Historical Context

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Though the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, their economic conditions were dire, as inequalities kept them from many jobs and educational opportunities. Southern states, bitter upon losing their bid for secession, attempted to deal with emancipated slaves by passing laws known as the "Black Codes." These laws, effectively perpetuating the racial segregation and degradation formerly applied to slaves, kept the ex-slaves from achieving economic opportunity and fair judicial process almost as thoroughly as before Emancipation. Congress, however, refused re-admittance to the Union to those states who would not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed civil liberties to all citizens. By 1877, the plans for Reconstruction were completed. Rather than integrate African Americans into society, however, the South erected a system of segregation that supposedly provided separate but equal opportunity for freed slaves and their descendants. "White supremacy" undercut any sense of fairness as the South began to rejoin the Union. Conditions had improved very little by Faulkner's day. Segregation still kept African Americans from entering the better schools and from securing jobs, and they were still in frequent danger of violence and humiliation.

Big Industry
The United States was a very different place at the conclusion of the Civil War. The agricultural South was virtually destroyed, while the industrial Northeast had grown strong. The railroad industry exploded as opportunists in the Midwest and the West sought ways to get their products—primarily beef and grain—to market. Owned largely by New Yorkers, the railroad received free land and millions of dollars in loans. The bankers, led by financier J. P. Morgan, could not get rich fast enough, nor could the railroad-owning families of Vanderbilts, Goulds, and others. Soon the nation's wealth was controlled by fewer and fewer businessmen who sought to protect their riches through trusts. Big business had been born, and its foremost goal was to protect itself. Railroad companies manipulated rates to favor the business of associates while extracting huge fees from unknown independent companies. They were represented in government by the Republican Party, while the South and poorer northerners, including immigrants, sought leadership in the Democratic Party. The Republicans usually won, but Democrat Grover Cleveland did serve an eight year term, and it is during his presidency that "The Bear" is set. These big business families also controlled the stock market, and their efforts to manipulate the market are blamed by many for the stock market crash of 1929. It is Faulkner's perspective in the early twentieth century, a period when industrialization began to seem overwhelming, that gives the destruction of deSpain's hunting grounds a certain urgency.

Economic Depression
Although "The Bear" is set in the late nineteenth century, Faulkner initially began writing the story during the Depression. Economic conditions in the post-war South were similar to those during the Depression. People in both eras lost land and family possessions, suffering an identity crisis in the process. The post-war South was ripe for "carpetbaggers," those who moved from the North seeking opportunities in business and land ownership. Many desperate Southerners felt they had no choice but to sell out, as Major deSpain does when he sells the land to the forestry company. The Great Depression uprooted families in many parts of the country, as people were forced to migrate to other cities in their search for work. Similarly, slaves freed during the Civil War soon began migrating, some to the industrialized north and others to land promised to them by the Union before Emancipation. Some slaves were skilled craftsman, and a few, like Fonsiba's intellectual husband, could read. Most freed...

(This entire section contains 679 words.)

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slaves, however, had no education, no money, no work skills, and no understanding of how to manage for themselves. They were often the victims of fast-talking carpetbaggers, sometimes joining them in their quest for power and money. Some even opted to stay on the plantation, seeking a certain amount of security from their former owners in exchange for their loyalty. Tennie and her son Jim are among those of the McCaslin slaves who opt to stay with the McCaslin family.

Literary Style

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Point of View
While "The Bear" is a third-person narrative, it is told from the point of view of Ike McCaslin. Yet not all that Ike knows is told. For example, neither Ike nor the narrator ever actually confirms that Boon killed Sam. McCaslin makes this assumption, and Ike, the only witness, lets his statement remain uncontested. Even more complicated are the conjectures of Ike and McCaslin about Eunice's suicide. It is here that the narrator is demonstrated to be not omniscient (all-knowing), but a more limited, and experimental, version of the traditional third-person narrator.

Set in Faulkner's fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, "The Bear" covers different time periods during Ike McCaslin's youth. Although the first section begins while Ike is age sixteen, most of the section covers Ike's first hunting trips during the fall of 1877 and the summer of 1878. The second section details events of 1879 (Lion's capture) and then two years later (when he nearly bayed Old Ben). Old Ben's death the following year is the subject of the third section. Section four moves from the pre-war days of Carothers McCaslin and forward, through Ike's relinquishing of his estate, to his childless marriage and austere life. The narrative of this fourth section is molded into a fairly understandable order by the events of Eunice's life. A slave bought in 1807, Eunice gives birth to Tomey in 1810 and commits suicide in 1832. Chapter five moves backward in time to Ike's final trip to the hunting camp in 1882.

The most prominent symbol in "The Bear'' is, of course, Old Ben. Symbolizing the natural world of which he is a part, Old Ben, by dying, also symbolizes the destruction of nature that the railroad and the foresters bring. Ben's killer, Boon Hogganbeck, represents modern man seeking to wrest nature to his advantage with blind brute strength. Though Boon does succeed in killing Ben, he is finally defeated by a tree full of frantic squirrels, suggesting that the blind destruction of modern man must eventually end in frustration and misery.

As with much of Faulkner's work, Biblical allusions in "The Bear" are numerous. Sam Fathers, for example, has been viewed as a Christ figure whose teachings provide a set of absolute truths that Ike must follow. Buck and Sophonsiba are a modern Abraham and Sarah, and Ike functions as the unlikely child born during their old age. This allusion heightens the irony of Isaac's choosing to reject their inherited truths for the teachings of Sam Fathers. Some references are only subtly presented. The woods full of snakes that Ash warns Ike of in section five depicts an Eden no longer innocent, but only partially pure. The snake, an important symbol in Chickasaw myth, is also hailed as "Grandfather'' by Ike. A familiarity with the Bible may help readers understand certain allusions, but the combined effect of these references creates the sense that "The Bear" discusses issues that are not particular to a time and place.

The phrase "And so he should have feared and hated Lion" recurs several times in section two of "The Bear," and serves as a foreshadowing of Lion's role in the hunt for Old Ben. The frequent repetition of the phrase is a constant reminder of how the story will end. To read that Lion is to be hated and feared each time readers are told of his strength, competence, and courage is slightly misleading, but it is not Ike or humans who need to fear the dog. Why should Dee hate and fear Lion if he is the best possible dog for helping Ike and the others achieve their goal? The answer is not within the foreshadowing itself, but within the later knowledge of how the story actually does end. Though the men hunt Ben for several years, his actual death signals the beginning of the end of many things. With Ben's death comes the end of the hunting club and the hunting grounds, the end of a wilderness untainted by development and civilization, the end of traditions and rituals carried on by Sam Fathers and others. "And so he should have feared and hated Lion" presents readers with a "20-20 hindsight'' perspective in which knowledge of the future influences looking back at the past.

Faulkner's works fulfill several expectations for modernist literature. Modernism is a term used to describe an international artistic movement that began near the start of World War I and continued through World War II. Modernism broke with the traditional narrative forms of realism and naturalism. The modernists played with narrative form and dialogue, attempting to approximate subjective thought and experience. The movement experimented with new ways of seeing things and new ways of communicating. In the art world, this movement was appropriated by painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. One of the most striking characteristics of Faulkner's works, and of modernism in general, is the experimentation with narrative time. While the first three sections of "The Bear" seem fairly straightforward, section four moves back and forth in time with little indication of where the story is going next. Section four also presents a shift in technique. Instead of the fairly simple sentences used in the other sections, section four uses long confusing sentences that may span several paragraphs as well as different time periods. In fact, the whole section takes up almost half the story and yet contains only one hundred sentences. These passages approximate interior monologues, as if the narrator and the characters were talking to themselves without bothering to make sense to any listener. Because of these experiments, some find Faulkner's work frequently difficult to read and understand. Many readers have concluded this confusing technique represents Faulkner's views on the complexity of modern life.

Literary Techniques

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"The Bear" is a masterpiece of storytelling. Faulkner uses stream-of-consciousness narration to take readers deep into the feelings and thoughts of characters at moments of profound insight, as when Isaac reads the plantation ledgers and discovers his grandfather's incest with his slave daughter and when Isaac feels the seething life beneath the surface of the dying wilderness. He uses the basic techniques of breathless realistic adventure narrative to recount the scenes of hunting deer and bear. Much of part four consists of highly complex dialogues, a written dialogue between Buck and Buddy carried on in the plantation ledgers, and the spoken dialogue between Isaac and Cass as they discuss Isaac's decision.

Lion and Old Ben are constructed as symbolic characters. Isaac learns to read them both as symbols, Lion for a kind of death force that is ultimately subordinated to the overwhelming life force that Old Ben represents. Sam Fathers, with some help from his name, also resonates with symbolic meaning as he becomes spokesperson for all those who have lived on and loved the wilderness before Isaac came along. Sam represents the fathers, carrying the blood of all three of the races that have lived in this region, and he acts as a father toward Isaac, passing on the old traditions and beliefs. Isaac learns to read the characters and the landscape of the wilderness as a kind of transcendental allegory, and in this way, he teaches the reader as well to see from this point of view.

Social Concerns

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"The Bear" deals profoundly with concerns of racism and environmentalism, finally connecting them thematically.

While still a child, Isaac comes to understand that Sam Fathers, the man he admires above all others as a representative of what it means to be a free and responsible person, is forever scarred by having been a slave and the child of slaves. Isaac's first impulse is to demand that he be set free. Because more than ten years have passed since the end of the Civil War, Sam is already legally free. Isaac begins to learn then that what is done cannot be undone. The tragedies of American slavery and the racism it helped to burn into the American soul cannot be erased with a wish or a word. In the whole of the novel, Go Down, Moses, it can be argued that Isaac learns that a lifetime of principled living as an example of the values he opposes to racist exploitation cannot by itself even begin to undo the injustices of the past or their present permutations and repetitions.

In "The Bear" Isaac learns the bitter lessons of the legacy of slavery when he comes to understand his relationship to Tomey's Turl, who helps with the hunts that Isaac participates in each autumn after he is ten. During the first six years that he hunts with other experienced men in the wilderness, Isaac learns mainly from Sam Fathers and the wilderness itself the values that he will oppose to that legacy when he repudiates his inheritance. These values have come to be seen as environmentalist: that wilderness experience is necessary to remind modern human beings that our hold on the earth is frail, that is it greater, older, and more enduring by far than we, that we belong to it in more profound ways that any part of it can ever belong to any one of us. He learns to see with sadness the temporary taming of a last American wilderness and the arrogance this breeds in the men who accomplish it. His grandfather becomes a symbol of the sins of that arrogance, especially in his use of slaves and slave women. Isaac commits himself to doing what he can to teach humility in response to nature as well as justice between the races.

Compare and Contrast

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1880s: The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing civil liberty, are ratified by all states.

1942: The Georgia Contract Labor Act is overturned by the Supreme Court, which declares that the act of "peonage" it sanctions is a violation of the anti-slavery amendment.

Today: All peoples are protected under the law from slavery, though immigrants and people of color are often the victim of civil liberty infringements.

1882: Standard Oil forms a trust to secure its monopoly of the industry and eliminate competition. Other industries soon follow, causing the loss of many jobs.

1941: Ford Motor Company signs its first contract with a labor union. A wage increase is awarded by General Motors in an effort to avoid strikes.

Today: Big business continues to battle against government intervention and labor unions in order to maximize profits and reduce any external regulations that interfere with those profits.

1883: Theodore Roosevelt begins buying up ranches in the Dakota Territory. In 1887, his interest in hunting and the outdoors leads him to form the Boone-Crockett Club, named after two legendary woodsmen.

1933: The first U.S. textbook on game management is published by Aldo Leopold, reflecting society's growing concern with the wise and effective management of America's land, animals, and resources.

Today: Lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest seek legal protection allowing them to cut old-growth forests, even though their actions may cause the extinction of the spotted owl.

1887: The Dawes General Allotment Act is enacted, allowing two-thirds of Indian reservation lands to fall into the hands of whites.

1934: The Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, attempts to rectify deplorable conditions on many reservations that are blamed on the earlier Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887.

Today: The Chickasaw tribe, which had approximately 4,000 members when it was forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1830s, boasts 25,000 descendants today.

Literary Precedents

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Scholars have noticed many literary precursors for "The Bear." Perhaps the most important is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), in which the pursuit of an animal, the whale Moby Dick, in a watery wilderness ends in a three-day hunt and in which the animal is invested with highly complex symbolic meanings that raise fundamental questions about the relation of humanity to nature and the rest of the universe. Also of considerable interest are the traditional hunting stories of the American wilderness, many of which have become parts of Western and Southwestern humor, for example, the stories of Davy Crockett. One of the most interesting of these is Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas" (1854), in which an Arkansas patriot tells of his adventures in pursuit of the "unhuntable" bear. Faulkner's story includes a good deal of humor, such as the episode when Isaac chaperones the camp cook who decides that he must try hunting even though he has no experience. Another very important precursor is Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), which offers a transcendental and environmentalist view of nature that probably was important to Faulkner's thinking, though in Faulkner's view the life force of nature seems much less self-conscious and purposive. Faulkner presents a transcendent nature that achieves self-consciousness probably only in human reflection.

Media Adaptations

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"The Bear" was made into a motion picture by Frank Stokes in 1972, although the adaptation does not include section four of the story. It can be found on videocassette, distributed by AIMS Media.

A 1980 motion picture of "The Bear" was filmed by Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. This version does not include section four of the story. Available on videocassette.

Barr Films published a similar video in 1981, again focusing on the work as a hunting story.

A reel-to-reel version was written and produced by Bernard Wilets in 1980 and distributed by BFA Educational Media.

There is a cassette tape of many of Faulkner's stories. The cassette is published as The Stories of William Faulkner Parts I and II, read by Wolfram Kandinsky and Michael Kramer, Books on Tape, 1994.


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Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974.

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994.

Hoffman, Frederick, and Olga W. Vickery, eds. William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Labatt, Blair. Faulkner the Storyteller. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Summer, 1997).

Parini, Jay. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Peek, Charles A., and Robert W. Hamblin, eds. A Companion to Faulkner Studies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Novels. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Aiken, Charles, "A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Geographical Review, Vol. 71, no. 4, October, 1981, pp. 446-459.

Brooks, Cleanth, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, Louisiana State University Press, 1963.

Grimwood, Michael, "Faulkner and the Vocational Liabilities of Black Characterization," in Faulkner and Race, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, 1987, pp. 255-271.

Lewis, R. W. B., "The Hero in the New World: William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XIII, no. 4, Autumn, 1951, pp. 641-660.

Rudich, Norman, "Faulkner and the Sin of Private Property," in The Minnesota Review, Vol. 17, 1981, pp. 55-57

Simpson, Lewis, An essay in Nine Essays in Modern Literature, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Louisiana University Press, 1965, p. 194.

Further Reading
Adams, Richard P., "Focus on William Faulkner's 'The Bear': Moses and the Wilderness," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, edited by David Madden, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 129-135.

This article finds Ike unable to set anyone free, in spite of his own belief that it is his responsibility to do so.

Bear, Man and God: Eight Approaches to William Faulkner's "The Bear," edited by Francis Lee Utley, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Arthur F. Kinney, Random House, 1971.

Includes the text of the story, source material, excerpts from other Faulkner works, and several critical essays on the story.

Claridge, Laura P., "Isaac McCaslin's Failed Bid for Adulthood," American Literature, Vol. 55, no. 2, May, 1983, pp. 241-251.

Claridge argues that Isaac "relinquishes," rather than "repudiates,'' his inheritance, suggesting his lifelong inability to act and, by acting, to become a man.

Hoffman, Daniel, "William Faulkner: 'The Bear'," in Landmarks of American Writing, edited by Henrig Cohen, Basic Books, Inc. 1969, pp. 341-352.

Hoffman's chapter on "The Bear" focuses on several critical themes, including Ike as a hero on a quest similar to the Grail Knight of the Round Table, the image of the Native American as instinctual in contrast to the Christian understanding of sin, and the contrast of primeval forest with the tangled world of plantation society.

Kern, Alexander C., "Myth and Symbol in Criticism of Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Myth and Symbol, edited by Bernice Slote, University of Nebraska Press, 1963, pp. 252-262.

Kern's paper discusses the various symbols in the story, in particular, the bear, the deer and the snake.

Sundquist, Eric J., "The True Inheritance of Ike McCaslin," in Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The McCaslin Family, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, G K. Hall, 1990.

Sundquist places "The Bear" in the context of the McCaslin family story and discusses the mythic archetypes of hunting contained within the narrative.

Willis, Susan, "Aesthetics of the Rural Slum: Contradiction and Dependency in 'The Bear'," in Faulkner: New Perspectives, edited by Richard H. Broadhead, Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Willis examines "The Bear" as the story of the economic development of the South, and proposes the commissary and the wilderness as the opposite poles of this development.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide