Student Question

In "The Bear", what does Sam teach the boy before the first hunt?

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The questions – what did Sam teach the boy prior to his first hunt and how does the boy know the bear is near – are a little vague given Faulkner’s narrative in his short story "The Bear."  Sam Fathers is schooling this young man in hunting and, in so doing, is inculcating in the latter an appreciation not just for the dangers and techniques involved in hunting, but the spiritual element common to many Native Americans killing for reasons other than sport.  The titular bear in Faulkner’s story is an almost mythological beast, respected for its ability to survive and to dominate its environment.  Early in his narrative, Faulkner describes this legendary animal and the special place it holds in native culture:

“He had already inherited then, without ever having seen it, the tremendous bear with one trap-ruined foot which, in an area almost a hundred miles deep, had earned itself a name, a definite designation like a living man.”

Because Sam is providing so much instructional information to the boy, and because he interweaves within his teachings the spiritual element surrounding this bear, answering the question about what he teaches the boy prior to the hunt is a little too vague for one simple answer.  The mechanics of hunting are conveyed in straightforward terms, as the old man teaches the young boy about the dangers inherent in using a firearm:

“Now let the hammers down,” Sam said.

“You knew they were not coming here too,” he said.

“Yes,” Sam said. “I want you to learn how to do when you didn’t shoot. It’s after the chance for the bear or the deer has done already come and gone that men and dogs get killed.”

Sam meticulously instructs the boy in the science of stalking a feared creature, as well as those less potentially harmful to the hunter, like deer.  Sam teaches the boy how to aim the rifle, when to pull back the hammer, and when to harmlessly but carefully replace the hammer if no shot is to be taken.  Sam, though, as noted, makes sure that the boy appreciates that this bear they hunt is a living, breathing creature just as they are, and warrants contemplation and respect.  In the following passage, Faulkner imbues his elderly man with a wisdom forged through decades of experience:

 “Just like a man,” Sam said. “Just like folks. Put off as long as she could having to be brave, knowing all the time that sooner or later she would have to be brave to keep on living with herself, and knowing all the time beforehand what was going to happen to her when she done it.”

Sam also reinforces for the boy the dangers inherent in the latter’s relative youth, emphasizing that the bear’s experience at surviving gives it an edge over the inexperienced youth and that the bear will surely recognize the boy’s vulnerable stature:

“[H]e’s smart. That’s how come he has lived this long. If he gets hemmed up and has to pick out somebody to run over, he will pick out you.”

“How?” the boy said. “How will he know—“ He ceased. “You mean he already knows me, that I ain’t never been here before, ain’t had time to find out yet whether I—“ He ceased again, looking at Sam, the old man whose face revealed nothing until it smiled. He said humbly, not even amazed, “It was me he was watching. I don’t reckon he did need to come but once.”

This is what Sam teaches the boy prior to the hunt.  How the boy knows the bear, which, at this point, may or may not actually exist, is nearby, however, is a product of the ancient science of tracking.  Initially, the boy senses that the bear may be near when the normal cacophony of the woods is interrupted, in effect, when the woodpecker stops pecking the tree as though it knows danger is near.  A more concrete indication of the bear’s presence, however, is described by Faulkner’s narrator when the boy sits down on a log and spies a paw-print that can only come from an animal described as having once had a paw caught in a trap:

“As he sat down on the log he saw the crooked print—the warped, tremendous, two-toed indentation which, even as he watched it, filled with water. As he looked up, the wilderness coalesced, solidified—the glade, the tree he sought, the bush, the watch and the compass glinting where a ray of sunshine touched them. Then he saw the bear.”

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