hunting ritual has come to an end: Major de Spain has sold the timber-rights for the woods to a Memphis lumbering company, and the wilderness itself is about to be destroyed. Trains and city mentality are going to wreck the land. Ike recalls a time when the trains passing through the wilderness had been 'harmless' (p. 320). Faulkner links the harmless coexistence of industry and wilderness with sympathy for the animal: he inserts a memory from the distant past in which a locomotive frightens a bear into a tree, and Boon sits beneath the tree for hours, waiting for the bear to come down and making sure that no one shoots the vulnerable creature. Only at this point, when the destruction of the woods will wipe out all the mythic potence of the hunt, does Faulkner introduce compassion for the animal. Before this point, compassion for the animal would have undermined the value of the hunt. Now, with the demise of the hunting myth, it is possible for Faulkner to indulge sentimentality over the animal victim, albeit somewhat speciously. Nostalgia now demands that the hunt appear truly innocent and truly mindful of the life of the animal.
There is a further loss of innocence to come. Passing the graves of Lion and of Sam Fathers, who had guided him through his first hunting experiences, Ike thinks that these beings have not ultimately died, but have merely been 'translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places with delicate fairy tracks' (p. 328). Old Ben, he thinks, has also become inviolable. The crippled paw they have buried with Lion and Sam Fathers will be returned to the mighty bear:
Old Ben, too; they would give him his paw back even, certainly they would give him his paw back, then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—(p. 329)
One detects Keatsian romanticism in Ike's fantasy, from the spiritualization of Old Ben down to the 'delicate fairy tracks' that cross the once virile wilderness. Fortunately, Faulkner is wise enough not to let this idyllic delusion stand. While he finds it necessary to introduce a rather obvious snake at this moment, he is also going to sever all sentimental attachments to the myth of the hunt. The 'snake' in this wild Eden is realism; the snake foreshadows the last scene in the woods that Ike will encounter. In this scene, bear-slayer Boon is sitting under a tree, as he had sat under a tree previously protecting a frightened bear from attack. This time, however, Boon is frantically trying to repair his rifle so that he can shoot the multitude of squirrels running about in the branches above him. He seems barely to recognize Ike, or at least to view Ike only as a competitor for the inferior animals he has singled out as his own personal prey. 'Get out of here!' he yells at his friend; 'Dont touch them! Dont touch a one of them! They're mine!' With these words, the hunt is reduced to the meanest of human terms, to avarice and selfishness, to a mundanely lustful act whose only object is to kill animals.
With the final scene in 'The Bear,' Old Ben falls into mortality. Like all the other animal victims, in Salammbo and 'The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator,' and in Not Wanted on the Voyage, Old Ben pulls down with him human faith in myth. Whether the debunking of myth is a healthy process, as it is with Flaubert, or an occasion for sadness, as it is with Findley and Faulkner, animal bodies have borne the brunt of modern disillusionment. The struggle to resurrect myth as dynamic, creative narrative meets its match in the mortal animal. The animal reminds us of our own death. Where myth articulates the hope that humans are not merely material beings, that by some magical power the right kind of language will confer immortality upon natural beings, modern fiction remains sceptical. Animals carry the force of realism. Their silence acts as a barrier to linguistic intention. Their death closes the gap between nature and culture.
While it is good that some quality in fiction's use of myth can bring the literal animal into contact with cultural representation, it is a pity that the reminder of the natural animal has to be death. The hope that modern people place in myth is a hope for rapport with the whole world of living creatures. Modern culture gives us, instead, rapport with the dying animal, the animal victim. Though one cannot discount myth as forming a link between culture and nature, it is largely by means of the attitude which treats myth as synonymous with fallacies that modern narrative establishes that link. The idea of myth is of vital strategic significance, nonetheless.