Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

"The Bear," though it is developed with considerable complexity, can be seen as a story of coming of age.

The first part tells about Isaac's first trip, at the age of ten, with a group of older dedicated hunters into the wilderness for which Sam has been preparing him for...

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"The Bear," though it is developed with considerable complexity, can be seen as a story of coming of age.

The first part tells about Isaac's first trip, at the age of ten, with a group of older dedicated hunters into the wilderness for which Sam has been preparing him for some time. Isaac feels reborn when he enters the untamed land, and he begins to understand his smallness in relation to the vastness of the universe as represented by the wild woodland and by the bear who seems to embody the spirit of that land. In this context, he learns to see Sam as the voice of the spirit of the land. At the end of the first part, he surrenders himself to that spirit by learning to trust himself to it. This is accomplished when he abandons all his tools of hunting, defense, and navigation in order to meet old Ben face to face alone for the first time.

The second part is about the discovery of Lion, a wild dog that seems to embody the spirit of predation that is part of the wilderness, but not its essence. Though Isaac experiences the life force as central, there also is a death force that brings each individual to an end while still serving the overall processes of nature. Lion is trained to track Old Ben.

The third part covers the three years that the hunters use Lion to pursue Ben during their annual November hunting trips. In the third year, they successfully kill Ben. However, Ben is killed not by one of the regular hunters, but instead by the ne'er-do-well Boon Hogganbeck. Boon has fallen in love with Lion. When Lion grapples with Ben, the bear attempts to kill the dog. Boon enters the fray with just a knife and slays Ben in an attempt to save Lion's life. To Isaac's mind, this death is noble because it arises from one of the universal truths of the heart, a simple man's love for his dog. Nevertheless, Lion dies soon afterward. And Sam Fathers seems to read the death of Ben as a sign of the end of his own life as well. He collapses and within a few days, he too is dead.

Parts four and five show what Isaac makes of these deaths. He decides that he must live his life by the values he has learned in the wilderness from Sam and Ben and others, including Boon. This means he cannot continue the kinds of exploitation of people and land upon which his grandfather founded the McCaslin family in Mississippi. Instead he must try to do justice to the black members of his family, and he must live a life that is exemplary of the belief that the land belongs to no man. These choices make him into a kind of saint, but they also make him appear a kind of fool. Part four offers a glimpse of the rest of his life that is elaborated in the whole of Go Down, Moses. Though he has a spiritual legacy to pass on to his own sons, he never has children because his wife is so determined that he take over his farm and establish their family there that she refuses to have children by him when she understands that he will not do as she wishes. Part five returns to the year after Ben's death, when Isaac makes his last trip to the old hunting camp. His visits the graves of Sam and Lion, and feels a confirmation that the life of the wilderness is eternal and that it points toward a life force that flows beneath the surface of everything. Though logging will soon eliminate this forest and though at the end of the story Boon is arrogantly claiming ownership of an isolated tree full of squirrels that he lacks the capacity to exploit, Isaac still comes away with his faith intact.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672

Rites of Passage
"The Bear" describes several important rites of passage for Dee McCaslin. The first rites of passage that readers encounter are the hunting rituals marking the various stages of his growth as a hunter. His first hunting trip at age ten, killing his first deer at age twelve, and other important landmarks in his hunting experience are described in the narrative. Ike is well acquainted with the normal progression of the hunter's apprenticeship, and is able to anticipate his experiences before they occur: "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." Ike is prepared to follow the procedures of his apprenticeship: taking the worst hunting stand on his first trip; Sam marking his face and hands with blood after he kills his first deer; and the long evenings of storytelling. Camping and hunting with the men is itself an important right of passage, an ancient tradition of teaching and camaraderie that links men through stories of great hunters and legendary kills. Rites of passage preserve cultures for the next generation, and Ike's experiences place him at the end of a long line of skillful woodsmen. Much of Ike's apprenticeship seems to come from nature itself. The bear teaches the boy about the woods as much as Sam Fathers does. The death of Old Ben becomes a sort of graduation ceremony for Ike, indicating the end of this important period of learning in Ike's life. After he returns home, Dee tries to apply his respect for the land and the life it upholds to the world in which he lives. He discovers that his training in the woods does not help him function in society; those lessons prove useless when it comes to dealing with his family history. Rather than forsake his mentors, Sam Fathers and Old Ben, Dee chooses to distance himself from the role his family has left for him in an attempt to emulate the "purer" life of a woodsman.

Race and Slavery
Like many of Faulkner's works, "The Bear" confronts issues of race and slavery directly. Dee's sense of personal responsibility forces him to evaluate not only his own actions but also those of his family. More than anything, the chronicle of slavery found in the commissary ledgers convinces Ike that he must make amends for his family's past. Yet Faulkner does not leave readers with the impression that the social evils of slavery and racism can be righted in any simple way. Dee's attempts to find Eunice's descendants indicates that the struggle is lengthy and complicated. Even the restitution Ike offers is tainted by slavery. Furthermore, Dee makes no attempt to claim them as his kin, suggesting the preservation of racial divisions. Race remains an important part of Sam Fathers's identity as well. Although Sam is highly respected as a hunter and a woodsman, his plight is that of any other freed slave: "For seventy years he had had to be a negro." Sam's situation indicates the degree to which being even part African American determines one's role on the bottom rung of society. The irony of Sam's situation is mentioned throughout the story, and perhaps most notably in the fourth section, where Dee tells McCaslin that Sam's teachings are what enable him to reject his birthright—the land that is also Sam's birthright. In this section Ike's past runs together in a fragmented narrative style that serves to represent his thoughts as they occur in his mind. Dee's thoughts focus on Sam's mixed bloodlines and on his prior ownership of the land. The stream-of-consciousness narrative presented here reflects the complicated relationships between the native Indian race, the African-American slaves, and the white race. In this moment of self-examination Ike feels that the land is no longer rightfully his. His feelings about both the taking of land from the Indians and about slavery cause him to ultimately reject his birthright.

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