Themes, Structure and Character Development

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William Faulkner is generally regarded as the most important writer to be produced by the American South. A native of Mississippi, Faulkner wrote about the land where he lived for most of his life. The great majority of Faulkner's work is set in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha (which, in turn, is based on the actual Lafayette County, home to the city of Oxford and the University of Mississippi). The influence of the past, the relationships between men, and the difficulties brought about by change are all recurrent themes in Faulkner's novels and stories. "The Bear" is a good example of a story that embodies all of these themes.

"The Bear" was originally published in 1935. In 1942, Faulkner revised it and included it in his book Go Down, Moses. Later, he insisted that "The Bear" could not be fully understood unless it was read with the other stories in Go Down, Moses as a segment of a novel. In its seven stories, Go Down, Moses recounts many of the events in the life of Isaac (Ike) McCaslin, a member of one of Yoknapatawpha's three most important families. (The other families, representatives of which appear in "The Bear," are the Compsons and the Sutpens).

The complex narrative of "The Bear'' makes it difficult to sort out the family relations of the characters in the story. This is, of course, part of Faulkner's objective: through the tangled narration, he illustrates the often tangled genealogies of Southern families, especially those involving illegitimate children who were the offspring of white men and slave women. Ike McCaslin, the main character, is the grandson of one of Yoknapatawpha's settlers and founders, Carothers McCaslin. Carothers' sons include Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, who, upon the death of their father in 1837, move into a log cabin on their plantation grounds and moved the plantation's slaves into the "big house." Late in his life, Uncle Buck marries Sophonsiba Beauchamp and they produce Dee in 1867. Carothers also has a daughter married to an Edmonds, who is either the father or the grandfather (Faulkner does not say) of McCaslin "Cass" Edmonds. Cass, seventeen years older than Ike, in effect becomes Ike's father after Uncle Buck's death. In "The Bear,'' we see Ike and Cass together through much of the story, and in the fourth section Cass teaches Ike many of the family's secrets and much of its history. The other characters in "The Bear" include General Compson and Major deSpain, two of Yoknapatawpha's leading citizens; Sam Fathers, a hunting guide of Chickasaw descent, and Boon, another part-Chickasaw member of the hunting party; and Ash, the black cook for the hunting party.

The story recounts the efforts of Major de Spain's annual hunting party to track down Old Ben, an old and wily bear who is "ravaging the countryside." We see the hunt through Ike's eyes, and the first section of the story shifts in time through Ike's first expedition with the hunting party, in 1877, to the 1883 trip in which Old Ben is finally killed. Although the slaying of Old Ben is the climax of the story's action, it is not the story's focus. Instead, in the first half of the story we are confronted by the story of a boy's growing into manhood through learning the ancient ways of the hunter. On his first trip, the boy is not allowed to shoot his gun. On his second hunt, Sam Fathers teaches Ike that he must become a part of the wilderness before he earns the right to kill anything. That year, Ike discards his gun...

(This entire section contains 1835 words.)

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and goes off into the wilderness in search of Ben. Unable to lure the bear out of hiding, Ike leaves behind the trappings of civilization--his watch and compass--and is rewarded with a glimpse of the old bear. Subsequent trips bring the party closer to killing the bear, and in 1881 Sam captures a wild dog, whom he names "Lion,'' in hopes that he will help them corner the bear. Finally, in 1883 Lion and the hunters corner the bear. Ben kills the dog, but at the same time Boon jumps up on the bear's back and fatally stabs it. As the party prepares to return to town, Sam dies, and Ike suspects that Boon has "helped'' in this.

The story of the hunt, although exciting, only takes up the first half (the first three sections) of "The Bear." After Sam dies, the narrative shifts. The sentences become extremely long, a characteristic Faulkner technique, and the narrator begins to discuss the early history of the county. This fourth section, stylistically the most difficult of the five, recounts Ike's investigation into his family's history and leads up to his decision to renounce his inheritance. The majority of the chapter takes place in the McCaslin family commissary, where Ike and McCaslin Edmonds discuss many topics. Their discussions include the Chickasaws, who sold Ike's grandfather the land for his plantation, the legacy of slavery in the McCaslin family, and their convoluted family history. In addition, we see Dee working through his confusion about his own father: he cannot decide whether Cass, his grandfather Carothers, his spiritual father Sam, or Uncle Buck is his legitimate father.

Here, Faulkner is at his most ambitious. In this section, the past and the present co-exist almost without differentiation. In the same sentence, the actions of such figures as the Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe, Ike's Uncle Buddy, and Buddy's slave Tenme exert almost equal force on Ike. Similarly, Ike is ten, sixteen, and twenty-one, all in the space of a few lines. Faulkner uses this strategy to examine Ike's reaction to the pressure of the legacy that has been left to him. Ike, at age twenty-one, is finally legally able to inherit the McCaslin plantation, but he refuses. He is haunted by his abhorrence of slavery and the fields he now owns "whose laborers it still held in thrall '65 or no." Similarly, he is disgusted by his family's refusal to acknowledge that old Carothers not only fathered a daughter, Tomasina, by his slave Eunice, but also incestuously fathered a son by Tomey. Finally he is deeply disturbed by the single-minded search for profit which the ownership of the plantation has fostered. Thus Ike refuses to take over the farm. By doing this, he hopes to cleanse himself of the stains that history has placed upon him.

The story is rich with meaning and resonance. Critics have drawn parallels of "The Bear" with ancient fertility myths, with the story of Christianity and with Marxist critiques of modern consumer society. The connection of the hunt story to various myths is certainly an appealing one; many cultures have some type of a rite in which boys "come of age" by going off by themselves and hunting an animal. Ike learns not only how to "be a man" but also what man's "proper place" is within nature when Sam requires that he go without his gun before he can actually begin hunting. Major deSpain and General Compson also believe in the inherent value of the hunt as a learning tool. For both of them, killing Old Ben is not really the ultimate goal; until Boon kills the bear, they view the stalking of Ben (which always takes place on the last day of the hunting trip) almost as a ritual. When Boon kills Old Ben, Sam—who symbolizes the old ways and the ideal relation of man to nature—also dies. Boon here represents the predations of the modern world, his act symbolizing the severed relationship between man and nature. At the end, as he smashes his gun, he seems to have reached the impasse which Faulkner suggests all men will reach without an understanding of the proper role of man in nature.

The fact that Boon, the agent of the modern world, is sitting in the middle of a forest that is soon to be "harvested'' by a Memphis lumber company demonstrates how the modern world, according to Faulkner, is willfully destroying itself.

To read "The Bear'' as a Christian allegory requires us to view Sam Fathers as the Christ-figure. He shows Ike the way,"the code of the hunter as an alternative to the planation world." Two critics, R. W. B. Lewis and Lewis P. Simpson, discuss whether Ike McCashn's choice is the "key to salvation'' for a fallen man. Lewis sees Ike's renunciation of his tainted family estate as a cleansing act in his essay in the Kenyon Review, but Simpson holds the contrary. According to Simpson's article in Nine Essays in Modern Literature, Faulkner believes that man's sins of slavery and of unquestioning faith in science and technology are of different moral types. He asserts that slavery, although a "curse," is rooted in man's inherent sinfulness, and is therefore less preventable. He further contends that our contemporary reliance on technology and belief in its power "separates man from both his sense of involvement with his fellow man and with nature and dehumanizes him." Ike repudiates the first sin, but simply by virtue of his being a member of modern society he cannot fully repudiate the second. The destruction of the land for the sake of profit is such an integral part of his own existence that we cannot see him as a savior figure.

Faulkner's treatment of race is extremely complex. There are as many explanations for his attitude towards the racial situation in the South as there are critics. We can attribute at least two solid beliefs to him: he abhors slavery, which he feels is an enduring curse not only upon the three races of the South (he here includes the Native Americans) but also upon the very land of Mississippi. He feels that the white race bears some responsibility for the black race's welfare (and this is epitomized by Ike's need to make sure his black cousins obtain the legacy which Carothers set aside for them). Faulkner's other belief is that he feels that the black race "endures." Ike tells McCaslin that "they [African Americans] are better than we are. Stronger than we are.'' "The Bear,'' in many ways, is the story of Ike McCaslin's coming to terms with the racial inequity that his family helped to construct.

Although rooted in the particular historical conditions of post-Civil War Mississippi, Faulkner's story reaches beyond the limitations of historical fiction. In "The Bear," we have not only one of the greatest hunting stories in literature, but also a dissection of the condition of man in the fallen world. It is not necessary to agree with Faulkner on the pitiable condition of modern man to enjoy the story. However, the image of Boon ineffectually battering his own tools as he sits in a condemned wilderness speaks even more powerfully today than it did when Faulkner first created the scene.

Source: Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997
Greg Barnhisel is an educator and Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Austin, Texas.

An Unromantic Reading

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The usual reading of "The Bear" makes of Isaac McCaslin a kind of saint who, by repudiating his inheritance—the desecrated land upon which a whole people has been violated—performs an act of expiation and atonement which is a model for those acts that must follow before the curse upon the land is lifted Ike's repudiation of the land, at twenty-one, with which the tortuous inner section of "The Bear'' opens, and over which he and his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, debate in the commissary, is seen in terms of what the reader understands Ike to have learned and attained under the influence of Sam Fathers in the untainted Wilderness, the "freedom and humility and pride." The story is of one man's repudiation of the forces of greed and materialism that have all but extinguished God's hope for man of freedom and generosity.

The whole sequence of the commissary, the Beauchamp legacy, and the later life of Isaac McCaslin, is thus ordinarily taken as a sort of complementary sequel to what may be called the hunt-narrative; Part IV in the total structure and intention of the work is a filling-out, past and future, of the "story proper," as it is sometimes regarded: the hunt-narrative and especially the episode of the fyce, in which the later renunciation, at twenty-one, is prefigured.

There is much, however, in this difficult portion of the work that suggests a contrary view. Instead of a romantic Christian pastoral of redemption, in which the repudiation of the land and earlier the apparently selfless rescue of the fyce from under the erect bear are seen as almost sanctifying gestures of renunciation, a searing tragedy of human desire and human limitation evolves, chiefly through ironic means. From McCaslin's scornful skepticism as he listens to Ike's account of God's circuitous providence, and the "lip-lift" of contempt when he realizes that even Ike does not wholly believe in his "freedom," to the almost hysterical laughter with which Part IV concludes, the principal effects are ironic.

The central thematic irony, however, upon which these effects are grounded, is slowly constructed of larger elements. The repudiation in the commissary is prefigured in the hunt-narrative; something of a parallel does develop between the selfless non-possession of Ike's gesture at twenty-one and the repudiation of passion earlier—that effort to preserve the idyll of the Big Woods, in the reluctance of both Ike and Sam Fathers to slay Old Ben. But the point of the parallel is not merely to provide background and extension to the "story-proper"; it is drawn and pressed home by McCaslin Edmonds on Ike because in both gestures there is weakness and something even sinister which cannot become clear to McCaslin, or to the reader, until the dense and complex drama of the debate in the commissary is enacted.

The terrible irony of Part IV develops in the growing awareness in the reader, as well as in the characters, of the discrepancy between what we and Ike supposed him to have achieved, to have attained to, and what in fact his repudiations actually represent. The whole inner section of "The Bear" reflects back on the hunt-narrative and forward into the last sequence: Ike's return at eighteen to the woods, which are being destroyed by the lumber company; his vague, troubled guilt at the sight of the nearly demented, grieving Boon. Coming where it does in the story structure, Part IV has the effect of making the reader, as it makes Ike and McCaslin, remember and painfully reinterpret the earlier events as of some dream-idyll of human perfection, of perhaps a kind of angelic pre-existence, now dissipated in the wakeful glare of the human reality. Slowly and relentlessly, Faulkner's intention takes hold in Part IV, in the tragic incompleteness of man, as the gulf is drawn between action, life as lived, and the memory of action and events, in which our dreams of life, our poems, are created.

"The Bear'' is no Saint's Life; on the contrary, what it expresses is that there is no "freedom" in renunciation, no sanctity through repudiation—that actually there is no such thing as human sainthood as we have conceived 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 unsuccess, an unwitting, unwilled elevation produced in the tragic defeat of spirit and soul in the "uncontrollable mystery" of the world which men and "saints" must live in perforce. In much the same way that [Franz] Kafka's Bucketrider is unaccountably (to him) "upraised" into the "regions of the icy mountains and [is] lost forever," Isaac McCaslin ascends without comprehending wherein that only "sainthood" man is allowed resides: in the anguished complex heart. "The Bear" is a story of a renunciation that fails, as they all must. It is also the story of man's ineluctable fate of being only man. And on another level, it is a parable of man's pride, in his trying to be more than man, and of the evil this pride accomplishes in its condescending ascription of all that man does not want to see in himself to a certain few untouchables, the Boons of the world....

McCaslin tried to explain to Ike, by quoting the "Ode [on a Grecian Urn]," why Ike saved the fyce instead of killing Old Ben, or at least what McCaslin had thought then—that the humility and pride Ike had wanted to learn in order to become worthy of the Wilderness and of a manhood in which the Bear was hunted by men like Sam Fathers, Major deSpain, Walter Ewell, and McCaslin, that these he had just learned, had come to possess, through forbearance and selfless courage, through, in short, a kind of renunciation, non possession. McCaslin's purpose in quoting Keats had been to show Ike how we may pursue bravely and fiercely and yet not kill, out of pity and love; how we may love by not loving; how we may be proud and humble, fierce and gentle, at the same time; how by not possessing in the heart we may possess all....

Ike's failure to kill Old Ben was a way out, an escape from himself;... Keats had only helped him to repudiate, and so think he had freed himself from, what being human and alive in time imposes on a man. McCaslin hadn't told him that what we may know in the heart is not what we are allowed to live. The non-possession, the renunciations, and thus the "freedom" which may be realized in the heart—this Ike has tried to live. "Sam Fathers set me free,'' he protests to McCaslin.... But the freedom he had indeed obtained was only "freedom of the heart," which Sam Fathers showed him how to achieve by virtue of giving himself up to the Wilderness, as he does when he "relinquishes" his gun and compass and goes alone to see and be seen by Old Ben—much as Henry Fleming, in that other story of a boy's initiation into manhood, comes to touch the great god Death and discovers it is only death after all. He momentarily relinquishes self and pride, in effect—the way they are relinquished provisionally in a poem—the better to confront that naked red heart of the world, the Wilderness of the human heart, which is "free'' only when it is so confronted and acknowledged. This "freedom" is from the blind, uncomprehending fear of the "Wilderness" and its creatures, but is not, as Ike would desire it—a confusion that leads to his agony in the commissary—a freedom from the necessary human commitment in acts and time. The moral freedom to choose not to act does not exist, except in the heart, where it is not a moral but a spiritual or aesthetic freedom. Sam Fathers set Ike free only in the sense of his enabling him to look at all that a man can feel and do, all that the "Wilderness" contains; he could not free him from himself. So it was not the fyce that had kept him from shooting—out of love and forbearance; he had, in fact, blanched from that full sight of himself as a man, who at the same time he was humble and loved the thing he pursued, was a slayer and ravener.

The "poem," as it were, that Ike has tried to live is one in which his hunting of Old Ben but his not having to kill him is the chief symbol—as it is even now in the commissary. And it was very much like the girl and the youth on the Urn, although Ike had not quite been able to see the analogy. He has wished, Hamlet-like, to kill and yet not kill, to realize fully a state of "being" out of time, which is realized only in a play, in art, and in the complex heart. But the Prince must slay, the hunter must slay;they cannot, if they would be princes and hunters, preserve that moment of excruciated sensibility in the timeless drama of the heart. The "Old Free Fathers'' were aware of this painful human paradox of action, in which man commits himself in the irrevocable, and they celebrated it in the sacramental gesture of grief and responsibility (but there was also pride) for the life they spilled: a consecrating gesture—the smearing the warm blood of a youth's first kill on his forehead—which absolved a man from regret but not from grief....

Faulkner's meaning in "The Bear" is that if man would live, he must be prepared for the dying too; if he would love, he must also grieve for the spilled life that loving and living require. Simply to repudiate the spilling, to relinquish the grief, by relinquishing the passion, is to remove oneself from life, and from love, which, like the hunt, necessarily involves us in blood. There is no renunciation of life and the world which we can choose to make, and there can be no "acceptance" of the inevitabilities; we may only choose life. What we may renounce is only renunciation itself, and what we may attain to is not a regenerate state, sainthood, being, but our humanity. We gain life by "losing" it only in the sense of having it taken away, of trying to live what is in the heart, and failing. Renunciation, "acceptance," is to surrender life to live in the "pretty rooms" of sonnets ("and Isaac McCaslin, not yet Uncle Ike ... living in one small cramped fireless rented room in a Jefferson boarding-house... with his kit of brand-new carpenter's tools ... the shotgun McCaslin had given him with his name engraved in silver... and the bright tin coffee-pot.'')

We prefer to think the Boons of this world do the slaying, and our renunciations are our way of allowing them to. We construct our "pretty rooms'' right in the Wilderness where we play at virtue and perform our purification rites, just as Major de Spain, Walter Ewell, McCaslin Edmonds and the rest did each year. The Negroes and their white masters, at the camp site, lived under an entirely different dispensation from the one which ordinarily prevailed in town, in real life, where they were virtually slaves. In the Big Woods they could play at being untainted, guiltless—there one felt free. The pursuit of Old Ben over the years is unsuccessful, not merely because he is a wily old beast, almost supernatural, but because they didn't want to kill him, and not killing him is the ritual of purification; by this, and by the altered relationship of Negro and white master, they could free themselves, for a while at least. Sam Fathers had begun, long before, to live at the camp site all year round, but when they approach him after he has collapsed, he murmurs, "Let me out, master," knowing that only death can really free him, that he hasn't been free at all in the white man's lodge and woods. The Boons, with the hard button eyes—the insensitive, un-human destroyers and raveners, as we conceive them—are there at the last, almost by design, to shatter the pretty glass room of this dream of redemption: we create them and then sacrifice them in our condescensions and our renunciations in this last act of the ritual....

Source: Herbert A. Perluck, '"The Bear': An Unromantic Reading," in Religious Perspectives in Faulkner's Fiction: Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, edited by J. Robert Barth, S J, University of Notre Dame Press, 1972, pp. 173-201.

Faulkner's Poetic Prose: Style and Meaning in "The Bear"

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Faulkner's "The Bear," published in The Saturday Evening Post and in Go Down, Moses, 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. 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." 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."

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.'' 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 gun-barrel." 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 [John] 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.

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." 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. (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.

Source: Richard Lehan, "Faulkner's Poetic Prose: Style and Meaning in 'The Bear'," College English, Vol. 27, No. 3, December, 1965, pp. 243-47.
Lehan is an assistant professor at UCLA.


Critical Overview


The Bear William Faulkner