Ideas for Group Discussions

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Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

"The Bear" is such a complex story that a good deal of the time a group will have to spend on the story is likely to go toward understanding what happens and why. This is especially the case when part four is included in the reading. Because the story is so complex, it is a respectable accomplishment for a discussion group to locate and solve the basic problems of interpretation: Who are the characters? What are their motives? What happens in part four? Go Down, Moses has been the sole text in graduate and undergraduate seminars, in which excellent students read the whole book several times and spent several weeks studying the "The Bear" without exhausting the text or their interest. Like much of Faulkner's greatest fiction, "The Bear" can be read several times profitably, even within the confines of a single course or series of book discussions.

Among the main issues that require a good deal of careful reading and discussion to grasp clearly are the meanings of the significant steps in Isaac's spiritual maturation; the view of nature the story develops; Isaac's arguments for repudiating his inheritance and the values that stand behind those arguments; whether Isaac's decision is heroic, quixotic, or some combination of these. Though each topic requires much careful preparation before readers are likely to grasp the relevant material, they are very interesting to discuss when the group is ready for them.

1. Faulkner presents Isaac's first arrival in the wilderness, the meeting with Old Ben alone later, his unexpected attitude toward the discovery of Lion, the death of Old Ben, and Isaac's final visit to Sam's grave as key events in Isaac's spiritual maturation. What does each event mean to Isaac in itself? Where do these events, when taken together, lead his thinking?

2. Old Ben and Lion are presented as symbolic antagonists. What are the meanings that Isaac himself reads into each of these animals? What does their existence and their opposition mean to him? What other symbolic animals appear in the story? How does Isaac read them? Do you see interesting meanings in them that he does not express?

3. Sam Fathers is Isaac's most important teacher. What are all the things that Sam teaches Isaac? Which are most important to Isaac?

4. In part four, Isaac explains to his older cousin, Cass Edmonds, why he is refusing to accept as his inheritance the plantation that his grandfather established. He says that the deciding moment for him was his discovery that his grandfather had fathered a son on his own slave daughter, causing her mother to commit suicide. Why was this discovery so important to Isaac's decision? What are his other reasons for refusing to own the land? What does he hope to accomplish by this refusal?

5. What are the main arguments Isaac makes to justify his repudiation of his inheritance? What are the main arguments Cass makes to persuade Isaac to accept his inheritance? Which of the arguments on each side seems strongest to you? How well does each counter the other's point of view? What position would you take in this argument? What reasons would you offer?

6. In part four, Isaac affirms as part of his argument that the land cannot belong to anyone, that it is really for all people to use in common. This is a lesson that he is learning and relearning throughout the story. How does he learn this lesson? What evidence does he have to support his belief? Is his evidence strong or weak?

7. In Lucius McCaslin, McCaslin Edmonds, Sam Fathers, and also in Isaac, this novella presents several different models of fatherhood. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each model? Which seems most admirable to you? Why?

8. Boon Hogganbeck turns out to be an especially important character, even though he is a minor personage among the hunters and a relatively simple character in comparison to Isaac, Sam, or McCaslin. List the main scenes in which Boon plays a part. What does each seem to contribute to the novella as a whole?

9. The only developed female character in "The Bear" is Isaac's wife, who is never named, and she appears as a seemingly negative character because of her opposition to Isaac's choice to repudiate his land. What are the fairest reasons for taking her point of view seriously? Is she right to refuse to have children if she cannot raise them on a prosperous farm? Is Isaac right to deny her wishes? Is the price he pays in lost affection and having no children worth what he gains?

There are also glimpses of several other women, for example, Tomey's mother, who commits suicide upon learning her daughter his pregnant by her own father. What other women are glimpsed in the novella? One might want to consider also Percival Brownlee, the slave who becomes a female impersonator. What impressions does the story give of women's roles and fates in the world of this story? In pursuing this question, it may be interesting to consider that the wilderness, though represented exclusively by male figures, is repeatedly characterized in comparisons as feminine.

10. In his Nobel Prize Address, Faulkner said that the writer's duty and privilege is "to help man endure by lifting his heart." The writer does this by showing "the human heart in conflict with itself." Explain how Faulkner realizes or fails to realize this purpose in "The Bear."

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